Un-demonized, the French extreme right feeds an Illusion nationale

Monday February 13, Marine Le Pen, the presidential candidate of the Front Nationale visited the Promenade des Anglais in Nice to pay tribute to the 86 victims of the attack in July 2016. Surrounded by the press under a gray sky, as expected she spoke of a "100% lack of security" due to the presence in France of "people who should not be here", and again, as expected, in  Menton she spoke against Schengen: "Without controlling the borders, no one can guarantee the security of the people in a country."

A sticker "Marine President" and a poster with a portrait of France's far-right National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen is seen on a window of the National Front local offices. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
A sticker "Marine President" and a poster with a portrait of France's far-right National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen is seen on a window of the National Front local offices. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

So far, nothing new on the electoral front, yet politicians in the Héxagone are paying a fresh attention to the campaign due to end with the two-round election on April 23 and May 7. Balances changed in recent weeks because François Fillon,  the conservative candidate, plummeted in the polls due to a scandal involving his wife. At the same time, in the center/center-left camp former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron emerged as a likely winner with his brand-new party En Marche!. The possibility of a runoff Le Pen-Macron is very high now, although polls should be considered with a pinch of salt. According to the PrésiTrack/ OpinionWay poll of 13 February, in the first round Le Pen progressed to 26%; Macron, also on the rise, to 22%; Fillon nose-dived to 21%; Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate gets 15%; and far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon 11%. In the second round, gaining conservative voters the FN of would rise to 37%, while Macron, benefiting from the fear of a Le Pen government, would become president with 63%.

If the possibility of a  Le Pen presidency is low, her electorate  could grow significantly. Away from the often burning banlieues of the large cities, there is another periphery, the so-called "popular France", which watches that violence on TV, and after the attacks of 2015 and 2016 deeply fear "Islamism"/Islamic terrorism. This explains, however, only partly Le pen's progress.

It is not difficult to consider the French extreme right populism alongside the US and the UK recent political phenomena, which appeals to the guts of the social sectors to which globalization left behind shutted factories and unemployment, and the global dynamics of migration  a crisis of their national and social identities. A difference , though, is that Marine Le Pen is offering more and subliminally, in addition her being anti-liberalism and her favoring a strong state.. "Everything is going smooth for her," was Thursday title on Le Parisien.

Results different from the forecasted ones would therefore not be a total surprise, but they would still depend largely on the degree to which the right and the left camps will succeed in the next ten weeks in winning over the undecided: many young, former left and conservative disappointed voters, many Catholics and anyone out there feeling anti-elite and anti-establishment. The FN's narrative, albeit deceitful and often farfetched, sounds well-articulated, reassuring and attractive to those groups. The results will also depend from voter turnout because   more and more voters tend to skip the first round,  and because the electoral base of the FN overlaps with abstentionists, according to some sociological studies.

To avoid producing yet another of these studies, historian Valérie Igounet and photographer Vincent Jarousseau "lost themselves" for two years in three municipalities in three different regions governed by the FN since 2014. The authors chose to publish their research in the form of a picture story. In L'Illusion Nationale the text balloons over the black and white  photos give a literal account of their interviews with the locals.

Direct and even physical contact with citizens is part of the governing  style of the three mayors. Handshakes and pats on the back at the square seal the success of events that had long not been organized any more — Christmas markets, parades of antique cars, the very popular feast of pork in spite of the Muslim population, and the flower fair where the shutting down of greenhouses left hundreds of unemployed and many impoverished communities.

The mayor of Beaucaire, Julien Sanchez, says in the book that "the other parties support the EU", which allowed many people to come to France, "even if a part of them are unable to integrate," "maybe a 5%." "Our fear is  that we will get to point where there will be two French for every 45 immigrants", says another man. The mayor adds: "In some ways, they force us to be racists."

A worker who a few months ago would have never voted for the far-right decided to do so after  buying the theory of a plot to replace French workers with Islamic immigrants. Thirty-four year old Virginie tells that she was ok with doing rural work for 5 euros the hour like ten Romanians already working there, but she was told they could not hire her. "It's disgusting. I don't understand why they refuse work to the French. The majority of the gays I know will vote FN".

 The stance on homosexuality   is a good example of Marine's effort to "un-demonize" the FN, i.e. to transform her father's party — an overtly revisionist, pro-death penalty and nostalgic of colonial France party that considered De Gaulle a traitor — in a modern one whose sympathizers would have nothing to be ashamed of. Marine skipped the vote on same-sex unions and included in her staff several gays, like campaign consultant Sébastien Chenu.

Marine's FN is counting on the young to vote FN massively. The left-wing newspaper Libération just published a story on  a very popular  

techno music DJ who was swamped by criticism after posting a verse of a 1989 anti-fascist anthem that ended: "The Youth pisses on the National Front". "It is quite possible", the journalist writes, "that mathematically, in a techno club or concert there will be at least a part of the about 34% of young people who voted FN at the regional elections." That house nation, a creation by black and gay musicians now includes far-right supporters is unprecedented in French cultural life, the article reads. It is like a cold shower that could spread to other sectors.

According to Julien Rochedy, a young FN supporter, at the Political Science School, a traditional bastion of the radical left, many students will vote FN but do not talk about. Another myth is that under thirty  FN supporters are all uneducated and pessimistic, young organizers people said at the party's summit in Lyon, where Marine quoted De Gaulle. The family of Jonathan Champion, a 29 years old with a master's degree in economics who has been a party member for the last two years, traditionally voted socialist. "I tell them  that the National Front has nothing to do with what the media says about us," he  said.

The merit of all this goes to Marine Le Pen, who managed to glue together the concepts of a contradictory ideology without using the word ideology. "The far-right was always anti Republican, but now with Marine the FN became the most Republican of all French parties," said philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff speaking to Rcf radio. In her logic, Republican values ​​such as secularism and other French values ​​are Christian values. France must therefore be republican. The fact a champion of Christian values ​​can be a twice a divorced woman some of whose advisors are  homosexuals could grow  the FN electorate significantly. Between the lines, Marine  leeks xenophobic and politically retrograde concepts, but her image is that of a modern woman who can make many French dream, to put it in Igounet's words, a fantasy France.


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