President Emmanuel Macron recently engaged in a rare public argument with his prime minister Elisabeth Borne – the subject at issue was how to deal with the far-right.
Borne, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, commented during an interview that Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party was the legacy of Philippe Pétain, who led France during the Vichy regime, cooperating with the Nazis and deporting Jewish people to concentration camps.
Macron said that the far-right cannot be defeated with moral arguments, telling his ministers “you won’t be able to make millions of French people who voted for the far-right believe that they are fascists”, adding that strategies and catch phrases “hailing from the 1990s” no longer work.
The next presidential elections are not until 2027, but it’s a sign of the worry over the prospect of a far-right victory that the government is engaging in public arguments on the topic.
And it’s not the only indication – the government’s spokesman Olivier Véran has recently embarked on trips to Denmark and Brazil, where his focus has been on the different methods in these countries for defeating the far-right.
Je me suis rendu au Brésil, un pays qui a conquis la démocratie mais qui a bien failli la perdre… pic.twitter.com/ax8lEyFHkG
— Olivier Véran (@olivierveran) May 23, 2023
Jean-Yves Camus, a French political scientist specialising in the far-right and co-director of the Observatory for Political Radicalism at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation, said that France’s priorities have been elsewhere – on political and economic issues such as pension reform and inflation – but he did note that Macron’s comments represent a possible shift in strategy in pushing back against the far-right.
“In my opinion, this is the best procedure to take, if we consider all other strategies to have failed”, explained Camus.
“It does not really matter whether Borne was correct or not. The priority is that a different technique must be taken. The far-right must be fought by deconstructing their programme, showing its failures and demonstrating what is not possible to apply – whether that be due to the confines of the French constitution, EU and international law, or simply because the statistics and references are not factual.
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“These days, about half of the French population sees Rassemblement National as a party like any other.
“Thirty years ago, when I started to discuss this phenomenon, everyone said the far-right had disappeared after 1945. They did not understand that it was possible for them to evolve.
“They have adapted well to modernity and the new rules regarding political communication and social media. They have managed to erase many of their historical roots, so that now, if you talk to Rassemblement National voters in Pas-de-Calais or along the Mediterranean, no one will say it’s a fascist party”.
John Lichfield, who has covered French politics as a journalist for decades, felt similarly.
“Borne is right that the DNA of the Le Pen movement is actually that of Vichy to a large extent. But Macron is also right in that doesn’t mean much to people anymore.
“The younger generations don’t have the same kind of allergic reaction to the word Vichy – and what happened during the war”, Lichfield explained during a recent episode of the Talking France podcast.
However, from his view, the strategy should include countering the far-right on moral grounds.
“It seems to me that you should do the two. Macron is probably right that the best way to tackle Marine Le Pen is to point out the absurd contradictions in many of her policies. But he went a bit too far when he said you shouldn’t attack the far-right on moral grounds.
“Despite all her efforts since 2010 to clean things up, it is pretty clear that one of the core drivers of the people who join the Rassemblement National party – maybe not the people who vote for it – is race.
“They are a racist party at their core. I think that is the kind of thing that needs to be said, and that is a moral argument rather than a political one”.
The next presidential election is years away, but near identical results have been produced the last two times the French went to polls – a second round composed of Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, which Macron has won. In the 2022 election, Le Pen took 41.4 percent of the vote in the second round, to Macron’s 58.5 percent.
In 2027 Macron cannot stand, as French presidents are barred from serving more that two consecutive terms.
It’s far too early to predict the election, but the campaign certainly won’t be composed of just two parties – so what are the rest of France’s politicians doing to combat the threat of the far-right?
The previously centre-right Les Républicians – the party of De Gaulle, Chirac and Sarkozy – appear to be taking a strategy of trying to appear even more hardline on issues such as immigration than Le Pen.
But Camus said that Le Pen would have a simple response to this: to recognise the opportunistic nature of the LR pushing for immigration reform in this moment in particular.
“She can just point to Sarkozy, the last Les Républicains president, and reference how many immigrants he ‘let in'”.
Camus did not express much hope for the French Left either, saying there is “no possibility” of the leftist alliance Nupes reaching power in 2027 in its current form.
He said: “The French left is totally confused. The Nupes is dead one year after being created.
“If the French left wants to be effective, then sure it is well and good to look at issues through a moral and historical perspective, but we cannot do just that. Just saying that it is the party of the 1930s and 1940s that does not work anymore.”
Although Macron himself cannot stand in 2027, it’s highly likely that someone from his party will. In the meantime Macron will remain – barring unforeseen events – president for the next four years.
“The problem is that for many people, particularly workers, Emmanuel Macron is the incarnation of the elite. People do not want to listen to him,” warned Camus.
Nonetheless, Camus emphasised his support for Macron’s head-on approach. “It is time to debate – a tête à tête“, he said.