Few players have benefited as much from Europe’s stagnant economy and anti-EU sentiment as Europe’s populist parties, many of which were once declared so radical that they could occupy nothing but a marginal role in the continent’s politics. Masses of the unemployed, the nationalistic, and the generally disgruntled voted for some of the continent’s most far right and far left candidates in the 2014 European parliamentary elections, with all these voters sharing a disdain for the once-championed European project. Perhaps no party’s rise is more shocking than the rapid ascent of Marine Le Pen’s extreme-right National Front (FN) in France, a country generally known for its strong support of the Euro project and of liberal values in general. This party, which calls for an end to immigration and a French exit from the Eurozone, finished second in the first round of French departmental elections with 25% of the votes, just behind Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP Party that scored 29% of the votes. Although FN did not fare as well in the second round of elections, it still managed its greatest victory ever, with Le Pen calling this a “historic day.”
Many French dailies were quick to point out that Ms. Le Pen did not do as well as pre-election polls had predicted and proclaimed the “defeat” of this extremist party. However, it truly is a measure of how far the National Front has come that second place in a major election cycle can be called a defeat. This historic shift has important implications for French politics and French society in general.
First, this marks turbulent seas for the sitting president François Hollande and his Socialist Party. Hollande is the most unpopular president to have ever presided over the Fifth Republic, recently hitting a low of 13% in his approval rating. In an attempt to salvage the reputation of his administration, the president overturned his government in March of last year and announced a new prime minister, Manuel Valls, who was the only popular Socialist personality at the time. Tellingly, Valls holds a reputation of being an unusually right-wing Socialist Party member, signifying the electorate’s fatigue with Hollande’s ineffective leftish policies. Despite proposing some meaningful economic reforms that have won the approval of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Socialist government is likely to continue its unpopularity up until the French presidential elections. In fact, many political commentators are envisioning a Le Pen-Sarkozy contest in 2017. One writer from the Nouvel Observateur, a French weekly, bluntly addressed the most obvious concern for the Socialists: They are in danger of becoming a marginal force in French politics.
For the time being, the FN’s strength has turned politics into a “ménage à trois,” with three parties vying for dominance. Although France has a multi-party system, it has never before been faced with three parties on such roughly equal footing. This would not be so bad if the newest party were not the National Front, which the UMP and the Socialist Party have long accused of holding “anti-French values.” This will make cooperation among the parties difficult if not impossible, with coalitions unlikely to form and gridlock growing ever more likely.
Perhaps the most troubling revelation regarding the rise of FN is what it reflects about the current attitude in France. Its rise is due to the prevalence of an anti-immigrant, anti-EU sentiment among the French people, with FN supporters eating up the rhetoric that immigrants steal jobs away from the French and erode traditional Catholic values. Worryingly, France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, and rhetoric such as this creates a rift among the French people and removes the potential for an open dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim France. Muslims are already chafing because of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has followed. This further puts into question their place in French society, a question that was first brought up with the ban of the veil in public schools in 2004 and the ban of the burka in 2011. To what extent the recent success of the FN is due to the Charlie Hebdo attacks remains a question that many French Muslims would rather leave unanswered. The FN’s rise is likely to turn heads in Germany and in Brussels as well, since the potential for a Euro-Skeptic Party to gain control of the French presidency in 2017 would place the entire European project in jeopardy. The EU may be able to survive a Grexit, but a French exit would cause the entire union to crumble.
For now, however, Marine Le Pen and her party can celebrate her self-proclaimed victory and perhaps look forward to greater success in the future. She must be aware, nevertheless, that it is far easier for an insurgent party to make a splash than it is for them to become a mainstay. If given enough power, the FN will eventually have to stop talking and start doing. And the French may not end up liking what is being done.