Across Europe, the rise of the populist radical right phenomenon has been seen as a backlash against the European Union. The three crises that have hit the EU since 2008 – financial, refugees and Brexit – have created a favourable context for those actors, some like the Italian Lega and FPÖ in Austria recently entering national governments.
In this paper, I look specifically at the case of the French Front National (FN) as a prototype of the Eurosceptic populist radical right, and ask two questions: first, how the FN has navigated the EU crises and seized the opportunities that these crises provided to politicize the EU? Second, how has this politicization of European issues by the FN affected mainstream party competition over Europe in France?
Looking at FN party manifestos and electoral strategies since the early 2000s, I argue that EU crises have produced little change to the party’s core Eurosceptic positions and frames. The Euroscepticism of the FN is embedded in a wider nationalist and populist framework which provides a rich set of political, cultural and economic arguments against the EU. During the crises, the FN has drawn from this Eurosceptic framework and primarily adjusted its issue priorities to exploit the opportunities produced by the crises, mobilizing a wide range of issues and grievances about the EU.
As discussed in the paper, in the FN, Euroscepticism interacts more generally with ‘de-demonization’, that is the strategic trade-off between populist radical right voter mobilization and office-seeking objectives. While it allows the FN to differentiate itself from other actors in the system, producing significant electoral gains, Euroscepticism impedes the party’s ability to achieve governmental credibility. Therefore, it may not be a viable long-term strategy for populist parties like the FN operating in a broadly pro-European context.
Turning to the party system, the paper identifies three main political outcomes of the EU crises: the rise of new Eurosceptic alternatives such as Mélenchon’s populist left and Dupont-Aignan’s sovereigntist right; amplification of existing tensions over Europe within the dominant parties; and mainstreaming of the FN agenda of immigration. Two cases of strong impact of EU crises are found, namely the financial crisis on the Left and the refugee crisis on the Right. In both cases, European crises have activated mainstream party fragmentation, highlighting existing tensions within dominant parties, also resulting in significant policy shifts. In contrast, the Brexit referendum has had a more limited impact, essentially reinforcing existing pro and anti-EU positions among French parties.
Overall, opposition to Europe is increasingly interacting with economic and cultural issues, profoundly reshaping party competition in France. This may take the form of a frontal collision between Macron’s cosmopolitan liberals and Le Pen’s national-populists in the forthcoming EP elections in May 2019.
Gilles Ivaldi, Chargé de recherche CNRS
URMIS-Université de Nice-Sophia Antipolis