Professor Camus: National Rally’s Electoral Success Goes Beyond Protest Votes

Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella are seen at the end of a polical meeting in Marseille for Rassemblement National party on March 3, 2024. Photo: Obatala-photography.

Professor Jean-Yves Camus emphasizes that the social and economic policies of President Emmanuel Macron have driven many voters to the National Rally (NR). However, he cautions against viewing this merely as a protest vote. “When a party remains strong for over 50 years, it cannot be solely due to protest,” he notes. According to Camus, NR’s support base reflects a society grappling with increasing inequalities, where many citizens feel deprived of fair opportunities. This sentiment is compounded by a growing resentment towards foreigners, particularly those from North African, West African and Middle Eastern backgrounds.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an era marked by the rising influence of far-right movements across the globe, the unprecedented success of France’s National Rally (NR) in both the European Parliament elections in early June and the first round of national elections on June 30, 2024, has captured widespread attention. Scholars, politicians and citizens are keenly observing this seismic shift in French politics. To delve deeper into this phenomenon, we are joined by Professor Jean-Yves Camus, a political analyst and Associate Research Fellow at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), who is also a distinguished expert on far-right movements.

Reflecting on NR’s recent successes, Professor Camus emphasizes that the social and economic policies of President Emmanuel Macron have driven many voters to the National Rally. However, he cautions against viewing this merely as a protest vote. "When a party remains strong for over 50 years, it cannot be solely due to protest," he notes. According to Camus, NR’s support base reflects a society grappling with increasing inequalities, where many citizens feel deprived of fair opportunities. This sentiment is compounded by a growing resentment towards foreigners, particularly those from North African, West African and Middle Eastern backgrounds. NR voters often believe in a clash of civilizations, perceiving a lack of proper assimilation into French society, especially among Muslim immigrants.

In this interview, Professor Camus provides historical context, current dynamics and future projections for the National Rally. He discusses how the NR’s appeal transcends mere protest, touching on deep-seated issues within French society, such as economic disparities, social mobility and national identity. Camus also explores how the NR’s messaging resonates across various demographics, indicating widespread discontent with traditional political parties. He examines the party’s evolution under Marine Le Pen’s leadership, particularly its ‘normalization’ process, which has made it more palatable to a broader segment of voters.

Additionally, Camus sheds light on the influence of cultural and historical factors, including the legacy of France’s colonial past and the Gaullist tradition of national sovereignty, in shaping contemporary far-right and populist movements. He addresses the complexities of European nationalist parties forming cohesive alliances within the European Parliament and the role of external influences, notably from the US and Russia, on the NR and similar movements.

As France stands on the brink of potentially significant political change, this interview offers a thorough analysis of the forces driving NR’s rise and what its continued success could mean for the future of French politics. Professor Camus’s insights are invaluable for understanding the broader implications of this shift and the underlying currents shaping the political landscape.

Professor Jean-Yves Camus, a political analyst and Associate Research Fellow at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Jean-Yves Camus with some edits.

NR Has Been “Normalized” with Marine Le Pen

Professor Camus, thank you very much for joining our interview series. Let me start right away with the first question. What is the significance of National Rally’s success in the history of the 5th French Republic? What awaits France if NR wins the second round of elections which will, probably, lead to ‘co-habitation’?

Professor Jean-Yves Camus: The significance of this situation, where the Nationally Rally (NR) was voted more than 30% on the first of an election to the lower House of Parliament, is huge. It’s the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic that the extreme right has achieved such success. Back in the 1980s, we used to say in political science that the extreme right was dead. It was believed to have ended in 1945 with the victory against fascism and Nazi Germany and most political scientists considered that it would not be able to resuscitate because there was so much anger from citizens at what fascism stood for.

In spite of this, what we have seen, especially during the time of Jean-Marie Le Pen, between 1972 and 2011, is the re-emergence of the extreme right with some very extreme people and statements. It slowly transitioned from a small fringe movement to parties that initially polled 10%, then 15% and eventually 20%. The National Front even made it to the second round of the Presidential election in 2002 and more or less normalized with Marine Le Pen. Today, it is seen as a far-right party, especially on immigration issues and law and order.

However, the legacy of fascism and the historical extreme right is no more. The generation of people who experienced the Second World War is now deceased. The current members of the party are very young, with figures like Jordan Bardella, who is only 28 years old. For most French people, this is simply a far-right party with a law and order and anti-immigration agenda.

It Would Be a Mistake to Think This Is Only a Protest Vote

How do you explain the enormous success of National Rally both in the European Parliament elections on June 9 and in the first round of French parliamentary elections held on June 30?

