Is Marine Le Pen anti-establishment?

In a series of reports on the French presidential elections, a group of Lille University masters degree students in English-French translation have selected and translated into English a wide range of profiles and interviews of candidates published in the French media. Their English versions of the articles, complete with glossaries and information notes, provide a rich insight into the campaign, the candidates and the manner in which the elections are reported in France.

In a series of reports on the French presidential elections, a group of Lille University masters degree students in English-French translation have selected and translated into English a wide range of profiles and interviews of candidates published in the French media. Their English versions of the articles, complete with glossaries and information notes, provide a rich insight into the campaign, the candidates and the manner in which the elections are reported in France.

This article about far-right Front National party candidate Marine Le Pen is a translation into English from the original, “Marine Le Pen est elle anti-système ?”, by Nicolas Lebourg (researcher, specialist in the French Far Right), published by French weekly news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur (01/03/2012).

For a glossary of party names, click here, for another on the French media click here and for an A-Z of key terms, personalities, dates and events, click here. For more about this project between the Lille University students and Mediapart English, click here.


Is Marine Le Pen anti-establishment?

Marine Le Pen has long been described as a queen of the media. Not only did her message reach her audience, she also tried to curry favour with the press, which was a completely new strategy on the part of the Front National. Since early January however, the mood has changed. When questions do not suit her, Marine Le Pen refuses to answer them or retorts with haughty irony.

This process reached what she ought to hope, for her own sake, is its final stage, with her unwillingness for twenty minutes to join in a debate with Jean-Luc Mélenchon. And yet, in the studio of “Des Paroles et des Actes”, just a few moments earlier, she had been cordial to Henri Guaino. A few weeks ago we might have put this muddled communication down to the tiredness caused by months of campaigning, but the television show has revealed the problem of Marine Le Pen’s communication strategy: she is caught between a posture of rupture with the establishment and the desire to join it.

It turns out that this precise question is the subject of a concise, accurate and pertinent work recently published by political scientist Alexandre Dézé: Le Front national : à la conquête du pouvoir ? (The Front National: the conquest of power?) (Armand Colin). The study shows how the development of the “Frontist” vote was achieved by alternating between a demarcation strategy (which could capture the “anti-establishment” vote) and legitimisation techniques (in order to try and put an end to political impotence).

Initial reasons

As Nonna Myer points out in her preface, the Frontist vote relies heavily upon its social context. The context is currently favourable: poor quality of life is the principle reason (82% of those polled feel that their living conditions have deteriorated over the last few years), Frontist ideas have record support (56% of those polled think that there are too many foreigners in France). However, studies show that the “sympathetic capital” enjoyed by Marine Le Pen has not made her seem more presidential either: her credibility indicators are more or less confined to the level of voting intentions she receives.

The current conditions of a balance between rupture and legitimacy are actually in line with the history and nature of the party. As Alexandre Dézé reminds us, the Front National was founded by the neo-fascist movement Ordre Nouveau in 1972 on the principle that the aim of revolutionaries was to take power “either legally or illegally.” Those who were overtly yearning for a neo-fascist regime chose former Poujadist député Jean-Marie Le Pen to lead a process of what had not yet come to be called “de-demonisation”.

Under the influence of the fiendish personality of François Duprat, the first years of the party were, according to Alexandre Dézé, characterised by a transaction between small radical groups (looking to provide their marginalised members with social opportunities) and famous reactionaries including Jean-Marie Le Pen (desperately looking for activists and candidates in order to establish the legitimacy of their group’s existence). Even though it was a delicate operation, this interaction allowed the party to come up with its basic radical markers, which enabled it, during the next phase, to form a coalition of malcontents (by denouncing the entire political class and the social cost of immigration).

Marketing and tactics

The 80s saw the establishment of the party on the political landscape. Under the aegis of Jean-Pierre Stirbois, a genuine policy of normalisation of the propaganda material was implemented, with the continual repetition of certain visual structures (a crucial element: Alexandre Dézé has registered no less than 250 sample posters between 1972 and 2005 – the intensive use of billposting had the advantage of giving the impression of a popular and normalised movement).

Is the name Font National scary because of its origins? The name disappeared from this material in favour of a focus on the leading lights of the party, the simple initials FN, and even on several occasions invented names for electoral lists – such as the “Rassemblement national” list made up of candidates from the Front National and various other right-wing parties during the 1986 legislative elections, which Marine Le Pen has declared will be back for the 2012 legislative elections. The party thus recycled a number of notable politicians who managed to be elected in this way, which may not have been possible within the other right-wing parties. In return, the Front National gentrified and normalised its image. The provocative statements of Jean-Marie Le Pen (such as his comment about the gas chambers being a “mere detail” of WW2) were a way of walking a line between demarcation and legitimisation.

