The Front National’s new clothes

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Last year, Marine Le Pen came third in the French presidential elections, following a campaign seeking to de-demonise the party and make it more attractive to a broader electorate. While it is arguable whether her strategy was entirely successful, the changes made may well have long-term consequences.

Michel Wieviorka
15 April 2013

This excerpt from ‘Le Front National (FN), entre extrémisme, populisme et démocratie’, published as part of Counterpoint’s ‘Europe’s Reluctant Radicals’ project, examines the new face of the FN, highlighting its nuanced relationships with the ‘invisible’ and the ‘forgotten’.

The succession battle to fill the post of Front National President (held by Jean Marie Le Pen since 1972) in 2011 pitted his daughter, Marine Le Pen (who, it has to be said, won without much difficulty) against Bruno Gollnisch.  The latter embodied the values of the ‘early FN’, those of the membership base, and was generally seen as the keeper of the party’s ‘identity’. Marine Le Pen, imposed a noticeably different discourse on the Front National, one much more in keeping with the mood of a sizeable portion of the population. Marine Le Pen now leads a party that could be in the throes of a deep transformation – she could, in the words of the journalists Caroline Monnot and Abel Mestre in their Enquête sur les réseaux du Front national (Paris, Denoël, 2011), herald the beginning of a ‘new FN’.

The campaign for the local/cantonal elections in March 2011 was the first opportunity to test the discursive turn effected by the new President; the 2012 presidential campaign brought confirmation that the new turn is indeed here to stay.


Marine Le Pen on stage during a 2012 rally for the National Front.
Demotix/Xavier Malafosse. All rights reserved.

Invisible and forgotten

On 11 December 2011 during a meeting in Metz, Marine Le Pen reached out to those she called the ‘invisible’ and the ‘forgotten’: 

Farmers, unemployed, workers, pensioners, those of you who live in rural areas of the country, you are the forgotten, invisible majority, crushed by a financial system gone mad. For the UMP-PS political caste, those worshipers of the “Triple A”, you are triple nothings.

Beyond the criticism of the financial system and the ratings agencies, but also beyond the ritual denunciation of a collusion between the UMP and the PS that turns them into a ‘caste’, the speech focused on social themes. These were topical. A few days earlier Le Monde had headlined with ‘The mounting anger of the invisible French people’ and pollster François Miquet-Marty’s Les oubliés de la démocratie (The forgotten of the Republic) (Paris, Michalon, 2011) had just been published. The public conversation leant itself to bringing to the fore those ‘r-urban’ or ‘peri-urban’ lower classes who slaved away un-noticed by the media or by political parties.

In the world of politics, this was not exactly a novelty.  These themes were everywhere, as highlighted by the online Rue 89[1]:  from Sarkozy’s reference to the ‘status-less’, to ecologist José Bové’s invoking of the ‘voiceless’, or that ceaselessly evoked ‘silent majority’ who identified neither with May ‘68 nor with ‘ordinary French people’ so dear to the heart of Chirac’s former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Charles Maurras had once spoken of the ‘real nation’ as distinct from the ‘legal nation’ and therefore the Republic, which he execrated. Similarly there are frequent references to ‘la France profonde’ or the broad mass of French people who encompass local regions, the countryside, the provinces, that Catholic, peasant France.

But Marine Le Pen’s speech touched on recent sociological developments; she was bringing together both what an industrial and urban modernity - itself in crisis - had produced, but also what it had left behind. The target is not the France of the old countryside and the rural world, but the France of those who have lost out on modernisation – a process that is itself in decline.

The ‘invisibles’ of Marine Le Pen are not the spiritual founders of ‘the Nation’; nor do they symbolise it. They are defined by society itself and in terms reminiscent of those used by Eva Joly, the 2012 Green presidential candidate or by Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche. What defines them is a suffering that goes unrecognised, and that is systematically pushed out of the political and media arenas. The ‘forgotten’ are primarily workers, employees, and those whose precarious situation makes them most vulnerable.

Barely half a century ago, the working-class was still a respected actor, a central one even, since, as Marx and Engels said, by losing their chains they would emancipate humankind in its entirety. The worker was a key figure in community life and the industrialisation of the trente glorieuses (post-war years) went hand in hand with a housing policy which turned many of the outer suburbs - with their working-class areas, their housing estates and their municipal housing (HLM ) - into a desirable place to live for industrial workers.

