How France’s Mainstream Normalized the Far Right
2022 04 22
Marine Le Pen is often credited with mainstreaming her far-right party. But it isn’t just that she’s moderated its positions — it’s that the radicalization of establishment conservatives has made her seem less extreme by comparison.
The first round of France’s presidential elections cleared the dust of an intense campaign: ultimately, as the polls had promised for years, Emmanuel Macron will again face Marine Le Pen in this Sunday’s runoff vote. As in 2017, the first round produced a close race, with the radical left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon less than 1 percent behind his far-right rival Le Pen. But even a surprise breakthrough for Mélenchon would not have concealed a major development: never has the far right been so electorally powerful in France. Beyond the conflict between the rival strategies of Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, discussed previously at Jacobin, this mainstreaming of far-right forces also owes to a radicalization of the wider political field.
In this article, I will start by discussing the radicalization of the mainstream-conservative Les Républicains (LR). One of postwar France’s two main parties, its base is today divided between Macron and the far right. Here, I will explain how successive French governments, particularly since Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency from 2007–12, have enabled and contributed to a mainstreaming of such forces’ ideology. In this sense, we can also see that Le Pen and Zemmour’s rival strategies and candidacies are also complementary. While competition may undermine their short-term chances, it benefits the spread of far-right ideas in the long run.
While Zemmour’s campaign initially weakened Le Pen’s hegemony over the far right, the party which suffered the most from his bid was undoubtedly LR. Its candidate Valérie Pécresse hit a historic low, on less than 5 percent support — humiliatingly falling short of the threshold for getting her campaign costs reimbursed.
The center-right party, in different guises, the dominant player of the Fifth Republic created in 1958, is now torn in two opposite directions. On the one hand, Macron’s hegemony over the center and his increasingly right-wing policies during his presidency have attracted a substantial share of not only LR voters but also of its key figures. In spite of his promise ahead of the 2017 election to transcend the left/right cleavage, Macron offered the Right the lion’s share of control in his governments by appointing former LR members to the most prominent roles such as prime minister (Édouard Philippe and then Jean Castex), economy minister (Bruno Le Maire), and interior minister (Gérald Darmanin). This has forced LR to shift further to the Right to remain a distinctive political offer, emphasizing its conservatism while progressively abandoning its liberalism.
On the other hand, LR has been forced to reassert its difference with Le Pen’s increasingly normalized Rassemblement National (RN) and to defend the imperviousness of its boundary with the far right. While Le Pen never managed to breach this boundary, Zemmour and his open call for the “union des droites” (union of the right-wings) has shown its fragility.
During the campaign, Zemmour only managed to attract one prominent figure from LR, its former deputy leader Guillaume Peltier. His loss has been played down by his peers given that his political journey started in the youth section of the Front National (FN) and later with former leading cadre Bruno Mégret. But outside of party defections, the influence of far-right ideology can be felt deep within LR, as demonstrated by the success of Éric Ciotti, who led the party’s primary before ultimately being defeated by Pécresse and a coalition of moderates. Ciotti, who explicitly called Zemmour “a friend,” has embraced most of the themes of the far right, from defense of “Christian civilization” to criticism of “mass immigration.” His second place in the primary forced the more centrist Pécresse to shift her program further to the Right to accommodate her popular rival.
From Sarkozy to Macron
While this mainstreaming of the far right is thus the result of years of normalization from the Le Pen camp and of the resilience of the “union of the right-wings” strategy, which Zemmour now embodies, it also owes much to other politicians and parties who have progressively adopted the themes and vocabulary of the far-right. Indeed, since the 1980s, mainstream parties have offered increased visibility to xenophobic rhetoric, either by implicitly acknowledging that the far right offers “bad answers to good questions,” as Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius put it in 1984, or by explicitly adopting it, like Jacques Chirac did in 1991 as he mocked the “noise and smell” of immigrant families during his tenure as mayor of Paris.
The major turning point in this mainstreaming was, however, Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency. His 2007 campaign substantially legitimized the far right’s agenda by adopting its hard stance on security and immigration. While it temporarily neutralized the far right’s vote, it set off the conservative right on a slippery slope by giving increased visibility to such forces’ ideology. Sarkozy’s position — promoted by his influential advisor Patrick Buisson, who later joined Zemmour’s team — encouraged the emergence of strands within LR such as “la droite forte” (the strong right) or “la droite décomplexée” (the uninhibited right).
The influence of this hard line within LR has increased over the years, as Sarkozy acquired an aura as a model to aspire to, as the most recent president from his party. Unsurprisingly, in an attempt to ensure the electorate of her “pro-security” credentials, Pécresse’s 2022 campaign spoke of “bringing back the Kärcher” — a reference to Sarkozy’s memorable 2005 promise to “clean the French suburbs with a Kärcher,” referring to a type of pressure washer.
