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The French Right’s cordon sanitaire is breaking down

Eric Ciotti and Jordan Bardella together in Paris earlier this week. Credit: Getty

June 22, 2024 - 1:00pm

This week Jordan Bardella of the Rassemblement National and Eric Ciotti, leader of the conservative Les Républicains, appeared together, sitting comfortably side by side as they addressed MEDEF, France’s largest employer federation (and a notable lobby group for business interests).

Apart from some disagreement over retirement reform — Bardella supports retirement at 60 for those who started their career before the age of 20, whereas Ciotti is a committed supporter of raising the retirement age to 65 — the content of the appearance itself was relatively harmonious. For the most part, it was just two Right-wing politicians talking to business leaders about tax cuts. However, the very fact that the pair appeared jointly on stage represents a historic shift, and is evidence of a convergence on the French Right.

Ciotti agreed to ally his ailing centre-right party with the RN when Macron dissolved parliament earlier this month in a move that saw half his party try to oust him immediately. For the moment, at least, he appears to have survived. What the alliance marks the end of depends on who you ask. For the Left, it’s the end of the “republican front” in which everyone sought to block out the hard-Right. For the centre-right, it’s the end of the “cordon sanitaire” which previously kept the hard-Right at arm’s length.

For a lot of the Right, however, the alliance represents the end of the “Mitterand trap”, referring to Left-wing former president François Mitterrand’s supposed preference for having the National Front (as the RN was called until 2018) as his opponents. This was demonstrated by Mitterand’s introduction of proportional representation in 1985, which allowed the National Front into parliament and forced the Right into permanent disunity as Gaullists refused to work with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s party.

But how did this united front against the Le Pen clan collapse?

Marine Le Pen has long embarked on a strategy of “de-demonisation”, attempting to shake off the stigma of her father by softening the party’s image and changing its name. The appointment of Bardella has accelerated this process, as the TikTok-friendly 28-year-old has helped consolidate the party’s youth vote and alter the perceptions of voters who no longer regard the RN as a party of elderly racists. Following the success of 2017, when she made it into the second round of the presidential election on a welfarist and Eurosceptic platform on the advice of former National Front politician Florian Philippot, Le Pen has since prepared for government by toning down these stances, focusing instead on a more business-friendly line of some national protectionism.

On the other side of this equation, Ciotti represents the coming to terms of Les Républicains with their junior status. The moderates fled to Macron and couldn’t be won back by Valérie Pécresse in the 2022 election. The working-class parts of the centre-right base had long since departed to Le Pen, and some of the upper-middle-class hardline conservatives even bled out to Éric Zemmour’s Reconquête.

Ciotti’s positions on culture, immigration and security are separated from Bardella’s by a cigarette paper. Ciotti believes in the Great Replacement Theory, supports abolition of “right of soil” (meaning people born on French territory to non-French parents would not get automatic citizenship), has called for the addition of 100,000 more prison places, and was an opponent of gay marriage. Les Républicains’ lurch to the Right on cultural and social questions and the RN’s moderation on economic ones, combined with LR’s electoral failings and the prospect of a (relatively) united Left, have provided fertile soil for the Right-wing convergence we see today. Typhanie Degois, a former Macronist MP who recently defected to LR, described the unity as a project “to restore order in both the streets and the public accounts”.

This convergence is evident beyond the parties, as businesses are clamouring for access to Le Pen. Reportedly, parts of the influential Dassault family which owns Le Figaro are ready to take the plunge and support the RN.

For the moment, Zemmour remains out in the cold following the expulsion of Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal from his party for suggesting Reconquête shouldn’t field candidates against the RN. Bardella apparently does not want Zemmour with him, for fear of alienating wavering voters, but this may only prove temporary. A conversation I had with one of Reconquête’s remaining candidates suggested that their standing at all was essentially out of wounded pride and a desire not to lay down and die. She added that their dissidence extends only to the first round of voting. That is to say, there will likely be yet more convergence in the run-off races to come.


Olly Haynes is a freelance journalist covering politics, culture and the environment

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
29 days ago

Ciotti is only belatedly following where his former voters have already moved. Its a bit rich to hear complaints about the centre right getting into bed with the RN, when the left has united in formal alliance with anti-semites, apologists for Islamist terrorism, and literal Communists.

Graham Bennett
Graham Bennett
28 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Yes, but because the Left always position themselves in relation to a teleology of ‘progress’ (i.e., a moving ‘forward’ towards utopia), they believe that whoever they side with, for whatever reason, is always justified. Afterall, aren’t they the agents of ‘justice’? But whose ‘progress’, whose ‘justice’, is the question. Their erstwhile figurehead, Lenin, had answers for that. This is why we should fear the hard Left. The idea that humanity ‘moves’ in any direction is a myth.

Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
28 days ago

I’m relieved at this new development. I’d rather see a Rally National/Republican alliance than a Rally National/Reconquete one.

ERIC PERBET
ERIC PERBET
28 days ago

The word “theology” is indeed of paramount importance here: the French left is definitely functioning like a Godless religion (or should I say a cult?) and does not think it has rational political opponents but evil enemies / apostates. No wonder the far-Left has been mor than willing to associate with Muslim Brotherhood activists in some “banlieues” constituencies: they share the same anti-Western values and a similar longing for “purity”.
The Left (and actually all of us) should just remember what happened to the Khomeiny-supporting Iranian Communists way back in 1979…

Michael Clarke
Michael Clarke
28 days ago

We will find out next Sunday.