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Far Right, En Marche

Immigration remains a flashpoint in France
Marine Le Pen stands at a lectern with the French flag waving in the wind to her right.

Michel Houllebecq’s novel Soumission (Submission) was a preordained succès de scandale upon its publication in 2015. The narrator is a disengaged and disenchanted French scholar, a lonely sad sack not unlike Houellebecq, who spends his days teaching literature, nights watching porn, and when he can work up the energy, sleeping with his students. A dreary and dismal tale, but hardly the stuff of public debate.

Yet critics were scandalized less because of the protagonist’s character than the novel’s backdrop. Set during the presidential election in 2022, France faces a political crisis. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the radical right-wing National Front, seems fated to win against a fragmented republican opposition. In desperation, both conservatives and socialists form a popular front with a moderate (and make-believe) Muslim party. When the coalition wins, the Muslim party’s leader becomes president. To everyone’s surprise, but also submission, he begins to transform, with little opposition, the French republic into a reborn caliphate.

Of course, this did not come to pass in 2022. Not only is there is no serious Muslim political party in France, but also, while Le Pen did run for the presidency that year, she was defeated in her rematch against the incumbent centrist Emmanuel Macron. And yet now something else is coming to pass in France, a political transformation that is the mirror image of Houellebecq’s story. Rather than a dyspeptic fantasy, it is a dire possibility: a presidential election in 2027 in which the same radical right takes control of the French Republic because it has succeeded over time, like its fictitious Muslim counterpart, in convincing the French that it is a republican party comme les autres.

Home to the Assemblée Nationale, France’s lower legislative branch, the Palais Bourbon has been one of the principal sites for the making and unmaking of republics ever since 1789. In the aftermath of a dramatic vote last month—one in which the actual (and still radical) right party Rassemblement National, led by the real Marine Le Pen, played a pivotal role—it may be that France, currently on its fifth republic, is setting the stage for its successor. If so, it will be the first in which the revolutionary credo of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” will be made a mockery, if not made away with altogether.

On December 19, President Emmanuel Macron’s government passed a bill that had been presented to the 577 deputies of the Assembly that proposed several changes to the nation’s immigration laws. Among the changes are the introduction of an annual migrant quota, stripping French citizenship from dual nationals found guilty of homicide, and stringent restrictions placed on health, employment, and residential benefits for certain classes of foreigners. In addition, there was the dilution of the principle of jus soli that automatically bestows French citizenship to all those born on French soil. The children of non-French parents now need to make a formal request for citizenship between the ages of sixteen and eighteen.

The bill was the toxic product of a paralyzed legislature, a polarized nation, and a panicked president. In 2022’s national elections, Macron had won a second term as president, a rematch with Le Pen that ended in his favor, but by a dramatically reduced margin than in 2017. The results for his party, the centrist (and recently rebranded) Renaissance, were even worse. Even in a coalition with a couple of smaller parties, it won a relative but not absolute legislative majority. Macron’s party had been christened La République En Marche (The Republic on the Move) in 2017, but now it was neither on the move nor at the forefront of any apparent renaissance.

The immigration bill was the toxic product of a paralyzed legislature, a polarized nation, and a panicked president. 

This unprecedented situation was remaking the political landscape. The long-established division between right- and left-wing forces had collapsed along with the electoral fortunes of the traditional conservative party, Les Républicains, and the Socialist Party and Gaullist splintered into three political groupings. With the opening of the new legislature, there now sat on the left side of the chamber a coalition led by the extreme left-wing La France Insoumise (Defiant France), while on the opposing side was Le Pen’s party, the extreme right-wing National Rally, which won a jaw-dropping eighty-nine seats.

The one thing these formations shared was their detestation of Emmanuel Macron, a sentiment that deepened with his government’s repeated use of Article 49.3, a constitutional provision that allowed them to pass bills—like last year’s controversial pension reform which increased the retirement age by two years—without a vote. Reluctant to again invoke 49.3 on yet another issue that increasingly divides the country, then–prime minister Élisabeth Borne turned to the Républicains, which held enough seats to help pass the bill, to hammer out a compromise.

