Book Review: Il Front National da Jean-Marie a Marine Le Pen

Nicola Genga, Il Front National da Jean-Marie a Marine Le Pen. La Destra Nazional-populista in Francia (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2015). 205 pp., €18,00 (paperback), ISBN: 9788849843309.

The volume of Nicola Genga makes a thoughtful reconstruction of the life of the French Front National party (FN) from its origins until recent times. This is done through coverage of different aspects of party emergence, party organisation and ideology. The volume consists of five substantive chapters and an Introduction.

In chapter one, the author analysed the process of party emergence and the main reasons for the sudden success of this party in the eighties after more than a decade of total irrelevance. The main argument raised by the author is that contrary to common wisdom and to what has often been argued in the literature, it was not the innate charisma of its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen – or his role of party founder – to determine the emergence of FN. In fact, Jean-Marie Le Pen was not the most prominent among the party founders and originally he did not exert a strong leadership on his party, but only gradually he managed to make the party central office more identified with him and his leadership. This process did not go unchallenged however, as the role of Len Pen as well as the whole party line have several times been challenged from inside the party. It is exactly in these moments that the leadership of Le Pen, as well as the popular support for the FN, suffered the most. Hence, to hold an uncontested leadership is not a fixed property of this party but rather an outcome of intra-party competition. Under this point of view, FN shows features of pluralism in its intra-party life that are interesting for a party whose democratic character has often been questioned. Hence, the reasons for the advent of Le Pen as national political figure and the electoral emergence of FN are phenomena that should be explained by factors other than intrinsic charismatic leadership. These factors include the materialisation of new divisive issues within society, the introduction in France of second order national elections and the unintentional sponsorship exerted by President Mitterrand. According to the author, it is thanks to these drivers (that are then discussed in chapter two) that Le Pen started to acquire visibility in the media and with the public.

The first of these drivers was the emergence of the issue of immigration within French society. Before FN, other parties had already attempted to give representation to the mounting discontent of citizens for immigration, particularly it was the French communist party that had started to policitise this issue in terms of economic challenges to the French working class. The FN was able to up-take the issue and to politicise it through a more encompassing approach including both identity and economic motivations. With FN, opposition to immigration became principled and not contingent on single aspects, a linear message that resonated with the public giving at the same time representation to fears that had become widespread within society. A second driver of the emergence of FN was the move from a multi-party system based on four main parties of which two (the left) had been excluded from government to a system of bipolarity with four governing parties and two-party dominance. It is at this point that the FN could more successfully forward its image of third force and of a purifier not colluded with power. Then, the introduction of European elections is defined as another driver in the emergence of FN. These are second order elections characterised by a sanction vote for the incumbent, electoral reward for the opposition – particularly for fringe and protest-based parties – in a context of low turn-out. The author associates the electoral emergence of FN with the European elections of 1984 when the party gained an unprecedented 11% of votes. Local elections also gave opportunities to the FN to be successful and to appoint officials at least in some areas of the country. Indeed, it is in second order elections that FN was more successful, while first order elections in France apply majoritarian rules and restrictions to representation that would probably make the emergence of this party impossible. Finally, another driver considered by the author is the unintentional sponsorship given by President Mitterrand. In the name of democracy and of pluralism Mitterrand formally invited the national broadcast not to exclude FN, a call that was immediately executed. In reality, by doing so Mitterrand mainly attempted to divide the right-wing electorate by giving more options to conservative voters. Appearance of Le Pen in the national broadcast boosted his visibility among the general public, moreover his presence in popular TV shows benefited audience so his presence in the media became even more frequent. Finally, for the same strategic reasons Mitterrand introduced PR representation for parliamentary elections, an electoral system that permitted the appointment of a considerable group of FN deputies in 1986 (proportional representation was then abandoned in the following elections). At that point, the electoral emergence of FN was accomplished and the party had become a real challenger to all mainstream parties, a result that the same Mitterrand was probably not able to anticipate.

Chapters three and four of the volume analyse the ideology of FN. According to the author, this is the result of a complex mix of dirigisme (of fascist roots) and neo-liberalism that build on the anger of the lower classes without really promoting egalitarianism within society. Moreover, it is an ideology with a populist appeal because it represents the French nation as virtuous and made of homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous foreigners who deprive the sovereign people of their identity, rights, values and prosperity. The demos and the ethnos coincide strictly in this ideology that the author defines as national populist.

Finally, chapter five describes the rise of Marine Le Pen to party leadership, again not an uncontested process in the intra-party life. Although an assessment of her leadership is still premature, certainly some important changes are visible with respect to the party ideology. Her attempt to move from political extremism to a stance more acceptable by a wider electorate has produced alternate results, as the irregular electoral record of FN under her leadership shows. However, Marine Le Pen faces probably the most challenging contest in her attempt to create a party central office (and electorate) identified with her: her farther and historical leader Jean Marie Le Pen.

The book has a broad coverage and does not really test any particular set of theories in systematic way, but through narratives the story of FN is presented in a way that is at the same time engaging and easy to read.

Nicolò Conti, Unitelma Sapienza University of Rome

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