Sunday’s elections gave the French extreme-right party Front National the highest percentage of votes it ever achieved in a local election. With 26 percent of the votes, the Front National confirms that it is in the ascendant and its leader, Marine le Pen, stands well-positioned as a strong contender in France’s presidential elections in 2017. Should this be of concern mostly to the French, or do the Front National’s current and, possibly, future successes have implications for France’s partners and allies in Europe and beyond?
Less than two weeks after the deadly attacks in Paris against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, Marine le Pen, the leader of the Front National, enumerated in an op-ed in The New York Times a few of her party’s pet peeves: the Schengen Agreement that opened up borders within the European Union, French immigration policies, and her country’s “serious geopolitical incoherence” due to misguided foreign interventions and the influence of foreign countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia on French policy.
It is no coincidence that her condemnation of French foreign policy comes last, and focuses on a hotchpotch of elements almost as incoherent as the French policy it denounces. The Front National has built its constituency around domestic issues – security and immigration policy – first and foremost. Le Pen’s platform for the 2012 presidential election barely touches upon foreign policy issues, except in relation to the EU and to advocate for France pulling out of NATO’s integrated command. Front National voters were unlikely to be bothered by this oversight. A March 2014 poll showed that, compared with others, respondents who voted for Le Pen in 2012 were less prone to having conversations with relatives or colleagues on the foreign policy issues of the moment than domestic ones.
Yet, the Front National is not entirely silent on foreign policy. Le Pen’s commitments for the 2012 election included, at the bottom of the list, the ambition to “Restore France’s diplomatic and military independence.” This statement – left unspecified in the program – might refer to her longtime call for a French withdrawal from NATO, the Qatar and Saudi Arabia claim, or her call for a more robust defense budget. “Independence” may also refer to a French policy detached from the EU and the United States, both of which are seen by Le Pen as threats to French sovereignty. The Front National has commonly described the EU as a conduit for the United States to impose its policy on Europe – the EU being the “poodle” of the United States, in the words of Le Pen’s niece, parliamentarian Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. French political leaders get described as semi-puppets who routinely give in to United States interests, whether on economic issues, the NSA eavesdropping scandal, France’s refusal to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, or the suspension of the delivery, in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, of two Mistral-class warships to Russia.
One corollary of the Front National’s anti-Atlanticist approach has been its engagement of Russia. From finding historical justifications for the Russian annexation of Crimea and endorsing the results of the March 16, 2014 referendum to fostering good relations with the Russian Ambassador in Paris, the Front National has taken a pro-Russian stance that contrasts sharply with the positions of the French government.
The Front National’s Russophilia is not new. Le Pen follows the same pro-Russia inclinations as her father, Front National founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. The Front National’s vision of Europe, described as a “free association of European states” in its 2012 program, includes Russia, who, it is argued, shares the same “European civilization” as France. As described by the party, Europe stretches from Brest to Vladivostok but strictly excludes Turkey. Le Pen and Vladimir Putin’s shared views cover a large range of issues, from non-intervention in Syria to opposing same-sex marriage. More generally, they find common grounds in a critique of NATO, the EU, and the United States, all seen as expansionist and aggressive entities keen on infringing upon the sovereignty of states.
So far, this move has received a warm welcome from Russia’s official circles. During a visit to Moscow in June 2013, Le Pen was received by Duma Chairman Sergey Naryshkin and Chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Duma Alexey Pushkov – in stark contrast with the general indifference that she was met with during her trip two years earlier to the United States. In April 2014, Vladimir Putin publicly expressed his satisfaction after Front National’s electoral success at French local elections and in December of that same year, a Russian bank agreed to loan $11.7 million to the party.
Can this pro-Russia stance go beyond posturing and have any impact on French policy? Chances are slim. Although the first round of local elections that took place on Sunday proved to be a success for the Front National, these results will have little to no impact foreign policy-wise. The impact would also be limited – albeit more significant – if the Front National did well at parliamentary elections scheduled for 2017. Foreign policy is seen traditionally as the personal turf (“domaine réservé”) of the president. Efforts have been made by recent presidents to increase the transparency of the foreign policy decision-making process and to create conditions for more involvement of Parliament in that area; yet, the general concept of a foreign policy largely directed by the president remains, particularly when it comes to military interventions.
