Far Right’s Electoral Success in France has Deep History

On Sunday [May 5], France goes to the polls for one of the most critical elections in decades. European and American commentators almost uniformly expressed shock at the surprising strength of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in France’s first-round presidential election on April 21.

But those observers who express surprise over the success and strength of neo-fascists in contemporary French politics have short memories. Many French may remember, but they have not been eager to recall the legacy of France’s ties to the far right and fascist politics in the years leading up to World War II.

Le Pen, head of the National Front Party, is not the first French politician to succeed by using anti-immigrant, xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric to gain political support. In fact, his party’s agenda and core values, dismissed by some as simple far-right extremism, repeatedly played a major role in French politics in the twentieth century.

Le Pen is the self-conscious heir to a vigorous coalition of far-right organizations that gained vast public support during the 1930s. His political agenda today is strikingly similar to these predecessors.

“France for the French,” one of his National Front’s long-standing slogans, dominated the scene of 1930s French fascism. Like Le Pen, the far right and fascist political groups and parties expressed xenophobic fears about guest workers and foreign influences. They further advocated a return to “traditional family values,” including benefits for stay-at-home mothers, while trying to raise the birthrate by severely criminalizing abortion and limiting access to birth control.

Far from being mere extremist rhetoric, the extreme right’s agenda became state policy in the late 1930s when the conservative republican government decreed the Family Code of 1939. This set of laws enacted many rightist policies intended to aid the family, “protect” mothers and punish those who refused to accept strict gender roles and  family norms.

The rapid collapse of French republican government in 1940 and the creation of the Vichy regime, which collaborated intimately with the Nazi Germany, has been widely regarded as an aberration in France’s otherwise democratic-republican recent past. In the years after World War II, the French government prosecuted Marshal Pétain, Vichy’s leader, and other officials, in an obvious effort to close this ugly chapter in French history, a chapter in which Jews were deported to concentration camps. In recent decades the nation has continued to struggle to come to terms with its past through highly visible war crimes trials.

When the Vichy government came to power in 1940 following France’s defeat by the Germans, it was not led by fringe political figures, but by men who stood at the epicenter of the 1930s French far right. Many of them, like Le Pen today, had gained prominence in political circles for criticizing the decadence and corruption of French parliamentary politics. Their new order, like the one Le Pen is proposing, aimed to restore “national greatness.” As a result, the Vichy regime replaced the French republican mantra of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” with the slogan, “Work, Family, and Fatherland.”

Le Pen, just a week before the April 21 election, proposed returning to the Vichy-era slogan. The day after his electoral triumph, he, like so many of his 1930s and 1940s predecessors, expressed contempt for France’s “decadent” republican system. It was chilling to hear Le Pen declare that outlawing abortion was a major goal. The last extreme-right government to rule France was also the last government to guillotine a woman; the Vichy government executed a woman in 1943 for performing abortions.

Polls suggest that Le Pen will lose to conservative French President Jacques Chirac by a staggering margin. Even so, the “traditional family values” and the anti-immigrant impulses that propelled a vibrant far right throughout the twentieth century are likely to remain strong in France as in other Western democracies, including the United States. While a far-right victory this Sunday is unlikely, a future social and political earthquake, such as happened with World War II, could unleash a sobering and dangerous electoral shift.

Cheryl A. Koos, an assistant professor of history at California State University, Los Angeles, is completing a book on the origins of the French right in the twentieth century, and is a writer for the History News Service.