Introduction Central to the French political context is the upcoming presidential election of April 2022, after five years of a government headed by President Emmanuel Macron. December 2021’s electoral polls announced that around 32% of the voters intend to put a ballot for one of the main far-right candidates (M. Le Pen 16%, E. Zemmour …
Central to the French political context is the upcoming presidential election of April 2022, after five years of a government headed by President Emmanuel Macron. December 2021’s electoral polls announced that around 32% of the voters intend to put a ballot for one of the main far-right candidates (M. Le Pen 16%, E. Zemmour 14%, N. Dupont-Aignan 2%) – to be compared with 18% shared among six left-wing candidates, 19% for V. Pécresse, candidate of the right-wing party Les Républicains (LR) and 23% for E. Macron. While polls remain uncertain, France surely witnesses a rise of the far-right in the political landscape as well as a worrying expansion of far-right themes, such as immigration, identity, and security, in the public debate, beyond the scope of traditional far-right actors as exemplified during the debates for the primary of the right-wing party LR.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lock-down measures put an abrupt end to a wave of social protest, epitomizing the Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) movement in late 2018 and stretching throughout 2019 with convergence with social revendications of the climate movement, opposing Macron’s neoliberal agenda. Emmanuel Macron’s government has indeed been criticized for exacerbating social and economic inequalities (for example ending wealth tax while reducing housing benefits and wishing to reform the pension system), while simultaneously using authoritarian measures and laws, as shown by the repression of the social contestations/demonstrations of the last five years and more (the Yellow Vests but also in Notre-Dame-des-Landes…), and the “global security law” giving more power to the Police, for example.
This combination of the propagation of antisemitic, anti-immigration, anti-Islam (amplified by the 2015 terrorist attacks), anti-“leftism” (and “anti-islamo-leftism”) discourses coming from the (far-)right end of the political spectrum, together with the accentuation of neoliberal-authoritarian turn of Macron’s government has led authors to speak about the current period a one of “fascination”, in which the figure of presidential candidate Eric Zemmour (to the right of Marine Le Pen) is a symbol.
On the one hand, the French far-right is present and active on the parliamentary scene through political parties and figures running at the local, regional, national, and European elections. The popularity of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN), formerly known as Front National (FN) has significantly grown in the last decade, leading Le Pen to reach second place in the first round of the 2017 presidential elections with 21,3% of the votes behind Emmanuel Macron (24%) (17,9% in 2012). In both the 2014 and 2019 elections to the European Parliament, the FN/RN reached first place, with respectively 24,9% and 23,3% of the votes. Debout La France (DLF) led Nicolas Dupont-Aignan is the second main party considered as far-right. However, it only reached 4,7% in 2017 and its popularity has decreased even more since then. Les Patriotes (LP), created by Florian Philippot when splitting from the RN in 2017 has been electorally unsuccessful, yet it attempted to have a leading role in the contestation of the restrictive measures related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 2021, the French Parliament (Assemblée Nationale) counted 9 far-right members out of 577 seats (6 RN members, 2 from Debout la France (DLF), and 1 non-affiliated). At the Senate, 2 members represent the far right (one RN and one DLF), out of 358. At the EU Parliament, the French far-right occupies 23 seats out of 79 dedicated to the country, and out of 705 overall. The RN Members of the EU Parliament (MEPs) are part of the Identity and Democracy (ID) group.
Despite its direct neo-fascist origins, the RN has engaged with a “de-demonization” strategy especially since Marine Le Pen took over the leadership of the party in 2011. Moving away from the negationist and racist reputation of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party has managed to become more normalized and to gain legitimacy. The RN still uses an anti-Brussels and pro-sovereignty rhetoric but has dropped its wish for a “Frexit”, leaving these more Eurosceptic stances to smaller marginal parties such as F. Philippot’s LP or F. Asselineau’s Union Populaire Républicaine (UPR). Denouncing immigration and Islam has remained central to the RN, but the polishing of this discourse too has left a space for the (re-)emergence of less filtered rhetoric embodied by E. Zemmour and his supporters.
