Skip to main content

What Will Become of France's National Front?

French populists are already seeing into the next decade.
Left: Marine Le Pen. | Right: Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Left: Marine Le Pen. | Right: Jean-Marie Le Pen.

On Monday, newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron pledged a number of measures meant to modernize the country's political infrastructure: namely, slashing the number of seats in parliament by a third, and taking steps to make the ethnic representation in parliament more proportional.

On the sidelines of that speech was far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, whose loss to Macron in the presidential election in May was heralded by many as a blow to the nationalist populist movement sweeping the globe.

Le Pen seemed far from impressed with Macron's speech. "We didn't know more leaving [the speech] than we did coming in," she said, casting doubt over the nascent Macron administration's parliamentary initiative, which is still lacking in concrete details.

Chalk it up to a difference in styles, perhaps. Le Pen's political agenda and style have often been likened to Donald Trump's and Russian President Vladimir Putin's. Immediately after Trump's inauguration, he attempted to fulfill his most controversial campaign promises in a matter of months: the ban on travelers from six Muslim-majority countries, removal of environmental protections, and sweeping deportations of undocumented Americans, to name a few. Putin—for whom both Trump and Le Pen have expressed admiration—has been known to push past legal formalities to enact policy, most recently in a call-in show where he singlehandedly helps the victims of poor governance at the local level.

"Support for ethno-nationalist parties on the right has periodically surged then ebbed in a number of European countries."

Le Pen's anxiety over the lack of immediate answers to questions over Macron's program may be interpreted as a difference of opinion on political theory: For some, answers and results must be immediately apparent and the head of government must act—sometimes unilaterally, by executive decree or reality show—to deliver those results.

It was especially clear from her retort that Le Pen is already working to undermine her political adversary, likely with the 2022 election in mind. Since the election, French media has spoken of the "Le Pen myth"—interpreting her loss in the 2017 French election as having upended the notion that this woman had successfully mainstreamed her father Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right party by tempering his fiery rhetoric. The truth is, she may have lost, but she certainly got closer to the Elysee, the French White House, than her father ever did. But if Le Pen is to pull off a reversal of fortunes, it's going to take another major round of rebranding.

"There is indeed a real possibility of a rapprochement between the extreme right and the most conservative elements of the traditional right, but this would mean a redefinition of the National Front's economic program, away from the protectionist discourse of Marine Le Pen and closer to the neoliberal positioning of her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen," says Karim Emile Bitar, director of research at the Paris-based world affairs think tank Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques.

There is almost a logarithm to how the popularity of parties like Le Pen's rises and falls, analysts say.

"Since the early 2000s, support for ethno-nationalist parties on the right has periodically surged then ebbed in a number of European countries," says Jeffrey Sellers, political science professor at the University of Southern California.

This theory of ebbing-and-flowing success rates implies an eventual return of the National Front; opponents of ethno-nationalism are by no means in the clear, Sellers believes.

"Support for these movements has crept up since that earlier period, and it is very possible that they will come back again," he says. "They are also regarded in many quarters as a threat to democratic and liberal norms, and effective mobilization against them helps to explain why decline has followed each surge."