By Shane Burley and Alexander Reid Ross
In the weeks between the first and second rounds of France’s presidential election, many gloomily anticipated the continuation of the nightmare scenario that began with Brexit, emerged in full strength with Trump, and seemed to be crashing down on France. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (FN), came in second, winning just over 20 percent of the vote, only a few points behind the centrist investment banker, Emmanuel Macron.
The day after her second-place finish, Le Pen announced that she would temporarily abandon her post as FN president to focus on the elections. Her decision aligns with her ongoing attempt to distance herself from her party’s ignoble history, but, in the context of French fascism’s history, her strategy actually fulfills the FN’s founding goals.
To provide the National Front’s history, we must understand the history of French reaction. Emerging out of the French Revolution, reactionaries organized against equality and democracy, in favor of crown and altar. Following a broad insurgency in the western region of the Vendée, whose emblem showed a cross cresting a heart, the forces of reaction happily greeted Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire. After his defeat, they settled for the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and the rise of the Orléanist “citizen king” Louis-Philippe in 1830. Following another revolution in 1848 and an abortive attempt at a Second Republic, they used bloody repression and a rigged election to help reinstate the Bonapartist line under Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte III, the emperor’s nephew.
A mandate from rural Catholics, the working poor, and the petite bourgeoisie kept the Second Empire in power for two decades, until Bismarck trounced “the little Napoleon” in the Franco-Prussian War. The republican forces that gained momentum during the fall of this empire crushed the Paris Commune in 1871 and established the Third Republic.
Crestfallen, reactionaries worked within and against the republican system to launch the career of Georges Boulanger, an army officer who had helped destroy the commune. His nationalist slogans of revanchism and ressentiment won him a populist following among workers, shopkeepers, and artisans. Although Boulanger attempted to balance the reaction’s Bonapartist, legitimist, and Orléanist factions, strong opposition and his own instability undermined his 1889 parliamentary campaign. His movement fell apart after he shot himself over the grave of a dead lover in the autumn months of 1891.
The reaction scrambled to regain traction during the last decade of the nineteenth century. It organized outrage campaigns, decrying any financial scandal linked to a progressive figure; it framed a Jewish army officer named Alfred Dreyfus for espionage. The Dreyfus Affair connected a massive network of antisemites to the military establishment. The new leagues and organizations that emerged from the anti-Dreyfusard movement, including the French Action (AF), fought the Left, terrorized Jews, and disseminated new elitist theories of sovereignty.
The reactionary ideologues organized around AF tried to attract left-wing anti-Dreyfusards to the radical right. The group’s leader, Charles Maurras, drew on Proudhonian “social integralism” to devise a new scheme called “integral nationalism,” which called for trade unions to join a nationally integrated, corporatist structure. Maurras used his pet project, the Cercle Proudhon, to help cultivate the anti-republican germ of what would become known as fascism.
A leading participant in the Cercle Proudhon, Georges Valois, created the Faisceau Party in 1925, declaring, “we are the inventors [of fascism], and we were copied in Italy.” But Valois’s formation couldn’t compete with more powerful right-wing assemblages like the Young Patriots and François de la Roque’s militant Cross of Fire. In 1936, another fascist party emerged to vie for space on the far right: the French Populist Party (FPP), led by a former member of the Communist Party’s central committee, “le grand Jacques” Doriot.
By that time, the Spanish National Front had consolidated right-wing forces against the leftist and republican Popular Front. After Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s armies invaded Spain from North Africa, French society split over which side to support. Members of the military establishment formed the Cowl, a clandestine counterinsurgency that engaged in sabotage and then blamed the Left for the damage. Among Franco’s street-fighting supporters was Pierre Poujade, a member of Doriot’s FPP.
In 1939, Franco defeated the republic with the help of the Nazis, who invaded France the following year. Valois turned against the Vichy regime, but the National Popular Rally (RNP), a new fascist party, formed under erstwhile neo-socialist Marcel Déat. The RNP competed with Doriot’s populists to organize a one-party state. Leaders of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) collaborated with the government, using Stalinist rhetoric that described unions as the “transmission belt” between the people and the state. They paradoxically celebrated the Paris Commune as a nationalist event.
Meanwhile, antisemitic propagandists such as Robert Brasillach and his brother-in-law, Maurice Bardèche, became prominent literary personalities. When Hitler expanded the occupied territories to Vichy, eliminating self-rule, nationalists like Poujade and de la Roque turned against the Nazis.