Beyond LR, this mainstreaming of far-right themes has progressed under Socialist and liberal governments. In 2015, the shock of the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan terror attacks encouraged then-president François Hollande to grant a prominent role to security, patriotism, and identity. This was most visible in the rise of Manuel Valls, a figure on the right of the Socialist Party (PS), nominated as Hollande’s interior minister and later prime minister. He defended a controversial bill whereby terrorist suspects could be stripped of their citizenship (“déchéance de nationalité”), creating a rift in PS ranks as it demonstrated the increasing power of far-right ideas even on the mainstream center-left.
Albeit elected on a promise of calming tensions, Macron followed a similar pattern of mainstreaming the far right with the nomination of Gérald Darmanin, a former protégé of Sarkozy, as interior minister. Darmanin made headlines for accusing Le Pen of having grown “a little soft on Islam” in February 2021, as she conceded that she herself could have written his book called “Le Séparatisme islamiste” (“Islamist separatism”).
It is worth dwelling on the central importance Macron’s government attributed to this fight against Islamic “separatismm,” a euphemistic reinterpretation of the far right concept of “communautarism” which implies that Muslim people voluntarily refuse to be part of the French society and remain secluded within their community. For this also proves that this mainstreaming goes beyond Darmanin alone. Even though Macron himself has carefully avoided employing far-right rhetoric, the members of his government have not.
In March 2021, higher education minister Frédérique Vidal accused French academia of being “plagued by Islamo-Leftism,” a far-right conspiratorial term alleging that left-wing intellectuals and politicians are complacent about radical Islam. In January 2022, this argument was pushed even further by Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, who organized a pseudo-academic colloquium on “wokisme.” This bogeyman “ideology,” which originated in far-right circles, conflates a heterogeneous set of phenomena and concepts — intersectionality, cancel culture, inclusive writing, and gender deconstruction — deemed threatening to French universalism.
Despite his claims that he has never “banalized” its ideas, Macron thus followed in a long line of French politicians who enabled the far right by simultaneously claiming to fight them and legitimizing their talking points. It is useful for Macron to cast himself as the only alternative to fascism: it silences internal debates within his camp and completely sidelines left-wing alternatives from public debate. This led to an incremental rightward shift in the “Overton window” of French politics, with once-unthinkable or taboo ideas becoming acceptable through successive exposure and normalization in the public debate. Understood in this light, the electoral popularity of Le Pen and Zemmour is only the most visible symptom of a much deeper mainstreaming of the far right.
More Similarities Than Differences
In two previous articles, I explored the background and current position of the two most prominent far-right figures in 2022, Le Pen and Zemmour. Contrasting their ideology and style offers multiple lessons about what they stand for and where they differ. Although I have emphasized their differences to develop a nuanced perspective on their current success, it is important to reassert how much overlap there is between them, both ideologically and stylistically.
Ideologically, even though Le Pen softened her stance and introduced a number of social policies to her agenda, both politicians remain deeply committed to the core tenets of exclusionary nationalism: the primacy of the interests of the French nation over everything else, a closed definition of who belongs to the nation (even if Le Pen shifted more toward cultural criteria than Zemmour, whose vision is explicitly ethnic), a promise to drastically limit immigration, the strengthening of the privileges of French citizens over their foreign counterparts, a tough stance on security issues, and a commitment to a form of economic protectionism.
Stylistically, the three core features of the populist style explained in the previous articles helps illuminate the differences and similarities between the two candidates. In this academic approach, grounded in the works of Ernesto Laclau and Benjamin Moffitt, populism is understood as a political style, an open-ended repertoire of political performances relying on three main elements: 1) the articulation of politics as an antagonism between “the people,” embodied by a populist leader, and the elite; 2) the transgression of political norms to appear more authentic and subversive than other politicians; 3) the performative representation of society as undergoing a life-threatening crisis that requires urgent intervention.
Despite the different emphases that each of these three features has in their respective ways of doing politics, both Zemmour and Le Pen relied on all of them during their 2022 campaign. Indeed, it was noteworthy to see Zemmour introducing the people/elite antagonism to his rhetoric during his first campaign rally in Villepinte, where he directly mentioned the French people eighteen times and framed it in opposition with “the elite,” “the system,” and even an elusive “they,” mentioned fifty-two times, that “hate [Zemmour] because they hate you.”
Likewise, although Zemmour’s controversial claims made Le Pen’s own transgressions appear tame in comparison, she continued to break various political norms. In her first large rally in Reims, she used a highly emotional storytelling approach, depicting herself as the victim of “persecution” in her youth and as a resilient fighter. This appeal to the emotions — emphasizing how she had been betrayed by her niece Marion Maréchal and fellow party members who rallied to Zemmour — sought to provide her persona a more “authentic” twist. Moreover, her occasional use of informal expressions, as she did in a recent televised interview, demonstrates the development of a softer transgressive strategy; one which relies on Zemmour’s controversies to doing the symbolic heavy lifting, while she still stands out from other mainstream politicians.
