A radical right-wing trio
A new generation of radicals in France see their political mission as nothing less than saving European civilisation
This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Relief, optimism and jubilation were the most common emotions among the supporters of Emmanuel Macron when he was elected president of France in May 2017. The 39-year-old had seen off the threat of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. His youthful vitality was inspiring, an indication of a bright new future for France, one he expressed in his victory speech at the Louvre. “A new page of our long history is turning tonight,” he boomed. “I want it to be a page of hope and renewed trust.”
But there was another sentiment that evening in France, more prevalent in the provinces than in Paris. It was a feeling of trepidation. Many people voted for Macron in the second-round run-off because they couldn’t stomach the thought of a Le Pen in the Élysée Palace. Marine may have worked furiously to “de-demonise” the family name but for millions nothing would erase the fact that she was the daughter of Jean-Marie, the strutting founder of the National Front.
It wasn’t so much that Macron had seduced the electorate with his campaign slogan of “Neither Left Nor Right”, but more that he wasn’t Le Pen. As one woman told a foreign reporter: “The French are in distress. We could perhaps be afraid of Le Pen, but we should be afraid of Macron as well. What is his plan? He has none.”
How prophetic she was. Macron was indeed a man without a plan. He has been nicknamed “Monsieur En Même Temps” (Mr At the Same Time), an ambiguous and vacillating leader without any strong convictions.
There is no longer anything fresh about Macron
There is no longer anything fresh about Macron; neither his face, which is increasingly haggard, nor his ideas; not that he ever lived up to his promise to reinvigorate France. He’s turned out to be just another elite technocrat, utterly out of touch with the preoccupations of the vast majority of the electorate.
Like Boris Johnson after his landslide election victory in 2019, Macron had a glorious opportunity in 2017 to reshape France. Both countries cried out for change but neither leader had the courage to take their people on a transformative journey. Instead, they maintained the status quo and for France, a country more politically volatile and versatile than Britain, the ramifications could be profound.
For a new generation of politician has emerged in France in recent years. They are not fiery left-wing radicals; in France the radicals hail from the right and their mission is to push back the progressives who they believe are bent on destroying European civilisation. Their emphasis is “Europe” as much as France; the Republic will be saved only if Europe is saved and that will entail a fundamental change in how the EU is run. That is why next June’s European elections have assumed far greater significance than usual in France.
Two of the country’s three right-wing parties have selected their candidates to head their European election campaigns, and they are representative of this new generation of young Conservative. The third, the centre-right Republicans, are expected to shortly nominate François-Xavier Bellamy as their man. At 38, Bellamy is the “old man” of the trio and five years the senior of Marion Maréchal, the vice-president of Eric Zemmour’s Reconquest party. The youngest is Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old president of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (Le Pen rebranded the National Front in 2018).
All of them have interesting backstories. Bellamy is the most conventional of the three. An intellectual, and an anglophile (he studied at Cambridge University and worked as an intern at The Times), he was a professor of philosophy before becoming a Member of the European Parliament in 2019.
During the campaign for those elections, Bellamy was profiled by Le Monde newspaper which sounded out some Republican grandees for their view of the then 33-year-old. Bruno Retailleau, the party’s leader in the Senate, was enthusiastic, commenting: “He’s young and intelligent, and on TV he’d be a blast. He’s got the political bug, he’s hungry for action.”
Others expressed reservations. One said that Bellamy’s social conservativism (he is opposed to gay marriage and abortion by religious conviction) was “divisive and antagonistic”; that was also the feeling of Valérie Pécresse, who admitted that while Bellamy was a “good guy”, he would alienate the centrists within the party.
Pécresse was one of these centrists, and she was considered the best choice to represent the Republicans at the 2022 Presidential election. She was a disaster.
The Republicans have since shifted to the right, electing Éric Ciotti as their new president and are likely to select Bellamy to lead them at the European elections. The pair believe that Europe has lost confidence in itself and as a consequence is incapable of defending itself against mass immigration and Islamic extremism. In a recent interview Bellamy blamed Europe for creating a crisis of identity: “The first sign of this crisis is the inability to recognise what we are, what we have received, and how to transmit it … Europe has given up putting down roots.”
Marion Maréchal is more explicit in her analysis of the challenges facing Europe, describing June’s elections as “the opportunity to rally right-wing voters around a great battle … civilisational, historic, vital … the defence of our identity, our culture, our values, which are today threatened by the flood of migrants and Islamisation”.
Maréchal entered parliament in 2012 aged just 22, one of only two National Front MPs. The niece of Marine Le Pen, and the granddaughter of Jean-Marie, Maréchal is closer ideologically to the latter, sharing his social conservatism and economic liberalism. She is, like Bellamy, a practising Catholic who is viscerally opposed to gay marriage, neither of which applies to her aunt. Nor does Maréchal share Marine Le Pen’s economic nationalism. It was this latter issue in particular that caused the rupture between the two women in 2017, prompting Maréchal to quit politics. She returned early last year, not alongside her aunt but as vice-president of Zemmour’s Reconquest.
The other significant difference between Marine Le Pen and Maréchal is their media image; Marine Le Pen is unconvincing in front of the camera, prone to becoming flustered and snarly. She has the brawny shoulders and husky voice of her father. Maréchal is slim and elegant, intellectually more agile than her aunt and more telegenic.
Le Pen knows she’s not a media natural so instead she focuses her energy on cultivating the image of a stateswoman. In last year’s parliamentary election she and 87 other National Rally (NR) candidates were elected to the National Assembly. It was a stunning triumph for a party that five years earlier had two seats.