Professor Jean-Yves Camus: What is particularly striking is that the National Rally came out ahead among all segments of the population, from people aged 18 to 25 to elderly pensioners and from the upper-middle class to the working class. This indicates that the party has support across almost all segments of French society.

The success of the National Rally can be partly explained by the disaffection of voters with mainstream parties. Whether it be the Socialist Social Democrat left, Macron’s party—which was clearly sanctioned by the voters—or the mainstream conservative right party, Les Républicains, which garnered only 10% of the votes. You have to realize that the party of Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Fillon, which used to be a major conservative force, is now practically dead.

The social and economic policies of Macron have driven many voters to the National Rally. However, it would be a mistake to think this is only a protest vote. When a party remains strong for over 50 years, it cannot be solely due to protest.

First of all, the vote reflects the reality that our society is becoming less and less egalitarian. In France, we have a passion for equality, which doesn’t mean everyone should earn the same wage or have the same education. Instead, it means the Republic should enable anyone from any walk of life to climb the social ladder. For example, someone from the working class should be able to see their children rise to the middle class and then to the upper class and so on. However, this social mobility is becoming less and less possible. Inequalities in terms of income and education are now greater than they were in the 1980s.

The second point is that many citizens feel they do not have fair access to opportunities. They perceive that there is an elite—a political elite, a media elite and an economic elite. On the other side, there are the common people and the gap between these two groups is widening.

To National Rally voters, it seems that democracy is not truly democratic because power is concentrated in the hands of a small group of people. That’s their perspective. While I am not claiming this is the absolute truth, it is the way most National Rally voters see French society.

There is also a wider resentment against foreigners, particularly those from North African, West African and Middle Eastern backgrounds. National Rally voters often believe in a kind of clash of civilizations. They think that assimilation into French society, especially of Muslim immigrants, is not happening as it should.

It is true that France has suffered many terror attacks from radical Islamic groups, which has played a very significant role in shifting many conservative voters, who used to vote for the Republicans, towards more hardline stances on immigration and national identity issues. Many of these voters initially moved to Eric Zemmour’s Reconquête party, but since that party received only 0.7% of the vote in the parliamentary elections, many of those votes have shifted to the National Rally. These voters believe that the country is overwhelmed by immigration and advocate for halting it altogether.

French People Are Longing for the Past

The crowd and supporters with French flags during the campaign meeting (rally) of French presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, on the Trocadero square in Paris, France on March 27, 2022. Photo: Victor Velter.

In what ways has the Gaullist tradition and its emphasis on national sovereignty shaped the contemporary far right and populist radical right movements in France?

Professor Jean-Yves Camus: Sovereignty is a key word here. You might remember that during the era of Charles de Gaulle, sovereignty was a central aspect of his policy. At that time, we had the Common Market, not the EU, which was essentially a loose association of nation-states cooperating on selected issues and projects. This arrangement preserved each country’s sovereignty over foreign policy and the economy and there was no common currency. French legislation was not superseded by EU regulations.

Today, however, around 80% of what is voted in our Parliament must align with standards set by the EU. Consequently, our sovereignty is somewhat limited. While we retain the freedom to send or withhold our troops as we see fit, many citizens feel that the EU imposes constraints on our sovereignty. We now have a common currency and we must often agree with our European partners on important issues, relying on EU funding for various projects. The EU project, to some extent, aims at superseding the sovereignty of member states.

This passion for sovereignty, rooted in the Gaullist era, resonates with the far right and populist radical right movements in France. It also ties into the historical perception of France as a global superpower with colonies around the world. France once saw itself as one of the most important countries globally in terms of budget, military forces and influence.

Nowadays, our influence is less. This doesn’t mean that France cannot send a message to the world in terms of values or that we account for nothing on the international scene. We are now a medium-sized power and this status can bring many positive aspects. However, if you speak to National Front voters, they lament that we used to be one of the biggest countries in the world and have lost our colonial empire. They have a sense of decadency, longing for the past, which I personally do not share.

Given the current political landscape and the shift towards illiberalism, how do you assess the role of cultural and historical factors in shaping the political agendas of far-right movements in France today?

Professor Jean-Yves Camus: The National Rally is a good example of what an illiberal democracy would be like if it were in power.

Cultural factors are significant. The first cultural factor is the notion that in France, becoming French means assimilating to a set of values. Unlike Canada, the United States, or the United Kingdom, where individuals can retain part of their cultural or religious background and still identify as Italian American, Afro-American, Arab American or Jewish American, in France, we do not think that way. We have a set of values that require assimilation, which essentially means forgetting about your past identity and embracing the French way of life. This includes the principle of laïcité or the separation of church and state, which is very important in our secular state. When populations from non-European countries with different sets of values arrived, many French people resented this as an attack on our cultural model.