Some of these workers were skilled, others were unskilled, often peasants from rural areas and above all, immigrants. All of them, whether unionised or not, could recognise themselves as participating in the same struggle against employers who prevented them from controlling their own means of production - bosses who imposed on them their methods and their forms of organisation and management. Their working-class consciousness was facilitated by their belonging to vast industrial entities, those ‘fortresses of labour’ that no longer exist nowadays.

In 2010, one third of the men in employment – or some 5 million individuals - were workers, and approximately 13% were working women. Some have come close to middle class status - they own their own houses, a status for which they have made considerable sacrifices, in particular that of leaving the ‘suburbs’ and the HLM for private estates located in the peri-urban or even rural areas. Two out of five workers make a living in the service industry, as packers, warehousemen and cleaners. They often work on their own and constitute a disparate, fragmented population. 36% of unskilled workers and 33% of skilled workers who voted in the 2011 cantonal elections voted for the Front National.

The men, and even more so the women, who work outside traditional industrial sectors in the service industry increasingly resemble office workers: low salaries, no career progression, no trade union organisation and poor social insurance. For them, the issue is whether to vote FN or abstain.

Let’s consider the figures presented by Hervé le Bras:[2] opinion polls show that the percentage of workers who vote for the Front National grew from 25% in 2007 to 35% in 2012.  This means that they constitute anywhere between a quarter and a fifth of party support. This isn’t negligible, but it isn’t enough to lead to the conclusion that the FN is a working-class party and certainly not enough to conclude that the FN is a workers’ party.

Amongst those who are skilled, many think of themselves as removed from the upper echelons of society - the rich, the elites, the powerful; but they are also at pains to differentiate themselves from the lower reaches of society - which they conceive of as a mix of immigrants who refuse to integrate and prefer to live on social welfare benefits, the poor who take advantage of state assistance, and young people who are nothing more than ‘riff raff’.

They are neither at the top nor at the bottom; and they have a feeling that nobody listens to them: ‘We don’t exist, we’re not well treated’ said one of them in a press report in Rue 89.[3] In a factory in the Eure region, a young worker explained:

Voting for the FN is voting for a job. A vote for the centre, I mean the PS or the UMP is a vote for the bosses. As for voting for the extreme-left, it’s voting for the working-class, but an immigrant working-class (…) I vote for the extreme right and tell myself that I’m probably also voting for the boss, but at least I’m voting for a job.

His criticism of foreigners is that they ‘undercut’ salaries while certain jobs are ear-marked for ‘North Africans’: like many others, he now votes for the FN.

In a France where a form of ethnicisation is under way, public debate seems to privilege issues around figures like the  «indigènes de la République» (the natives of the Republic) or that of the CRAN (Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires de France), rather than concentrate on the figure of the worker whose persona has been downgraded. In a France where considerable space is also allotted to a kind of ‘competition of victimhood’ and competitive tussles around memory and memorialisation, the FN may well offer workers a chance to counter the forces of disrepute, ignorance, neglect or alienation.


Demotix/Xavier Malafosse. All rights reserved.

Trade unionism put to the test

The FN does not only find an echo amongst workers: it permeates their organisations from the ground up. Trade unionism is weak and mainly established within the public sector or similar structures; it has difficulty resisting the penetration of FN ideas amongst activists at grass-roots level, and sometimes even amongst its leaders. No trade union is spared.

Here are some examples:  Daniel Durand-Decaudin, A CFDT delegate and social worker, was a candidate for the Front National in the cantonal elections of 2011. In Cysoing, in northern France, Annie Lemahieu, a regional administrator for the trade union ‘Force ouvrière’(FO) represented the FN in the cantonal elections – she was excluded from the trade union; ‘thrown out like trash’ by FO as she put it in La Voix du Nord.[4] There are similar cases involving the trade-unions SUD, the CFTC or the CGT.

And what of the stir caused by the Fabien Engelmann affair? This CGT delegate, in charge of municipal employees in Nilvange (Moselle region) was a Front National candidate in the cantonal elections in Lorraine. He was suspended, then excluded, by his trade union federation, only to be supported by his local section (with 20 of the 23 members of the trade union voting for him), against the CGT departmental leadership who insisted on his exclusion.

