Right-wing populist ideas become mainstream in France

All eyes are on France this week as the country plays host to the 2016 European football championship. Politically, however, the country is experiencing turmoil. An unpopular President Hollande is trying to push for urgently needed labor market reform. Meanwhile the handling of the refugee crisis and the threat of terrorism is boosting France’s far-right Front National (FN) party. In 2017 the French will go to the polls to elect a new President and Parliament. We sat down with the French liberal Marshall Memorial Fellow Bruno Selun to discuss the state of the FN in France today, looking ahead to 2017.

The opinions expressed below are Marshall Memorial Fellow Bruno Selun’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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Marshall Memorial Fellow Bruno Selun/ Copyright: Bruno Selun

France’s Front National did well at the last elections, spooking the French establishment and centre. What does this threat do to France’s leadership role in Europe?

The National Front already benefited from popularity peaks in the past 20 years, including in the 2002 presidential elections where they reached the second round. So this isn’t a new phenomenon. What is new is that mainstream parties receive less and less support, and in turn increasingly adopt Front National ideas. So even if the party isn’t winning big (yet), its ideas are.

France still plays a leading role in Europe. But François Hollande is weak in polls, his government’s labour reform under strenuous attack, and this leaves less time to lead in Europe. Just look at France’s absence of leadership on Europe’s top crisis currently: refugee flows. Hopefully, the tide will turn soon – but 2017 will be an inward-looking year of elections.

How has the refugee crisis played into the hands of the Front National? Has the Euro-topic been sidelined in favour of an anti-refugee line by the FN, like it has changed for the AfD in Germany?

Without comparing France’s Front National to Germany’s AfD, the refugee crisis has definitely benefited Marine Le Pen’s party and their ideas. We’ve seen a softer line on EU issues (the party changed its rhetoric on Frexit or leaving the euro area, for example), while they’ve been buoyed up by anti-migrant sentiment.

All Marine Le Pen has to do – and she’s doing this right now – is quietly wait for the situation to worsen. Something that’s not lost on her Russian allies, who’ve both financed the Front National and encouraged migratory flows from Syria.

Where do you see the FN leader Marine Le Pen’s chances in next year’s presidential election? What will the election mean for the future political direction of France, and does she have a shot at the country’s highest office?

It’ll depend on so many factors: parties’ manifestos, their unity on different sides of the spectrum, what happens in the next 12 months… So she might have a shot at entering the second round. But she’s very far from winning the second round: despite the increasing polarisation, many mainstream supporters will choose the mainstream opponent – even from across the political spectrum – over her.

However, in a few regions Front National candidates have grown moderately stronger recently. So this question remains open: how many Front National MPs will make it to parliament one month after the presidential election?