In April 2021, opinion polls suggested French National Rally leader Marine Le Pen could win the presidential elections in 2022. How powerful and dangerous is she, and what are the weaknesses anti-fascists should exploit?
In 2017, Marine Le Pen was defeated by Emmanuel Macron in the second-round run-off of the French presidential elections. She received ten million votes, a terrifying figure which was three million more than her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had obtained in the second round in 2002. Macron, with his new jerry-built party, La République en Marche, won the presidency with seventeen million. That included the votes of very many left wingers who hoped in this way to block the road to the far right.
This huge breakthrough for Marine Le Pen was possible because of the collapse of the traditional governmental parties of Right and Left, the Republicans and the Socialist Party, burned electorally by their pro-business austerity politics. The Republicans got seven million votes in the first round of the 2017 presidentials. The Socialist Party, leaving government, got only two million votes – a historic low. The radical left France Insoumise got seven million votes. Ten million voters stayed at home for the two rounds, and five million citizens did not even put themselves on the electoral register.
The mass reaction to Marine Le Pen’s success was disappointing. Almost twenty years earlier, on the day in 2002 when Le Pen senior got to the second round, many thousands of people hit the streets. Demonstrations went on all night. Our revolutionary group held a dynamic public meeting in a café at three o’clock in the morning! Ten days later, on the 1st of May 2002, at least one and a half million people demonstrated against fascism across the country, school students struck, and anti-fascist rallies were organized every day between the two electoral rounds. However, in 2017, when it was Marine Le Pen who got to the second round, only a few hundred demonstrators were on the streets the same evening. The first of May demonstrations between the two rounds were many times smaller than in 2002.
Mainstreaming the National Front
The difference between these two mobilizations is a sign of Marine Le Pen’s success. Over the ten years since she became president of the (then) National Front, she has managed to bring the party into the mainstream. She changed its name to National Rally (Rassemblement National) because of the connotations of the old name. She expelled her father from the party, because he regularly suggested that the Nazi massacres for racial purity were no big deal (making word-play jokes on “gas ovens”, or claiming that the gas ovens were “a detail of Second World War history”). Although she insisted she was clarifying and not transforming the party programme, support for the death penalty and opposition to abortion disappeared from the manifesto. She switched the official alliance of her party in Europe, to join a less openly extremist grouping, the European Alliance for Freedom, and she abandoned the idea of leaving the EU.
She also succeeded in building new stronghold regions in the de-industrialized North East of France, to add to her traditional regional base in the South East. 
The result is that on 29 April 2021, an opinion poll found that fully 34% of French citizens “would like to see Marine Le Pen play an important role in the coming months and years”. This makes her the second most popular political leader in France. Another poll predicted that she might get 44% of the second-round votes if she is again in a run-off against Macron. She is loudly claiming that she can become president in 2022, as a people’s candidate. A quarter of manual workers on the electoral lists voted Marine Le Pen in the first round in 2017 (almost 30% of them abstained).
How dangerous is she? Her programme demands that France make a “patriotic choice” to replace the “globalist choice” made so far. It defends bigger military budgets, and promises 15,000 new police officers and 40,000 new prison cells. It pledges tougher prison sentences, massive cuts in legal and illegal immigration, the banning of state healthcare for undocumented migrants, and of social housing for non-French nationals. The manifesto insists that French nationality should only be available to children of French nationals. A government campaign to encourage French families to have more children is proposed. All mosques suspected of “extremism” should be closed down, the Rassemblement National (RN) says. Since Le Pen claims a Muslim headscarf is “a sign of radicalism”, one can imagine that few mosques would escape her definition of extremism.
Just as important as her programme are her unofficial statements of intent, such as, in early 2021, to ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves in the streets, her declaration “I defend the workers by opposing immigration which brings down wages”, or her recent lies that “so many neighbourhoods are now controlled by criminal or Islamist gangs”.