His colleagues explained:

If Fabien wants to be a candidate for the FN, that’s his problem. Outside the trade union, he can do what he likes.

At the highest echelons of the CGT, the anxiety is palpable; Bernard Thibault, the general secretary of the organisation, asserts that the FN is pursuing a policy of ‘entryism’. Defended by Maître Collard – who would turn out to become an FN member of the French National Assembly and who refutes any accusations of xenophobia, racism or anti-Semitism - Engelmann stated that ‘putting French people first is not being racist’. He pointed out that only a minority of members ‘share the CGT’s commitment to regularising illegal workers’.

The fact is that this is the heart of a region devastated by de-industrialization and a series of ‘restructuring programmes’; a place where the left has come across as powerless. Nilvange is a working-class village. But the left there appears cut off from working-class expectations; and is accused of playing the ‘deregulation card’, allowing neo-liberalism to take root, lowering taxes for the rich and instituting flexibility in employment.

More generally speaking, those trade unionists who represent the Front National at the cantonal elections systematically put forward the same argument: trade unionism should be a-political. Yet in every single case, we witness exclusions and disciplinary procedures by the trade unions, accompanied by the same statement: ‘Our values are in opposition to those of the FN’.

For those who wish to combine trade unionism and FN representation, there is no doubt about it – their political convictions and trade-union involvement are not incompatible. The closer one gets to the grass roots, the more one detects an allegiance to the ideas of the FN taking shape. Denis Pesce, the secretary of the UD-CGT in Moselle, explains that ‘if those ideas are increasingly to be found amongst our members and activists, it may be a sign that we’ve been missing something’. He admitted that he was ‘particularly anxious about the resonance of FN ideas’ amongst the working classes’.[5]

This penetration of FN ideas to the very core of trade unionism, including to the core of its most radical components, is sometimes attributed to the crisis of the left, or, in any event, to its impotence. The same Denis Pesce argues that ‘there is no credible successor on the left’. Not only do Marine Le Pen and the FN speak to the ‘forgotten’ and ‘invisible’ workers, they simultaneously attack trade unions. This is the case, for example, when the President of the Front National, on May Day 2012, asserted that trade union leaders were ‘betraying the workers by negotiating behind their backs with the political and economic powers that be’; whilst Fabien Engelmann or Thierry Gourlot (from the CFTC, and in charge of the FN in the Conseil Régional in Lorraine) carried a banner calling for a ‘national trade unionism’.

Those on the side of the Front National in politics who also want to participate in trade union action, call for a stop to mass immigration, but refuse to explicitly attack foreigners who are in work. They support a state with significant regulatory capacity and support public services.  Their fervent attachment to the Republic, means that they embody a new FN—an FN that is miles away from the anti-statism and ultra-liberal Reagan-style ideologies conveyed by Jean Marie Le Pen in the 1980s.

Thus a city employee in Toulouse, also a member of the trade union SUD, was a candidate for the FN: ‘He says he’s against globalisation, just like us’, cracks one of the union’s leaders. Daniel Durand-Decaudin ‘couldn’t understand that there was an incompatibility between the values of exclusion that are the hallmark the FN and those of solidarity conveyed by the CFDT’, explained Alain Gatti, secretary of the CFDT-Lorraine, who then added: ‘He even spoke to me about a member of his family who was deported to Dachau. And when I reminded him of Jean Marie Le Pen’s remark that the gas chambers were a ‘detail of history’,[6] he replied that that was Jean Marie and not Marine’. [7]

The strategies for countering the FN in the 1980s and 1990s were often based on a principle of demonization and appealed to moral, anti-racist values. But with Marine Le Pen, these strategies seem to be ineffective. In the mid-1990s, Bruno Gollnisch, who tended to represent continuity with the ‘early FN’, had contemplated the creation of a ‘Social Front for employment’ (Front social sur le travail): FN-Police, FN-RATP, FN-Prisons, etc. But these organisations were disbanded by law at the request of traditional trade unions. In 1997, the Front National presented the Coordination française nationale des travailleurs, (the CFNT) and ran for election on industrial tribunals (prudhommales) along with an employers’ trade union the Fédération nationale enterprises modernes et libertés (FNEML). The CFNT got 18 of their candidates elected and the FNEML, 8. Once again, the traditional trade unions succeeded in having the results declared invalid. But things have moved on.

