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Jan 3, 2013 | 11:03 GMT

8 mins read

France: The Growing Popularity of Nationalism?

France: The Growing Popularity of Nationalism?

Nationalism is a strong force in French politics, and the ongoing European crisis may be nurturing its growth. The National Front, which represents French nationalism politically, fared better in the most recent presidential election than in previous ones. Central to the party's platform is the notion that immigration is a threat to national identity and that the European Union has weakened the French economy. With high rates of immigration and with the European Union integrating further, the ideals espoused by the National Front may appear even more valid in the eyes of French voters.

Already mainstream political parties are adopting some aspects of the National Front's platform to reflect the party's growing popularity. But becoming a widely accepted party in the French political establishment will prove difficult in a system that disfavors fringe groups. 

Of course, French nationalism is nothing new — it dates back to the French Revolution — but it has changed substantially over time. At its inception, French nationalism was a more liberal form of nationalism; it advocated freedom, equality and individual rights. Then after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), French nationalists took an anti-German tone, demanding the recovery of territories lost in the war.

By the late 19th century, French nationalism evolved further, with one branch becoming more ethnocentric and anti-Semitic — especially after the "Dreyfus affair," when a French Jewish artillery officer was accused of treason. In the interwar period, this iteration of nationalism adopted fascist and anti-communist elements and came to resemble some of the nationalist ideologies of Spain, Italy and Germany.

This trend of nationalism peaked from 1940 to 1944 under the Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime. In postwar France, various political parties that defended the Vichy regime participated in the presidential elections of the 1950s and 1960s with little electoral success.

For the past three decades, nationalism in France has revolved around the National Front — one of the most paradigmatic and successful parties of its kind in Europe. The party was founded in the early 1970s by Jean-Marie Le Pen. Originally, the National Front was a mix of anti-Semitic ideas, Catholic fundamentalism and defense of Vichy France. In this form, the party received very little political support.

But since the mid-1980s, the National Front has changed its political strategy, focusing increasingly on issues related to immigration and law and order. As a result, it has received more than 10 percent of the votes in every presidential election since 1986.

Profiling the National Front

In broad terms, the National Front's current platform has four main tenets. First, the party believes immigrants, particularly Muslims, threaten the French national identity and the French economy. Like other far-right parties in Europe, the National Front believes that multiculturalism has failed and that France's traditional secularism has been jeopardized by the influx of immigrants — again, particularly, Muslims.

France is the third most popular destination country for immigrants in Europe. A significant portion of these immigrants hails from the former French colonies of Algeria and Morocco. Accordingly, France has one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe at roughly 8 percent. Immigration patterns and the relatively high fertility rate among Muslims in France suggest that Muslims will account for 22 percent of the overall French population by 2050.

France is also a preferred destination for Central and Eastern European immigrants. Among these immigrants are low-skilled workers, who sometimes compete for jobs with native French workers, and ethnic Roma, who often live in illegal settlements on the outskirts of major French cities.

Notably, the National Front is not the only group to exclude or reject minorities. Other groups include neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-immigration organizations. Some 3,000 people are believed to be involved in these groups, which are known to threaten French Jews and Muslims and to vandalize their property. Less frequently, they have been known to attack immigrants physically and to damage synagogues and mosques. Far-right groups have also targeted Roma settlements.

A second aspect of the National Front's political platform is the upholding of French law and order. The party advocates a zero-tolerance stance against crime and the strengthening of law enforcement. At various times in its campaign, the party has also linked crime with the presence of immigrants, especially Roma.

A third aspect is the defense of the French welfare state and of national industry. This is a relatively new development that illustrates how the party has changed over time. Originally, the National Front criticized high taxes, state intervention and an expanded bureaucracy in France. But after the Cold War ended, the National Front revamped its platform to highlight economic protectionism and to criticize globalization.

France: The Growing Popularity of Nationalism?

