France: After 50 years, Le Pen’s party is more dangerous than ever

November 9, 2022
Jordan Bardella
Jordan Bardella, the new leader of France's far-right National Rally (RN) party. Image: Susan Price/Green Left

It has been a year in which the far-right threat across Europe has been getting ever worse. The recent electoral victories of the fascists in Italy, Hungary and Sweden, followed by the warm treatment of the fascist politicians by mainstream prime ministers and presidents, show that we are in for a long, hard struggle. Marine Le Pen’s party in France has had a series of successes and is hoping to build further in coming months. Determined opposition will be crucial.

Having obtained 13 million votes at the presidential elections, and getting 89 members of parliament in the legislative elections earlier this year (up from only eight MPs previously), Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) (named National Front until 2018) is on a frightening trajectory. Its 50th annual conference, in Paris on November 5, chose a new president to replace Le Pen. Jordan Bardella — while only 26 years old — is a nasty piece of work.

Bardella was brought up in the poorer suburbs of Paris, so is not a millionaire like the members of the Le Pen family, and he is hoping to bring the party a new and dynamic image. He was chosen by 85% of the party’s 37,000 members, and had already stood in as party president for the last year while Le Pen ran her election campaign. Bardella is known for denouncing gay marriage, and cultivating links with Italian far-right politician Matteo Salvini and Nazi currents in France such as Génération Identitaire.

His election does not signal a change in political strategy as such, and is certainly not a rejection of Le Pen, who remains the power behind the throne. She is almost certain to stand again at the presidential election in five years.

Bardella’s defeated opponent was Louis Alliot, who represented the possibility of moving closer to the traditional right-wing parties. However, since the National Rally was, for a few months last year, outflanked to its right by Eric Zemmour and his organisation Reconquest — which openly whines about the danger of the extinction of the “true French race” — Bardella is keen to keep the worst racists on board and strictly limit any further “mainstreaming”.

Bardella immediately set up a national committee containing only his close supporters, and including several members with links to small Nazi groupings. In his first speech, he called on people to resist “a France which is making French identity a dirty word”.

Always dressed in sharp suits, and skilled at public debate, Bardella has been enormously assisted in his rise by the mainstream media in France; invited to all the main talk shows to speak of his politics, his tastes and his personal life.

As the traditional parties of government of both left and right in France have collapsed over the past ten years, there has been a rise in popularity of proposals for far-reaching change. If the radical left France Insoumise represents a real success story so far — within an alliance that gained 8 million votes at the presidential election, and now has 151 MPs — many voters have turned to the far right, which has been relatively successful in persuading people that it has left its old Nazi ideology behind.

However, anyone who thinks RN are no longer racist scum really hasn’t been paying attention. Just recently their MPs proposed an amendment that would remove from any worker who does not have French nationality the right to vote for workplace representatives (a right that has existed since 1946). Meanwhile, two months ago in the city of Perpignan, the RN mayor pushed through a motion to rename a local square after Pierre Sergent, a far-right terrorist from the time of the Algerian war.

Racism in parliament

A racist incident in parliament this week is causing problems for RN’s claim to be a party like any other. While a Black MP, Carlos Bilongo Martens from the France Insoumise, was speaking of the need to help African immigrants in the Mediterranean, RN MP Grégoire de Fournas shouted out something which might have been: “They should go back to Africa!” (meaning the migrants) or “He should go back to Africa!” (meaning the Black MP who was born in France).

The two sentences are pronounced exactly the same in French and the ambiguity could well have been completely deliberate. De Fournas has a long history of racist comments. “If you want to see Black people you can go to Africa,” he tweeted in reply to a question about multi-ethnic neighbourhoods in his town. When speaking of refugees, he is known to refer to “invasions” and to compare refugees to rats.

De Fournas was suspended from parliament for two weeks and even a couple of RN MPs suggested he had gone too far for them. Nevertheless, mainstream media such as BFMTV promptly spent twice as much time interviewing de Fournas as they did Bilongo Martens.

Weak points of the fascists

If the electoral victories of the RN worry everyone on the left, the discussions at the RN conference show up its weak points, which can help us fight back. Even today, despite receiving  millions of votes, the RN party structure locally is very weak. The annual May demonstrations which the party used to organise were so unimpressive that they have not been held these past few years.

Conscious of their need to build up local structures, Bardella announced at the conference his intention to make a priority of “being present in the culture”. “We will be organising a lot of  debates, a lot of lectures,” he announced. Another leader Julien Sanchez declared: “We need to be more visible … we need to organise more public meetings and reach out to people”.

Such local events should be systematically confronted by broadly based counter-rallies or pickets. In the late 1990s, this tactic — which was called “democratic harassment” by the organisers — had some success, but more recently has only been visible in a few local initiatives. Last Saturday there was a counter-demonstration to the RN conference. It was called only a few days before, supported by local organisations, and attracted a couple of hundred people, but it was an essential start.

Stopping the fascists from building solid local party structures and events should be a major priority for the left. This means there is a need to argue against the more popular positions on the left that claim either that only revolutionaries can really fight fascism (and so do not try to broaden involvement), or that only by solving unemployment and poverty one can push back the RN, and no specific antifascist campaign is needed.

[John Mullen blogs at]

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