Did History undermine Le Pen? Some brief thoughts

Did history and memory of the past play a key role in undermining the French far right last weekend? There was certainly a huge sigh of relief across Europe when it became clear last Sunday (7th May, 2017) that Marine Le Pen, leader of the French Front National (FN), had failed in her bid to become the first female president of the country.

Emmanuel Macron, who at 39-years old is now the youngest president in the history of the Republic since Napoleon in 1799, scored a decisive victory in the second round of the presidential elections, with 65 per cent of the vote, compared to Le Pen’s 35 per cent. It appeared to be a huge demonstration of faith in the Enlightenment values held so dearly by many in France, together with a significant show of confidence in the pro-European and pro-business policies espoused by Macron.

On the other hand, it would be dangerous for commentators to be complacent. The FN is not finished. As a historian of the extreme right, I think it is especially important to assess the result in the cold light of day. Le Pen’s score was the highest ever obtained by the Front National in a presidential election, and she almost doubled the vote share achieved by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the original founder of the FN. He won 18 per cent in a shock result in 2002 against Jacques Chirac. Indeed, it is important to recognise that Marine Le Pen and her ‘re-branded’ version of the FN still managed to persuade 11.4 million French citizens to vote for what is arguably still an extreme right party, and she now has her eyes firmly fixed on the upcoming French parliamentary elections in June, 2017.

Worryingly, Marine Le Pen has made the FN one of the most successful extreme right parties in Europe. There is also evidence that many people who voted for Macron did so not because they were strongly in favour of seeing him become president, but rather because they feared the prospect of a Le Pen presidency more, and just held their noses in the polling booths. Macron, as he himself has openly acknowledged, has much work to do to try and unite people of all classes across French society, and to undermine and reverse the intolerant nationalism that has appeared to make serious inroads throughout the country in recent years. Some of Le Pen’s strongest support came from disillusioned working-class people in the French equivalent of the ‘rust-belt’ areas, regions which have suffered from widespread de-industrialisation in recent decades.

It is a huge challenge for Macron. If he handles it thoughtfully and imaginatively, however, the fight-back against rightwing extremism could be easier than perhaps people imagine. And history is probably on Macron’s side, especially the ‘history’ of the FN and the movement’s regular manipulation of the past for ideological purposes. While ‘history’ has sometimes worked in the FN’s favour (Le Pen has ruthlessly exploited the iconic image of Joan of Arc as a defender of France against ‘foreigners’, for example), the past has had a habit of coming back to haunt and seriously undermine Le Pen and the FN. Despite her determination to ‘de-toxify’ the party and remove the anti-Semitic, Vichyite and racist legacy of her father’s time as leader, history has regularly helped reveal what is still arguably the core extremist nature of the movement. Just one example of this was evident to me as I closely watched the campaign.

It concerned the people around Le Pen. As the New York Times at one stage noted (13th April), Le Pen has worked hard to sanitize the image of her party and to distance it from the uglier and more extreme parts of the wider European extreme right. But Le Pen’s inner circle has tended to fuel serious doubts about her bid to ‘un-demonize’ the FN. Two men in her inner circle, who are key policy advisors to her and also remain very close friends of the FN leader – Frederic Chatillou and Axel Loustau – are well-known members of a violent extreme right student group that fought street battles with Leftwing activists in the 1960s, and also displayed open nostalgia for Hitler in the 1990s.

Embarrassingly for Le Pen, French TV recently broadcast video footage from the early 1990s of Loustau visiting Leon Degrelle, a Belgian former Waffen-SS officer and collaborator and (until his death in 1994) one of the most notorious neo-Nazis of the post-war period.  Moreover, further footage also showed Le Pen’s other advisor, Chatillou, speaking very fondly of his own visit to see Degrelle.

Leon Degrelle (1906-1994) is very familiar to experts on the history of the European far right (see photo). As founder of the interwar fascist Rex party, he went on to raise a force of thousands of Belgian volunteers to fight for the German war effort in an anti-Bolshevik ‘crusade’ on the Eastern Front during the war. He was personally decorated by Hitler for his efforts, and claimed that Hitler had personally told him that if he (Hitler) had fathered a son, it would have been someone like Degrelle. Moreover, in 1945, Degrelle managed to escape to Franco’s Spain, where he was given sanctuary by the regime and spent much of the rest of his career. His home in authoritarian Spain became something of a ‘must visit’ shrine for a wide variety of dedicated European neo-Nazis, and Degrelle’s continued praise of all things ‘Nazi’ saw him espousing a highly selective version of history: the SS volunteers in the wartime ‘European anti-Communist struggle’ had been examples of the new ‘European Man’, while racism was perfectly ‘natural’. Degrelle was also a strong supporter of Holocaust Denial, raising funds for the distribution of such material across the world. All this made him a major ‘hero’ to many extreme right activists.

Tellingly, Le Pen appeared to downplay and be unconcerned about these revelations about two of her key advisors. It is difficult to measure her real thoughts on the controversy, or the impact of such things on the opinion polls, but I would wager that this example of some of the FN’s historical ‘skeletons in the cupboard’ was undoubtedly unwelcome to her and very damaging to her campaign. When it emerged on 28th April that Jean-Francois Jalkh, her choice of interim FN leader (she had stepped aside temporarily as leader to fight the campaign) had appeared to deny the Holocaust in a 2005 interview, he was quickly forced to resign.

But it raised further strong doubts about the whole Le Pen project to remove the FN’s historical demons and its links to neo-Nazism. When all this was combined with some comments that Le Pen had made herself in early April, claiming that France had no responsibility for the forced deportation of French Jews to the Nazi death camps (an astonishing assertion, which flew in the face of all the available evidence from historians), then it is clear that the ‘respectable’ image so carefully cultivated by the FN in recent years should be taken with a huge dose of salt.

As we move towards the next parliamentary elections in France in June, I suspect there will be a number of other such revelations about the movement’s past that will serve to further damage Le Pen and the FN. If Macron plays his cards wisely, this ‘history’ could be very helpful indeed when facing down the electoral challenge posed by the FN.

Dr. Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

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