Why Le Pen looks like the mainstream

At the head of a party that long housed Nazi collaborators, Le Pen is an authoritarian whose deeply racist and Islamophobic politics threaten to turn France into an outright illiberal state.
Why Le Pen looks like the mainstream
Marine Le Pen.

RIM-SARAH ALOUANE

CHENNAI: In 2017, we thought we’d seen the worst French politics could offer. Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, had made it through to the second round of the country’s presidential elections. For the first time since 2002, a far-right figure was in the runoff to become president — and with considerably more support. When Le Pen lost to Emmanuel Macron, albeit with a worrying 34%share of the vote, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Many hoped Le Pen, after falling at the final hurdle, would fade into obscurity.

It was not to be. Le Pen never went away, instead biding her time and preparing for the next tilt at power. She now has more chance of winning it than ever: After taking 23% in the first round, she’s within eight points of Macron in the second, on April 24. She’s benefited from the presence of the even more hard-line Eric Zemmour, whose lurid reactionary persona made Le Pen seem, by contrast, more reasonable. Yet she’s also embarked on a comprehensive effort to soften her image, renaming her party, downplaying the harsher elements of her platform and presenting herself as a warm, even folksy woman who loves her cats.

But no one should be fooled. At the head of a party that long housed Nazi collaborators, Le Pen is an authoritarian whose deeply racist and Islamophobic politics threaten to turn France into an outright illiberal state. She may pretend to be a regular politician, but she remains as dangerous as ever. For the good of minorities and France itself, she must not prevail.

If Le Pen looks more mainstream now, it’s because the mainstream looks more like her. In the years running up to the last election, she ran on a hard-right platform, stoking antagonism toward immigrants and French Muslims under the guise of protecting public order. She especially targeted minorities, “to whom,” she said bitterly, “everything is due and to whom we give everything.” In response to her success in 2017, nearly every party on the political spectrum — centrist, traditional right wing and even socialist — used the talking points of her party, now named National Rally (formerly National Front). The tenor of political discussion, as a result, has shifted substantially to the right. There is now barely any space in French politics to advocate for French citizens who don’t look, behave, pray or eat the way “traditional” French people are supposed to — let alone to champion the rights of immigrants and refugees.

Muslims have borne the brunt of bigotry. Initially considered a threat from elsewhere — supposedly coming to France to deprive the native-born of jobs — Muslims have in recent decades been viewed as an internal threat. To be a Muslim was to be guilty until proved innocent.

The past decade has taken this equation to a new level. The widespread fear now is not that a handful of people among nearly six million Muslims might pose a danger to public safety, but that all French Muslims by their very existence threaten the cultural identity of “traditional France.” It is, for some voters, an existential fear. In response, politicians have pushed measures to curb Islam’s purported infringement on French life, such as banning religious attire in public schools, full-face coverings in public spaces and burkinis on public beaches, and passing a bill that gives the state power to monitor Muslim religious observance and organisations.

To justify such moves, politicians weaponised the liberal concept of laicite — effectively state-backed secularism — to restrict freedom of religion and conscience in the interests of an anti-Muslim agenda. This process, crucially, has made it possible for Le Pen to turn from radical firebrand to reasonable truth-teller. But underneath the sheen of normalcy, the brutally racist ideology her party pioneered over the past 30 years is very much intact.

Alouane is a researcher at the Toulouse 1 Capitole University

The New York Times

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