After the Third Reich’s fall, members of the Communist, Socialist, and centrist Republican parties formed the Fourth Republic. The Right pressured the new government to expel the Communists and maintain the French empire. To accomplish this, Poujade created a new movement called the Union for the Defense of Tradesmen and Artisans, which sought to represent the reaction’s traditional supporters among workers and the petite bourgeoisie.
Although Poujade had belonged to a fascist party and initially supported the Vichy regime, his new group avoided the association due to its leader’s efforts in the Resistance. Nevertheless, Poujadists included many members of the collaborationist government, who sent some seventy-five thousand Jews to their deaths and persecuted freedom fighters. They believed in keeping control of the French colonies above all else.
One young Poujadist named Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had hawked French Action’s newspapers shortly after the war, joined the military on relatively brief visits to Indochina, Suez, and Algeria. He allegedly engaged in torture to defend French colonialism.
The beleaguered Fourth Republic fell in 1958 as a result of pressure from the military, which favored continuing the Algerian occupation. Charles de Gaulle returned to office as the first president of the new Fifth Republic, and the Poujadists became virtually irrelevant overnight.
The president, however, stunned the far right by initiating the Algerian independence process. A group of army officers, organized under the name Secret Army Organization (OAS), resurrected the Cowl’s counterinsurgency efforts in the colonial struggle. The OAS adopted the strategies and tactics used against them in the guerrilla wars and helped create a fascist counterinsurgency network that extended from Greece and Spain to Argentina. Poujadists faithfully supported the OAS and found themselves politically sidelined as the renegade group made a series of attempts on De Gaulle’s life.
Poujade fell by the political wayside, but his movement tried to reconstitute itself during the 1960s with Le Pen as an important leader. Spreading Vichy nostalgia, propaganda, and Nazi-era speeches, Le Pen sought to restore reactionary French politics while managing the campaign of former Vichy official Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour in 1965. Le Pen contributed to the fetid ecosystem of 1960s reactionary politics: sabotaging left-wing events, fighting in the streets, and supporting the OAS. He even traveled to Spain, where he befriended Léon Degrelle, the integralist Belgian SS leader whom Hitler viewed as the son he never had.
In the sixties, France’s fascist movement had few real constituents — mainly old Vichy figures, student groups like the Federation of Nationalist Students (FEN), and national revolutionary street-fighting organizations like Occident — but enough to support Le Pen’s work and Tixier-Vignancour’s campaign. Bardèche, still publishing antisemitic material, became this budding movement’s intellectual father.
As the New Left emerged out of the anti-authoritarian student movement, fascists grasped for relevance. The FEN dissolved in 1967, and members created a new study group called the Research and Study for European Civilization (GRECE), founded to explore “metapolitical” methods of introducing fascist ideas into society through culture.
When the state banned Occident in 1968, its members formed the New Order and a student organization called the Union Defense Group (GUD) in hopes of developing a political vehicle that would escape the “fascist ghetto.” According to Cas Mudde, participants foregrounded three main themes: nativism, authoritarianism, and populism. They distinguished themselves from interwar fascism by focusing on things like welfare chauvinism rather than overtly revolutionary politics. To consolidate these forces, the National Front tapped Le Pen as its leader.
Formally created in 1972, the FN became, in the words of Gabriel Goodliffe, “the most notable contemporary incarnation” of Vichy France. Their political platform of far-right politics also evoked the more recent memory of Poujadism. Taking the Tricolor Flame as their symbol — an emblem established by the Italian Social Movement, successor to Mussolini’s Fascist Party — the FN marked its commitment to the European fascist movement.
During the 1980s, one could find badges emblazoned with the Vendée rebels’ insignia and pamphlets on Degrellism. The FN spread solidarist propaganda, which advocated French identity against immigrant invaders and decried the falling birth rate, which it blamed on abortions. “Killing the child,” it declared, “is killing France.”
Calling for a “true French revolution,” Le Pen denounced “official anti-French genocide” waged by race-mixing globalists. He scoffed at the Holocaust as a “detail” in world history. At Le Pen’s right hand sat nationalist revolutionary François Duprat, a former Occident leader and regular contributor to Bardèche’s Defense de l’Occident and the French Action–descended weekly Rivarol.
The fascist movement evolved in three strategic directions following 1968’s left-wing insurrection. It retained smaller street-fighting groups, used GRECE and what would become known as the New Right to adapt ultranationalist ideology to an anti-authoritarian cultural turn, and built a populist, radical right political party. This strategy did not represent an entirely coordinated effort, and all elements encountered significant obstacles in terms of personalities and tactics; nevertheless, the three dimensions of their plan worked together in important ways.