From Rivalry to Complementarity
So, ultimately, Le Pen and Zemmour are playing the very same political game slightly differently. Outside of the short-term rivalry opposing them for this election — apparently a sign of divisions on the far right — they ultimately occupy complementary roles in popularizing its ideas, strengthening their camp in the long run.
The results of the first round saw Le Pen strengthened, asserting her dominance over Zemmour (23 and 7 percent, respectively). Their diverging scores partly owed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which tremendously increased the importance of foreign affairs to the campaign. While both were initially weakened by their more (Zemmour) or less (Le Pen) open support for Vladimir Putin’s autocratic presidency, they radically differed in their reaction to the situation.
Faithful to his reputation as an unwavering ideologue, Zemmour chose to remain committed to some of his praise for Putin and played down the Russian aggression. Le Pen was pragmatic, and gave a much more explicit condemnation of the Russian invasion, while sweeping under the rug her reliance on Russian funding for her 2017 campaign. Moreover, where Zemmour made the safe bet on the tried-and-tested themes of security and immigration, Le Pen wisely chose to diversify her profile by emphasizing her image as the candidate that will defend French people from increases in the cost of living.
But regardless of their relative fortunes, the fact that a far-right candidate once again reached the second round illustrates this political camp’s powerful electoral appeal. More than that, the far right’s real victory lies in its ability to have shaped the political agenda so profoundly. Although economic issues and foreign affairs imposed themselves, far-right themes of identity, security, and immigration have held an increasingly prominent role during this campaign, which forced other candidates to take a stand on these issues. Even in a period marked by urgent crises around the environment, economic inequality and public health, these themes have struggled to shape the political debate, faced with the dominance of the far-right narrative that the most urgent crisis France faces owes to immigration and the loss of sovereignty.
Equally telling was the fact that their political rivals explicitly used their concepts: Pécresse herself repeatedly mentioned the conspiracy theory of the “Great Replacement” and the notion of “Français de papier” (“paper French”) in her speeches. Even Macron himself increasingly shifted to the Right for his program — so much so that LR accused him of plagiarism — which shows the limits of attempting to sell a centrist program in a context of right-wing dominance. Electorally speaking, the divide between Le Pen’s “front populaire populiste” and Zemmour’s “union of the right-wings” are not so much opposed as complementary. In its own way, each of these strategies consolidates and extends the appeal of far-right ideas toward a different part of the electorate.
This is notably reflected geographically when considering the two main strongholds of the far right in France. On the one hand, many locations in the South of France support the traditionalist line embodied by Zemmour which aims to convince the bourgeois electorate of the conservative LR to join them on the promise of a stricter stance on security and Islam. On the other hand, Le Pen’s modernist line has proven most successful in the North-East of France and in some of the overseas territories, like Mayotte, where her appeal to working-class voters disappointed by the Socialist Party is grounded in a hybrid combination of social policies and a firm opposition to immigration.
While large cities remain the biggest hurdle for either line within the far right, this heterogenous combination of voters demonstrates the increasingly solid entrenchment of their ideas. As such, these combined forces constitute not only a challenge to the old mainstream parties, but also to the emerging challengers in French politics like Macron’s liberal La République en Marche or radical left parties like Mélenchon’s France Insoumise.
The main lesson of this campaign for those fighting for progressive, ecological, and socialist causes, is that its far-right enemies are no monolithic whole. Just like every other political camp, the far rght is a complex ecosystem with conflicting yet overlapping interests. It is essential to understand the current power dynamic in order to adjust responses and counterstrategies to whatever line currently holds more traction. Furthermore, to get a holistic perspective of the far right’s appeal, it is important to engage not only with what they say, but also how they say it. Ideology and style matter in politics — and we only get half of the story if either of these things is overlooked. Likewise, a successful counterstrategy must learn from both of these components and consider the form as well as the substance of its political offer.
Yet, even such a nuanced approach also has to contextualize actors like Le Pen and Zemmour within the wider developments in French politics. Situating them as part of a broader mainstreaming of their ideas helps understand that one cannot defeat the far-right electorally by emulating their ideas or letting its representatives dictate the political agenda. Even short-term electoral victories like the ones achieved by Sarkozy or Macron become long-term losses, as the political field is incrementally pushed to the Right, forcing politicians to constantly readjust their rhetoric accordingly.
If the Left wants to challenge the far right’s cultural hegemony in French public discourse, it needs to develop a relatable and engaging narrative of its own — and consider how it articulates it.