Then comes history. In France, history inevitably involves reflecting on our colonial past. Our relationships with Algeria and, to a lesser extent, Morocco are rooted in this colonial history. Algeria, for instance, gained independence in 1962 after a war that began in 1954. This conflict, which was a civil war both in Algeria and in mainland France, included an attempted coup in 1961 and resulted in many casualties on both sides. The French army was sent to Algeria to combat the pro-independence movement. How can we have a constructive relationship with Algeria when we have not yet overcome the burden of this past? This remains a significant issue. So, this is the challenge we face.

Of course, we also have issues with other countries from our former colonial empire. The burden of the past may be less pronounced with West African countries, but it still exists. These nations were colonized, and some of them are now asking for apologies for the colonization. For instance, if you look at the National Rally’s voter base, about 99% are nostalgic for the France of the colonial era. They do not support the idea of apologizing or paying reparations. Thus, we are still a country that needs to do a lot of introspection and work regarding our colonial past.

Less Than 50% of the French Think the National Rally Is a Threat

How do you assess the evolution of the National Rally (formerly National Front) under Marine Le Pen’s leadership, particularly in terms of its ‘normalization’ process and its success in attracting voters from Les Républicains? Can you provide us a historical perspective? Has the ‘normalization’ or ‘mainstreaming’ of National Rally been successful in attracting the votes of French middle class?

Professor Jean-Yves Camus: The so-called normalization of the National Rally can be seen in the fact that today, opinion surveys show less than 50% of the French think the National Rally is a threat to democracy. In the past, under Jean-Marie Le Pen’s leadership, more than 70% of the French viewed the party as a threat to the democracy.

Why has this perception changed? First of all, when Marine Le Pen became chairperson in 2011, it was clear she did not share her father’s ideology. She is not anti-Semitic, does not believe in racial inequality, and does not deny the harms that Nazi Germany did to France. Compared to her father, Marine Le Pen is more moderate.

However, she remains the only political leader who wants to stop immigration and make France a fortress closed to any kind of immigration. While she is still radical, she is less so than her father was. This normalization process grew gradually as new generations joined the National Rally, generations that had no political activity during Jean-Marie Le Pen’s era. They are not as obsessed with the party’s past and are drawn to it out of disillusionment with the mainstream political spectrum and resentment towards immigration, albeit in a different way than Jean-Marie Le Pen’s followers.

As a result, the party has slowly become more mainstream. Le Pen is perceived by many French citizens as a relatable political leader, someone who resonates deeply with the everyday struggles of the average person. This perception contrasts sharply with the widespread criticism of politicians who are seen as too detached and distant from the daily concerns of ordinary people. 

Marine Le Pen’s appeal lies in her focus on issues such as the spending power of citizens, job losses and factory closures. She is seen as empathetic towards the struggles of the working and middle classes, who are often overlooked by the political elite. This perception makes her particularly attractive to the middle class, a demographic that feels the brunt of economic stagnation. This group, responsible for paying a substantial portion of taxes, sees their income either stagnating or growing very slowly. They are also the ones unable to assure their children of a better future than their own.

The middle class finds itself in a difficult position. On the one hand, a segment of the French population benefits greatly from globalization and financial markets. On the other hand, the working class receives social benefits and often pays minimal taxes due to lower incomes. Those in the middle, however, feel the weight of heavy taxation and perceive a lack of representation and support.

Main Challenge Far Right Parties Face in the EP Is Their Division

The transnational connections of illiberal movements have been in the spotlight for a considerable amount of time. Do you think trans-European strategies have been successful so far for European illiberal groups and their leaders? In your opinion, what challenges do they face in maintaining a cohesive front within the European Parliament?

Professor Jean-Yves Camus: The main challenge they face in the European Parliament is their division into two political factions: the Identity and Democracy Group (ID Group), led by Marine Le Pen, and the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR Group), led by Giorgia Meloni. Other figures, such as Viktor Orbán, do not currently belong to any particular group but may join one in the future.

These nationalist parties often do not prioritize establishing strong links with foreign groups due to potential clashes over national interests. For example, putting Hungarian and Romanian nationalists in the same room could lead to disagreements over the Hungarian minority in Romania. Similarly, Italian and Austrian nationalists might clash over territorial issues like South Tyrol.

