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17 June 2021updated 31 Aug 2021 5:24am

How French conservatives are turning toward Marine Le Pen

Defections by mainstream politicians suggest that backing France’s hard-right National Rally in regional elections is no longer a dramatic leap.   

By David Broder

Frontrunner for this month’s Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur elections in southern France, Thierry Mariani speaks like a typical far-right candidate. In a region that saw a truck-attack kill 86 people on Bastille Day 2016 and a stabbing spree last October that was described by President Emmanuel Macron as an “Islamist terrorist attack”, Mariani has emphasised the “obvious link between immigration and terrorism” — claiming “civil war is here already.” Polling at 41 percent ahead of the first round of voting in regional elections on 20 June, he could soon make this the first region ever controlled by Marine Le Pen’s hard-right Rassemblement National (National Rally).

Yet unlike other far-right candidates, Mariani has held high office before. An MP since 1993 for the mainstream, pro-European centre-right which backed Jacques Chirac’s presidency, from 2010 to 2012 Mariani was transport minister under president Nicolas Sarkozy. Then, after losing his parliamentary seat in 2017, he broke with the centre-right Les Républicains (The Republicans) and two years later became an MEP for the Rassemblement National, until recently called Front National.

With Les Républicains yet to recover from their scandal-ridden 2017 presidential campaign, Mariani is also not the only figure to cross the divide on the right. Just West along the Mediterranean, in the parallel contest in neighbouring Occitanie, Le Pen’s top candidate is Jean-Paul Garraud, himself a veteran centre-right MP. He is polling first place on 31 percent, slightly ahead of the incumbent Socialists.

Known in French media as PACA, the wealthy south-east region where Mariani is running has a politics that belies stereotypes about far-right success in left-behind areas. The Côte d’Azur does have large pockets of structural unemployment and deprived majority-minority areas similar to Marseille’s quartiers nord: resort towns have also been especially hit hard by the lockdown. Yet, as well as being France’s most unequal region, PACA is also ranked third out of thirteen for GDP per capita. Mariani is polling 43 percent among middle-class voters.

[See also: New polling: voters blame French government for slow vaccination campaign]

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The well-established popularity of France’s far-right party in PACA illustrates the existence of “two Front Nationals” — a party split between an ex-industrial Northern base and its more middle-class, Catholic support in Mediterranean France. In the latter, it has historic roots among the pieds-noirs — white people who returned from North Africa after decolonisation — and promotes a more classically right-wing, low-tax agenda. In 2015 its lead candidate was Marine Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal, considered more free-marketeer than her aunt.

France’s run-off system of elections puts up a high bar to the Rassemblement National, however, given the historic tendency for other voters to rally against it. It has only six MPs, hardly any important mayoralties, and none of France’s 13 metropolitan regions. While Mariani leads first-round polls by up to ten points, the second-round run-off on 27 June against Les Républicains’ incumbent Renaud Muselier will likely be much closer.

Already ahead of the first round, Muselier has formed a joint list with Macron’s La République En Marche party. This pact was a shock to Les Républicains in other regions who are running as right-wing opponents of the president. After some leading figures pushed for the party to withdraw support for Muselier, on 18 May it issued a statement criticising the agreement but nonetheless calling for a vote against the Rassemblement National.

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More widely, Le Pen’s path to success against Macron in next April’s presidential contest is built on weakening the resolve of such a “republican front” against her. Already during the last presidential run-off she announced that if elected she would pick the more moderate “national-conservative” Nicolas Dupont-Aignan as her prime minister. In April she resigned as party leader promising that she represent “all French people” — echoing a move she made during the second round in 2017.

In turn, the Rassemblement National’s now well-established place in national politics has pushed Les Républicains to flirt with its base. Last week, deputy leader Guillaume Peltier told the French radio network RTL he shares the “same convictions” as mayor of Béziers Robert Ménard — a far-right, Le Pen-backed independent. Éric Ciotti MP, a member of Les Républicains’ national council who sought to withdraw endorsement for Muselier, also sparked criticism last month by narrowly framing his party’s differences with Le Pen in terms of “governmental competence”. In PACA itself, the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, recently quit the party citing its softness on far-right “extremism” — notwithstanding his own recent conviction for defamation against a migrants’ rights activist.

Mariani’s campaign literature stresses that he is a traditional right-winger who could no longer stay in a party “in hock to the moralising Left“. Yet Macron’s recent law-and-order measures and tough stance against “wokeness” are themselves preparing the ground for a distinctly more right-wing campaign than in 2017. In a TV debate this February, his interior minister accused Le Pen of having gone “soft on Islam”, and last month joined police unions’ protests outside the National Assembly. In April, his universities minister announced an investigation into campus “Islamo-leftism” on live TV. The wider media-political obsession with identity and immigration — fanned by Fox-like networks such as CNEWS — is further normalising Le Pen’s narrative of intense social conflict.

With next year’s presidential campaign pitched to the right and expected to produce a tight run-off between Macron and Le Pen, defectors such as Mariani and Garraud tell conservative voters that backing the Rassemblement National is no longer such a leap. A 4 June poll for right-wing daily Le Figaro found that 39 percent of Les Républicains sympathisers have a “positive” view of Le Pen. She has always sought to detoxify her brand; now, a wider toxification of France’s political climate is making this job even easier. As the long-shuttered terraces on the Côte d’Azur again start welcoming punters, there’s something rather nasty in the sea breeze.

[See also: Will France’s anti-Marine Le Pen “republican front” hold?]