Politics on the Fringe: The People, Policies, and Organization of the French National Front

Politics on the Fringe: The People, Policies, and Organization of the French National Front

by Edward G. DeClair

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Once a marginal political coalition, the French National Front has become the most high-profile far-right organization in Europe. In Politics on the Fringe Edward G. DeClair provides the first extensive analysis of the Front’s history, from its creation in 1972 and outcast status in the early 1980s to its achievement of broad-based support and show of political strength in the 1997 elections.

Using rare, in-depth interviews with twenty-nine members of the Front elite, as well as public opinion survey data and electoral results, DeClair examines the internal structure of the Front, its political agenda, and its growing influence in France. DeClair shows how the party has dramatically expanded its traditionally narrow core constituency by capitalizing upon anxieties about national identity, immigration, European unification, and rising unemployment. In illustrating how the rhetoric surrounding such topics is key to the Front’s success, DeClair examines the Front’s legacy by detailing the links between the French far-right and similar movements in such countries as Germany, Belgium, Austria, Italy, and the United States. Finally, Politics on the Fringe offers not only a complete picture of the Front’s increasingly influential role in French partisan politics but also further insight into the resurgence of right-wing extremism throughout western societies in the late twentieth century.

This volume will be of primary importance to political scientists and those engaged with European politics, culture, and history. It will also appeal to those concerned with right-wing populism and political movements.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822378990
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 07/19/1999
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
Lexile: 1360L (what's this?)
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Edward G. DeClair is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Lynchburg College.

Read an Excerpt

Politics on the Fringe

The People, Policies, and Organization of the French National Front

By Edward G. Declair

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7899-0



Le Front National a été jurdiquement créé en 1972, mais il est en réalité l'héritier d'un certain nombre de tendances qui sont beaucoup plus anciennes. –Former National Assembly deputy

The French National Front, relative to other political parties in advanced industrial states, is a new political actor, and its actual political viability is of an even more recent vintage. Though created in 1972, it played virtually no role in French partisan politics until 1983, when it achieved its first minimal electoral successes in municipal and by-elections. The National Front is thus a relative newcomer to the political arena, but as a representative of the French far right, the Front is also a successor to a political tradition that has woven itself in and out of the fabric of French politics for decades. The party is the most recent manifestation of "the extreme right [which] constitutes an unstable world whose structures modify themselves according to socioeconomic conditions and varying political configurations" (Chombart De Lauwe 1987,13).

To understand the role the National Front plays in the contemporary political arena, we must examine it in the appropriate historical context. The movement was legally chartered in 1972, but much of its philosophical core mirrors a considerably older political tradition. Action Française, the Vichy-government under the Occupation, le Mouvement Poujade, l'Organisation de l'Arméé Secrète (OAS), the electoral campaigns of the 1960s, and the student revolts that followed have all contributed to the party's ideological baggage. The links between these organizations and the modern-day National Front are unmistakable when one examines the rhetoric and personnel that it shares with the many far right organizations that antedated the Front's form, the genealogy of the contemporary French far right.

The Heritage of the National Front

The National Front represents a natural continuation of an omnipresent political tradition in French society. This tradition is characterized by a number of themes: "the belief of a natural order, the defense of certain traditional values, suspicion of democracy–at least in its parliamentary form, xenophobia and even latent Anti-Semitism" (Roussel 1985, 95). The leaders, activists, and supporters of the National Front share a political legacy dominated by the extremist movements that have inhabited the underbelly of the French far right for generations. The process whereby the many far right movements melded together to form the National Front is best described by a member of the party's Bureau Politique:

The National Front was legally created in 1972, but in reality it has inherited a number of tendencies that are much older. Jean-Marie Le Pen's great virtue is that he has succeeded in unifying all of these tendencies, that he has brought them all together to create a coherent force. In the Front, one finds former Poujadists who joined simply because of fiscal or economic reasons, traditional Catholics who are scandalized by the Socialist influence in the church, as well as Algerian veterans disgusted with the failure of Gaullist policy in Algeria. I could list even more of them... even monarchists. In reality, a truly determined right has existed since before the Second World War. One needs only to call to mind the problems with the Croix de Feu and the Action Française between the two wars ... these currents of thought existed and Jean Marie Le Pen inherited them.

The ensuing discussion draws upon this historical richness and briefly discusses the Front's ideological antecedents. The party's direct links to the past are vividly outlined by carefully examining the previous political experiences of the Front's leadership cadre.

Action Française

One of the primary progenitors of the National Front is Action Française. The far right in France has often been defined by its virulent anti-Semitism, and Action Française successfully manipulated the hostility for many years. French anti-Semitism reached a fever pitch with the Dreyfus affair at the end of the nineteenth century. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a promising young Jewish officer, was accused of spying for the Germans in 1894. His trial, conviction, and subsequent appeal became a lightning rod for all of the anti-Jewish sentiment in France; the episode became a national melodrama that divided loyalties throughout the country. The Dreyfus Affair spawned what many consider to be the first truly fascist organization on the European continent. In response, Action Française was much more than merely anti-Semitic; its leaders effectively utilized the national furor over the Dreyfus Affair to weave together a number of other far right themes into one coherent whole. Its founders, Maurice Pujo and Henri Vaugeois, originally conceived Action Française as a "republican movement" (Soucy 1986).

