The Rassemblement National (RN) is a populist right-wing party that plays a prominent role not only in French society, but also in politics. The party was founded in 1972 on the premise of uniting dispersed far-right movements in France and continues to maintain a very strong nativist ideology and discourse. This can be summed up by the idea of a préférence nationale (national preference) which seeks to stop the inflow of immigrants who compete with French workers and ensure that only French people benefit from social welfare. Although the RN has never been in office, they have had a significant amount of influence on French politics. In order to understand the continued success of the RN, it is important to look at the factors that have enabled this.
The fact that French people have felt less and less represented by the political mainstream has enabled the RN to effectively mobilize support. This crisis stems from an interlinked fear associated with globalization and the cultural transformation of society that have come with European integration. The free movement of goods and people has allowed for an influx of immigrants which has allowed the RN to construe a narrative that immigrants, particularly those coming from Muslim countries, are taking the jobs of the “native people” and benefiting from social welfare.
These fears have escalated following the establishment of the Eurozone and the European migration crises. Some citizens see the political elite as ineffective when dealing with these challenges, such as immigration, especially from Muslim countries. Marine Le Pen, leader of the RN, has also provoked fears of an ‘Islamisation’ of France, which have been successful. In a 2016 Ipsos Mori survey, the average French person believed that Muslims made up 31% of the population, whereas the real figure is around 7 to 8%.
The RN has also taken advantage of the French Republican model to further its agenda. The Republican model applies laïcité, a French concept of secularism separating religion from the state, which aims at integrating foreigners into the national community irrespective of their country of origin and ethnic or religious background. Laïcité has been used as a tool to stigmatize and “discipline” the French Muslim population whose practices are seen as offensive and threatening to the values of the French Republic. This has particularly targeted Muslim women who more overtly display their religious practices through the wearing of the headscarf or face coverings. In order to uphold the values of laïcité, the state banned the wearing of the hijab and face concealments, and, in some cases, the burkini. The paradox here is that all these measures were implemented by mainstream governments and not by the RN.
Coexisting with the laïcité, is the concept of a color-blind Republic which denies giving privileges to ethnic and religious groups in policy as race and religion are not officially recognized in the public sphere. There are no official statistics concerning race or religion, and the only distinction is between citizens and immigrants. Not only does this provide an opportunity for the RN, but it also allows the state to ignore fixing the root issues relating to racism or religious stereotyping because, to them, it shouldn’t and doesn’t exist.
These factors have allowed the RN to rise and remain relevant in the political sphere. However, perhaps its biggest achievement has been the radicalization of mainstream parties. Nicolas Sarkozy, former President of France, famously did this during his presidency by embracing a “tough stance” on law and order, and claiming that the RN’s values were compatible with the Republic and commended the ideas of prioritizing nationals. Another indication of this was the harsh stance taken by former Socialist President François Hollande following the 2015 terrorist attacks. His administration adopted a “tough on terror” stance and implemented a State of Emergency allowing for house arrests and bans on public gatherings. This measure unfairly targeted working-class Muslims as many mosques and Muslim organizations were searched and subsequently shut down. In true nativist fashion, Hollande also proposed a constitutional amendment (now revoked) which would have stripped dual nationals convicted of terrorism of their French citizenship.
Another recent example is the ‘Islamist separatist’ bill proposed by President Emanuel Macron and passed by the National Assembly on February 16th, 2021, which aims to give the state the means to fight Islamic radicalism. The bill was framed as a response to Islamist separatism which Macron describes as “an ideology that aims to build a parallel society in France where religious rules override civil laws and undermine the values of the French Republic and laïcité”. This again demonstrates the ability of the RN to permeate mainstream politics with a “nativist” ideology.
It seems that the Republican model and the concepts it embodies, such as laïcité and color-blindness, have actually worked in the RN’s favor. Subsequently, due to the crisis of representation, political elites have adopted aspects of the RN’s ideology in an attempt to stay relevant and maintain their political power. However, the mainstreaming of these radical aspects actually benefits the RN because it allows their ideas to become more acceptable in society, and therefore a real choice for voters. During the upcoming 2022 French presidential elections, it will be interesting to see whether or not mainstream parties, especially on the right, may consider an alliance with the RN for electoral gain.
By Noemi Amelynck
Noemi is a final year European Politics student and a Working Group Member for the European Affairs Policy Centre. Recently, she has been interested in researching the rise of populism across Europe and how it has been affected by EU crises. She is also interested in looking at how mainstream politics has reacted to populism and how it has affected public policy.
The featured image (top) is entitled ‘Meeting 1er mai 2012 Front National’ and is by Blandine Le Cain on Flickr. It is licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
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