Almost every article about Marine Le Pen makes reference to her supposed detoxification. She is supposed to be a modernising figure in French nationalism, driving it away from its primal instincts and towards a more reasonable and centre ground approach. An approach that can appeal to all stripes of French voter, rather than just those with bigoted opinions. Indeed, Le pen seems more than happy to cater this image and thus have more praise heaped on her by the media. We most recently saw this strategy with Len Pen announcing one day after making it through to the second round of the French election that she was stepping temporarily down as president of the National Front (FN) in order to stand as an independent. The move is obviously largely a symbolic gesture to win over some voters from the now defeated, candidate Fillon. Le Pen has made no signal that she intends to change policy, nor the people that she surrounds herself with. The most likely scenario should she win the French election would be a realignment with the FN, and an implementation of the most right governments, France has seen since the Second World War.
We’ve heard the media’s detoxification narrative before: a fringe group has cleaned up its act and joined the political mainstream like any other. Donald Trump’s first speech to congress, Nigel Farage appointed as leader of UKIP and Marine Le Pen temporarily steps aside as leader of a far right hate group: Different stories, same narrative. Both Liberal and right wing outlets have been telling themselves this fairy story for years, uncritically relaying assertions that Le Pen has got rid of the ‘knee jerk racists’ and imagining that Le Pen took a principled stand against her father’s anti-Semitic beliefs. A recent article described her niece, the profoundly homophobic and racist Marion Le Pen, as ‘a political star. Beautiful and fervently catholic’. Countless reports describe the rift between Marine and her father, but conveniently decline to mention the fact that a €6 million loan from Jean-Marie bankrolled her presidential campaign.
Le Pens recent claim that France bears no responsibility for the 1942 roundup of over thirteen thousand Jews at a Paris velodrome should remind everyone that the FN are a deeply dishonest and disgusting organization. The men, women and children held at the Velodrome d’Hiver went to French internment camps and from there to Auschwitz. The roundup is just one example of the collaborationist Vichy regime active engagement in the Holocaust, which built on a long tradition of organized far right anti-Semitism in France. This led to the deportation of about seventy six thousand Jews. The state refused to recognize it as a French crime until more than fifty years later, when president Chirac admitted the nation’s responsibility in 1995.
Le Pen defended her comments saying that she was simply reiterating former president Francois Mitterrand and other state representative’s positions. While this is partially correct, it doesn’t tell the full story. Why would the leading candidate in the first round polls, especially one hell-bent on cleaning up her party’s image even say that? The controversy comes just as the mainstream right is trying to reframe the national narrative. Les’ Republicans candidate François Fillon famously claimed that France should not feel guilty about its former colonies: It didn’t invent slavery, and it was just trying to ‘share its culture’ with the people of the invaded countries. This is part of the rights broader strategy of making its stances on race and foreign policy seem commonplace and acceptable in wider society, notably by pretending that the past never happened.
The FN has been working on this same project for years. When Marine Le Pen says that she doesn’t think France bears any serious responsibility for the rounding up of thousands of Jews, she is secretly legitimizing all the racism and blatant xenophobia that the French far right have campaigned on for decades. It is this revisionism that the mainstream are helping to further.
A Fascist Past
All the columnists and journalists attempting to paint Le Pen as a modernizing leader all fail to answer one vital question: How and when did the FN stop being a fascist organization? Some might say that the FN cannot be fascist in that Fascism was a uniquely interwar phenomenon, but to take this approach is to ignore their association with the Vichy regime and to discredit your own argument that the FN are moving away from Nazism, as the FN was formed in 1972.
Indeed, when the FN formed its rank and file was made up of ex Vichy militiamen former SS officers, soldiers in the fight against Algerian independence managed, to groups that make up the history of French Fascism like the PPF. The far right leaders who founded the FN had one vision and only one: make Fascism relevant again. For over a decade they went to great lengths in various publications to offer up a revisionist version of history and analyze how the revolutionary nationalism of the Vichy regime might rebuild itself in the post war world. You would be hard pressed to find a group with more direct links to the history they claim they are denouncing.
Contrary to popular belief, cultivating an image of themselves as moderate and detoxified is something fascist organizations tried to do since the end of the Second World War, even in France. In 1958 for example, the group Jeune Nation warned its members not to frighten new or young recruits with ideas that might shock them. The idea was that members should never mention race in connection with gas ovens ‘whatever measures we will have to take once we get in power’. They advised their activists to say repeatedly that a victory for the group would make the nations enemies pay a heavy price, but that there was no need to mention that the aforementioned price would likely be hundreds of thousands of deaths.
These postwar revisions laid the foundations for the National Front. Revolutionary Nationalists would have to adapt to new ways of doing politics. Alluding to the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini was get them nowhere. The Left represented less of a threat after the second world war, both the state and the economy had become strengthened. Serious measures had been taken throughout Europe to prevent the far right from ever gaining power again. All this made society less polarized. Armed mobilizations would no longer lead to power. Far right activists had to prove they could run, rather than overthrow. They needed to break out of their hole and recruit among broader layers of the population. An electoral front would allow them to reach peripheral supporters and transform them in their image. In order to successfully destroy the centrist democratic system fascists realized they would have to work within it, or face extinction.