Charles Maurras joined the group soon after its creation, and his influence over the organization was immediately apparent. His support and defense of the monarchy became a pillar of the group's ideology. Maurras traced the problems of French society to 1789 and blamed the "four alien nations"–Jews, Freemasons, Protestants, and foreigners– for having contributed to the political turmoil that had followed the Revolution. According to Maurras, a revived monarchy working closely with the Catholic hierarchy would restore order to a rapidly changing society. Throughout the twentieth century, subsequent far right movements repeated Maurras's eloquent justifications of his theories. Nolte contends that "Maurras was the first man ... who drove conservatism beyond the limits dividing it from incipient fascism" (1965,116).

The themes espoused by Maurras at the beginning of the twentieth century are today being echoed by the Front's leaders. When asked to contemplate his party's future political viability, this membre fondateur parrots maurrassian rhetoric as if no time has passed since the Dreyfus Affair:

Future obstacles–the lobbies. Very difficult to know, but it may be the Jewish lobby, the Freemason lobby, the Protestant lobby, but they are only lobbies. They don't represent the majority of Jews in this county, nor the majority of Protestants of this country. The Freemasons only represent themselves. All of this nice little world is aligned against us.

Action Française quickly developed into a powerful political machine, and Maurras's break with republicanism firmly entrenched the movement among the radical right. This appealed to many beleaguered conservatives, but especially attracted the stauncher Catholics. Although the leadership of Action Française was dominated by the nobility, "the bulk of its troops ... came from the lower middle classes and the white-collar professions" (Soucy 1986,14). Action Française claimed it received some support from all socioeconomic sectors of Catholic France. The organization's daily newspaper was an important source of political propaganda and was required reading in all intellectual circles–left or right.

The extremist politics promoted by Action Française successfully penetrated student organizations. The National Front includes individuals who were very active in such student groups. This National Assembly candidate and Front loyalist recounts his early political experiences as student activist in Action Française:

I started to get interested in politics when I arrived in Paris in 1934. My first political activity was as a dedicated activist of Action Française at the Law Faculty. While at the Law Faculty, I was a militant activist of Action Française. I was the person in charge at the Faculty. I propagated nationalist ideas and took an interest in most of the students who were also in this movement. And I don't regret anything, because it was in Action Française that I acquired my political culture.

Obviously proud of his prior membership in Action Française, this high-ranking member of the Front has remained committed to the far right's cause for over fifty years. The participation of such individuals in the Front, at the highest echelons, demonstrates how the party creates the perfect environment to nurture hostilities harbored for over a generation. Although integral to Maurras's philosophy, the restoration of the monarchy is not a central element of the National Front's belief system. Nevertheless, monarchists are welcomed and feel comfortable in the Front, and according to this member of the party's Bureau Politique, one can find much of Maurras in the speeches of Jean-Marie Le Pen:

[F]or example, it's indisputable that Action Française played an important role. There are monarchists in our organization, and one could say that in certain ideas, not on the economic level, but on the level of philosophical values, Le Pen is somewhat close to Maurras. I'm saying that on the philosophical level one can find some of Maurras's ideas in Le Pen's speeches.

Action Française was not only the first such group in France, but it also proved to be one of the most enduring. Its philosophical descendants are now found in Restauration Nationale, which remains committed to a revitalized monarchy. The Front's links to this organization are direct. As this former National Assembly deputy recounts his prior political experiences, he underscores the links between his party's present and the extreme right's past:

There is in France a royalist current, a monarchist one, let's say traditionalist, OK? And it was to this milieu that I gravitated from about 1950 until just about 1975. The first political organization I joined, in about 1950, was Restauration Nationale. I began, at that time, by taking on some responsibilities at the local level. I was living in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris, and from 1950 to 1958 I was one of the leaders of the fifteenth arrondissement section of Restauration Nationale. From 1958 on, I played a more active role at the heart of this movement. I became a lecturer and gave dozens and dozens of lectures over the years, and then I became the secretary-general of the National Political Institute, which is the training organ for the movement–for the young people and the university students in the movement.

Action Française was not an isolated phenomenon. The political environment in the immediate post-World War I years nurtured myriad far right political movements. A number of major and minor political organizations hovered on the extreme right of the political spectrum. One thing most of these newer groups had in common was the belief that Action Française had become somewhat complacent in actively pursuing its political goals. Ironically, Action Française, which was created to move beyond the political conservatism of the more staid Ligue des Patriotes, quickly became viewed as the symbol of the old and ineffectual far right. Maurras's tendency to overintellectualize the political situation failed to attract a steady stream of new recruits to the movement after World War I. Newer, more vital organizations began to siphon off large numbers of potential Action Française activists.

