HomeEuropeThe makeover of France’s National Rally

The makeover of France’s National Rally

Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston and Women’s Institute of Houston. His latest book is “Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.”

François Rabelais, the barbed and bawdy observer of the politics of religious faith in 16th century France, once famously observed, l’habit ne fait pas le moine — the habit does not make the monk. But what might he make of the politics of republican faith in France today?  

Less than half a year after the country’s presidential and legislative elections, the unprecedented is now unexceptional, the unthinkable now unremarkable. 

The largest opposition party in the National Assembly now sits at the far right of the chamber: the National Rally (RN). It is led by Marine Le Pen, who will step down as party chief next month to focus on her work in the halls of the Palais Bourbon. And there is much work to be done: Bulging with 89 deputies, holding two vice-presidencies, and claiming seats on the defense and intelligence committees, never has an extreme right-wing party achieved such prominence in the history of republican France.

As the RN’s spokesperson, Laure Lavalette, declared, “The other parties can no longer act as if we don’t exist.”  

But even if one cannot question the RN’s existence, what can be questioned is how the party’s past will weigh on its present and future. 

Let’s recall this year’s series of shock waves: First, there was the French presidential election in June, as centrist President Emmanuel Macron saw the margin of his victory dramatically narrow — from 66 percent in 2017 to barely 58 percent — while his extreme right-wing opponent Le Pen leapt from 33 percent to over 41 percent.  

Then, a month later, came the legislative election, which failed to give an absolute majority to Macron’s party, the misnamed Renaissance. This has forced Macron’s government to negotiate — often with little or no progress — with emboldened parties to both the right and left. Thus, the stability once provided by the determining principles of the 5th Republic, founded on a strong presidency, are now threatened by a return to the dubious practices of earlier republics, which were based on a powerful parliament.  

An even greater shock, however, was the distribution of seats in the assembly. The poor showing of the traditional parties of the left — the Socialists, Communists and Greens — made for a dramatic contrast with the new and noisy kid on the block, the radical France Unbowed (LFI). With 57 deputies, LFI leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s movement dwarfed the parliamentary ranks of the other leftist parties. And the latter’s desire for relevance persuaded them to overcome their hesitation regarding the LFI’s projects and personalities. They now sit on the left of the hemicycle as members of the NUPES coalition, under an acronym just as awkward as their coexistence has since been. 

As political scientist Jean-Yves Camus observes, the RN is now well on its way to notabilisation, or respectability. And this process has been enabled not just by the country’s mainstream parties, but also by cable and television news channels. The RN’s representatives, Camus notes, have become fixtures both in the national media and across the many regional stations. The French, he worries, are “steeping” in this new broadcast brew. 

This, in part, explains the assembly’s recent sartorial crack-up over cravates as well. Before the newly elected legislature was seated in July, Le Pen instructed her deputies to mark the occasion in a manner demonstrating their “seriousness” — by arriving in jackets and ties. As for the deputies of LFI, many arrived tieless, clad in open-necked shirts and clopping about in open-toed sandals. 

The ensuing hullabaloo was predictable: Right-wing deputies, both men and women, deplored this act of disrespect to republican institutions, while, in turn, several women from LFI decried this act of male chauvinism by wearing ties to the next session at that venerable Palais Bourbon.  

Though this controversy has now eased, the manner and behavior of these opposing extremes have not. And while the RN has made a great deal of being a “constructive opposition” — i.e., the adults in the room — LFI seems committed to making their efforts all the easier by adopting a position of “firm opposition.” In practice, this has meant slowing the chamber’s deliberations by introducing hundreds of amendments to various bills, flinging accusations while opponents are speaking, and staging walkouts before votes are taken.

A study released last week by the Jean-Jaurès Foundation suggests this strategy carries serious risks. The polling revealed that the “de-demonization” of the RN continues apace. So much so, in fact, that while 61 percent of respondents considered Le Pen’s party to be the greatest threat to democracy in 2017, that has since dropped to 57 percent. 

And at the same time, 57 percent of respondents now find that it is the populist left-wing LFI that poses the greatest danger to the republic. Moreover, a greater percentage of respondents believe the RN is better suited than either the LFI, Socialists or Greens to govern the country. 

The recent 50th anniversary of the birth of the National Front — the predecessor to the RN — underscores the troubling nature of this shift in public perception. In marking the anniversary, Le Pen sought to airbrush all mention of the party’s founder — her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen — not to mention the motley crew of Nazi collaborators and French Algerian insurrectionists present during its beginnings. 

This unsavory crew is long since gone, but as Rabelais might have said, la cravate ne fait pas le républicain — the tie does not make the republican, or in the case of Le Pen, business attire does not make the republican. Ties and suits will never fully disguise RN’s continued hostility toward immigrants or its enduring hospitality toward illiberalism.  

Watching these antics, Rabelais may well have repeated another famous line: “Bring down the curtain, the farce is played out.”  



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