Politics

France's far-right National Rally is in reach of power. Here's why Britain must take note

Marine Le Pen’s party stormed to victory in the first round of the French elections over the weekend. What does that mean for the UK?

Marine Le Pen. By Vox España - https://www.flickr.com/photos/voxespana/53732861384/, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=148607949

France’s far-right National Rally (RN) is in touching distance of power.

Marine Le Pen’s party stormed to a resounding victory in the first round of the French elections over the weekend. France’s electoral system means that most of the 577 seats in the National Assembly will be contested on Sunday, at the second-round run-off – but party leaders claim that anti-immigration RN is “ready to exercise power”.  

As France’s centre and left-wing parties frantically negotiate tactical voting arrangements to prevent this outcome, British politicians are taking note.

There are “important lessons” to be learnt from the result, Labour leader Keir Starmer has declared.

“We have to… understand why it is, certainly in the United Kingdom after 14 years of chaos and failure, that people do feel disaffected with politics,” he said. “[We have to] return politics to service and continue to make that argument that politics is a force for good.”

But will his centrist policies be enough to counter growing disillusion? Here’s what the experts have to say.

What is the National Rally?

Originally called the National Front, the party changed its name in an attempt to detoxify its image. The party’s founding president, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Marine Le Pen’s father – was openly racist and a convicted holocaust denier. He was ousted by his own daughter in 2015.

The recent election saw RN secure 33% of the vote, followed by the left-wing New Popular Front alliance (NFP) with 28%. President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist bloc secured just 20% of the vote.

The embattled leader will still be president, as this was an election for seats in the assemblée nationale. But the largest party in parliament chooses the prime minister.

Frantically arranged tactical voting agreements could prevent RN from clinching victory. But France is in “uncharted territory”, said Sébastien Maillard, a special advisor to the Jacques Delors Institute, a European think tank.

The surge didn’t come “out of nowhere”, he added – Le Pen’s party has been building support for decades. But its unprecedented popularity has three main causes.

“One, is a feeling against so-called establishment politics and politicians. The sense that ‘they don’t understand us, they don’t represent us,’” he said.

“Two, is a sense of being the losers of globalisation and more specifically, the green transition. Being on the wrong side of change. And third, is cultural insecurity. The National Rally plays on the fear that the roots of France will disappear and that immigration will mean you no longer recognise your own country.”

RN is best known for its hardline anti-immigration stance. Policies include prioritising French citizens over non-nationals for jobs, social welfare assistance and housing, dropping citizenship rights for children born in France to foreign parents, and banning the hijab in public.

Populist trends are not, of course, limited to France – they were obvious contributors to the Brexit result, said Maillard.

“There are parallels with the disillusions that voters feel [in France and the UK]. There are important differences, but there are also striking parallels,” he said.

“This sentiment of decline, the idea that a nation is in decline, was very clear in Brexit,” he said. “One thing that struck me since I have been here [in the UK], is all the debate about the levelling up, and the Tories haven’t succeeded at that.“

The inequalities that often drive far right voting are still very present in the UK, he said.

“In the debates between Sunak and Starmer, there is a lot about the public services not running. I think that the feeling of being in a region that is left out, or deprived, is powerful,” he said. “[If I was a politician] I would look to that, because if you don’t address territorial cohesion, and the gap in services, you end up in a divided society… [Nigel] Farage could in future capitalise on that.”

Macron’s centrist bloc has policy similarities to Starmer’s centre-ground Labour – a comparison that internet users have been quick to note.

“Macron’s nothingness will give us Le Pen, Starmer’s nothingness will give us Farage,” reads one X post with 14,000 likes.

There is something in this argument. If Labour fails to take “drastic action” to tackle inequality, a new report by the Fairness Foundation warns, it could “open the door to a far-right victory at the 2029 general election”.

But the French and British situations are not directly analogous. Starmer and Macron are not the same politician, says Maillard.

“The kinds of solutions he believes in, are similar to the solutions Macron believes in. But it’s also a matter of style, and the kind of politician you are – they are very different,” he said.

“There is a lot of hatred of Macron personally, a sense that he has too much power. That’s partly a product of the presidential system, but also of who Macron is. Starmer at least has a sense of being in listening mode, Macron does not have that, I don’t think.”

Starmer himself has tried to position Labour as a palliative to the far-right surge. In response to the French election result, he claimed that “only progressives” can meet the challenges of governance.

Indeed, Starmer could benefit from the same anti-incumbent backlash that has benefitted Le Pen, said Jason Moyer, a program associate at the Global Europe Program.

“Fundamentally, France and the UK are very different in their political dynamics… I don’t think this offers a warning to Starmer per se,” he said.

“Macron’s leadership style and bold changes to core French values, such as the retirement age, has been deeply unpopular, prompting widespread protests throughout his time as president. Starmer is likely taking notes and might offer more measured changes to any future policy, having seen the brash leadership style of Macron impact his governing coalition.”

It remains to be seen, however, how the public regard Starmer after he has spent five years in the top job. If he fails to meaningfully alleviate deprivation, it is unlikely that his “measured” leadership style will counter growing anger at politics and politicians.

What would a Le Pen victory mean for the France-UK relationship?

If the National Rally wins on Sunday, Macron will still be president of France, but Macron’s party would have to concede the prime minister role.

The new power-sharing arrangement would likely “weaken” France on an international stage, said Moyer.

“The UK would likely have less capable partner in France, especially as it relates to support for Ukraine, tackling conflict in the Middle East, and a less present France in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

“Although Macron would retain some powers over foreign policy and would remain commander-in-chief, the likely prime minister under a National Rally win, Jordan Bardella, would take every step possible to constrain Macron.”

Starmer has said he would work with RN, as “that’s what serious government does”.

It’s ironic, says Maillard, that a more pro-European UK government could come into power just as France elects a more euro-sceptic, isolationist parliament.

“Starmer seems to be more collaborative with the EU, more constructive. It is a paradox that he will be elected just as it is harder for Macron to build this relationship,” he said. “I suppose the UK may look more towards Germany, or Poland, for European partners.”

Anger at immigration has driven support of Farage’s Reform UK. It’s difficult to know what an RN government would mean for UK immigration policy, says Moyer.

“Jordan Bardella [RN’s president] has referenced restricting the Schengen area to European nationals only and changing France’s asylum policy. This might either lead to less migrants transiting via France to the UK, or the potential win of the National Rally next Sunday might change the path of migrants to the UK to arrive via the Netherlands or Belgium instead,” he said.

“Addressing the root causes of this displacement will be even more challenging to do, given limitations Macron will have on his leadership. It’s hard to say – but the National Rally would bring about significant changes to how France receives and treats migrants, which will directly impact the UK.”

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