The mainstreaming of her party has been so effective that RN representatives can be frequently seen on all the major TV political talk shows.  Journalists are ever more complacent with the RN (“Could you tell us what your economic policy would be?”, “Do you think the Astrazeneca vaccine should be suspended?”, “Will there be a First Gentleman at your side in the Elysée Palace?”, “Who would you choose as Minister of the Interior?”). Younger RN spokespeople, the chirpiest and best-dressed Nazis in the country, can regularly be seen on breakfast TV being treated as future decision-makers.
Obstacles faced by Le Pen
Yet Marine Le Pen’s electoral rise does not reflect any automatic progress of fascism, as some panicked or demoralized people on the Left might feel. There are a number of factors which make it difficult for the Rassemblement National to build. The main recent episodes in the class struggle in France have not gone their way politically. Take first the inspiring Yellow Vest movement (2018-2019). This movement began in regions and in social classes with a high level of electoral support for Le Pen. The lively insurrectionist mobilizations around the country could have become a real force for popularizing the far right: this did not happen. On the contrary, thanks to the tireless work of many hundreds of local left activists and trade unionists, the political tone of the Yellow Vest movement moved very much to the left. Indeed, protesting police violence became one of its main priorities, a cause which Le Pen could absolutely not afford to prioritize (well over half of all police who vote, vote for the Rassemblement National).
The mass revolt over pensions was not good for Le Pen either. High levels of political class consciousness were expressed in the strikes and demonstrations against the new pension law in 2019 and 2020. This movement ended in victory for the working class, since the measures have been shelved indefinitely (using the pandemic as an excuse). As long as defending pensions was at the centre of the political agenda, Le Pen had to keep quiet. On the one hand, defending pensions was so popular that she could not afford to support Macron’s law; on the other, her large base among small businesses did not allow her to support mass trade union action.
The pandemic episode did not particularly help Le Pen either. Although millions have harsh criticisms concerning Macron’s management of the crisis, neither the far right nor the Left succeeded in popularizing a much more effective strategy against the virus.
Marine Le Pen’s attempt to build a solid party structure in towns around the country is also fraught with difficulties. An opposition party which received ten million votes would normally be able to organize street demonstrations of tens of thousands – the RN cannot do this. In 2021, Le Pen even abandoned the RN’s habitual first of May far-right demonstration in Paris, replacing it with an online meeting. The RN has considerably fewer members than it had a few years ago. At the municipal elections in 2020, the party had difficulty recruiting candidates for town councillors, obtaining 1,498 town councillors across France in 2014, but only 827 in 2020. The party has six Members of Parliament, compared with 12 Communist Party MPs and 17 belonging to the radical Left: France Insoumise. In the 2017 presidential campaign, Mélenchon of the France Insoumise could get more than fifty thousand citizens on the Marseille dockside for a mass meeting. Meanwhile, Le Pen’s biggest meetings were of a few thousand people, indoors. All these political and organizational weaknesses could help anti-fascists push back the Rassemblement National.
Reassuring the fascist core
Although Marine Le Pen plans to pass through a stage of building an electorally based far-right party, as the far right in Italy or elsewhere has been able to do, her long-term fascist objective remains. Just like her father with his “jokes” about the holocaust, Marine Le Pen regularly provides knowing winks for the core of Nazi activists in France. When Génération Identitaire, a White Nationalist group, was banned in France two months back for hate speech, and for “building a private militia“, Le Pen defended them. The symbol of the RN is still the flame borrowed from Italian fascist tradition. And in April 2021, when a group of retired military generals called those who believed in “true French values” to be prepared for civil war, she immediately declared that they were right and that her party would welcome them with open arms. The generals’ open letter spoke of the “danger” of decolonial theories, which they claimed would cause a “race war”, and of the dangers of Muslim separatism and of Black Blocs. It concluded: “this is no time to hesitate. Otherwise, tomorrow civil war will put an end to this situation of rising chaos, and you [France’s political leaders] will be responsible for the thousands of deaths which will occur.”
Macron/Le Pen: more of a duet than a duel
What has most helped Le Pen are the horrific and reactionary terrorist attacks carried out in France in the name of radical Islam. Though the attackers generally have few or no links to the mosques and to the Muslim community. The killing of a schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, (for “insulting the Prophet”) in 2020 and the killing of a police station employee, Stéphanie Monfermé, in April 2021 – were manna from heaven for the Rassemblement National.
