French Presidential Election: the Mainstreaming of Far-Right Ideas

Photograph Source: NdFrayssinet – CC BY-SA 3.0

There are two themes that have taken centre stage in the run-up to the first round of the French presidential election. One is a naked nationalism and the fear of foreign invasion. The other is “the enemy within”, the label the far Right has imposed upon France’s Muslim community.

Set in a reactionary climate, this presidential campaign is poised to descend into a racist and nationalistic quagmire by the time people cast their votes on 10 April, that is if it has not already.

Even by the rancid nature of this particular campaign, a new low was reached last Sunday when the conservative candidate, Valérie Pécresse of Les Républicains, warned of the danger of a “Great Replacement” at a Paris rally.

According to this conspiracy theory, the predominantly white and French Catholic population will soon be replaced by non-white immigrants coming from Africa and the Middle East, which in France is largely seen as a “Muslim threat”. So preposterous and extremist is this conspiracy theory that even far-Right candidate Marine Le Pen has refused to engage with it. By contrast, Éric Zemmour, another far-Right hopeful, has made the “Great Replacement” theory the central issue of his campaign.

The conspiracy theory, which has been cited by those who carried out mass killings in Christchurch and El Paso, was developed by French writer Renaud Camus, who described it as a “genocide by substitution” of the French indigenous population, and compared it to the genocide of the European Jews during the Second World War. In the epilogue of his 2011 Le Grand Remplacement book, Camus cites Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech as a major influence on his work.

It can also be argued that the French far Right’s obsession with the “Muslim threat” is reminiscent of Édouard Drumont’s Jewish France. In the late 19th century, Drumont, an antisemite, argued that there was allegedly a “Jewish plot” to destroy Europe. Today, Muslims have seemingly replaced Jews in the so-called clash of civilisation against European culture.

This white supremacy theory, which in truth originates from a larger and older “white genocide” conspiracy theory popularised in American neo-Nazi circles has now entered the mainstream of French politics through Pécresse, a conservative candidate. What is more, her speech was punctuated with thinly veiled attacks on Muslims and immigrants. True to the French elites’ obsession with the hijab, she declared that “Marianne [the name given to the female symbol who embodies the French Republic] does not wear a veil”.

Pécresse’s intervention, billed as a major campaign speech, underscores France’s dramatic shift to the right. Critics have argued that the race now has three far-Right contenders who are credited with almost 50% of voting intentions altogether. That said, Pécresse may be ultimately vindicated: according to a recent opinion poll, up to 67% of French people worry about the “great replacement”.

The banality of racism

In her speech, Pécresse went as far as distinguishing between “French of the heart” (i.e. “white Catholic French”) and “French of paper” (i.e. foreigners who gained French nationality through naturalisation or whose children were born in France and who gained French nationality through the “right of soil”). The racialisation of citizenship runs counter the most basic principle of French republicanism which categorically detaches nationality from people’s ethnic or religious backgrounds.

The expression “French of paper” originates from the far Right and was used in La Libre Parole, Drumont’s antisemitic newspaper, to refer to French Jews of foreign origin. Charles Maurras, a nationalist and founder of far-Right movement Action Française, also used the expression, as did Jean-Marie Le Pen after him. More recently senator Stéphane Ravier (now a Zemmour supporter) accused France’s international footballer Karim Benzema of being “French of paper”, therefore, not being a “real Frenchman”, and of “lacking respect toward France”.

Pécresse’s mainstreaming of far-Right ideas and expressions is shocking because it is so blatant. However, the stigmatisation of Muslims started long ago on the centre Right: in 2005, Nicolas Sarkozy called young people in deprived banlieues “riff-raff”, and suggested cleaning out the place with a high-pressure water cleaner.

But it is not just on the right that there is a problem. For the past 40 years or so, parties on both sides of the political spectrum have drifted to the right on the questions of immigration, multiculturalism and Islam. The first controversies about the wearing of the hijab date back to the late 1980s. Segments of the Left, notably the Parti Socialiste, have often joined the Right and far-Right in condemning the hijab, and in instrumentalising laïcité (secularism) to ostracise and dominate ethnic minorities. Laïcité, once a left-wing marker and value, is now essentially used by reactionaries to stigmatise Muslims.

In 2021, the French government passed a law on “separatism” in order to combat what it terms “Islamist separatism” and an ideology that it describes as “the enemy of the Republic”. Critics argue that the bill is discriminatory and targets the country’s six million-strong Muslim community. Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, criticised Le Pen for going “too soft on Islam” during a televised debate. Islamophobia freely permeates all areas of public life: in politics but also in the media. CNews, a Fox-style news network, has long given Zemmour a platform to freely air his racist opinions, but also public service media, such as France Inter, uncritically welcome guests who support the “great replacement” theory.

Three-horse race

Until 2017, presidential elections were a three-horse race between one main conservative candidate from Les Républicains, one main centre-Left candidate from the Parti Socialiste and one far-Right contender from the National Rally.

But Emmanuel Macron’s victory in 2017 disrupted this electoral setup. A former minister in a Socialist government, Macron won the biggest political prize by successfully rallying parts of the centre-Left and centre-Right electorates. This unique electoral tour de force has led to a steady but entrenched realignment of party politics. The traditional divide between Left and Right has faded away. Both of the main political parties are in deep crisis, leaving French politics extremely volatile and unpredictable.

Furthermore, Macron’s political realignment has accelerated the ongoing decline of the Left. Having rapidly shifted to the Right on both economic policies and law and order, Macron has taken with him a significant fraction of the electorate who voted for François Hollande in 2012. The Parti Socialiste appears to be in terminal decline, but no political force has replaced it as the new dominant party on the centre-Left.

Macron’s re-election – the most likely scenario today – will only embolden further the far-Right which knows that the incumbent president will not hesitate to match its illiberal rhetoric on law and order, and its Islamophobia. The demise of the Left will create a void, which will be filled by demagogues and populists. There does not seem to be any end in sight for the rise of racism and reactionary politics in France.

Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European Politics at University College London (UK). Twitter: @PhMarliere