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How National Rally captured the centre The detoxification of Le Pen's party is complete

Credit: FRANCOIS LO PRESTI/AFP via Getty)

Credit: FRANCOIS LO PRESTI/AFP via Getty)


July 1, 2024   5 mins

It’s been a long time coming, but after a triumphant showing at the European elections, and then such a strong result in the first round of the French parliamentary elections, it looks like National Rally, a Le Pen party, is moving in on Emmanuel Macron’s wild decision to call a snap election.

The RN’s current leader, Jordan Bardella, could even be crowned the youngest prime minister in French history. Were that to happen, it would represent one of the greatest changes in fortunes for a political movement in Europe. When the Front National was founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, it was home to an eclectic bunch of collaborationists, résistants, former poujadistes and nostalgics of “French Algeria”. During the Eighties, the far-Right party became the scarecrow of French politics, a toxic electoral no-man’s-land made untouchable by Le Pen’s taste for antisemitism. When it reached the presidential run-off in 2002, it was seen as a catastrophe for the nation, but Le Pen senior and his radioactive brand was never in a position to exercise power (he lost 82-18 in the runoff).

While such a poisonous legacy cannot be completely brushed aside, today’s party — a beast nurtured by Marine, Jean-Marie’s daughter — is no longer a radical outfit on the margins of French politics. Rather, it is better seen as an opportunistic catch-all party increasingly at the centre of France’s margin.

Le Pen has spent 15 years “detoxifying” her party, purging it of its more extreme members, changing its name, and even trading blows with her father in the process. Today, a staggering 92% of Jews believe that Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Left-wing La France Insoumise contributes to the rise of antisemitism, compared to only 49% for the RN. But the gains are twofold: in election after election, the party has made steady gains, making it to the runoff of the presidential election twice. With the tantalising carrot of real political power, the party has decided to shed any remaining rough edges. The RN, as a result, is running a campaign that can only be described as muted.

Once upon a time, Marine Le Pen was the Marianne of Frexit, making it RN’s central pledge in 2017. Since then, however, the party has avoided putting forward anything that looks like aggressive Euroscepticism. Today, her role model in Europe is Giorgia Meloni: the Italian advocate for nationalism within the EU, rather than nationalism in one country.

On its criticism of Nato, too, the RN has also softened its stance, citing concerns about the message it would send to France’s allies in Ukraine. Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s war seems to have vaccinated the party from its previous demonstrative signs of Putinophilia; his invasion came just days before Le Pen was about to send out a presidential leaflet with a photo of her shaking hands with Putin. The RN may not be Kyiv’s biggest supporters, but nor have they opposed most of France’s aid packages in recent months.

In fact, on most economic issues, the party is keeping its ambitions low, and watering them down at the first sight of pushback. Most obviously, what should have been the flagship measure — ditching Macron’s pension reform that sets the legal retirement age at 64 — has now been significantly watered-down, to the point where only cosmetic changes are discernible. On energy, meanwhile, Le Pen had pledged to leave the EU market, but Bardella has since suffocated the proposal with fine print. He wants to cut VAT on energy prices, but has made clear this is “pending” on “negotiations in Brussels”.

Even on immigration, the RN’s most radical platform, we can see the spirit of moderation starting to seep in. In fact, the issue only ranks as the “third emergency” for Bardella, behind the cost of living and security. Once driven by its commitment to restricting access to strategic administrative positions for dual citizens and removing birth-right citizenship, the RN has softened its stance. On birth-right citizenship it wants people born in France of foreign parents to have to declare their desire to become French at 18 —a  radical break from French tradition, but not a European anomaly either with many EU countries implementing similarly qualified jus soli regulations. As for the restriction of key strategic positions for dual citizens, it already exists.

And what of the people staffing the party themselves? A lot has been written about Bardella’s photogenic appearance, but much of the RN’s leadership are simply bland and presentable former Right-wingers. After getting 89 MPs elected to parliament in 2022, Le Pen instructed them to put on a tie and to avoid acting like fringe agitators. Naturally, they obeyed, and started to tactfully vote with both the Left and the Macronists on various issues. In their first year in office, RN’s 89 MPs backed around half of the Macronist bills — on everything from squatting to nuclear energy — but also supported the Left on high-profile attempts to censor the government.