This gamble reached its climax when Bruno Mégret took the party reins. Mostly because he was reacting to attempts made to capture his voters on the topic of immigration, Bruno Mégret managed both to considerably harden the ideology of the party with a racial discourse and to implement a strategy of intrusion onto the territory of the traditional right-wing parties. In this case, the rupture with “establishment” conventions went hand in hand with an integration into the system in terms of an electoral career. The party reaped electoral rewards and even elected four mayors whilst being increasingly considered as an outsider to the institutions of the Republic: Alexandre Dézé reminds us that in 1994, 73% of those polled thought the Front National to be a “danger to democracy,” 85% said it was “sectarian” and 86% declared it “incapable of governing.”

Jean-Marie Le Pen defended himself against such charges and, evoking the origins of the FN, claimed that the party existed to insure a radical alternative to the establishment and not to compromise in exchange for a handful of temporary seats*. The alliances, imposed by Bruno Mégret, with other right-wing parties within the regional executive authorities were forged without any requirement for ideological concessions.

In exchange for its normalisation and the elected positions, which provided a boost for its electorate as well as a social opportunity for its executives, the Front National did not ask its new friends to endorse the préférence nationale or its other totemic causes. In the end, the two leaders of the FN came to personify the two separate tendencies: demarcation for Jean-Marie Le Pen, institutionalisation for Bruno Mégret. The fiery characters of the two men prevented them from working together to bring down the establishment: instead it was the party that imploded.

Marine Le Pen: how many divisions?

The book revisits several elements from the PhD thesis in Political Science defended by its author in 2008, under the direction of Pascal Perrineau. Nevertheless, he has added a very contemporary outlook in order to explore whether the balancing act, which he argues structured the party under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen, has continued under that of his daughter.

Marine Le Pen took control of the party both from the inside, methodically eliminating her opponents in the years leading up to the 2011 convention, and from the outside, cultivating a modernising image in the media. Continually talking about de-demonising the party and making it credible, she clearly positioned herself within the effort to make the movement respectable. She did so by constantly drawing on the methods formerly used by the FN, particularly those of the Mégret circle. As Alexandre Dézé emphasises, the “Marinist” rupture has all the markers of continuity.

The interpretative framework of this useful book provides us with a better understanding of Marine Le Pen’s current communication policy. Until December 2011, Marine Le Pen had focused the “rupture” dimension of her discourse on socio-economic questions (defending ordinary people, fighting the financialisation of the economy, exiting the Euro, etc.) and, where everything else was concerned, she cultivated her institutionalising dimension (claiming the absence of racism, describing her programme, promoting a campaign manager from the ENA, etc.). She has certainly gone back to basics on immigration, but the aggressiveness she has displayed on TV and her refusal to debate are probably not tactical. In fact, they are part of a process of re-demonisation, for which she bears the principal responsibility, but of which she is also the principal victim, as indicated by the fall in voting intentions ascribed to her in the polls.

The sympathy she showed towards Henri Guaino is understandable: the man once went as far as to declare that “Hollande is not a republican” and that the Front National was an extension of Gaullism... But the complicity she displayed was a reflection of her very strong desire to become a part of “the establishment”. On the other hand, face to face with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen did not embody the rupture, nor did she represent a greater respectability. When her voice trembled with anger before falling silent, wearing her virtue on her sleeve, when she sorted papers, or wrote notes to demonstrate her confidence, the only thing she achieved was to allow the leader of the Front de gauche to methodically dismantle her programme with statistics. Only the hard core of her most fervent supporters could fail to see this as a catastrophic rout in terms of basic propaganda.  

An anti-establishment candidate does not refuse conflict. A legitimate presidential candidate does not refuse debate. Watching the show, one couldn’t help thinking that her father would never have acted like that. He actually proved the point by coming to her rescue, in an excitably populist fashion, declaring that he wanted to “pull down Jean-Luc Mélanchon’s pants”... The balance Bruno Mégret had managed to strike between radical cleavage** and institutionalisation seemed very far away.

It brought to mind the words of François Duprat: “Political action is the fierce attempt to occupy as much ground as possible. The rest is only literature. And bad literature, at that!” To hear Marine Le Pen persistently confusing her voting intentions in the polls and the “millions of electors” she paradoxically claimed to defend by keeping silent, suggested that a combination of plebiscitary institutions and the sway of public opinion was trapping the party leaders in a bubble, even those with a genuine talent for understanding what the people want.

As I listened to Marine Le Pen, I closed Alexandre Dézé's book and decided that the “intransigence” Marine Le Pen credited herself with during the show was not intransigence at all, but rather overconfidence in her instinct and in her role as orator. This overconfidence has proven detrimental to the strategy she had built up, based on firmly occupying the middle ground between an anti-establishment drive and credible propositions. This was a tactical error for which her camp has paid dearly on all fronts, with its inability, despite its best efforts, to make inroads into the sphere of political institutions.



* The French is strapontins (‘folding chairs’) which is a very vivid and provocative metaphor for temporary and marginal roles in office (or seats). (Editor’s note.)

** The French clivage (“cleavage”) carries none of the self-contradictory possibilities of the English. The verb “to cleave” is the classic example in English of a Freudian antithetical word, meaning both “to separate violently” and “to bind together”. As such the English word is peculiarly apt to Dézé’s thesis as it is summarised here. (Editor’s note.)


Translation: Samuel Florin

Editing: Sam Trainor

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