So, the truth is that in every Parliament around the world, you have to belong to a group. This affiliation provides you with significant benefits: funding, jobs, the ability to convene meetings at the headquarters of the European Parliament and opportunities to travel and meet with fellow nationalists. Without group membership, you are essentially isolated in Parliament. Even when it comes to speaking time, those not affiliated with a group receive very limited opportunities to speak. In contrast, groups are allocated speaking time proportional to the number of seats they hold, enhancing their visibility and influence.

Therefore, it is crucial for members to put aside ideological and national differences to sit in the same room. By doing so, they gain the capacity to speak on the floor, increase their visibility and enhance their overall influence within the Parliament.

There is ongoing discussion about the potential merging of the ECR and ID groups into a supergroup of illiberal nationalist parties. However, personal ambitions and ideological differences make this challenging. For instance, deciding the leading figure among Marine Le Pen, Giorgia Meloni or Orban could be contentious.

So, I think in the next legislature at the European Parliament, we will have at least the two existing groups, ID and ECR, and probably a third one. The German AfD can no longer sit with Marine Le Pen’s French National Rally, as Le Pen does not want her party associated with the AfD. Consequently, the AfD is working on building another, more far-right group with the Hungarians from the Mi Hazánk Mozgalom party and some parties from Eastern Europe, which may include the Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands.

The difficulty in forming a group in the European Parliament lies in meeting the required criteria: having at least 25 members and representing at least one-third of the member countries. While gathering 25 members might be straightforward, assembling members from diverse countries can be challenging.

NR and Putin Regime Stands for the Same Values

An activist of the NLM Katasonova Maria holds a poster with the image of Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen, and Donald Trump at the press conference in Moscow, Russia on December 23, 2016. Photo: Shutterstock.

Given the historical context of foreign influences on European politics, how do you view the role of US and Russian influences on the National Rally and other far-right movements in France today? Can you elaborate especially on the role of Putin regime in consolidating the role of far-right parties and illiberal movements? 

Professor Jean-Yves Camus: When it comes to the National Rally, one very important piece of their agenda is the desire for France to withdraw from the military command of NATO. This is significant because, despite French troops being sent abroad, we saw in Sahel in West Africa, under French command, they often have to rely on intelligence gathered by the United States and sometimes the UK. This reliance illustrates the complexities of their stance.

The second point is: What does the National Rally want regarding the Ukraine-Russia war? Marine Le Pen has stated that Russia is a multidimensional enemy. She made this claim a week ago during a TV debate. However, shortly after, she clarified her stance, saying, "Russia is an enemy, but I will not send French troops to train and help Ukrainian soldiers. I shall not allow France to sell missiles to Ukraine because those missiles might kill Russian civilians in Russian cities."

In terms of strategy, usually when a country is labeled as an enemy, there is an implicit expectation to support the opposing side. In this context, if Russia is deemed the enemy, support should go to Ukraine. However, if Le Pen asserts that Russia is the enemy but simultaneously refuses to send troops or provide essential weapons to Ukraine, she indicates a reluctance to fully back Ukraine. This position effectively means turning her back on Ukraine and showing a preference for Russia over Ukraine.

It’s not only a matter of National Rally having relied on Russian money in the past to run the party. Of course, they did borrow money from a Russian bank, but money does not dictate their relationship with Russia. They are supportive of Russia because they believe the Russian regime stands for the same values. These values include authoritarian democracy, a very strong leader and a firm, vertical way of ruling the country. They claim that Russia stands for traditional family values, a multipolar world and law and order. Russia also fights Islamism, even within its borders. In their view, Russia represents a country where traditional European values are still upheld by the government. In other words, they believe the West is too liberal and that Russia is the most traditional country on our continent.

In an article you wrote for Le Monde Diplomatique back in 2014 with the title ‘Not your father’s far right,’ you argue that extensive research into far-right populism over the last 30 years has yet to find a precise, workable definition for this catch-all term, and we need more information on the political category it covers. Revisiting the debate in 2024, do you think we now have a workable definition for populism?

Professor Jean-Yves Camus: We are still in a similar position as we were back in 2002. There is no consensus on a common definition of populism. Broadly speaking, populism can be divided into two different strands: left-wing populism and right-wing populism. In France, for example, left-wing populism is embodied by figures like Jean-Luc Mélenchon and La France Insoumise, while right-wing populism includes parties like the National Rally.

The only similarity between them is their desire to bypass representative democracy in favor of direct democracy, advocating for referenda on major issues. However, what is specific to the far right is their xenophobic agenda. They scapegoat foreigners, immigrants and refugees for everything that goes wrong in the country. In contrast, the far left does not advocate for different rights for native citizens versus documented immigrants or naturalized citizens. For the far right, this xenophobia is the cornerstone of their agenda, which is the fundamental difference between the two.

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