In advance of the French election on Sunday I thought I’d share again, an extract from my 2019 book, The New Authoritarians, in which I do my best to explain this moment we’re living through and the consistent electoral success of people and parties which position themselves in a space between fascism and Conservatism. After Sunday, we will be told that le Pen represents something different and new and this explains the willingness of millions of people to vote for her. Whereas, what I’m trying to show is that her seeming moderation is just the latest stage of a process of repackaging which has been going on for nearly 60 years.
To make sense of today’s Rassemblement National, it is necessary to recall that it emerged from a far-right milieu, part of which was fascist. It began through a process of partial and managed detoxification, which long precedes its current leadership.
A key text was Dominique Venner’s pamphlet Pour une critique positive, written in 1963 by a former French soldier who had taken part in various activities of the French far right, including a 1956 attack on headquarters of the French Communist Party and had been a member of the group Jeune Nation, which was banned in 1958 for involvement in terrorist acts. JN merged with a successor group, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète, which too was banned and Venner was prosecuted and jailed. Writing from prison, Venner attempted to reorient the far right away from clandestine activities towards possible growth, during what was most likely to be a long period in which the ideas of nationalism were doomed to remain marginal. To grow again, Venner argued, fascism would need to ‘educate its supporters’. The far right, he complained, lived in a permanent atmosphere of dreams, with its supporters reading spy novels, memoirs from participants in the war years or the secret services. He insisted that nationalists needed to maintain their vision of the complete reconstruction of society but argued that this required a lengthy period of preparation. A fascist seizure of power, he insisted, would face numerous obstacles, including that fact that the inhabitants of Europe were much richer than they had ever been and disinclined to accept military rule. What the far right needed, Venner argued, were ‘a hierarchical body of cadres’ working in the tradition of National Socialism. These cadres should see their role as persuasive. Venner urged his supporters to join farmers’ federations and students’ unions, recruit teachers and engineers. The far right faced a long battle of battles, he argued a conflict ‘without glory or panache’.
Dominque Venner’s pamphlet was taken up by others on the right, including François Duprat, the Toulouse organiser of Jeune Nation, and later a member of the fascist party Ordre Nouveau. It was Duprat who persuaded ON to set up the Front National in 1972 after which he was, in effect, the FN’s deputy leader under Le Pen until Duprat’s death in 1978. He praised Venner, likening his pamphlet to Lenin’s What is to be Done? in terms of its influence on his generation of nationalists.
The idea of a Front National was proposed by Duprat at the June 1972 congress of Ordre Nouveau. ‘The final goal of the organisation remains the capture of power by revolutionary action,’ Duprat argued, ‘however this moment has not yet come’. Drawing on Hitler’s National Socialists as well as the recent success of the Italian MSI, Duprat insisted that it was possible to be both electoral and revolutionary. The turn towards electoralism was based on a gamble that the political situation was not going to remain as unfavourably to the right forever; in five national elections from 1967 to 1978, no far right candidate won more than one percent of the vote.
The formation of the Front National was itself a detoxification measure, aimed at uniting the non-fascist right behind Ordre Nouveau. Various well-known figures on the right were invited to join, notably Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was a member of ON but was associated in the public mind with ‘patriotic’ far-right politics rather than with fascism. Above all Le Pen was known for the 1965 campaign for the Presidency by Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, which Le Pen had organised, and whose central demand had been the maintenance of Algeria as a French colony.
That said, detoxification was never supposed to go too far. Initial recruits to the Front included Victor Barthélémy, who became the FN’s Administrative Secretary and was a former General Secretary of Jacques Doriot’s fascist Parti Populaire Français. Barthélémy had recruited a French unit of the Wehrmacht and later worked for the PPF in Mussolini’s Salò Republic. The formation of the FN was not intended to be more than a temporary moderation; Dominque Venner continued to call for the murder of racial enemies while Duprat published Holocaust Denial literature including British fascist Richard Verrall’s Did Six Million Really Die?