National Front Electoral Performance

Whereas its Cold War rhetoric revolved around the enmity between Communism and freedom — the National Front was strongly anti-Communist — the party's ideology now focuses on the contradiction between globalization and the role of the national state. Indeed, the National Front believes the financial and migratory aspects of globalization are destroying jobs and threatening the French welfare state. A similar evolution is taking place elsewhere in Europe, specifically in Nordic countries. In this context, the National Front does not align completely with the far-right movement; it is gradually changing into a nationalist and populist party.

The National Front's aversion to globalization dovetails into the fourth important aspect of its political platform: criticism of the European Union. The party has advocated French withdrawal from the eurozone and the return to the French franc. It is also against the Schengen Agreement, which allows the free movement of people within the European Union, as well Turkey's EU accession.

Like other far-right parties in Europe, the National Front has a strong anti-establishment position. The party presents itself as the representative of "ordinary people" rather than of the traditional elite. Members of the working class and the unemployed, especially those in the areas most affected by deindustrialization, account for much of the party's constituency

The European crisis has allowed the National Front to strengthen its populist narrative. The party criticizes traditional French politicians for having failed to protect France from the crisis, and it proposes to protect domestic industry by re-establishing custom tariffs within Europe and restricting the arrival of foreign workers.

Electoral Possibilities and Limitations

Like other nationalist parties in Central and Northern Europe, the National Front is looking to expand its electoral base by improving its public image. In recent years, the National Front has softened its anti-immigration message, but only marginally; it now criticizes foreigners on an economic basis rather than a racial basis.

This strategy continued in 2011, when Marine Le Pen replaced her father as party leader. Under Marine, the party has improved its image in the eyes of the media and voters, and it has sought to distance itself from its more extreme members, expelling those linked to neo-Nazi groups.

The party benefited from the makeover. In the 2012 presidential elections — the first elections with Marine as the party candidate — the National Front performed better than ever before by earning 17.9 percent of the popular vote. This is likely due in part to the fact that anti-European rhetoric and calls for greater economic protectionism are becoming increasingly popular among the French. While France's traditional parties remain pro-European, the National Front could benefit from its anti-EU stance by attracting more voters who are suffering the consequences of the European crisis.

Meanwhile, traditional parties have adopted some of the themes that characterize the National Front. During his presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy initiated a debate on the presence of Muslim immigrants in France. Sarkozy also called for greater protection of European industry (he pushed for a "Buy European" act) and questioned the Schengen Agreement. All these decisions show that the National Front's rhetoric is popular among some portions of the French electorate. As these positions are adopted, they legitimize the National Front and help it to be perceived as a more mainstream party.

Consequently, the National Front has space to continue growing, especially as the European crisis draws out. However, the party also faces limits. Specifically, the French electoral system works against the National Front. In France, the presidential and legislative elections take place in two rounds, and only the two most voted-for parties advance to the second round. This has left the National Front without significant representation in parliament. In fact, in its forty-year history, the party has only sent a handful of lawmakers to the National Assembly.

Moreover, the National Front is relatively isolated in the French political system. Traditional parties refuse to form alliances with the National Front, especially at the national level. And despite some of its newfound success, the party is highly unpopular with large sections of French society. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen entered the second round of the presidential elections. In response, those from the center, the center-left and the left overwhelmingly voted for Jacques Chirac, who received 82 percent of the vote.

Last, the National Front will find it increasingly difficult to balance its role as an anti-establishment party with its desire to broaden its electoral base. The fact that the party centers on the Le Pen family may also hinder broad-based support.

In this context, tensions between nationalist groups and immigrant populations probably will increase in the coming years. Furthermore, nationalists' views, especially those pertaining to integration and globalization, may gain credibility as the European crisis drags on. These two trends will provide room for electoral growth for nationalist parties, especially if they successfully soften their public image. But even if French nationalism fails to achieve greater representation, the traditional parties will probably incorporate the themes of the extreme right to their agendas — a development already under way in other European countries.

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