When Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the 2002 French presidential election, it provoked mass protests.
Fifteen years later his daughter and successor Marine Le Pen’s dominance in the polls is taken for granted.
She has succeeded in feeding off the racism pushed by the main parties and in a strategy of “de-demonisation” of the FN.
After a bitter faction fight with her father she has distanced herself from much of his toxic image. But the differences between them are over tactics, not principles.
Elections have only ever been a means to an end for the FN, launched as the vehicle to break the fascist right out of its post war isolation.
Le Pen senior built his party on murderous hate and the fascist tradition of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
In 1995 FN activists out flyposting shot teenager Ibrahim Ali-Abdallah in the back, and skinheads threw Moroccan migrant Brahim Bouhane in the river Seine during an FN march in Paris.
Its paramilitary “security service” today counts around 1,500 thugs with terrifying stashes of weapons.
Le Pen’s strategy meant hiding that repulsive heart behind a veneer of respectability to reach a mass audience.
But elements of that mass audience had to be drawn into the hardcore—and for that the mask had to slip sometimes.
Marine Le Pen plays the same trick. In 2015 she channelled Nazi-style biological racism by pledging to “eradicate bacterial immigration” by refugees with “non-European diseases”.
While her rhetoric relies far more on attacking Muslims, the Holocaust remains an essential touchstone.
Just this month Le Pen claimed that France was “not responsible” for French cops directed by French officials rounding up Jews for deportation to Nazi death camps.
Behind closed doors the FN is more explicit. Its head in Nice, Benoit Loeuillet, was sacked last month after undercover reporters filmed him saying “there weren’t mass deaths like people say” in the Holocaust.
Along with ideology, activism is the glue that holds the FN together—from mass rallies to covert acts of violence.
It was behind many of the protests in towns and villages last year against the arrival of refugees from Calais.
But to avoid undermining the party’s electoral work, much of the direct action is done through satellite groups.
Marine Le Pen cut the FN’s ties to those whose violence made them notorious—street-fighting “student union” GUD and the skinhead Revolutionary Nationalist Youth.
Others have taken their place, notably the Identitarian Bloc. Its leader in Nice, Philippe Vardon, became a regional FN councillor in 2015. He was sentenced to six months in jail last year for a racist assault using teargas and a knife.
Another FN candidate, Rodolphe Schwarz, led wildcat marches of police officers last October. These were among the only recent protests to win their demands from the French government.
As rage against police violence exploded this February, MPs were voting to give cops more powers to use their guns. No wonder around half of officers and their families vote for the FN.
This all requires a tense, delicate balance—and whenever it trips up the FN explodes in infighting.
Deputy leader Bruno Megret tore half the party away from Le Pen’s “extremism” into his electoralist National Republican Movement (MNR) in 1999. It swiftly disintegrated while Le Pen rebuilt.
Today one key faultline is between overtly homophobic MP Marion Marechal-Le Pen and gay “modernising” vice president Florian Philippot.
Another is between Le Pen’s “anti-system” rhetoric and her success that makes her part of the system.
She couldn’t make hay from Tory Francois Fillon’s embezzlement scandal because she’s under investigation for using the exact same scam.
The 2014 local elections illustrate how difficult the FN has found it to build up enough reliable members. It struggled to find enough candidates for all its target seats—and around 400 of the 1,500 candidates elected are already gone.
All successful fascists have to be ruthless opportunists to suit the changing situation.
Their internal contradictions can prove fatal—as in the messy collapse of the Nazi British National Party.
Or, if contained long enough to win power, they can be resolved—as in the “Night of the long knives” where Hitler murdered his rivals in 1934. Much depends on the opposition they face.
Mainstream French politicians aren’t putting up a fight.
All the main parties have fed the FN with racism. The centre right and liberal parties have flirted with alliances with it.
The centre left responds to FN threats by standing down to let the Tories take them on.
But the FN can be surprisingly vulnerable to opposition that disrupts it. Le Pen works hard to ditch the label of “F for fascist, N for Nazi” precisely because it is so damaging.
When a small group of Corsican nationalists invaded an FN rally this month, the FN “security service” responded with teargas that meant the room had to be evacuated.
Riot police put the village of Rignac on lockdown last month in response to anti-fascists just booking a room. Larger cities have seen thousands-strong protests against the FN.
Millions hate everything it stands for, and the potential exists for a mass anti-fascist movement that could choke it and crush it.
If left to grow the danger isn’t that it wins the vote, but that it forges a weapon fit to smash all democracy.
With France’s main parties in crisis and over a third of voters undecided, the presidential race is wide open.
But the winner won’t be from the governing Labour-type Socialist Party (PS).
In a humiliation unprecedented in modern France, president Francois Hollande accepted he was too unpopular to re-stand.
Then his prime minister Manuel Valls lost in the primaries to Benoit Hamon, a soft left rebel.
Hamon has been left standing by candidates who are former PS ministers that have lead splits.
Though strangely, since neither is likely to win a parliamentary majority without the PS, it is the likeliest party to join the next government.
The favourite is young technocrat Emmanuel Macron—Hollande’s former finance minister, but he reckons that having been a banker before makes him an “outsider”.
Macron has backed off from Valls’ Islamophobia and wants to finally end Hollande’s two-year state of emergency. But his main problem with the PS is that their attacks on workers’ rights didn’t go far enough.
Straight-talking car worker Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party is expecting a modest vote. But he has shaken up the debate and helped raise the profile of a class-based alternative.
After a strong performance on televised debates, Jean-Luc Melenchon is terrifying the bosses. He rails against the rich, campaigns for peace, hounds racists and mourns drowned refugees.
But his programme, centred on constitutional reform for a “Sixth Republic”, is an uneasy mix of class anger and soft nationalism.
It’s all about the “people” asserting “sovereignty”, with French flags and the national anthem—leaving room to back border controls, arms exports and deals with dictatorships.
Noxious Tory Francois Fillon has gone from certainty to long-shot.
Fillon held a banner with Marechal-Le Pen on marches against gay marriage in 2013, and promised be the next Margaret Thatcher.
But his talk of budget cuts and “family values” backfired when it emerged that he’d paid his wife and children handsomely for fake jobs at public expense.
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