For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome again Dr Nick Startin, from the University of Bath, in the UK. Bonjour, Nick!
Nick, you’ve been following French elections for decades now, and you’re an expert of the Radical Right. Were you surprised last Sunday? Did you at any stage think that Marine Le Pen might actually win?
No not really, there was never really a moment where I felt that she would win.
Previous presidential elections have shown that you need to win a minimum of around 18 million votes in the second round. Marine Le Pen ended up with just over 13 million. Although this was an improvement on the ten and a half million votes of 2017, even with a lowish turn-out of 72%, it was still significantly short of the votes required to win a second-round majority.
In an article I wrote for The Conversation after the previous presidential election five years ago, I stated that ‘it’s not a given that the Front National can continue to grow in electoral terms if the demand-side conditions do not remain as favourable.’ I went on to say that ‘the party has worked tirelessly to detoxify its image over the past decade, but doubts remain as to whether an historically anti-system, radical-right party is capable of positioning itself as a party of government.’ Despite polling more than 42% of votes cast in last Sunday’s election, I think this conclusion still holds up.
So you haven’t changed in your assessment. What makes you so sure?
It’s the doubts that remain about the Rassemblement National’s ability to convince as a party of governance.
When you bear in mind the cost-of-living crisis and the immigration/humanitarian crisis, as epitomised by the situation in Northern France, the demand-side conditions for a populist challenger party like the RN were as favourable in 2022 as they were in 2017.
This raises the question of whether the RN can ever break through the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ (what the French call the ‘Plafond de Verre’) and become a potential party of government. The reality is that the RN is still searching for that elusive ‘Winning Formula’, as it was famously labelled thirty odd years ago by American political scientist Herbert Kitschelt.
For this election, the RN positioned itself primarily in economic territory, focusing on protectionist and interventionist policies, opposed to globalisation and reticent of the EU. It also continued to pitch itself socially and culturally, as a nationalist party with its traditional agenda still firmly built around identity and immigration. The problem for the RN, though, is that this search for the ‘winning formula’ is rather like treading on eggshells. Every tweak and change of policy, and every new idea introduced, while appealing to one demographic of voter, risks at the same time alienating a different demographic and losing existing supporters. It is a delicate balancing act for Radical Right parties in their quest for a majority of voters. And that’s the dilemma that the RN has wrestled with under Marine Le Pen’s leadership over the last decade.
A ‘balancing act’ – can you give some examples for this concept?
Certainly. I think there were policy tweaks that, with hindsight, helped the party gain votes. Take the switch away from exiting the Eurozone and the dilution – on the surface – of its Eurosceptic opposition, which no doubt played well with older voters and some traditional, Gaullist voters. Similarly, the focus on the cost-of-living crisis with the commitment to abolish Income Tax for those under 30 (however realistic) appealed to younger voters, a demographic where Marine Le Pen polled well in both rounds.
On the other hand, when it came to the second round, two policies stand out which I think will have alienated, significant numbers of undecided voters. To win a majority, she needed to convince some voters that her lukewarm policies on the environment would at least show some respect to the planet. While her focus on nuclear power was not a vote loser per se, the commitment not only to stop all new wind farm projects, but also to dismantle existing ones, was a very tough sell both on an economic and an environmental level.
Similarly, the commitment to ban the headscarf in public places became something of a poisoned chalice as she looked to increase her voter base for the second round. These two policies, I think were a reality check for many undecided voters as they started to visualise the realities of a Le Pen Presidency. Also, withdrawal from NATO’s command structure (given the backdrop of the war in Ukraine) and the party’s association with Russia, in particular the controversial 9 million Euros loan taken out with a Russian bank, will also have raised alarm bells for undecided voters.
So what is the future for the RN and its leader?
I wouldn’t want to speculate too far ahead but I think the party faces some real challenges as it looks to position itself during the second Macron presidency. The most immediate will be seeking to maximise its representation in the National Assembly in the June legislative elections – a crucial test of the party’s capacity to break through the ‘glass ceiling’. A crucial test too for Marine Le Pen and her future leadership of the party.
Many thanks, Nick, for sharing your election analysis with us. I hear you’ll be leaving for Rome soon, it would be great to have you back on our antenna any time soon!
“Ideas on Europe” will be back next week, and we will welcome Simona Guerra again, from the University of Surrey.
First published on eu!radio.