After the fall of the French empire, Charles de Gaulle gave foreign people in the colonies French citizenship or special status even though they did not live in France. As a result, 10% of France’s current population originated from a French colony. Recent French policies, such as the ban on wearing religious symbols, have aimed to uphold France’s secular constitution. However, an increasing number of French citizens want to preserve French secularity by rejecting cultures that do not fit into the current national consciousness. Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right National Front Party, has become the leader of this movement and is against the absorption of Islam into French culture, stating that they are incompatible. A classic populist, Le Pen believes that only having one cultural religion in France would enable the country to move forward in one direction without political gridlock. Even though a portion of French culture is built on immigration and connections with the world, Le Pen’s version of secularism means isolation.
Ever since the National Front was founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father, the Party has been associated with anti-semitism, xenophobia, and reactionary policies. Most French parties refuse to work with the National Front, limiting its expansion. Supporters of the National Front are traditionally male blue collar workers. In 2011, Marine Le Pen took control of the party in an effort to appeal to moderate voters. Since the National Front has gained more support, the French political center shifted rightward.
Marine Le Pen is a strong articulate speaker who can easily convey her views to the people. Le Pen knows that the effects of the propaganda are most important, not the facts. Populism relies on assumptions and denial; many voters reject long analyses, preferring to read forceful headlines. For example, Le Pen blurs the line between Islam and Islamic terrorists. She establishes a fear among the French people that all Muslims are connected to terrorists, which is not true. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris strengthen her arguments. Le Pen rejects that there is anything radical about her party today, but has compared French Muslims praying on French streets to Nazi occupation.
Le Pen’s leadership is similar to that of the growing list of populist leaders in the world. She met Vladimir Putin in Moscow and supported the annexation of Crimea. Le Pen maintains that she puts French citizens first by cutting connections with the outside world, a reactionary policy to recapture past economic success. She has proposed policies that shun global companies in an attempt to grow the national economy. Le Pen also wants to leave the European Union and revert to the Franc as a currency. These nationalist ideals may sound promising to the desperate voter. However, leaving the European Union would most likely cause the Euro to collapse, throwing the world into a recession. Despite these disadvantages, Le Pen presents her arguments as the only solution to “revive” France. Le Pen’s supporters think of her as a “savior” who can break through competing interest groups. Even though this type of popularity can lead to authoritarianism, France has a checks and balances system and Le Pen is currently not in a high enough position to have a significant influence on government legislation.
In the recent 2017 presidential election, Marine Le Pen beat Emmanuel Macron in the first round, but was defeated in the second. Many French citizens were surprised that Le Pen and the National Front almost won the election. Part of Le Pen’s campaign strategy was denouncing Macron’s elite status, a tactic used by many populists.
The problem with far-right parties is that if their policies gain support, they can be easily adopted by the mainstream right. Far-right parties, which have fewer resources and less support lose popularity, forcing them back to the fringes. This may have a self-limiting effect, preventing the National Front from ever gaining enough traction to become a leading party. In addition, in order to stay relevant, the National Front must constantly adopt more radical policies as the political center shifts rightward. This trend can be seen across Europe and is likely to continue.