At the end of November 2021, E. Zemmour announced he would run for the presidential elections and created a party “Reconquête !” in the following days, claiming 75 000 members by December 30. Journalist and TV columnist, his popularity surged as he started appearing on the channel CNews in 2019, where he was given a daily platform for his xenophobic speech. He has been convicted for racial discrimination (2011) and for incitement to hate towards Muslims (2018), as the amalgam between immigration, Islam, and crime is a constant theme. His sudden success can be both explained by a self-feeding media bubble and hype around the speculation of his candidacy, but also because he aims to gather a broad right-wing electorate around his fascist rhetoric of ethnicity-based re-generation of the greatness of the French nation currently devastated by uncontrolled non-white immigration. E. Zemmour is also known for his misogyny and opposition to same-sex marriage.
The other side of the far-right coin takes place on the extra-parliamentary scene. The porosity between the two is evident, with actual revolving doors between activism and positions in the parties (Damien Rieu for example, founder of Génération Identitaire, RN candidate at local elections, and parliamentary assistant of RN executives). Most importantly, the extra-parliamentary far-right contributes to the diffusion of far-right discourses and violence.
Far-right groups proliferate and thrive outside of the parliamentary arena. On the more presentable side, one finds a variety of conservative think tanks and institutes, who mainly aim to spread knowledge and intellectually train both a young and adult public through seminars, colloquiums, publications, and the like (Institut Iliade, Institut de Formation Politique (IFP), Carrefour de l’Horloge, Polémia…). Marion Maréchal (ex-Le Pen) even founded a private graduate school in Lyon (ISSEP). This sphere believes in the need for a cultural battle to induce change at the political level.
Others advertise themselves as youth organizations and host regular events and summer camps (Academia Christiana, Action Française, Génération Identitaire formerly…) Most groups organize themselves into local sections and some even have premises with a bar or sports training room (boxing) and attempt to get attention through symbolic actions (blocking a border, occupying a mosque, banner drop…) Even if national or local groups are punctually dissolved, the same activists usually reunite under another name and continue their activities (for example the Groupe Union Défense (GUD), then Bastion Social). These political groups can also take the shape of a student union, such as in the case of La Cocarde Étudiante implemented in several universities. Some activists of these groups are also active in street activism, assaulting left-wing activists as well as trade unions and antifascist premises.
Whether these groups are identitarian, royalist, catholic-fundamentalist, they function as a network and share an ethnic-nationalist ideology, opposing immigration and Islam perceived as a part of an invasion on a territory where they do not belong. These motivations are often combined with homophobia and transphobia, perceived as a threat to the family core, thought of as the means for the perpetuation of heritage and identity. Conspiracy theories such as “the Great Replacement”, which denounces a supposed replacement of the European peoples by a non-white Muslim population, are often celebrated. It, therefore, does not come as a surprise that many see in E. Zemmour and his “remigration” discourse a providential candidate. His first political meeting on December 5th, 2021 succeeded in bringing together a compilation of far-right groups and figures. It resulted in the violent assault of anti-racist activists who were conducting a peaceful action.
The extra-parliamentary far-right goes way beyond formal groups. Hooligans organize fights among each other and celebrate Nazi symbols. Violent groupuscules are also on the rise, and the ultra-right terror has become a high source of concern for the authorities as they foiled several attacks in recent years. Journalists have also revealed the presence of non-isolated neo-Nazis in the army as well as the banality of racist and antisemitic comments among some Policemen. In April 2021, former army generals published a tribune to urge President Macron to counter in a military way the downfall of France due to immigrants and antiracism. Other radical groups move towards survivalism, aiming at creating white autonomous communities to prepare for a civilization crash induced by an inevitable racial war that has already started. The accelerationist doctrine even advocates for racial-based violence to “accelerate” its occurrence and start anew.
