The security turn of French politics and the rejuvenation of the Front National

Has the increasing focus on security issues in French politics given an advantage to the radical right or the conservative right? The defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy indicates that the FN remains a length ahead in this domain.

Brigitte Beauzamy
12 July 2012

2002 is allegedly a turning point in French political history, as historical Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the presidential elections instead of outgoing Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Yet this remarkable victory did not occur by chance and many observers have blamed a general turn of French political discourses for this result. As security issues were placed highest on the political agenda, it offered perfect conditions for radical right proposals to make themselves heard.

As an « observer of political programmes » at the High TV Council (Conseil Supérieur de l'Audiovisuel) – the institution in charge of checking that all presidential candidates get a fair share of media coverage - I watched in awe this “security turn” (tournant sécuritaire) as it was labelled afterwards. Violent petty crime was everywhere in the media and reports became increasingly sensationalizing. Criminal statistics were passionately discussed as commentators took to demonstrating that theft and arson had become increasingly violent. There was a strong political undercurrent in these debates as the most debated law and order issues were those implicating young people, many of them with a migrant and working class background – the omnipresent mythical figure of the “youth from the suburbs” (jeunes de banlieue) – who were increasingly depicted as a security threat instead of a socio-economic issue. A close observation of TV programmes revealed how this narrative was crafted. For instance, when crime statistics were discussed in the first morning TV journal which showed that while reported violent petty crime was indeed on the rise, the main increase was to be found in white-collar offenses, the latter result entirely disappeared from other journals later in the day. The coverage of security issues was a desolate succession of portraits of helpless victims and apocalyptic data.

While Jean-Marie Le Pen was most at home in this security turn, other presidential candidates from mainstream parties followed his lead and mimicked his strategy. It may be argued that the Socialist bid for presidency was lost when Lionel Jospin confessed that he had been “naive” about security issues. Apparently voters took his word for it and opted for the much less nuanced discourse of Le Pen, who openly equated immigration with crime and argued in favour of the “double penalty” inflicted upon migrant offenders, who are expelled from France after doing their time in jail.Yet Jospin had been everything but soft on crime when he passed the Daily Security Law (Loi de Sécurité Quotidienne - LSQ) a mere four months after 9/11. Packaged as an anti-terrorist law, it included two particularly controversial elements targeting youth, the criminalization of loitering in staircases and of unauthorized rave parties. Both amendments were added by UMP (conservative right) MP Thierry Mariani who proceeded in 2010 to create the parliamentary collective “Popular Right”, allegedly one of the clearest attempts at tapping into the FN electorate by directly adopting its key themes.

While Le Pen overwhelmingly dominated the far right end of the political spectrum, other candidates tried to occupy the same discursive space: his main contender from splinter group Republican National Movement (Mouvement National Républicain), Bruno Mégret, portrayed himself in his campaign videoclip protecting people against obviously young and Arab criminals. However, their success was meagre, and the focus on insecurity seems to have mostly benefited the mainstream right. Security is often mentioned when discussing the rise to power of Nicolas Sarkozy and his presidential victory of 2007. Previously in charge of Home Affairs, Sarkozy had developed a tough style, especially after 2003 when he passed a follow-up to the LSQ, the Internal Security Law (Loi de Sécurité Intérieure – LSI), which, among other measures, extended the liability for DNA filing. The major riots of 2005 seemed to reinforce his position further. Although he himself stayed clear of openly racist comments when describing criminals, he already made use of his political entourage for instance to blame African families for the riots – a strategy echoed during the 2012 presidential campaign. However, his discourse mirrored closely the style of the radical right, for instance when he claimed that he would use “industrial cleaner” against petty criminals in his infamous speech of Argenteuil's main square, precisely one of these suburban towns deemed to be afflicted with widespread insecurity, in a political gesture echoing Ariel Sharon's visit to the Al Aqsa terrace. When Nicolas Sarkozy won the 2007 elections, in face of a much weaker FN result, it was generally concluded that he had successfully managed to tap into the radical right vote.

