Looming challenges for the National Front: the economic program

This post is the second part of a look at different challenges faced by the National Front in its rise to power. Find part 1 on political strategy here.

Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) has made the fight against liberalism the overarching theme of its political program. Under the influence of its vice-president Florian Philippot, the party has defined a project simultaneously opposing both economic liberalism and cultural liberalism. This position allows the FN to claim to be the only truly consistent political movement in France, and to highlight the apparent paradoxes of its main electoral opponents: the conservative right and the anti-liberal left. Indeed, while the conservative right (represented by Les Républicains) pretends to fight the excesses of cultural liberalism, it also supports a liberal economic agenda and embraces globalization. Similarly, according to the FN, the anti-liberal left (with Jean-Luc Mélenchon as its champion for 2017) is conceptually inconsistent as it opposes the liberal economic order and austerity on the one hand, but promotes the cultural and identity aspects of liberalism on the other hand. Without getting into the complex details of the concept of liberalism and its meaning in France’s political history, one can certainly see how this simple framework reinforces the FN’s discourse.

Obviously, the picture is less rosy than it seems, and this beautiful theoretical consistency does not prevent internal tensions from emerging. Marine Le Pen can rely on a relative consensus within the party on identity and cultural issues — although, as it was notably revealed during the 2015 regional campaign, different visions can clash on topics such as women’s rights and abortion laws. On the economic side, however, the internal differences are more obvious.

Since its creation in 1972, the FN has shown a remarkable sense of ideological flexibility: pro-European and ultra-liberal on economic issues in the 1980s, Jean-Marie Le Pen wanted then to be perceived as a “French Reagan”. After the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the communist threat, Brussels and the European project became the new enemy of the party. Since 2011, Marine Le Pen promoted a protectionist and anti-liberal program on economic affairs, which particularly suited her desire to appeal to the working-class voters.

Nowadays, the FN can rely on two strong electorates: the working-class which is disillusioned with the Left (particularly, but not only, in the post-industrial Northern regions), and the small businesses and independent workers. The economic interests of these two groups are fundamentally opposed, especially on fiscal and social issues. Interestingly, this division is embodied by the Le Pen family itself: while Marion Maréchal Le Pen is closer to the economic liberalism of her grandfather Jean-Marie, Marine Le Pen is promoting a stronger social state to protect the working class against the effects of globalization.

The FN’s leadership is well-aware that its weakness on the economic program will be determinant in future elections. As FN’s vice-president Louis Alliot put it euphemistically in January 2016: “we are missing a link in our economic strategy”. The question of exiting the European common currency — one of the key ideas of the FN’s program — has even started to be questioned internally, as it may not be popular among the middle-class right-wing electorate whose support will be necessary for a victory at the national level. It is unlikely that these divisions will heat up during the forthcoming presidential campaign, but a disappointing result next spring will certainly reopen the debate.

Looking at 2017, Fillon’s victory at Les Républicains’ primaries mean one thing: identity politics will not be sufficient for the FN to win over the conservative party. Economic issues, given Fillon’s hard austerity measures, will be the focus of Le Pen’s strategy. Once again, it’s all going to be about liberalism.

Martin Q.