A survey published by French newspaper Le Figaro on Oct. 2 opened a debate in France about the role of the National Front, the country's largest nationalist party. According to the poll, 33 percent of French citizens would like to see party leader Marine Le Pen play a greater role in French politics in the future, giving her the third-highest such rating among French politicians after Interior Minister Manuel Valls (43 percent) and former President Nicolas Sarkozy (35 percent), and in line with the popularity of former Prime Minister Francois Fillon and International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde, who also each received 33 percent approval ratings. Most important, Le Pen's popularity is considerably above that of current President Francois Hollande, who only received a 23 percent approval rating in the poll.
Le Pen's rising popularity is significant for several reasons. First, it represents the continuation of a trend that began with the European crisis. In the first round of the presidential election in May 2012, Le Pen won 17.9 percent of the vote, the best performance ever seen by a National Front candidate. The party was particularly successful in northeastern and southeastern France, the regions with the highest levels of unemployment, confirming the pattern that has been seen elsewhere in Europe: The economic crisis is boosting the popularity of nationalist parties, especially among the unemployed and others who are particularly vulnerable to Europe's weakened economy.
The Roots of the National Front's Success
Moreover, the National Front's rising popularly indicates that the party has been successful in presenting itself as a "normal" party in France. The National Front was founded by Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, in the early 1970s. While the party enjoyed substantial popular support between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, Jean-Marie was a very polarizing figure. He minimized the Holocaust and was convicted several times on charges of racism or inciting racial hatred.
When Marine Le Pen took over leadership of the party in the late 2000s, she changed course. To improve the party's image in the mainstream media, she softened the party's rhetoric and got rid of its most controversial elements. For example, Le Pen maintained the party's stance opposing immigration, but she focused her criticism of immigrants on economic issues rather than racial terms. She also strongly rejected the National Front's qualification as a far-right party, asserting that the party does not have links with extremist or violent groups.
Le Pen began focusing more on other economic issues as well, sharpening her critique of globalization and defending protectionist policies. She strongly criticized the Schengen Agreement, the treaty that eliminated borders controls between EU members, and advocated for a French withdrawal from the eurozone. From her point of view, the European crisis has reinforced the National Front's denunciations of France's loss of sovereignty to the European Union.
The impact of the economic crisis on French political sentiments has been seen repeatedly in recent years. In late 2011 and early 2012, Sarkozy threatened to temporarily suspend France's participation in the Schengen Area, and French police targeted camps of Roma immigrants in Paris and other major cities. Currently, the Hollande government is dealing with internal frictions caused by the interior minister's statement that it is impossible for France to integrate the estimated 20,000 Roma living in France, and that some should be expelled. (These statements were criticized by left-wing members of the government.) Under both Sarkozy and Hollande, France has been one of the main countries opposing the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen Area.
In early September, former Prime Minister Francois Fillon from Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement party said that voting for the National Front could be acceptable in order to defeat Hollande's Socialist party. The statement was highly symbolic, since the National Front has traditionally been isolated in French politics and moderate parties have typically rejected cooperation with it.
Effects Across Europe
The political shifts in France have been mirrored elsewhere in Europe, with the economic crisis opening doors for nationalist parties across the Continent. Although each has different characteristics, such parties share three key elements. First, they tend to strongly criticize the political establishment and attract people who have become disenchanted with the traditional elites. Second, they reject various aspects of the process of EU integration (most commonly the free movement of people across borders and the common currency). Third, they are becoming increasingly successful at presenting themselves as acceptable alternatives to mainstream parties.
The recent increase of Euroskeptical and anti-immigration rhetoric in the British government can be partly explained by the rise in popularity of the U.K. Independence Party, which has vehemently criticized the country's loss of sovereignty to Brussels. In the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom combines strong anti-Muslim rhetoric with a demand for eurozone withdrawal. Even in Austria, the country with the lowest unemployment levels in the European Union, the anti-immigration Freedom Party is challenging the country's establishment.
These parties are not necessarily coordinating their actions, but the European crisis is creating some room for cooperation. In 2010, the National Front, the Freedom Party of Austria, the U.K. Independence Party, Belgium's Vlaams Belang and others created the European Alliance for Freedom. Earlier this year, Le Pen and Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders hinted that they might campaign together in the future.
In this context, the next battleground will be the European Parliament elections, scheduled for mid-2014. The vote is often seen as an important gauge of the popularity of national governments and often has domestic implications. Sweden, where the anti-immigration Swedish Democrats made it into parliament for the first time in 2010, and Hungary, where the anti-Roma Jobbik party remains strong, will also hold general elections in 2014, while municipal and local elections will be held elsewhere, including in France and the United Kingdom. Since unemployment will remain high and economic growth will remain weak in the eurozone next year, most nationalist parties can be expected to perform strongly.
In the short term, the consequences of the rise in popularity of nationalist parties will be seen primarily in how moderate parties adopt nationalist agendas. In the long run, nationalist parties could eventually access power, whether independently or in alliances with parties from the center-left and the center-right. Their ability to perform in the mainstream will be telling, since a large part of their popularity has been based on their staunch opposition to traditional elites. In any case, their efforts will focus on weakening the European Union's institutional foundations, particularly the free movement of people, goods and services across the Continent.