France’s Front National, which now has a real though outside chance of gaining the country’s powerful presidency, is not a fascist movement comparable to the Nazis or Mussolini’s Fascist Party when they were on the eve of power in the 1920s and 30s. Neither, however, is it a conventional hard-right party like UKIP or Germany’s AfD. The makeover the FN has given itself since 2011 is a makeover.
When Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the FN in 1972, it took the Italian party claiming to represent Mussolini’s heritage, the MSI, as a model. In the 1990s, the MSI renounced its fascist heritage, and eventually merged into a mainstream right party. The FN has not done that. The FN still has a fascist core cadre and a fascist ideology. It functions as the electoral-political wing of a broader fascist current. It softens and dresses up its message to win votes, but it fits the characterisation of fascism outlined by Leon Trotsky in the 1930s: “a plebeian movement in origin, directed and financed by big capitalist powers. It issued forth from the petty bourgeoisie, the slum proletariat and even to a certain extent, from the proletarian masses… with its leaders employing a great deal of socialist demagogy. This is necessary for the creation of the mass movement”.
Fits it, except that it is still way short of being a mass movement. Its ideology is structured by characteristic themes of fascism:
• Exaltation of “the nation”, against mysterious global elites and against individuals, as the guiding value of politics. Marine Le Pen denounces the legacy of France’s great general strike and near-revolution of May-June 1968 in these terms: “May 68 promoted individualism. An individualism which has upended the foundations of our society”. Her social demagogy, pretending to stand up for the worse-off and for social provision, is tied into that exaltation of “the nation” and an insistence that social provision must first be for real French people.
• A leader cult. Both under Marine Le Pen, and under her father Jean-Marie, the FN has promoted its leader above all else, and given that leader absolute powers within the party.
• A cult of the state. In her closing speech at the FN congress where she was made leader, in 2011, Marine Le Pen declared: “Today, when globalisation rages and everything is collapsing, we still have the State… When things have to be regulated, protected, innovated, one naturally turns to the State”.
Since its foundation the FN has operated in conditions of bourgeois democracy and capitalist economy more stable than in the 1930s, when Trotsky and other Marxists plausibly believed that political and economic collapse was certain, in one country after another, unless a socialist revolution could be made within a few years or so. Its active base remains small compared to that of the 1920s and 30s fascist movements. It has 50,000-odd paid-up members, who function almost exclusively as electoral campaigners. Its “stewarding squad”, the DPS, had a fearsome reputation in the early years, but even then was cautious and weak compared to the street-fighting squads of 1920s and 30s fascism. Today the FN instead contracts out its stewarding to a commercial security firm, Colisée.
The Nazis at the start of 1933 had 1.5 million members in their party, and 425,000 (some not party members) in their paramilitary SA. Mussolini’s Fascist Party was formed from his “fighting squads” at the end of 1921, and then had 300,000 members. The twist, however, is that Colisée is not just any security firm. It was founded by Axel Loustau, a former cadre of the brazenly fascist student group GUD (Groupe Union Défense). Loustau also runs a printing company, Presses de France, which has produced the FN’s publicity materials since another company, Riwal, run by Fréderic Chatillon, a former comrade of Loustau’s in the GUD, was banned from doing so in a court case over political-finance laws.
Although Loustau and Chatillon have no high posts in the FN, they and other GUD-ers are among the closest advisers of Marine Le Pen. They also keep links with the GUD. division of labour The division of labour which FN leaders see between their caffe latte and a varying range of France’s espresso fascist grouplets was candidly summed up by Jean-Marie Le Pen — become, at the age of 87, garrulous and reckless — in November 2015. The Parti Nationaliste Français was being revived to regroup the members of L’Oeuvre Française, a brazenly fascist group active since 1968 but now banned by the government. Jean-Marie Le Pen wrote to the PNF conference: “Jeune Nation and Oeuvre Française, behind their founder Pierre Sidos, have led an independent national struggle for several decades in parallel to the Front National of which I was president. We have the same goal: to save our homeland and its French people from a decadence which we know to be deadly.
“The tsunami of immigration calls for a general mobilisation of patriots and the coordination of all national movements. Each one of these movement should be stronger and stronger in its own sector”.
How much Marine Le Pen can do if she wins the presidency, we still don’t know. A part of the mainstream right, led by Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, has rallied to her. Will others? If she wins, how will the FN do in the June legislative elections? Mussolini, even with his 300,000 members and with an Italian ruling class anxious for revenge after the factory occupations in 1920, took four years to impose a full fascist regime. If details of history had turned differently, it might have been overthrown in that time.