Le Pen leads her party in parliament, and in charge of the day-to-day running of the National Rally is Jordan Bardella. The 28-year-old MEP was elected president of the NR in November 2022, securing 84 per cent of the vote among the party rank and file. His rival for the post was the veteran Louis Aliot, the 54-year-old former partner of Marine Le Pen and the mayor of the southern city of Perpignan.
Bardella’s victory was not only crushing, it was symbolic. For the first time in the fifty-year history of the National Rally/Front, a Le Pen was not president; furthermore, the new leader of the party was a working-class millennial with an immigrant background; a great-grandfather arrived in France from Algeria in the 1930s and his mother left Italy for Paris in the 1960s.
Bardella’s backstory makes him an elusive opponent for his political enemies. French Socialists and Centrists are dominated by bourgeois MPs, few of whom have any empathy with the working class; Bardella grew up in a one-parent family in a housing estate in Seine-Saint-Denis, north of Paris, the most deprived region in mainland France; when he talks about the struggle of working-class families to put food on the table, and the loss of identity felt by many French because of mass immigration, he is recounting his own experience.
In the year since he became president of the National Rally, Bardella has increased the party membership from 37,000 to 50,000; he has put in place a structure to help grow the NR’s regional roots, and he has paid back a controversial loan of €6m to the First Czech-Russian Bank. Referring to the 2014 loan in an interview, Bardella remarked that within the NR there had been “a collective naivety with regard to the ambitions of Vladimir Putin”.
The Russian loan wasn’t the only source of embarrassment for Bardella as he attempts to rid the party of some of its ancient history. Always lurking in the background is the spectre of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who during his political career was condemned six times by French courts for antisemitism.
The NR has been staunch in its support of Israel following Hamas’s murderous attack on 7 October, as opposed to some of the French Left who depict Hamas as a “resistance movement”. Nonetheless, Bardella refused to call Jean-Marie Le Pen an antisemite in an interview in November, saying only that, unlike him, he didn’t believe the gas chambers were a “point of detail” in the history of the Second World War. The NR’s enemies leapt on Bardella’s evasion, citing it as evidence that the party has not changed its spots despite changing its president. Incidentally, Bardella’s partner is Nolwenn Olivier, the granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen and the cousin of Marion Maréchal.
For decades the left-wing media in France has sought to keep right-wing parties in check
For decades the left-wing media in France has sought to keep right-wing parties in check by continually referencing Jean-Marie Le Pen’s antisemitism, eliding the National Front with the Vichy regime. A recent edition of the weekly current affairs magazine, L’Obs, devoted 33 pages to the “Hidden Face of the National Rally”, and since September the left-wing Liberation has issued a weekly newsletter to warn its readers about the evil of the “far right”.
Politicians have joined in. Earlier this year the French prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, a Socialist before she defected to Macron’s centrists, described the National Rally as the “heir to Pétain”. She was upbraided by her president, who told Borne that “you won’t be able to make millions of French people who voted for the far right believe that they are fascists”. Such tactics might have worked during Jean-Marie Le Pen’s era, explained Macron, “but the fight against the far right no longer involves moral arguments”.
Ultimately, what has contributed most to what the bien pensants deride as the “normalisation” of right-wing parties in France is the growing extremism of the left. Many of their politicians egged on protestors during the summer’s violent riots that caused €730m of damage and now they refuse to condemn Hamas.
It is now the left in France that is led by incendiary old reactionaries — Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Gallic Jeremy Corbyn — and the right which purports to represent stability and decency. Even the Baby Boomers, the demographic which for decades has been most hostile to the Le Pen name, is coming round to the right; a poll in October found that for the first time a significant proportion of the over-65s (24 per cent) would vote for Le Pen in the presidential election.
Of course, it’s one thing to tell a pollster you intend to vote for the right, and it’s another to actually do it; the litmus test for the National Rally, the Republicans and Reconquest will be June’s European elections.
A question that is frequently put to Bardella, Maréchal and Bellamy in interviews is about the possibility of a coalition. A right-wing alliance propelled Giorgia Meloni to power in Italy last year and a similar union would seem to guarantee victory in any election in France.
Marion Maréchal is particularly keen on an alliance, perhaps because her husband, Vincenzo Sofo, is an Italian MEP in Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party. “The door is open,” she responded in September when asked about a coalition, adding that she was ready to work with Bardella and Bellamy.
But her Reconquest party needs the NR more than they need them, or indeed the Republicans, and in reply to Maréchal’s appeal, Bardella batted back one of his own, inviting Maréchal to “come and help the patriots win the elections”.
There is a considerable obstacle to a potential coalition and that is the divergent economic policies of the right. The core support of the NR are working-class provincials, many of whom once voted left before the Socialist party was captured by the bourgeois. Like Britain’s Red Wall, they are in general socially conservative but economically to the left.
On the other hand, Republican and Reconquest voters are mainly middle-class, socially conservative and economically liberal. Marion Maréchal alluded to this when she was appointed to lead Reconquest into the European elections. While her priorities are Islamism and immigration, the other issues on which her party will campaign are: “The defence of the family, the fight against woke propaganda, the defence of economic freedoms and enterprise, an end to statism and the plundering of taxes”.
But the greatest impediment to the formation of a union of the right is more egotistical than economical. Rivalries and animosities have sprung up over the years that have prevented any coalition. But that could change with the emergence of this new generation. Maréchal, Bellamy and Bardella not only have broader minds than previous generations of right-wing politicians in France, they also have broader horizons. If France is to be saved it will require a team effort. In the words of the Three Musketeers: All for one, and one for all.
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