France’s far-right surges into Parliament, and further into the mainstream

France’s far-right surges into Parliament, and further into the mainstream

In 2017, after far-right leader Marine Le Pen and her allies won only a handful of seats in parliamentary elections, she blamed France’s two-round voting system for shutting her party out of Parliament despite getting more than 1 million ballots cast in its favor.

“We are eight,” she said bitterly, referring to the seats won by her party in the National Assembly, the lower and more powerful house of Parliament. “In my opinion we are worth 80.”

Fast-forward to this month’s parliamentary elections. The voting system hasn’t changed, but with 89 newly elected lawmakers — an all-time record for her party, currently known as the National Rally — Le Pen is now beaming.

On Wednesday, she hugged her new colleagues, kissing cheeks left and right, before leading them into the National Assembly and posing for a group picture.

“You’ll see that we are going to get a lot of work done, with great competence, with seriousness,” Le Pen told a scrum of television cameras and microphones. In contrast with “what you usually say about us,” she pointedly told the gathered reporters.

For decades, dogged by its unsavory past and doubts over its ability to effectively govern, the French far right failed to make much headway in local and national elections even as it captured the anger of France’s disillusioned and dissatisfied. Most recently, President Emmanuel Macron defeated Le Pen in April’s presidential race.

But the National Rally surged spectacularly in the parliamentary election on June 19, capping Le Pen’s yearslong quest for respectability as she tries to sanitize her party’s image, project an air of competence, and put a softer face on her resolutely nationalist and anti-immigrant platform.

Fueled by anger against Macron and enabled by the collapse of the “republican front” that mainstream parties and voters traditionally erected against the far right, last Sunday’s results came as a shock even within the National Rally’s own ranks.

“I would be lying if I told you that I wasn’t surprised,” said Philippe Olivier, Le Pen’s brother-in-law and special adviser, who described the 89 seats secured by the party in the 577-seat National Assembly as “a tidal wave.”

The National Rally is now the second-largest party in Parliament behind that of Macron, who lost his absolute majority and is now struggling to cobble together enough lawmakers to pass his bills, potentially forcing him to work with a reinvigorated opposition.

In an interview with the news agency Agence France-Presse on Saturday, Macron said he had asked Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne to consult with parliamentary groups to form “a new government of action” that will be named early next month.

He added that the new government could include representatives from across the political landscape, with the exception of the hard-left party France Unbowed and Le Pen’s party, which he said he did not consider to be “parties of government.”

The National Rally does not have enough lawmakers to push through its own bills and will struggle to find allies in Parliament. But thanks to increased public funding based on its election results, the haul of seats is a financial boon for the heavily indebted party.

Crucially, for the first time since the 1980s, it has enough seats to form a parliamentary group — the only way to get leverage in the lower house.

National Rally lawmakers can now bring a no-confidence vote, ask for a law to be reviewed by the Constitutional Council, create special investigative committees, fill top parliamentary jobs, and use a new wealth of speaking time and amending power to push and prod the government and slow or block the legislative process.

“During the previous term, there was a two-day debate on immigration,” Olivier recalled. “We had five minutes of speaking time!”

Le Pen has said that her party will ask for positions that are traditionally allocated to opposition groups, including the vice presidency of the National Assembly and the leadership of the powerful finance committee, which oversees the state budget.

Analysts say this established presence in Parliament could further anchor the far-right in France’s political landscape, providing an invaluable launching pad for future elections.

“I think Marine Le Pen understands that this is really the final test,” said Jean-Yves Camus, co-director of the Observatory of Radical Politics at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation, a progressive research institute.

Many voters, even those who might agree with her proposals, still question her party’s capabilities, Camus noted. Now, he said, she will try to show that like other far-right populist parties in Europe, her party can harness institutional machinery from the inside, instead of railing against it from the outside.

Olivier said that his party would try to push through legislation on its favorite themes, including lowering value-added taxes on energy and essential goods, drastically reducing immigration, and increasing police powers. But he said his party would also be “a constructive opposition,” not a “troublemaker.”

“If Macron proposes a bill on nuclear power, we will vote for it,” he said. “If a bill goes in the right direction, we will study it.”

Le Pen has engaged in a long and deliberate strategy to “undemonize” her party and widen her electorate. Since her defeat by Macron in 2017, she has tried to foster her credibility and rebrand her party away from its extremist roots.

Many of the new far-right lawmakers came to politics during this makeover era and learned the ropes as city councilors or parliamentary assistants who tried to project rigorousness and break with the excesses of some of the party’s longtime lieutenants, who were often associated with antisemitism and xenophobia.

“A bit of new blood and some new faces won’t hurt,” Bryan Masson, who captured a seat in the Alpes-Maritimes area of southern France, told BFM TV last week. At 25, he is one of Parliament’s youngest members, after a decade of activism for the National Rally, first as a leader of its local youth branch and then as a regional councilor.

Le Pen also has dropped ideas that alienated mainstream voters, such as a proposal to leave the eurozone, which helped her to get 41.5% of the vote in April’s presidential election, an eight-point increase from 2017.

That was not enough to defeat Macron, who called for a “republican front,” a longtime strategy in which mainstream voters put political differences aside to support anyone but the far right in runoff votes.

That front has weakened in recent years, however, and it recently appeared to collapse, amid the growing polarization in French politics around three strongly opposed blocs — Macron’s broad, pro-globalization center, the far right, and the hard left of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party, France Unbowed.

On June 19, the National Rally won half of its runoff matches against candidates from an alliance of parties supporting Macron, compared with less than 1 in 10 in the previous legislative elections.

Many in Macron’s party put the far right on near equal footing with Mélenchon’s leftist coalition, saying both were extreme, prompting half of the president’s supporters to abstain in runoffs pitting the National Rally against the left, according to a recent poll.

Similarly, the left-wing alliance said that “not a single vote” should go to the far right, but it did not encourage voters to back Macron’s alliance, leading many supporters to stay home.

Gilles Ivaldi, of the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po in Paris, said the far right had surfed on the wave of resentment against Macron’s pro-business policies and his perceived arrogance, as many voters wanted mainly to punish the president.

“These legislative elections looked a lot like midterms,” he said, despite being held barely two months after Macron’s reelection victory.

The National Rally’s new presence in Parliament is a double-edged sword, analysts say.

Le Pen has to manage a delicate balancing act that entails “being almost completely normalized while remaining transgressive,” Camus said, as the party fully joins a political system it had long castigated as inefficient and corrupt.

“What brought voters to the National Rally was that they were an anti-establishment party,” he added.

Now, they are at the establishment’s heart.

[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]

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