But it turned out that the hammer was wielded by the Républicains, shattering what remained of Renaissance’s political and moral legitimacy. The former, desperate to recover a base that has been gravitating toward Le Pen’s party, demanded these new changes in return for their parliamentary support. The latter, no less desperate to avoid the embarrassment of withdrawing the bill, conceded nearly all the demands. As the deputies cast their votes, the outcome soon became clear. Members of the left-wing coalition began to shout the vote was “shameful,” while others, waving signs that read Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, launched into “La Marseillaise.”

At the other end of the chamber, National Rally deputies also began singing the national anthem, but unlike their opponents, they showed wide smiles. After the vote, Marine Le Pen, also wearing a smile, met with the French press. The passage of the immigration bill, she declared, represented a “great ideological victory” for her party.

Who could disagree? Even Macron’s own party, it turned out, could not. Twenty Renaissance deputies chose to vote against the bill, while another seventeen abstained. “We need a new immigration bill,” declared one dissenter, “but not one at any price, and especially not one that repudiates who we are.” With a bit more economy, another dissenter remarked, “It’s enough to not vote for a text,” observed another, “if the National Rally is bellowing that it’s an ideological victory.”

On the one hand, the vote was shocking. First, it undermined a principle of citizenship whose roots dig deeply into the soil of France’s revolutionary tradition and enlightened ideals. As Jean-Lambert Tallien, one of those revolutionaries, declared, “The only foreigners in France are bad citizens.” Rather than exclusively or primarily a matter of bloodlines, citizenship was a matter of ideals. Who would not wish to be part of a nation that embodied the values of 1789? This distinctive conviction, remarked the historian Rogers Brubaker, was grounded “in a sense of the grandeur of France, the assimilatory virtues of French territory and institutions, and the universal appeal and validity of French language and civilization.”

This helps explain why, on the other hand, the vote was not surprising. At both ends of the French ideological spectrum, these earlier ideals are not so much distinctive as they are delusional. The leader of Defiant France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has become a tribune for youths, often living in the suburbs of Paris and other cities and whose parents migrated from North Africa, who feel scorned or ignored by most parties and institutions. (Except, that is, when they periodically riot in the wake of repeated instances of police violence.)

When Marine Le Pen inherited the movement in 2011, she understood that if the FN was to have a viable political future, it had to break with its vile ideological past.

At the other extreme, Marine Le Pen represents a party that, upon its founding half a century ago by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, was a sewer for apologists for Vichy (France’s wartime authoritarian and anti-Semitic government), members of the underground resistance to Algerian independence, and assorted ex-collaborators with Nazi Germany. Predictably, anti-republican and anti-Semitic sentiments were commonplace and often espoused by the elder Le Pen. Most notoriously, he continues to insist that the gas chambers at Auschwitz amount to “a detail of history”—a claim that keeps landing him in court.

When Marine Le Pen inherited the movement in 2011, she understood that if the FN was to have a viable political future, it had to break with its vile ideological past. She thus began to exorcise the most embarrassing elements from the party, a process known as “dédiabolisation,” or “de-demonization.” She purged the more sordid elements from the party—including, in 2015, her own father—declared that Auschwitz was the “height of barbarism (summum de la barbarie),” and renamed the party the National Rally (Rassemblement National, or RN), which is literally less confrontational than the National Front. Moreover, Le Pen performed a volte-face on the euro—having vowed to return France to the franc, she bowed to public opinion overwhelmingly in favor of the European currency—as well as affirmed her attachment to the Republic and its institutions.

While she lost in two successive presidential elections to Macron, Le Pen’s efforts were not fruitless: in the legislative elections that followed the 2022 presidential race, she succeeded in transforming her father’s fringe movement into the largest opposition party in the National Assembly. Not only has the RN’s numerical weight earned it key posts in the daily workings of the assembly, but it is also strictly following the rules of decorum. When the newly elected legislature took their seats last July, the RN deputies made their entrance in ties and jackets. At the opposite end, meanwhile, several members of Defiant France were garbed in open-necked shirts and open-toed sandals. When several conservative deputies declared they were shocked—shocked!—by this act of sartorial insolence, several female deputies from Defiant France showed up at the next session wearing ties and jackets.