Social media surely play a major role in both the radicalization of individuals and the structuration of groups (Telegram, Discord, Twitter, Gettr…) Youtubers such as Papacito and Baptiste Marchais constantly joke about violently targeting leftists, and others use communication platforms to directly call to murder specific politicians or journalists. But far-right narratives can also count on a wide range of media outlets to disseminate and normalise them: as magazines such as (Boulevard Voltaire, Présent, Éléments, Causeur, L’Incorrect, Valeurs Actuelles…) radio channels (Méridien Zéro, Radio Courtoisie…), web TV (TV Libertés…), “re-information” websites (Novopress, Riposte Laïque, Dreuz…); to mention a few.
On a parliamentary level, Marine Le Pen mainly attempts to forge an alliance with her European counterparts from nationalist parties (especially Poland, Hungary, and Italy), as they share a common vision of a European Union of sovereign nations. In a similar mindset, antisemitic activist Yvan Benedetti collaborates with other nationalist entities or micro-parties in Europe. On an extra-parliamentary level, many formal and informal connections take place. The identitarian movement has spread in Europe, and branches of Génération Identitaire (dissolved in 2021 in France) are still active in Austria, Denmark, and Belgium. These and similar groups usually help each other out by participating in each other’s events and relaying information. They also get inspiration from each other, just as the Bastion Social and its heirs copied the celebrated model of the neo-fascist organization CasaPound in Italy. Others try to build a European-wide network, such as the white supremacist Daniel Conversano and his Les Braves organization. More formally, Marion Maréchal has for example created partnerships and branches of her graduate school in Madrid, hand in hand with neo-Francoists close to Vox, Santiago Abascal’s party, but also in Poland, Russia and Lebanon. More generally, the Nouvelle Droite movement started in the late 1960s and advocated a battle of ideas opposing both liberalism and capitalism and promoting a very organicist vision of the society, which has found intellectual resonance at the European level and beyond (especially in Italy and in Germany).
The antifascist movement is still marked by the recent death of the antifascist activist Clément Méric in 2013 during a fight caused by neo-Nazis of Serge Ayoub’s Jeunesses Nationales Révolutionnaires (JNR, dissolved afterward). The Antifa movement is organized into local independent groups. In 2018, the Jeune Guarde was created in Lyon, with the aim to take back the streets and reflect on a more inclusive antifascist struggle, giving a new youth kick and emphasizing an anti-capitalist standpoint – it counted 5 sections in December 2021. La Horde regularly reports on the far-right at a national level and relays information from local sections. It is also known for its yearly map of far-right actors and its campaigning material. Antifascist activists are at the forefront of far-right monitoring and opposition and can rely on ally local media to publish their findings. A more formal structure, the National Observatory of the Far-right (ONED) was founded in 2020 around politicians, academics, syndicalists, and activists and aims at monitoring the far right as well as producing informative literature.
Another hub of antifascist action lies in trade unions. Symbolic antifascist actors, work towards more training and information campaigns against far-right discourses. Sexist, racist, homophobic, and Islamophobic ideas can only divide the already weakened labor force and are in clear opposition to the anti-capitalist struggle against the dominant classes, a struggle based on values of solidarity and equality. VISA (Vigilance et Initiatives Syndicales Antifascistes) is a national intersyndicalist organization gathering about a hundred unions for which it conducts syndicalist antifascist trainings as well as documentation. The organization works closely with the internal working groups on the fight against the far right in the professional world at the CGT, one of the main trade unions, and at Solidaires, also engaged in the counter-far right fight.
Additionally, academics such as Nonna Mayer, Nicolas Lebourg, Jean-Yves Camus, Jean-Paul Gautier, Michel Winock, Stéphane François, to mention a few, have in the last decades produced important historical analysis on the French far right, both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary.