Europe

France elections: What makes Marine Le Pen far right?

  • 10 February 2017
  • From the section Europe
President of French far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen attends a meeting on the theme 'Ecology and development' on 2 December 2016 in Paris, Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Marine Le Pen has been increasingly looking to the centre and left for votes

She described Britain's vote for Brexit as the most important event since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Donald Trump's US presidential victory as "an additional stone in the building of a new world".

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's National Front (FN), is fighting to achieve a similar earthquake in France in the presidential elections in 2017.

But with her increasing appeal to the centre and the left of French politics, how much can she really be characterised as far-right?

Voters' perceptions and a toxic past

Marine Le Pen is the youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of the FN and a convicted racist, who last year repeated an old anti-Semitic slur that the Nazi gas chambers were "a detail of history".

Having grown up in a political home, accompanying him to meetings from the age of 13, Marine Le Pen was always going to struggle to shake off the far-right label.

But she did denounce her father's comments in 2015, and effectively expelled him from the party. While her father was leader, the FN was the party that wanted to deport three million foreigners, the party of Holocaust denial and xenophobia. But under Marine Le Pen the FN began to distance itself from such controversial issues.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption "Damned by her father" - Marine Le Pen managed to get her far-right father off the political stage after his remarks about the Holocaust

Such efforts at detoxification have proved successful, with polls suggesting support for the FN climbing from 18% in 2010 to about 24% today.

Nonetheless, when voters are questioned they still place the FN and Ms Le Pen "way more to the right than other parties", says Nonna Mayer, expert in racism and the FN at Sciences Po university.

Where does she go from here in her pursuit of a detoxified party? The FN has traditionally been a male, blue-collar-dominated party, and the leader needs to target women, says Dr Mayer. So Ms Le Pen has softened her approach to women's rights, and even sees herself as a quasi-feminist.

In fact, Dr Mayer argues, in many respects Ms Le Pen is more socially liberal than much of the mainstream right - something that has caused divisions within her own party.

A hard line on immigration

The 2017 National Front manifesto renews its commitment to a massive reduction in legal immigration. Ms Le Pen argues French citizenship should be "either inherited or merited". As for illegal immigrants, they "have no reason to stay in France, these people broke the law the minute they set foot on French soil".

But if that is a far-right stance, it is not very different from that of centre-right candidate Francois Fillon - who when first elected as the Republican candidate enjoyed a small advantage over Ms Le Pen in polls but has since been damaged by claims of improper use of state funds.

"We've got to reduce immigration to its strict minimum," he says.

In a world where the centre is shifting to the right, and the right is shifting to the centre, the lines are getting blurred.

The two are now competing for some of the same voters. While Mr Fillon is regarded as appealing more to the "respectable" middle classes, Marine Le Pen is claiming to speak for "all people", and increasingly appealing to a wider electorate, even Muslim voters in the French suburbs.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Marine Le Pen increasingly claims to speak "in the name of the people"

However, in December she upped the ante by announcing that she would end free education for the children of undocumented immigrants, though this did not appear as a pledge in the party's manifesto.

"If you come to our country, don't expect to be taken care of, to be looked after, that your children will be educated without charge," she said in a speech in Paris. And, more threateningly, "playtime is over".

Narrowing divide on Islam and Islamist extremism

Long before the Paris attacks on 13 November 2015, Marine Le Pen made a link between immigration and militant Islamism. In the immediate aftermath, she proposed to "expel foreigners who preach hatred on our soil" and to strip dual-nationality Muslims with extremist views of their French citizenship, a view traditionally associated with the far right.

In an unprecedented move, those ideas were endorsed both by Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls and by President Francois Hollande, before eventually being dropped.

Many of her views have been echoed by Francois Fillon too.

Mr Fillon, a devout Catholic, described radical Islam as a "totalitarianism like the Nazis". Catholics, Protestants and Jews "don't denounce the values of the Republic," he said, indicating that was not the case with Islam.

"The clear blue water between the FN and the other parties has been disappearing and disappearing," says James Shields, professor of French politics at Aston University.

Law and order

The National Front is to the right of the Republicans on law and order issues, says Nonna Mayer.

Its 2017 election manifesto includes upping police numbers and powers and creating 40,000 new prison places.

There is no mention in this manifesto of the FN's previous pledge to restore the death penalty, an issue that divides the party's core supporters from the mainstream. Polls suggest 60% of FN voters are in favour, compared with 28% of mainstream-right and 11% of left-wing voters.

Putting 'native French' first

Treatment of immigrants in France is probably the standout, far-right policy of Marine Le Pen's FN. And it is central to the party's platform.

Jobs, welfare, housing, schools, or any area of public provision should go to French nationals before they get to "foreigners".

The centre of gravity of French politics may have shifted to the right. But no other party has adopted favouritism across the social services - and it could breach the law.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption Marine Le Pen's niece tweets this: "Fillon is for the national birth right, for family reunion, against restoration of the borders, against national priority"

"She is upholding a policy that not only is thought by constitutional experts to be unconstitutional, but has been judged by the law to be unlawful," says Prof Shields.

In 1998, a National Front mayor, Catherine Megret, tried to implement a new policy that would give a family allowance to French or EU families, but not to other foreign families.

"Did it stand up in court? No," says Prof Shields. But, he says, so-called nativism remains central in Ms Le Pen's platform.

Le Pen the populist

Marine Le Pen appeals to French voters fed up with mainstream politics, but there is nothing far right about that.

If she wins the presidency in May, she has promised an EU referendum in France within six months of taking office. And the UK's vote to leave the EU in June 2016 has provided the template.

Portraying herself as beyond the establishment, she has championed public services - for non-foreigners - and presented herself as a protector of workers and farmers in the face of "wild and anarchic globalisation".

Media captionMarine Le Pen: 'Trump made the impossible possible'

"She's managing to get these approval ratings by doing a Trump," says Prof Shields.

But here the lines are blurred too: left-wing parties are playing the anti-establishment, anti-globalisation card as well.

Her friends in Europe

But what sets her European views apart from the rest of the French right is the company she keeps. The FN has strong ties with the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), Austria's Freedom Party (FPOe), Belgium's Flemish Interest (VB), Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Italian Northern League (LN).

They are all part of the FN-led Europe of Nations and Freedom grouping in the European Parliament and are either right-wing populist or, in the case of the FPOe, far right.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Marine Le Pen associates herself with other right-wing leaders in Europe, for example Geert Wilders of the Dutch PVV

Geert Wilders, of leader of the Dutch PVV, wants to ban the Koran. The Italian Northern League's leader Matteo Salvini is known for his praise of fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

These views are toxic to the political right in Europe, and many centre-right parties have said they will not form coalitions with them.