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Normalizing Racism in National Front Rhetoric

This is the second article in a three-part series on Dangerous Speech. Click here to read the first installment, which considers the line between offensive speech and speech with a direct link to violence.

By Pauline Moullot

The scene has become customary. Whenever Marine Le Pen speaks at one of her meetings, her supporters punctuate her speech chanting “On est chez nous, on est chez nous!” (“This is our home!”). The phrase is indicative of what the National Front (FN) party is: a xenophobic, anti-immigration party. Yet, the increasing popularity of the party is worrisome: while it continues to campaign on xenophobic themes, it now appeals as the best choice for people who have been disillusioned by other traditional parties and is gaining votes.

Since Marine Le Pen took over the presidency of the French far-right party from her father Jean-Marie in 2011, she has been working on a strategy the French call “dédiabolisation” (de-demonization). She is trying make the FN look more credible so that it can become normalized, meaning making her party looks like any other traditional party and not like an “extreme,” xenophobic one. It has thus been gaining more and more voters who previously would have been ashamed of voting for the FN but can now be comfortable with it because they consider it to be like any other party. But the behavior of her supporters shows that the party hasn’t really changed. What appeals to the voters is mainly her anti-immigration rhetoric.

“The dédiabolisation is a strategy that seeks radicalism and credibility at the same time,” explains Gilles Ivaldi, a CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) sociologist specializing in far-right parties and populism. Like her father’s before, her speech is focused on immigration, specifically the allegations that immigrants claim social benefits “traditional” French wouldn’t be entitled to and that immigration is linked to terrorism. Thus, to the party’s statements refer to “illegals,” rather than to migrants or refugees. When she campaigned for the 2012 presidential election, Le Pen used more socio-economic themes, but since the terrorist attacks of January and November and since the migrant crisis emerged in Europe she went back to her party’s customary topics. While in 2012, her main focus was the euro and unemployment, she now is also taking a more open stance against Islamism.

Cécile Alduy is a professor at Stanford University and specialist in the National Front’s rhetoric. She explains, “Unlike her father, Marine Le Pen uses a different vocabulary and style that are less violent and aggressive, and suppressed the dubious references to WWII, the Algerian war, or racist connotation on the skin color. Yet, these are only stylistic changes in the form, but in the content she inherited the layout of the lepenist speech, based on the opposition between ‘French of French descent’ and ‘the others.’”

On Dec. 16, the FN president lost control listening to a radio interview in which a commentator talked about the “shared community of spirit” of the National Front and the Islamic State, in that both focus on identity. She tweeted very graphic images of executions committed by the Islamic State, including one of James Foley’s beheading, which she later removed after receiving criticism from Foley’s family. “This violence and attempt to intimidate is worthy of her father,” says Alduy, dismissing the idea that the FN has in fact been de-demonized since Marine Le Pen took control of the party.

Ivaldi sees two main differences from Jean-Marie Le Pen’s manner of speech. First, Marine Le Pen has dropped all references to anti-Semitism. Her father’s punchlines calling the Holocaust a “detail of history” are now banished from the National Front’s speech (Jean-Marie Le Pen too has been expelled from the party he founded). Second, the FN rhetoric on topics such as Islam and immigration is now based on appeals to the French notion of a secular republic. The FN denies it is racist or xenophobic; if it does criticize Islam, it says, it’s because it is the defender of the French laicity (secularism) and republic.

This strategy is nothing new. “All the populist parties in Europe—Geert Wilder’s in the Netherlands or the SPO in Austria, for instance—criticize Islam saying that religion is dangerous for democracy,” argues Ivaldi. “The speech is still based on fears and bias against the others, it is dangerous because it oversimplifies the problems,” Ivaldi adds. “Yet, this speech has a great impact. Not being openly xenophobic, it appeals to voters that want, for instance, to defend the laicity.” French people being so attached to this principle of laicity, a party such as the National Front can even appeal to an electorate that was more left-leaning. “The speech is more dangerous because it is more credible, yet it still uses xenophobic themes,” insists Ivaldi.

The strategy appears to be working to a certain degree. The National Front recorded all-time high results at the last regional elections in December with more than 6.8 million votes and 358 regional councilors elected. Yet it failed to win any regional presidencies, even though it was expected to win between two and five regions. “Its isolation and radicalism prevents any coalition,” argues Alduy. “The National Front isn’t adapted to the French electoral system and continues to be a huge foil for a great majority of the French people.” The credibility Marine Le Pen wants still hasn’t been acquired, but she’s working on it.

By just staying in the spotlight, Le Pen is now shifting the debate toward her ideology. The political debate is, increasingly, shifting toward the right. The declaration of a state of emergency following the attacks in Paris in November and the attempt to constitutionalize the revocation of terrorists’ French citizenship are just two examples. While the socialists used to be against these changes, the main ministers of the government are now defending them. Even if the National Front has removed openly xenophobic language from its speech, the perceived credibility of its extreme positions is making it easier for mainstream conservatives to embrace positions previously considered unacceptably racist.

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Pauline Moullot is a journalist at Libération in Paris and former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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