Jean-Marie Le Pen’s role within the FN was to popularise ideas developed by others and to win publicity for the group. At times, his method was a right-wing contrarianism, saying something unspeakable so that the FN would be attacked and he could accuse his opponents of hypocrisy. All he was saying out loud, he argued, is what ordinary people were thinking in secret. One example of this approach came in 1984, between the breakthrough at Dreux and the European election results, when Le Pen told a broadcaster that France was not a brothel for six million immigrants.
At other times, Jean-Marie Le Pen defended Vichy or fascism in Germany. In these cases, his role appears to have been to remind FN supporters that their party was not interested in just being popular, it was loyal to the fascist tradition. These comments, including his promise in 1983 to ‘bring together the fasces of our national forces so that the voice of France is heard,’ his 1988 reference to the Socialists’ (Jewish) minister of the public service Michel Durafour as ‘Durafour-crématoire,’ or Le Pen’s frequent use of the term ‘six million’ in multiple contexts seemingly unrelated to the Holocaust, make most sense if they are seen not as the needling of his opponents but instead the continuation of an old idea of the Front going back to the days of Venner and Duprat. They were an insistence that the FN was still a party of revolutionary nationalists. They were intended to radicalise the supporters of the Front, training them in a fascist world-view and converting them from voters into cadres.
The word dédiabolisation was first used at an FN summer school in 1989, by figures around Bruno Mégret, who emerged at the end of the decade as a rival to Jean-Marie Le Pen within the FN. Mégret had left the Gaullist RPR to join the Front National in 1982 and became Le Pen’s Deputy. His role within the organisation was as a bridge to centre-right voters, telling an interviewer from Le Monde in May 1998, ‘Many of the Gaullist values in 1940 at the time of the RPR and after 1962 are perennial values which, today, are embodied by the FN: the independence of France, the greatness of our country, the refusal of a regime dominated by political parties.’ Mégret’s criticism of Le Pen was that by positioning the Front as a party which was in continuity with Vichy and the German occupation rather than the Resistance, he was preventing a coalition with Gaullists, the party’s most direct route to power.
Those arguments have recurred over the past five years, with Le Pen’s daughter’s Marine much making the same arguments, but with much greater success. The success of Marine Le Pen has come in part from moderating the FN’s approach towards groups with were seen by her father as the Front’s implacable enemies, including some of France’s Jews, while at the same time adopting a more hostile message in relation to her party’s main enemies, Arabs and Muslims. Instead of proposing the repatriation of immigrants and their children, it spoke of ‘national preference’. In other words, it argues that employment, social services, housing and pensions should be reserved for French citizens who would live alongside others and be given a permanent structural advantage over them…
Obviously, the above stops at about the last Presidential election in 2017. I could have included more material from the same book in which I argue that Macron’s war on social movements (trade unions, students, any expression of moderate Islamic opinion) would pave the way for further growth on the right. It seemed obvious to me that Le Pen would stand for the Presidential elections again, and do better this time than she had in 2017. I haven’t bothered reshare that here because such analyses have been almost universal on the anglophone left. They, in turn, shape how we think about this election – with dread at the prospect of a Le Pen victory, with little more hope should Macron hold her off this time. With each liberal success, with each insistence that everyone else must come behind Macron, with no pretence that he will govern any better next time, the odds shift ever further in Le Pen’s favour.
If any readers want to read further on, you may find the following useful in terms of explaining how Le Pen’s success has come about and what risks it poses:
Ugo Palheta for Historical Materialism arguing that Le Pen’s trajectory remains fascist and that Macron is in any way preparing the way for her through the fascisation of the state
A reply by me pointing out that the classical Marxist theories of fascism saw it as a movement emerging outside the state and willing to use violence on a mass scale, and arguing that Le Pen’s rejection of violence, make it hard to see here as still (in that sense) fascist
The historian Daniel Gordon crediting Le Pen’s success to the social turn in her rhetoric, as well as the candidacy of Zemmour who made her seem moderate by comparison
Sebastian Budgen on the success of the far left candidate Mélenchon’s in winning young and urban voters in the first round
Owen Jones on Macron’s attempt to woo far-right voters and what Macron will do if he wins.