And yet, if clothes make the man, they do not necessarily remake his morals. In response to last fall’s explosive surge in anti-Semitic acts in France, protest marches were held across France in mid-November. Shortly before the Paris march, which Le Pen announced she would attend, the party’s President Jordan Bardella insisted in an interview that while describing the Holocaust as a “detail of history” was an unfortunate turn of phrase, the elder Le Pen was not anti-Semitic. Bardella’s maladroit phrase, which he tried to walk back, reinforced the decision by the other parties to form a “republican front”—i.e., sanitary barrier—against the RN by refusing to march in its vicinity.

What should we make of a party that not very long ago seemed destined to remain on the margins and now seems poised to go mainstream? One way to answer this question is by looking at recent opinion surveys. An OpinionWay poll taken shortly after the vote on the immigration law revealed that Le Pen was the big winner: 43 percent of respondents declared she was the beneficiary of the new law, overwhelming both Macron, who trailed at 11 percent, and Mélenchon, barely registering a pulse at 2 percent. According to another December poll published by Odoxa, the National Rally is lapping other parties in anticipation of this summer’s European elections, claiming more than 30 percent of those who intend to vote, while no party on the left, including Defiant France, attracted more than 10 percent of intentions.

Most troubling, perhaps, was yet another survey undertaken by the left-wing newspaper Le Monde and released in December. For the first time in forty years, more respondents than not (45 versus 41 percent) did not believe that the RN “represented a danger for French democracy.” At the same time, more respondents than not were open to the prospect of the RN’s participation in a government (43 percent versus 39 percent.) Pounding at the tocsin, an accompanying front-page editorial lambasted the public’s “apathy” towards this threat, one which results in “the unnerving feeling that Le Pen’s march to power is ineluctable.”

A poll suggested that for the first time the French public did not believe that Le Pen’s party “represented a danger for French democracy.”

Another way to approach the question is to examine the mechanics behind what the political scientist Jean-Yves Camus calls the “notabilization” or respectability of the RN. (In nineteenth century France, “les notables” were the men—for they were always men—who represented the economic, political, and moral pillars of their community.) To become “notable” is more, Camus argues, than a matter of knotting a tie before leaving for the Palais Bourbon. No less importantly, it is a matter of knotting a tie before leaving for the sets of cable and television news stations. RN representatives, Camus notes, have become fixtures not just in the national media but also the many regional stations. The French, he observes, are “steeping” in this new mediatic brew, one that makes the RN taste and smell like the other parties.

The party’s claim for respectability was reinforced last November when the iconic public figure Serge Klarsfeld, the famed Nazi hunter and Holocaust historian, welcomed the RN’s presence in the march against anti-Semitism. As recently as the run-up to the 2022 elections, Klarsfeld signed an open letter published in the left-wing newspaper Libération, titled “No to Le Pen, the daughter of racism and anti-Semitism.” Lambasting her politics of exclusion and racism, the letter warned readers, “Don’t be fooled: she has not changed.” And yet, when Le Pen joined the march against anti-Semitism in Paris, Klarsfeld applauded her presence. In an interview in Le Figaro, he accused the extreme left of abandoning the fight against anti-Semitism. But he said of the RN: “We have seen that it has many decent people.” As for Le Pen, Klarsfeld was equally emphatic. Not only has she “affirmed her solidarity with French Jews,” but more important, “in difficult times one needs allies.”

Sudden allies for some, increasingly anodyne for others: voilà the party founded fifty years ago by Jean-Marie Le Pen. But here’s the rub: it is a party that remains attached to the exclusionary and plebiscitary goals. This darkness was made visible in the immigration law by denying access to essential services for unemployed foreigners—a dramatic shift in the direction of Le Pen’s long-cherished goal of establishing the rule of “national preference” for French citizens.

Moreover, the vote has also cleared the ground for the RN’s next battle: altering the Constitution to allow for the practice of referendums. At first glance, this hardly seems to be worrisome. If only at the state and municipal levels, Americans have long been accustomed to the presence of referenda on countless billboards and ballots. But referendums assume a very different resonance in France. From the early nineteenth century and Napoleon Bonaparte through the mid-nineteenth century and his nephew Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte and even to the mid-twentieth century and Charles de Gaulle, the plebiscite has long been the tool of authoritarian or illiberal rulers in France. Le Pen’s vow, should she become president in 2027, to introduce referenda on issues ranging from immigration to national preference should still have the power to shock, if not Houellebecq, at least the rest of us.