But this manna was greatly multiplied by the vicious racist initiatives of Macron and his ministers over the last year. A new law “against separatism” is just going through. It includes an obligation for all Muslim organizations to sign a charter of agreement with Republican principles. The aim is purely propagandist – to tell the ten million who voted Le Pen that “we distrust Muslims too, vote for us!”. While the bill worked its way through the Upper House, the Senate, a number of amendments were approved which have little chance of being in the law in its final form, but which encouraged a vast racist media ‘talkfest’. One amendment declared that children should be banned completely from wearing a hijab, another that mothers who wear a hijab should not be allowed to accompany school trips along with other parents.
Macron has also dissolved organizations such as the “Collective against Islamophobia in France”,3 despite zero evidence of any sympathy for terrorism in these organizations. Meanwhile, his education minister, Blanquer, declared that the hijab “is not welcome in French society”, and the Minister of the Interior, Gerald Darmanin, attacked supermarkets that sold Halal food, while criticizing Marine Le Pen for being “too soft” on the Muslim question!
This cynical ideological campaign claiming Muslims constitute a group which wants to separate itself from wider society is entirely based on lies. For example, the number of Muslim families sending their children to religious schools rather than secular state schools is ten times fewer than the families sending their children to private Catholic schools! There are 9,000 private Catholic schools in France, and around 70 private Muslim schools.
Wider racist posturing is also part of Macron’s recipe for re-election. A moral panic hit the newsrooms when it was “revealed” that student union UNEF sometimes organized meetings exclusively for non-Whites, while thinking about how to fight racism. In rigidly universalist France this is often considered shocking, and the Senate recommended that the student union be banned. Astoundingly, some Communist Party and Green party senators voted in favour of this proposal. In the media the talk was of the terrible danger of “anti-white racism” taking over the country’s youth.
A second racist panic was organized around university teaching and research. The Education minister claimed that “islamo-leftism” was “a gangrene” in the universities, and that good, honest intellectuals were being terrorized by decolonial studies merchants. The lie was effective – over 60% of French citizens in polls said that “islamo-leftism” in the universities needed investigating, even though the extremely establishment Council of University Presidents replied with the angriest press release in its history, accusing the minister of using “peudo-concepts popularized by the far right”.
The division on the Left and on the Right means that nine million first round votes will no doubt be enough to get through to the run-off. Macron has every interest in putting far right priorities at the centre of public debate. Jean-Luc Mélenchon was right to describe the second-round run-off between Macron and Le Pen in 2017 as “more of a duet than a duel”. “Macron represents the system, and Le Pen is its life insurance,” he commented. Faced with a high level of class struggle threatening his dream of becoming France’s Thatcher-figure, Macron, despite coming from a strand of the Right which had not traditionally prioritized Muslim-bashing, is going full-on racist as a diversion from class struggle, and in this manner is laying the basis for a further increase in far-right support.
Marine Le Pen’s political weaknesses (never giving support to very popular class struggles such as defence of pensions), and her organizational weaknesses (having great difficulty maintaining local party structures and meetings) both give a lot of space to anti-fascists to reduce her support by information campaigns and determined harassment action. There is right now no broad-based national anti-fascist campaign. Each Left party denounces Le Pen and her racism, and some even campaign against Islamophobia, but there is a real need for something more. Specific anti-fascist meetings and rallies have for years been rare, localized and small. Yet the potential is clear: there have been inspiring recent mobilizations by new (mainly non-white led) anti-racist networks, in particular against police racism. In addition, there are plenty of anti-racists among the young and among trade unionists, who might mistrust or not be attracted by political parties, but who would be ready to mobilize against the fascists. National anti-fascist initiatives are sorely needed. As this article was being written (4th May) a group of Left MPs, movement activists and trade unions published a call for a national demonstration against the ideas of the far right. This must become the basis for more ambitious campaigns.
Thanks to Susan, Daniel, Fred, Ray, Stéphane and Ian for comments on an earlier draft.
1 The BBC website gives a useful statistical analysis
2 For example, on BFMTV here