Despite Le Pen’s controversial white nationalism, the presence of reactionary Catholics within the FN distinguished it from the smaller fascist groups that emerged from the same political morass. Groups like the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) rejected the FN as old and stodgy and spawned more specialized groups, like the Third Way (TV).
Formed by Christian Bouchet with the explicit intention of manipulating the National Front from within, the TV rejected conventional right- and left-wing politics, instead calling for the rebirth of an ultranationalist community. Together, MNR and TV established close connections with the fascist skinheads who belonged to Young National Revolutionaries, a group the Front relied on as stewards for their marches and events.
Though its relations with more marginal fascist groups were often fraught, the FN did not shy away from reactionary rhetoric. Documents like 50 Concrete Measures and 300 Measures for the Rebirth of France envisioned a kind of “citizen of the blood.” Working to rescind a 1973 immigration bill — and strip everyone who had been naturalized under its authority of citizenship — the Front repeatedly invoked a racialized version of Frenchness. In Toulon and Orange, where the party gained political footholds, supporters removed leftist books from libraries, included a right-wing publisher in a book festival, moved cultural grants from synagogues to churches, and heightened police repression of immigrant communities.
During this period, fascists from the New Right, such as Bruno Mégret and Pierre Vial, joined the National Front with the goal of radicalizing it from within. Their different backgrounds and ideas would spark significant ideological changes within the party.
Coming out of the GRECE-linked group Club de l’Horloge, Mégret worked to update fascist ideas to modern conditions, integrating an economically liberal platform with an ultranationalist ideology. Mégret joined the FN in the late 1980s and developed an economic ideology that advocated neither neoliberalism nor Soviet Communism, but a kind of social chauvinism tied to a strong security state. Its slogan, “Neither right, nor left — French!” joined with the “politics of proximity” to encourage a close relationship between the national welfare state and its racialized reinforcement through community policing. Defense of French culture is backed by an aggressive “national instinct,” Mégret would suggest, just as Somalis would defend their own culture in the same way when “threatened” by “deracination.” Meanwhile, Vial tried to renew the sense of an ancestral, spiritual bond between “Land and People,” manifested through a “rootedness” to neo-pagan heritage and sublimated through the cult of Joan of Arc, among other popular symbols.
Even as the FN’s economic Third Way seemed to align with Tony Blair’s Labour populism, its notion of blood citizenship clashed with the “Europe of Eurocrats,” conceived as a federalized single market that erased national borders and built a homogenized system of codependence.
From this position, Le Pen would cite Maurras: “Today our liberties are linked, our destinies combined, and that which hurts Europe hurts France, that which hurts France hurts Europe.” To break the deadlock with the European Union, his party cultivated a relationship with Russia’s rising far right. After the Berlin Wall fell, Le Pen befriended notorious right-wing rabble-rouser Vladimir Zhirinovsky, providing his Liberal Democratic Party of Russia with some technological infrastructure.
Zhirinovsky, in turn, contributed to the rise of Alexander Dugin, a menacing figure in international geopolitics whose Eurasianist philosophy called for a return to archaic traditions based in ultranationalist communities, federated into a spiritual empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and as far south as the Indian Ocean. As Dugin gained influence over much of the Russian radical right, Bouchet became Europe’s leading promulgator of Duginism, joining with Troy Southgate in the United Kingdom and even American groups, like the fascist skinheads of the American Front.
The tentative alliance between Le Pen and the New Right did not last through the 1990s. The FN’s flirtations with Holocaust denial angered the public. Le Pen jokingly referred to victims of AIDS (called SIDA in France) as sidaïque, evoking the Vichy term judaïque or “judaic.” He called Jewish minister Michel Durafour, “monsier Durafour-crématoire.”
Mégret’s desire to create alternative, nationalist labor unions didn’t fit in with the FN’s traditional anti-left stance, and Le Pen’s incompetence blocked the New Right’s efforts at more subtle politics. Prominent figures within the FN, including Bruno Gollnisch and Marine Le Pen, called for Mégret’s ouster. He left in 1998 and formed the National Republican Movement, which of course echoed the National Revolutionary Movement’s old acronym, MNR.
In many ways, Mégret’s corporate MNR maintained elements of the old street-fighting MNR. He even included Christian Bouchet and Pierre Vial in its roster of far-right notables. Like UKIP, the MNR watered down its old, reactionary antisemitism with some economically liberal positions and neoconservative ideology. However, they could not gain a foothold in the French electorate, partially thanks to the strength of the FN, which went to the second round of the presidential elections in 2002.