This “strategy of the suit and tie” has paid significant dividends, especially as a foil to the rambunctious agitprop style adopted by their counterparts on the Left, which has made the Le Penists look like serious politicians. The radicalism and ambition of the united left’s “Popular Front” platform (an extra 150 billion euros in spending by 2027) has also helped. It did considerably more to spook markets than the risk of a Bardella premiership and by contrast made the RN’s unfocused hodgepodge of promises look reasonable.

And crucially, as a result, the electorate is starting to treat the RN as a normal party. The historic “barrage républicain“, where Right-wing and Left-wing voters would pinch their noses and vote for anyone but a Le Pen in the run-off lies in tatters. Even centrist voters, when presented with a hypothetical run-off between the Popular Front and RN, put them on an equal footing.

“The electorate is starting to treat the RN as a normal party.”

More generally, the appeal of the RN, and of Bardella specifically, has become increasingly widespread: Bardella, with his 17 million TikTok followers, now ranks as the second most popular politician in France. (Édouard Philippe, the centrist Mayor of Le Havre is currently first.) As the pollster Mathieu Gallard writes, the RN now has the most representative demographic breakdown of any party in France.

The caveat, of course, is that even a non-radical RN could end up being hugely disruptive for France. After all, while the RN are no longer made up of hard Eurosceptics, they are certainly not Euroenthusiasts either. And it is unlikely that Le Pen and Bardella will fold into the EU doxa without at least giving the impression of putting up a fight. Indeed, even Bardella’s more moderate platform could spark fireworks in Brussels, particularly over the EU budget, and could have significant debt implications given France’s very tight fiscal space.

And for all of Le Pen’s aspirations to emulate Melonism, the RN, unlike its Italian counterpart, has never participated in a ruling coalition, not even at a sizable regional level. While there has been some frantic speed dating over the past year between the RN and France’s business and administrative elites, the RN does not have a strong establishment footprint yet. So a political transition of this scale could be very rocky.

But for all those risks, the RN no longer acts as a radical party, nor is it seen as such by the larger electorate. It has morphed into an opportunistic catch-all creature: amid all the hysteria blowing in from outside of France, Le Pen and Bardella seem ready to make whatever ideological compromises are necessary.


François Valentin is a political analyst and co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast.

Valen10Francois

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Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
17 days ago

In other words, the effects of the western populist movements are being felt, normalized, and integrated into the current political system without the need for violent revolution. Yes, the populist parties are moderating and moving towards the center, but the center is also moving, and already has moved towards them. This is a good result as it means there will be less chance of a destabilizing revolution. European politicians now expect excessive immigration to generate political push back so they try to moderate. They expect to be called to task for catering too much too elite interests. An increasing number of elites recognize the changes and are now hedging their bets, mending fences with leaders they called radical threats not that long ago. Populists won’t get every reform they want, but neither will their opponents. They have reoriented politics and redefined the always nebulous notions of political left and right around a different set of issues and established what will likely be the new political axis going forward. It’s no longer socialism vs. liberalism but nationalism vs. globalism. No doubt there will be a long term dynamic of push pull between parties and within them over these issues.

This won’t satisfy the people who wanted to see heads roll. That dynamic would still be in play if elites had continued on the path of reactionism, censorship, and suppression but they haven’t. That isn’t something we should want or wish for. Rather we should recognize history is moving forward and nobody has absolute power over it. Based on some of his recent comments, I suspect Macron himself realizes this. His unexpected call for elections at such a seemingly inopportune moment is a concession to the inevitable. Populist parties aren’t going away. They will be a political force and sooner or later they’ll have their turn as a ruling party. I credit Macron for having some humility before history and some regard for the popular will. He’s been among the most dutiful followers of globalist policies and attitudes but at least he is no tyrant determined to win at any cost.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
17 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Agreed. The ultimate goal of populism isn’t revolution, it’s to move radicalized govts to the centre. That appears to be happening. One caveat though. There has to be significant movement on open borders and net zero. If not, these populists will lose credibility.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
17 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Indeed. That’s what did in the old conservative Republicans. The times changed and their base moved. Some issues gained greater importance while other issues became less important. They proved too stubborn to adapt quickly and kept clinging to failed policies their base no longer supported. Those who realized what was going on quickly enough and got with the program survived. Marco Rubio’s star is rising once again as a populist. Ted Cruz has remained relevant. New figures like Ron DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin have pushed the times forward. The Romneys and Cheneys of the world have been more or less kicked to the curb like so much gum on the bottom of Donald Trump’s shoe. For all his many and obvious faults, Trump has done the most important work. Not intentionally of course, but history is often moved by the wrong people in the right place at the right time. It’s because he is such a bellicose, pompous ass, because he has been little more than a glorified snake oil salesman most of his life, because he thumbed his nose at the unwritten rules and instead started playing dirty, and then won, that we all understand just how deep the resentment goes. If the people will overlook Trump’s checkered past, his combative attitude, his rude, combative, and sometimes outright embarrassing public demeanor just to stick it to the establishment, what does that say to the establishment. Alarm bells should have been ringing loudly as early as late 2015 when polls consistently showed Trump leading the field in the Republican primary. The election was a neon sign displaying a loud and clear message of disapproval to basically everyone in Washington. It took them considerably longer to understand the situation than it should have, and that has hurt them as well. They’ve been deep in a hole since 2016 and it wasn’t until halfway through the Biden administration that they thought to stop digging.