Le Pen cannot move as fast as Mussolini. But it is entirely imaginable that she can do harm in France on the lines of what Putin, Erdogan, or Orban have been doing recently in Russia, Turkey, Hungary.
The FN’s official line on the trade unions is that its desired changes in the law will make them bigger and better but needing fewer strikes. But Nazi leaders before 1933 such as Gregor Strasser declared: “We consider the organisation of workers into trade unions an absolute necessity… As a workers’ party, National Socialism recognises the right to strike without restriction”. The FN’s opinion of France’s biggest union confederation, the CGT, is: “The CGT shows its true face: still the transmission belt for a far left which is moribund but still pseudo-revolutionary and often ultra-violent”.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the FN, first came into politics as a teenager in the late 1940s with Action Française. AF had been founded in 1899, as part of the agitation around the Dreyfus affair: monarchist, Catholic-traditionalist, obsessed with hostility to Freemasons, for whom it blamed such events as the French Revolution of 1789-94. In 1956, he became an MP for the quasi-fascist Poujadist movement. He served in the French army in its colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria. He did not join the Organisation Armée Secrète, a group of French army officers and Algerian settlers who sought by terrorism to stop France ceding independence to Algeria in 1962, and killed thousands in Algeria and some dozens in France; but in 1965 he was the campaign manager for the presidential campaign of Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, a veteran fascist who denounced the “abandonment” of Algeria.
After May 1968, new fascist groups sprouted, like the GUD and L’Oeuvre Française, focused on fighting the left and “communism” rather than the older enemies. They were mainly student-based. What they did is illustrated by a May 1969 episode recounted in a left-wing pamphlet of the 1970s.
Some 40 fascists set out from their base in the law faculty in the rue d’Assas in Paris to leaflet a high school. They trashed the student union office. The students gathered in the school canteen and pelted the fascists with missiles. The fascists retaliated with a hand-grenade. One school student had to have a hand amputated, but the fascists lost the battle. They lost more battles than they won, and in 1972, some of the fascist groups decided to create an electoral wing. Le Pen, who had been running a small business, had the electoral experience to impose himself as leader.
The FN did poorly in the 1970s, but survived. In 1977 Le Pen inherited a palace and a large fortune from a plutocrat whom he had befriended. He kept the fortune for himself rather than ceding it to the FN, and it helped him raise himself as a political figure above the formal structures of the FN (which were authoritarian enough, explicitly modelled on those of the Stalinised Communist Party). In 1983, the FN made a breakthrough, winning control of a small town in northern France in alliance with a section of the mainstream right. Some of the mainstream right excused their alliance with the FN by saying it was anyway not as bad as the then Socialist Party government including Communist Party ministers. The Socialist Party president, François Mitterrand, helped the FN get media coverage so as to make trouble for the mainstream right.
The FN has had ups and downs since then, and is still relatively weak in most of France’s big cities — only 5% of the vote in Paris. But it has gained in smaller towns, particular in “rust-belts”. Since becoming FN leader in 2011, Marine Le Pen has publicly campaigned to “de-demonise” the FN. Some FN leaders are openly gay. One leader, Louis Aliot, Marine Le Pen’s partner, boasts of his part-Jewish background. That makes her a canny fascist, and one born in 1968 rather than focused on the battles of long-past decades.
Her father made most of the big shifts in the FN’s profile — to try to distance it from lost causes of the past, and to align it to a broader electorate in an era when the threat of USSR “communism” no longer scares, when an increasing majority of France’s Muslim population are French-born and French-speaking. Jean-Marie Le Pen went for the FN: • describing itself as “neither left nor right” rather than “far right” • defining itself as “republican” and “secular”, and as respecting the heritage of the French Revolution • coming out for social provision and welfare (for the French, not immigrants) rather than as hardline free-market, and making a specific pitch to workers • accepting that a large chunk of the North-African-origin population is now French, and in France to stay.
He deliberately installed Marine Le Pen as his successor, pushing aside the old-fascist, Catholic-traditionalist, Bruno Gollnisch, explaining it thus: “I am tied by solidarities which I can’t break, from the [World] war… from my mates in [the colonial army] in Indochina and Algeria, from the pied-noirs… Marine is much more free”. He started a sustained attempt to build bridges to conservative Jews and to Israel. He blew it up with a notorious statement on TV about the gas chambers being only “a detail” of World War Two, but that may have been more off-hand garrulousness and stubborn refusal to apologise than deliberation.
Marine Le Pen’s new focus on France being threatened by twin “totalitarian” dangers, “globalism” and the EU on one side, “islamisation” on the other, sharpens the fascist edge of FN ideology.