France's far-right renaissance: a new era of political upheaval in Europe



Picture of Rim-Sarah Alouane
Rim-Sarah Alouane

Legal scholar and commentator and 2023 European Young Leader (EYL40)

The recent French legislative elections have brought to the forefront a seismic shift in the country’s political landscape, characterised by a notable rise in support for far-right party National Rally (Rassemblement national). This surge has amplified concerns not only about domestic policy directions but also about broader implications for European unity. But what makes this surge difficult to push back against is that it is powered by a youthful, social media-driven reimagining of a party that was once universally rejected – and this strategy seems to be working.

The origins of the modern far-right in France can be traced back to the creation of the National Front (Front National) by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972. Initially seen as a fringe party with a reputation for xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ties with Nazi collaborators and extreme nationalism, the National Front struggled for mainstream acceptance. However, over the decades, it has undergone significant evolution and rebranding. Under the leadership of his daughter Marine Le Pen, the party sought to soften its image and broaden its appeal by focusing on issues like economic protectionism, national sovereignty and a strong stance against immigration. This strategy of dédiabolisation or ‘de-demonisation’ has been aimed at making the party more palatable to a broader electorate, effectively transforming it into a significant force in French politics under a new name. This electoral shift towards accommodating far-right narratives within the mainstream poses a significant challenge to France and to the European Union’s cohesion and democratic foundations.

At the heart of these electoral dynamics lies pervasive economic and social discontent that has fuelled disenchantment with the political elite, accelerating the rise of both far-right and far-left movements. However, the core values and proposed solutions to societal issues are markedly different. Far-left ideologies, while also critical of the status quo, fundamentally differ from far-right ideologies in their focus on social equality and inclusive policies. The far-right adds nationalism, cultural and religious homogeneity and restrictive immigration policies to their economic critiques.

Such measures risk alienating segments of the population who contribute culturally, economically and socially to France’s diverse tapestry

President Emmanuel Macron’s economic policies, often seen as favouring the wealthy and large corporations, have not succeeded in bridging the economic divide. Controversial measures such as pension and unemployment reforms have often fuelled strikes and protests that showcase the frustration and anger felt by many French citizens who perceive the government as being out of touch with their everyday struggles.

Moreover, the mainstreaming of far-right ideologies has been facilitated by media that amplify racist rhetoric and sensationalise issues related to immigration and cultural identity. The portrayal of immigrants, refugees and Muslims as threats to national security and economic stability has resonated with segments of the electorate disillusioned with traditional political establishments. The National Rally has capitalised on xenophobic sentiments by emphasising stringent immigration controls and promoting national sovereignty over European integration. The party’s rhetoric resonates with segments of the electorate concerned about cultural identity and economic stability, positioning itself as a bulwark against perceived threats posed by immigration and globalisation.

In the aftermath of the results of the first round of the legislative elections, a particularly alarming development has been the surge in violence and threats against political opponents and marginalised groups. These incidents reflect a broader trend of increased assaults motivated by race, religion, homophobia, transphobia and political allegiance during the election campaign. The normalisation and emboldening of such violent far-right ideologies are stark indicators of the dangerous trajectory on which France finds itself.

Far-right policies pose significant threats to various vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in France, including racialised minorities, women, Muslims, Jews, the LGBTQIA+ communities, refugees etc. The National Rally’s specific promise to bar dual nationals from ‘sensitive state jobs’ further entrenches racism, discrimination and second-class status for a significant portion of the population, undermining social cohesion and equal opportunity. This policy has raised alarms about its potential to deepen societal rifts and undermine principles of equality and non-discrimination, both protected by French and EU law. Such measures risk alienating segments of the population who contribute culturally, economically and socially to France’s diverse tapestry. The mainstreaming of such ideologies in political discourse is a dangerous trend, indicative of broader currents across Europe where similar sentiments are gaining ground.

Cultivating a political culture that values diversity, pluralism and respect for human rights is crucial

To effectively address these challenges, policymakers should prioritise pragmatic strategies. The first step is strengthening regulations on media to combat the spread of divisive and discriminatory narratives. This should be complemented by comprehensive civic education programs that empower citizens to critically analyse information and distinguish between reliable sources and propaganda. Additionally, improving the responsiveness and transparency of EU institutions is essential to rebuild public trust and reinforce legitimacy in governance. Streamlining decision-making processes can ensure that policies effectively address citizen concerns and uphold democratic values. Developing and enforcing robust integration policies is crucial for fostering inclusivity and mitigating societal divisions exacerbated by ultranationalist rhetoric. These policies should emphasise cultural understanding and social cohesion, particularly in diverse communities affected by the influence of far-right movements.

Additionally, rigorous enforcement of existing legal protections against discrimination at both national and EU levels is necessary to uphold fundamental rights for all individuals. Cultivating a political culture that values diversity, pluralism and respect for human rights is crucial. Investing in long-term strategies to strengthen democratic institutions and practices is key. Supporting and protecting civil society organisations that defend democratic norms and human rights and engage citizens in civic participation will contribute to the resilience of European unity against the challenges posed by the far-right.

The normalisation of the far-right in France has been facilitated by leaders across the political spectrum who have actively contributed to its mainstreaming and often found political advantage in its propagation. The future of the European project hinges on the ability to resist these regressive forces and to forge a path forward based on solidarity, inclusivity, equality and fairness for all member states and their citizens. If left unchecked, we risk being doomed to repeat the darkest times of our history, where fear, divisions and exclusion overshadow the pursuit of collective progress and human dignity. French and European leaders must decisively confront these challenges, or we may find ourselves trapped in a cycle of intolerance, violence and regression that will undermine the very foundation of our democracies.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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