Too many still haven’t, but at least the fear is real. The real fear comes from Jan 6th. If Jan 6th didn’t put people off Trump, what will? When someone attempts a coup and half the country either cheers along or shrugs it off, it’s a pretty good indicator how far down the road to revolution we were actually on. It’s the fear that does it, the knowing that if they go too far with power, a lot of people might push back harder outside power structures, and collapse the system into chaos and war. In that scenario, everyone loses, and the people at the top have the most to lose. Compromising and backing down in the face of that threat is a proper and rational response in 99.9% of cases. Europe is handling the matter with more grace and speeches and less shouting, name-calling, and fisticuffs, but what else is new.

Terry M
Terry M
16 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

When someone attempts a coup and half the country either cheers along or shrugs it off,
Sorry, that one word, ‘coup’ undercuts an otherwise reasonable argument. Trump tried every legal means to prove he had won, with no success. Then he encouraged his followers to protest:
“I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.”
And there was not a single weapon in the crowd that went to, and into, the Capitol.
Some coup.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
15 days ago
Reply to  Terry M

Yes, he tried every legal means but lost every time. Even before the court cases, most informed opinion reckoned he had a poor case, which isn’t to say there were not any election irregularities. But certainly not enough to maintain any credible case that “the election was stolen”.

I agree though that “coup” is somewhat overstating it!

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
16 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

For anyone trying to pain J6 as anything other than what it was, here is something worth remembering: multiple cities took precautions against possible violence during the 2020 election campaign. In each case, the precautions were based on Trump WINNING, not losing. It wasn’t his supporters that city leaders feared; it was the same blocs that had engineered months and months of ‘mostly peaceful’ mayhem.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
16 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Exceptional description of Trump and his role in smashing the establishment. I think I might steal some of your thoughts on this and pretend they are mine. Lol. It’s interesting that a lot of the populist leaders across the world are kinda oddball characters.

You lost me with the Jan. 6 coup. It clearly devolved into a riot and is an ugly chapter in American history. Not even close to a coup or an insurrection.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
16 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I’ll concede that I used too strong a word when I called it a coup. Several people have made that observation and as I reread it I concede I went too far. The word coup tends to imply armed and at least somewhat organized military or paramilitary forces attempting to effect a change in government or to overturn an election. Jan 6th did indeed lack either element, so I stand properly chastised for choosing my words poorly. I also believe that the people involved were overcharged and overprosecuted for their actual act, not to mention the egregious breaches of legal procedure in holding many of these people without bail. The disproportionate response to Jan 6th when compared to the Floyd riots is telling.

That said, what Trump did was still irresponsible, reckless, and frankly stupid. If he really wanted to question the election results and search for fraud, there were better ways to go about doing it. Conceding the election while demanding a full investigation in light of the difficulties of holding an election during COVID. Mail in ballots were used to a greater extent than ever before and that alone should have been cause for greater than average scrutiny. He could have hammered away at the notion that the integrity of elections is crucial to democracy, emphasized the need for transparency in the processes and methods used by government, highlighted the partisanship of non-elected bureaucrats who handle elections at the state level, tied it into his rhetoric about the power of bureaucrats and faceless organizations, and built it into a legitimate issue that he didn’t have to tiptoe around. Instead he tried to finagle with procedure and pressure important people to abuse the system and keep him in power. No, it’s not a coup or an insurrection, but it’s bad. I won’t say it’s unAmerican, because that would be a bald faced lie. People who say that don’t know their history. I will say it’s short-sighted, foolish, and poor strategy, and it was the absolute wrong way to act in order to make his point. I’ll stand by that.
I’m no fan of Trump. I’ve disliked him since long before he was involved in politics. His style is about the polar opposite of what I prefer. I much prefer someone who is unflappably calm, stern, and sober in all ways. I also think he’s a poor leader of a populist movement I would like to get behind, and I think there are better leaders out there who could advance the movement better and gain broader support. I think he’s hogging the stage to suit his own ego, and he’s a millstone around a movement that should be further along here than it is, not being overtaken by the more effective populist movements in Europe. I admit I can occasionally be guilty of my own form of TDS. I can’t blame you and others for calling me to the carpet for it.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
14 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Totally agree with all of this. I would argue that Jan. 6 was unAmerican – just not a coup. Totally agree with your thoughts on Trump. I loathed him long before he entered politics. Loved the Apprentice. Hated his role in it.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
16 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Jolly Steve spends too much time reading the Guardian and such like.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
15 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