Mégret then joined forces with Bouchet’s new project, Radical Unity (UR). When Maxime Brunerie, an MNR candidate linked to UR, attempted to assassinate Jacques Chirac two months after the 2002 election, the French government disbanded UR, and its members formed Identity Bloc. This group’s leading ideologue, Guillaume Faye, supports Putin’s Russia because of his belief in what he calls Eurosiberianism — an axis of power that stretches from Portugal’s Atlantic coast to Kamchatka’s Pacific shores. Faye’s Eurosiberianism differs from Dugin’s Euroasianism insofar as Faye rejects a spiritual empire that would include nonwhite areas.
Around 2007, the notorious fascist Alain Soral joined the FN’s central committee, and Bouchet became an FN political candidate. After Mégret retired the next year, one of MNR’s rising stars, Nicholas Bay, jumped ship for the National Front for the sake of “national sovereignty.”
As the Front aligned more closely with the Kremlin, Bruno Gollnisch maneuvered the party into a European Union parliamentary group that included the Hungarian ultranationalists of Jobbik and the Italian fascists of Tricolor Flame. Gollnisch positioned himself as the group’s president, and English fascist Nick Griffin became its vice president. Gollnisch only held power for one year: Marine Le Pen beat him out for FN leadership and abandoned the fascist-leaning parliamentary group for a more moderate alliance.
After Marine came to power, an old Stalinist from a noble French family named Bertrand Dutheil de la Rochère became one of her advisers. The following year, she brought Florian Philippot, who is purportedly gay, and veteran powerbroker Paul-Marie Coûteaux into her circle. In 2016, the left-nationalist Citizen and Republican Movement lost its young secretary, Thibaut Garnier, to Le Pen’s party. Like Bay, he cited “national sovereignty” as his motivation. It seemed like Le Pen had softened her party’s position on Gaullism and the Fifth Republic, a festering wound since the OAS days.
Marine tried to distinguish her leadership from her father’s by embracing Zionism, although she continued to support a ban on halal and kosher meat. She amassed a significant following in Paris’s gay community as a result of several homophobic attacks perpetrated by Islamic radicals, yet she calls for a ban on same-sex marriage. Although the Front retains staunch support from Catholic reactionaries, she promised to build a secular state against Islamization. By claiming that France was not truly France under the Vichy regime, she de facto identified her party’s entire legacy — and much of its membership — as anti-French. On the issues of the state, immigration, welfare, and the European Union, Le Pen has repeatedly exploited xenophobia to turn the discourse toward nativism.
Although Le Pen and her eccentric inner circle attempted to plaster a benevolent face over the FN’s vulgarity, the party hadn’t changed much after five years of her leadership, at least according to Gollnisch. His musings from a year ago remain important: “Nothing new under the sun . . . at the National Front, if the form has changed, the background remained the same under the presidency of Marine Le Pen.”
Indeed, Christian Bouchet led the FN’s list in Nantes, France’s sixth largest city, and Nicholas Bay has risen to the party’s highest ranks as its general secretary. Its current EU parliamentary group includes the fascist-founded Sweden Democrats and Austrian Freedom Party as well as Italy’s Northern League, which maintains ties to the fascist squatter network, CasaPound.
It should come as no surprise that Le Pen wants to distance herself from some of her former colleagues — particularly when voters wondered who would join her cabinet. Yet Jean-François Jalkh, Le Pen’s choice for her successor as FN president, has made statements denying the Holocaust, revealing Le Pen’s true political orientation and the party’s current trajectory. Her stance has not changed, regardless of rebranding, and we must consider it representative of reactionary France, despite her subtle semiotic feints that tease middle-class voters with notes of cosmopolitan conservatism.
Le Pen has garnered some support from international far-right groups, but her candidacy is perhaps more interesting for revealing divisions within this emergent movement.
The American alt-right has imported some aspects of the French fascist movement. Faye is no stranger to the American scene and appears as one of the most profound influences on Richard Spencer’s white identitarianism. His Identity Bloc inspired the group Identity Evropa, led by Nathan Damigo, a fascist convicted of a hate crime and recently embroiled in controversy after punching a woman in the face during a street brawl in Berkeley. The alt-right’s attempts to move into academia follow in the footsteps of France’s far-right student groups.
It’s also easy to recognize a number of intersections between the National Front and Steve Bannon’s ideology. Not only has he suggested that reactionary Catholics look into the works of Alexander Dugin, he takes Charles Maurras — the former leader of French Action and a fascist collaborator — as a key source of inspiration. Bannon’s ideas on immigration so resemble the Front’s that he shares one of his favorite books, The Camp of the Saints, with both Le Pens.