Led by Jean Le Pen, with help from former PPF member Duprat, the Front initial platform focused on immigration, stressing economic and social questions rather than issues of racial purity. The organization presented itself as the voice of the social, popular and patriotic right. Le Pen was the figurehead of the party while Dupart came up with the slogans ‘Voters will always prefer the original to the copy’ and the Nazi inspired ‘a million employed are a million immigrants too many’. Jean Le Pen freely acknowledged that his party included currents that constituted the traditional French extreme right, from royalists to revolutionary nationalists. Duprat himself did not believe that a nationalist revolution was on the immediate agenda, but thought that the FN was the best way to get one. He and Le Pen also played a major role in holocaust denial, publishing a translation of British National Front member Richard Verall’s ‘Did six million really die?’
The French election in 2002 represented a significant turning point in the Front’s history. Jean Le Pen made it through to the second round, where Jacques Chirac defeated him. From here started both the mainstream rights radicalization and the far rights supposed detoxification.
Chirac was anxious to capitalize on his election victory. He believed he could make secularism, previously a large campaign strategy of the left, a right wing programme. Chirac set up a commission that led to the hijab being banned in schools in 2004, starting an islamaphobic spiral that shows no sign of relenting, as last summer’s ridiculous burkini ban demonstrated. Nicholas Sarkozy became the dominant political figure of the first decade of the new century. Some claimed that his 2007 presidential victory showed that he had neutralized the FN. Ultimately however his hyperactive, authoritarian racism merely legitimized the front, paving the way for their resurgence in 2012, when Marine Le Pen won the FN’s highest vote to date.
The FN took the 2002 defeat badly. The Party failed to break through the 20 percent barrier in the second round and then performed poorly in the 2007 election. Many members saw Jean Le Pen’s militant image as a problem holding the party back. Thus when his daughter took over she made detoxification a key feature of the party, distancing it from her father as well as from the overt fascism and anti-Semitism that had characterized its early years. However, this needs to be seen as nothing more than a change in image for three key reasons.
1) The Socialist Party has embraced an authoritarian security agenda. France has been under a permanent state of no tolerance policing and maximum security since early 2015. When a Socialist government pushes to incorporate a police state into the constitution, The FN’s draconian ideology no longer seems as dangerous.
2) The mainstream right has radicalized. Unable to secure enthusiastic support for neoliberal economics, subjects such as immigration and law and order have become the main talking points of the French right. This was shown clearly through mobilizations against gay marriage in 2013, but also through rising racist attitudes among right wing voters and an increasing readiness to back the FN in second round electoral contests.
3) Secularism has mutated into a form of bigotry, making racism and Islamophobia acceptable. This goes beyond hate speech and reinforces established tropes in FN propaganda: Identifying an enemy within that needs to be isolated and repressed and stigmatizing immigrants in cultural rather than racial terms.
In this radicalizing environment the Front, aided by an indulgent media, has created for themselves the illusion of moderation. The FN has also prospered from the return of cold war myths targeting an ‘enemy within’ and the revival of colonial tropes that depict an unassimilable ‘other’, both of which breed an authoritarian agenda. Of course, the nation state has always defined itself by what it excludes, resorting to blind moral panics in times of national crisis. What has changed in French politics is the consensus surrounding security and secularism. By supporting a reactionary form of separation of church and state that excludes Muslims, the mainstream right have allowed Le Pen to quietly take hold of the Republican mantle, creating endless possibilities for her party to further discriminate against minorities. The first presidential debate between the five leading candidates reminded everyone of the mistakes certain sections of the left have made in accommodating this. The radical left candidate Jean Melenchon reminded everyone that he supported the ban on conspicuous religious symbols in schools. He then tried to take Le Pen to task over wanting to outlaw the hijab on the street. Le Pen’s reply was telling: ‘we already do that in schools’. As far as the FN is concerned, if racism and authoritarian nationalism can be asserted in a respectable republican guise, why do it any other way?
Fascism did not appear with a fully formed essence or fixed ideology. Its politics were forged in relation to its rivals and circumstances. It is not something that simply exists, it grows and spreads like a cancer upon the political landscape. The FN does not have an armed wing, does this make it any less dangerous? Today Le Pen is doing exactly what the postwar fascists set out to do: adapt the fascist legacy, reach out to a broad spectrum of voters and ‘transform them in our Image’.
The detoxification narrative has obscured the threat posed by the FN in a climate where those implementing the state of emergency are themselves radicalizing. Some FN members and supporters believe that a coming crisis will require the intervention of an authoritarian force in the shape of their party. Others believe they can win power through existing institutions, forging alliances with the mainstream rights socially authoritarian and radicalizing elements. These tensions form part of the process of the party’s development and that of the extreme right against Europe.
This process of development, combining the image of detoxification with an outsider status, can be interrupted and thrown off course, disrupted by various factors, not least the actions of its opponents. To be effective this is going to require much more than abstract appeals to anti-racist sentiment and the values of the republic.