That is such a moronic ad hominen attack! Aren’t you embarrassed to make such a puerile remark? You have absolutely no idea what Steve Jolly reads, but even if did read The Guardian among other media, that doesn’t mean that he has to follow their editorial line on every issue, as even the most cursory glance at his comments would prove.

On the contrary, Steve provides some of the best, carefully thought through and readiness comments on this forum.

M M
M M
16 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

It’s not that Jan 6th “didn’t put people off Trump”, it’s that Jan 6th had too many markings of a staged event for everyone to fall for it. If your BS detector never went off for any portion of that event, it’s probably faulty. Right out of the gate the intelligence services put out a “most wanted” list based on video footage, and ever since then they have been running defense about how a bunch of the folks they put up there should be ignored. You already showed enough evidence to make your original point, it’s not going away just because you asked folks to look the other way. Not everyone will notice it, but many will.

0 01
0 01
16 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I agree, Trump was right in the abstract, but he was too weak in character to finish what he has started. He did the important thing of getting the ball rolling, and hopeful more competent people down the road can actually can build on the ground work he laid down. My fear of him is that when the inevitable decline of his stature in the MEGA movement will one way or the other, he might sabotage the movement to maintain his position of dominance due to his jealous, vindictive, prideful nature. I think he is reaching the point that many politicians often get when they are in power for too long, they were out their welcome and stop being useful, and are more of a problem then a then a solution do to putting their own interests above the country. To put it simply, he is passing his sell-buy date, kind of like Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
17 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Exactly. If they fail in the attainable mission to control borders and push back against net zero extremism they are doomed. What is striking in Europe is that no one dares to push back against the EU’s control – and all are quasi socialist – no one is seeking to ise enterprise and private sector to revive the sickly suffocated over regulated economy. Here in UK – incredibly – with are about to be hit by all four failed loose running horsemen charging together – failed socialism + divisive open borders/mass migration + naive pro EU + insane eco/net zero mayhem.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
17 days ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

I think what you describe may paradoxically be part of the process. If the Conservative Party has almost been destroyed at the current election by its failure to take account of this movement then, with any luck, Labour, who are doubling down on all the post-rational nonsense, will disappear completely after the next.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
16 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I agree. All hinges on who leads a new Right out of the fire – it must be Kemi types not wilder fringe. Note Starmer now openly defining himself as a ‘progressive’. So those who know are warned. Yet among the many great failures of the Fake/Wet/Not Our Nation is their stunning failure to call out and define the post 90s progressive ideology and State to the public who have no idea. They did not do this because they belonged to the movement post 2010. Battle with that failing system of governance and toxic ideology will be a guiding star for the new party.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
16 days ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

I wouldn’t bet on anyone in particular, especially anyone from the Conservative Party In Name Only, apart from Andrew Bridgen, of course. He has represented his constituents, at great cost.

A very select few may be trustworthy but, due to the country’s membership of the European Union, too many forgot what being an MP was all about, and there are too many Tory ‘Managed Decliners’ hiding in the shadows.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
15 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Excellent, reasoned comments!

John Dellingby
John Dellingby
17 days ago

I’ve been following Marine Le Pen relatively closely since I chose to do my dissertation at university on the populist and radical right in Europe in the 21st century. This was back in 2012, and it was clear already that her attempts to detoxify her father’s party were paying off. In the following years, she was able to reassure the gay and Jewish parts of the population that their rights were safe with her and she would have their back, particularly against Islamists.

She has become the epitome of how to build a successful populist movement and it is quite something to behold.