The American far right has always tacitly supported the Le Pen family, though they prefer the vulgar patriarch over his daughter. Support for Marine came from the hope that she could “pull a Trump” and actually win the race. Le Pen’s racialist rhetoric, her scapegoating of Muslims and immigrants, and her direct connection to the fascist right make her an even more appropriate vessel for the alt-right’s vision of a global nationalist alliance. A number of alt-right Twitter trolls still have photos of Marine as their avatars or in their photo libraries.
The National Front’s youth movement has also taken cues from the alt-right, albeit with more overtly religious overtones: their memes might put Pepe next to a Crusader cross and the French tricolor flag. While supporters may not subscribe to antisemitism as much as they once did, the racialized, xenophobic rhetoric of “Islamization” remains prominent. Due to the emphasis on religious struggle rather than religion itself, whether or not the FN actually counts as a Catholic party remains open for debate.
While reciprocal, the relationship between the American and French far right is complicated by the differences between far-right and fascist ideologies. Richard Spencer only mildly supports Le Pen; during the election, he chose to focus on recent battles with antifascists in Berkeley and Auburn instead. Indeed, his revolutionary stance often separates him from democratic reformers even at home as the unceremonious end to his dalliance with Trump shows. The French “identitarian” strain he aligns with most closely does not agree with the populist National Front on every issue. While he made his support for Le Pen clear, he has bigger issues on his mind.
Alt-right commentator Patrick Le Brun made the rounds, first on Counter Currents radio and later at Red Ice, to talk about the importance of Le Pen’s first-round success. He argued that her chance of winning comes from the disaffected workers in deindustrialized areas of the country who might otherwise have voted for left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He also suggested that scandals around François Fillon would make the National Front appear as the real solution to late capitalism in Western Europe. Since Brexit and Trump both won on a racist campaign of financial resentment, channeling support away from capitalist institutions and toward the working class, Le Brun believed — as did many others — that Le Pen had a real shot.
This hypothesis warrants some consideration, particularly with regard to Le Pen’s call for French independence from the European Union and NATO. Mélenchon’s foreign policy criticized the European Union from the left against Macron’s neoliberalism, and some left-nationalists have moved to the right thanks to these reorientations. Dutheil de la Rochère, Philippot, Coûteaux, Garnier, and other unconventional FN members have demonstrated Le Pen’s strange allure.
Colin Liddell, the infamous editor of the New Alternative Right who famously penned articles suggesting mass genocide for black Africans, devoted a whole podcast to the election, relying on his experience in British nationalist party politics to describe the possibilities Le Pen holds for France. As usual, his rhetoric focused on the fact that her victory would create an opening for a more extreme fascist revolution. She does not represent the endgame, only the critical turn in European consciousness needed to build the rank and file of a militant racialist movement.
The alt-light, the crossover elements that helped the alt-right enter the mainstream, more uniformly celebrated Le Pen’s first-round victory. Mike Cernovich, the Men’s Right’s guru behind the DeploraBall, compared her success with Trump’s victory. Having found her own subcultural fame after leading a violent rally in Berkeley, Lauren Southern began tweeting images of Marine as Joan of Arc, evoking the FN’s typical mythologies complete with the ironic hashtag #ImWithHer.
As a result, Trump — unlike most of the Republican Party — saw Le Pen as a potential ally. Indeed, she would have been to France what Bannon’s faction of the Trump administration is to the United States. Days before the first-round vote, Trump told the Associated Press that she was the “strongest” candidate, “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France.” Le Pen has also been a vocal supporter of the American president, telling CNN that “Donald Trump has made possible what was presented as completely impossible.”
If we cannot properly call the National Front fascist, at least we can accept that it became precisely what its founders set out to create: an instrument to further the interests of fascism through alliances with other far-right forces. By distancing herself from the party, Le Pen signaled her leadership role in what she hopes will become an international unity of reactionary forces.
Fortunately, Le Pen soundly lost in the second round: Macron took 66 percent of the vote. So far, France’s cordon sanitaire against the fascist creep is weathering the reactionary storm. But, if Mélenchon and the Left want to beat the FN in coming years, they will have to parlay their unprecedented vote tally into victories in the legislative elections coming soon. Part of that mission requires developing a critical engagement with the European Union that clearly opposes the reactionary position of “national sovereignty.”
Originally published at jacobinmag.com. Co-authored with Alexander Reid Ross.