Much has been written about the 2012 strategy of “rightization” (droitisation) adopted by the Sarkozy team, and which failed both at the presidential and legislative elections. Marine Le Pen obtained 17% of votes, a result even surpassing her father's one of 2002. Although the legislative elections did not confirm such breakthrough, 13.4% of voters opted for the populist right party at the first round, and 2 FN MPs – of which Marine Le Pen herself is not part - are now sitting at the National Assembly. The future of the conservative right, the UMP, is being fiercely debated as the legacy of Sarkozy's strategies is increasingly questioned. Interestingly, the Popular Right does not seem to have altered its stance towards the radical right, as their website spells out clearly in a June editorial: “The alleged rightization of the UMP would explain both presidential and legislative defeats. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy asserted that 'When the right is not the right, the extreme right is strong!'. It is because the governing right was not enough of the right that the extreme right, weakened in 2007, became strong again in 2012. A 'rightization of discourses' was not enough to get back the trust of the disappointed; there should have been a 'rightization of deeds' in government.” Even if such a bold stance does not predict the future of UMP strategy, it indicates that the adoption of discourses characteristic of the radical right by segments of the mainstream right, especially concerning matters of security, goes beyond mere electoral strategy and is now fully embedded in their ideology.

Locating security in the Front National's appeal to voters

Yet, is security really the key to the FN's success? A large body of literature has explored multiple explanations of the party's appeal. In her 1990 study of psycho-sociological factors impacting on FN adhesion, Birgitta Orfali examined the rewards associated with joining the FN. The party’s tightly connected community would be especially appealing to people suffering from social marginalization who form a minority of sympathizers. Beyond these incentives tied to radical right subcultures, the party’s arguments may appeal to specific psychological profiles: law-and-order arguments to a certain category of male members (“order men”) as opposed to the anti-Semitic arguments preferred by catholic, female and rather subdued members (“assujettis”). Following in the footsteps of Adorno and his classical study of the psychological appeal of authoritarian politics, such studies shed light on the appeal of authority figures and law-and-order arguments, especially when teamed with right-wing economic liberalism. When other parties are unable to satisfy the wishes of authoritarian voters, opportunities may arise for the radical right.

Beyond psychological factors, the appeal of authoritarian politics and dislike of foreigners appear to be ideologically connected for FN voters. These arguments clearly depart from the commonplace interpretation of the radical right vote as a manifestation of socio-economic problems afflicting voters in times of crisis. Xenophobia and punitiveness form the core of an ideology which appeals to specific segments of the electorate and may even translate into fully-fledged partisanship: we may be wrong referring to FN voters as “petits blancs” (white trash) In any simple sense of disappointed outcast which does not take into account this attraction to a range of radical right ideological traits.

Scholars studying the appeal of the FN to voters disagree over the correct description – the moderation or radicalization of its discourse. Like other radical right parties in Europe, the FN has managed to contribute shaping the political agenda, especially with regard to matters relating to immigration and crime and, since Sarkozy's presidency, to national identity. Radical anti-Islam positions held by the FN, for example vilifying street prayer or the spread of hallal butchers in poor neighbourhoods, have been largely commented upon in the media, and sometimes integrated into the topics of mainstream party candidates. This impact on the mainstream political agenda reveals the growing acceptability of FN theses: the normalization (“banalisation”) of the party’s standpoints (especially with regards to immigration) may therefore be understood as a crucial element in obtaining more electoral success. The acceptability of the FN ideology is on the rise, not as a consequence of its toning down in order to appeal to moderate voters but because the whole space of political discourses has shifted to include FN themes and vocabulary. The party's strategy – which was already palpable in the 1980s - has therefore been one of simultaneous openness and radicalization. These trends were represented by different party leaders, except for Jean-Marie Le Pen who managed to combine both dimensions in his rhetoric, and did not hesitate to rely on provocation by intentionally adopting provocative images and metaphors. While his daughter has steered away from these – especially those with an anti-Semitic undertone - she has maintained the same harsh tone when addressing contemporary security issues linked to Islam. The mainstream right may have picked up on this call for a tougher treatment of security issues associated with immigration and multiculturalism by the radical right, but remains timid in its use of inflamed rhetoric.

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