Despite their best efforts to point out that listening to the FN is a mistake, the trade unions, accused by the FN of betrayal and of collusion with the authorities, have difficulty in countering the penetration of FN ideas into the working world effectively.

Traditional trade unions have lost their capacity to act as a frame of reference for the working class and the FN has rushed in to fill the gap, with a plea for ‘genuinely free trade unions’ and not ‘the system trade unions’. It is a fact that the capacity for action and mobilisation remains on the side of trade union organisations: this was verified, for example, when the Front National attempted to distribute leaflets denouncing the dangers of relocation in front of the PSA factory in Aulnay in June 2011, and a coalition of the CGT, SUD and NPA militants were able to thwart the operation. But the affliction is real and deep.

A Harris Interactive opinion poll (March 2011) showed that 9% of French people openly sympathetic to trade unions voted for the FN in the cantonal elections as compared with 15% for the population as a whole. A study carried out by IFOP indicated that 25% of FO followers and 22% of those in favour of the CGT were preparing to vote Front National at these same cantonal elections.[8]

Trade unionism does remain a barrier to the FN but one that is increasingly fragile and under threat. It has been fundamentally weakened: ‘People speak about it openly in the workplace. Should we do nothing and just wait for the results of the first round?’ asks a CFDT leader. A newspaper report in Libération[9] confirms this image of a decline affecting activists as well as ordinary members: Jean-Michel Gilles, a CGT delegate in the Michelin factories, thinks that none of the members who represent the personnel will vote for the FN even if ‘the trade unionists do cross that line’. Only to be contradicted by ‘Brigitte’ a CGT delegate who says she has ‘no problem’ voting for Le Pen.

Workers were never a politically homogeneous category and research in electoral sociology, like that of Jacques Capdevieille in the early 1970s, has demonstrated that they could vote on the right in large numbers. But, until the 1980s, both trade unionism and communism, or even socialism provided a structuring principle: they gave meaning and provided a framework that anchored the working world closer to the left than the right. Today trade unionism is in decline; it has lost this framing capacity and the success of the FN is primarily a marker of this decline. Yet despite all that, it is hard to detect any kind of significant contribution of the FN to the world of work organisations.  Their leaders don’t actively support workers in their struggles: they don’t come out in support when factories close for instance.  Its presence is more of an ideological excrescence feeding on the failures of traditional trade unionism rather than a concrete contribution.

The FN’s avowed plan to create FN trade unions and, more generally, its activity in the workplace, meets with no response from the established employers’ association, the MEDEF. Its president, Laurence Parisot, along with Rosine Lapresle, published a highly critical book on this issue in 2011[10] and has publicly voiced her anxiety concerning the economic programme of the FN during the 2012 presidential elections. But some employer groups may be tempted by the FN’s proposals. When the employers’ movement ‘Ethic’ hosted Marine Le Pen she got a standing ovation. But there too, acquiescence or simply ideological proximity, which are in fact rather limited, in no way suggests something successfully taking root.

An amusing incident acts as an apt illustration of the contradictions in Front National discourse - torn between its own ideological ardour and economic reality. At the height of the presidential campaign in 2012, Marine Le Pen, in full flight against Islam dropped a bombshell: according to her, all the meat consumed in the Paris region was 100% halal. Unbeknownst to her, Paul Lamoitier, an FN regional representative, was a wholesale butcher. He issued a statement announcing that less than 2.5% meat in the region was halal. And swiftly resigned from the Front National.


[1] Rue 89 19 December 2011)

[2] Hervé le Bras Huffington Post, 24 January 2012

[3] Rue 89 (18 September 2011)

[4] La Voix du Nord (12 March 2011).

[5] Le Monde, 22 February 2012

[6]  A remark which Jean Marie Le Pen made about the gas chambers

[7] Libération, 28 March 201).

[8]  Aujourd’hui, 10 February 2011

[9]  Libération, 12 March 2012

[10]  Laurence Parisot and Rose Lapresle, Un piège bleu Marine, Paris, Calmann-Lévy)



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