Two of the more visible and vocal organizations during the inter-war period were the Faisceau and the Jeunesses Patriotes. The perceived complacency of Action Française in conjunction with the 1924 arrival to power of the Cartel des Gauches encouraged the creation of these new, more activist far right movements. Georges Valois, a protégé of Maurras, laid the foundation for the Faisceau after a trip to Italy in 1924, and Valois's organization was quickly attacked by Maurras in the rightist press. These early fratricidal divisions on the rightist fringe foreshadowed the tumultuous conflicts the contemporary far right would undergo in future years.

Croix de Feu, initially a veterans association, also played an important role during this period. Like Faisceau before it, Croix de Feu benefited greatly from the military mind-set of its membership, which surpassed 450,000 in 1936. At the time, the French left labeled it the most dangerous fascist threat (McMillan 1985). The tight relationship that developed between the far right and the military was to endure and become even more pronounced once the Algerian conflict reached crisis proportions. The links between the military and the far right continue today, the Front encourages and solicits the support of veterans and has created a national network of ancillary organizations to promote and maintain these links. The most important of these organizations is the Cercle National des Combattants (National Veterans Circle), founded by Roger Holeindre in 1985.

Economic chaos and a government scandal of immense proportions pushed the rightist organizations into the streets on February 6, 1934. It is estimated that 40,000 demonstrators, members of all the major groups–Action Française, Jeunesses Patriotes and Croix de Feu–marched on the Chamber of Deputies. This extreme antiparliamentarianism would remain a primary feature of the far right; moreover, it would be a central core of the Vichy regime. Although the revolt did not succeed in destroying the Third Republic, it did bring down the Daladier government.


The collapse, after only six short weeks of righting, of the French forces in World War II brought about the new regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain. Pétain, a World War I hero, quickly took control of the desperate French nation. The National Assembly voted to dismantle the Third Republic on July 10,1940, effectively putting itself out of business. With little left to hamper him, and aided and abetted by Pierre Laval, Pétain was left to deal directly with the German occupying forces. The causes and consequences of the years under Vichy rule have been endlessly debated by historians; this brief discussion seeks only to underscore the thematic convergences that exist between the French far right and Vichy France, not to resolve longstanding historical conflicts.

Under Pétain, France broke with the liberal mind-set that had dominated the country since the Revolution (Azéma 1993). According to Réne Rémond, Pétain's National Revolution was nothing but a belated "counter-revolution"; "No more elections, deliberative assemblies, political parties, freedom of the press, or freedom of assembly: those who had never accepted 1789 and liberalism finally got their revenge" (1982, 235). The French far right welcomed this new National Revolution advocated by Pétain; it was finally getting its long-desired political revenge on the forces of liberalism. The establishment of the Vichy regime was in many ways a victory for the French far right. Pétain's political and moral agenda vindicated the political dinosaurs who had remained radically opposed to parliamentary democracy.

Pétain, his ministers, and much of the French polity held the politicians and institutions of the Third Republic responsible for France's quick and humiliating defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany. This was viewed as a most appropriate excuse for dismantling the Third Republic. Antiparliamentarianism was no longer a slogan of the street revolts but rather the law of the land. Pétain's attacks on parliament implied that representative government was indeed unworkable.

In addition, his conception of France under the Occupation mirrored many of the other themes of the far right. Pétain immediately reestablished ties between the state and the Church; the anticlerical sentiments of the 1789 revolution had no place in Vichy. Pétain's France was to be a moral one; he emphasized the centrality of the family in French society, while stressing the need for a higher birthrate. All of these ideas would be resurrected in the 1980s by the National Front; family, religion, and an emphasis on morality have proven to be philosophical cornerstones for the far right, and they continue to form the central core of the Front's ideological foundation. This frontiste, speaking in 1988, could just as easily have been discussing the far right's view of France at the dawn of the Vichy era: "I think that France's primary problem is the almost total absence of any moral authority.... There is a great deal of moral, spiritual, and ideological confusion."

The Front's rabidly pro-natalist policies are easily traced to Pétain's desire to increase the feeble French fertility rate–a constant theme of the French far right. In the contemporary scenario, policies to increase the French birthrate have taken on an increased urgency because of the arrival of millions of Islamic immigrants. The urgency of this fear is outlined in this quotation from Passeportpour la victoire (Passport for victory), a publication distributed by the Front during the 1988 presidential elections:

As a point of fact, 1.65 children, on average, are born to each French mother, and more than five children are born to each foreign woman from the Maghrib. If in twenty years we still want to be French, one of our most important priorities must be to set in motion a natalist policy that favors French families (1988, 43).


Excerpted from Politics on the Fringe by Edward G. Declair. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures

List of Tables



1. The French Far Right: The Legacy of History

2. The Far Right Reappears: The Creation of the National Front

3. Initial Success: Election Victories in 1984 and 1986

4. Legislative Losses and Beyond

5. The Political Agenda of the National Front

6. The Leadership and Organization of the National Front

7. Voting for the National Front

8. The Far Right in Comparative Perspective



Appendix 1. Elected and Party Positions Held by Respondents in 1988

Appendix 2. Evolution of the National Front's Political Bureau




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