This raises the question of whether Le Pen’s ambition of becoming president may ever come to fruition. This is not in the realm of the impossible. The Front National has been on a slow rise for decades. The party’s ability, in the first round of the 2002 presidential election, to defeat the Socialist Party and face incumbent President Jacques Chirac in the run-off was a watershed moment that made France and its neighbors realize that the Front National was not confined to the margins of French society and should be seen as a serious political force. The party successfully transitioned leaders, from Jean-Marie Le Pen to his daughter, in 2011, a not-inconsiderable feat considering that the Front National was largely built around the personality of its co-founder and leader of 39 years. Le Pen responded with electoral successes after her father’s disappointing results during the 2007 presidential elections, by winning 17.9 percent of votes in 2012 – higher than the Front National’s 2002 results, and the highest the party ever achieved in a national election. Polls for the next presidential election in 2017 have placed Le Pen in the lead no matter which one of three different Socialist candidates end up running against her. Whether out of genuine concern or in an attempt to galvanize voters before the upcoming local elections, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has publicly and repeatedly expressed his fear of the Front National’s rise, which he sees “on the threshold of power.”
The fact that Le Pen is polling well for the presidency does not make it likely she will win. In the French system, the two parties that gather the highest percentage of votes during the first round of the election get to compete in a second round. Back in 2002, the victory of Le Pen’s father in the first round of elections prompted almost all parties, whether from left or right, to unite and exhort their supporters to cast their votes against him. Jacques Chirac consequently won the second round of elections with a result – 82.2 percent – rarely seen in a democracy. A similar dynamic is likely to come into play if Le Pen makes it through the first round of the next presidential elections. It is so much expected, in fact, that French author Michel Houellebecq uses it as the starting point of his most recent book (and a best-seller in France) Soumission, which sees a Muslim elected president of France as the result of all parties trying to prevent a victory of Le Pen. The second round obstacle may not be insurmountable forever, as a recent poll suggests, but it will likely hold for a while.
It is also worth remembering that the Front National vote has long been described as a “protest vote,” suggesting that a number of its supporters cast their vote to express their discontent with mainstream political leaders rather than to give the Front National an opportunity to govern. Although it is unclear to what extent this “protest vote” is still of significance, this may have an impact on the most critical elections, such as the run-off to a presidential election.
A party prone to internal crises, the Front National can also be its own worst enemy. Le Pen’s efforts to make it more respectable are regularly derailed by personalities more in line with the Front National of the old days, such as the party’s foreign policy advisor Aymeric Chauprade, whose anti-Islam remarks recently caused Le Pen to distance herself from him. The Front National is also often undermined by its own contradictions: the party blames the EU for wasting taxpayers’ money, yet it is currently under investigation by the EU for allegations of fraud. The Front National is a party that was once best known for its leader’s declarations on Nazi death camps as a mere “detail of Second World War history.” Yet it now claims that Israel’s right to exist and security need to be guaranteed. The list is long of positions that the Front National, and its supporters, find difficult to reconcile.
Rather than worrying about Le Pen winning the French presidency, a more serious risk is the contagion of the Front National’s ideas to other parties, especially with these ideas gaining greater currency among the French electorate. Temptation may also be high, for some political parties, to build tactical alliances with the Front National, which may require embracing some of its positions. Foreign policy issues, however, are not what other parties are likely willing to borrow from the Front National, since they are the least likely to sway voters. Further, mainstream parties have little appetite for a pro-Russian stance that would isolate them from the rest of Europe. The Front National’s anti-American stance, too, may be a hard sell, especially when the main right-wing party, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, is led by Nicolas Sarkozy, under whose presidency France rejoined NATO’s integrated command.
It remains to be seen whether mainstream parties embracing some of the Front National’s ideas would embolden the extreme right, by giving more resonance to its ideas, or would weaken it by stealing its thunder. In any case, this battle for ideas is unlikely to take place on foreign policy matters.
Stephanie Pezard is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
Photo credit: Blandine Le Cain