General Store
General Store
16 days ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

Unless ‘success’ means not actually doing anything

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
15 days ago
Reply to  General Store

Let’s see. The RN has to date exercised no significant political power.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
17 days ago

An interesting and nuanced article.

Meanwhile in other news, the BBC in its coverage of France spends its time shrieking about “the far right” . . .

Thank goodness for Unherd.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
16 days ago

What’s also interesting is how the Beeb quote several leading French politicians screeching about “not one single more vote for the right”.
In other words: don’t give any agency to those who’re voting for RN, i.e. French citizens exercising choice in a democracy.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
17 days ago

But if you look at RN economic policies they are not even mildly right wing but full on Corbyn.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
16 days ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

Yes, their economic policies are socialist. But the political alternative is the hard left, which is close to communist. Frightening prospect….

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
16 days ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

The not so Far Left are International Socialists and the not so Far Right are National Socialists.

I don’t think I have left out any other acceptable political view, have I? 🙂

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
16 days ago

I actually didnt know that Brothers of Italy had participated in a ruling coalition in Italy. Can anyone help to clarify this please?

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
16 days ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Brothers of Italy are in a coalition with Salvini’s League and (now diseased) Berlusconi’s Forza Italia

Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
16 days ago

deceased

Douglas H
Douglas H
16 days ago

I think you mean “censure”?

“high-profile attempts to censor the government.”

William Brand
William Brand
16 days ago

The strongest part of the right-wing movement is opposition to Moslem immigration. This is due to the Moslem inclination toward Holy War against the west. Islamic theology tells Moslem youth that if they start killing non-Moslems that they will go straight to heaven. Suicide by cop is a theological solution to career failure. Such behavior causes a desire among non-Moslems to eject this troublesome minority before they become the majority and oppress them.

Point of Information
Point of Information
16 days ago

“increasingly at the centre of France’s margin”.

Parse please.

Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
16 days ago

“Today, a staggering 92% of Jews believe that Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Left-wing La France Insoumise contributes to the rise of antisemitism, compared to only 49% for the RN.”
Staggering? Only to those not paying attention.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
16 days ago
Reply to  Russell Sharpe

No that is actually pretty staggering. For 92% of a large group to agree on anything at all is really rare in politics, even if it seems obvious.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
15 days ago
Reply to  Russell Sharpe

Was this actually worth writing? This is a kind of piggybacking remark adding nothing of interest to the debate.

Lots of people “don’t pay attention” – especially to another country’s politics! Most non obsessional politicos – ie ordinary people – might indeed find it somewhat surprising that a party with an fascist-adjacent (at least) past led by an undoubted self proclaimed anti-semite is now more trusted by Jews than a Leftwing party. (But nonetheless not trusted by about half of them).

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
16 days ago

Does this mean journos will stop referring to her as “hard right”? That lazy word turns up in too many lazy stories they write.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
16 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Well said. I never hear of the ‘far-left’. It seems not to exist. The term ‘far-right’ only has meaning when used in contrast to the ‘far-left’. And yet, the term ‘far-left’ is used rarely, if ever.

Here’s a thought: the individual who uses the term ‘far-right’ is on the left, or the far-left. Being in that position, they do not know that they are ‘far-left’.

Why don’t the right use the term ‘far-left’? I have a feeling we’re too polite to do so.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
16 days ago

The RN are the only sensible, patriotic and moderate party in France. The rest are extremists. Macron and his allies represent extremist globalism and Americanisation of multinational corporations type. The Popular Front represent extremist Communism and Americanisation of the BLM/Ivy League ideology type.

A D Kent
A D Kent
16 days ago

“Today, a staggering 92% of Jews believe that Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Left-wing La France Insoumise contributes to the rise of antisemitism, compared to only 49% for the RN.”

That it surprises some that Jewish people might often be of a right -wing persuasion continues to perplex me. Where on earth did they get that idea from?

Etienne Roulleaux Dugage
Etienne Roulleaux Dugage
14 days ago

Populism is actually normalized by the people. The less you have studied, the more you vote for RN. This does not mean that the people is stupid or wrong, but that the elites have failed to share their cultural standards and values, which the more popular classes find too much a sophistication. For instance, you will hardly find any RN voter taking part in the Gay Pride, for instance, not because they dislike this fashionable cultural and half-popular demonstration for Human Rights, but because they don’t care a fig. Jordan Bardella can try to seem LGBT friendly without taking any risk.