Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen took his farewell of French politics earlier this year. Lecturer Luc Baranton-Bordas looks at the far-right and far-left parties he has left behind
French people are hugely fond of abbreviations and three that occupy political pages are FN, NPA and LO.
They are the main strands of the far-right and far-left but while the Front National says it is the “only true, authentic right-wing party in France” the NPA (New Anti-Capital-ist Party – Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) and LO (Lutte Ouvrière or Working-Class Struggle) are more difficult to pin down on the nitty-gritty of policies and are, obviously, divided on their left-wing ideas and ideology.
The National Front dominates the far-right and, unlike the NPA and LO, is a complex federation of similar-thinking movements, never yet united.
Founded in 1972, it has expelled the fascists, national-socialists and other “extremists” so it could gain republican respectability and become a political party like others.
Bearing in mind the French media rarely stays impartial, they see the FN success in the 2002 presidential election, when it took 4.8 million votes in the first round, as a stain on the nation and has made it the party to discredit.
Now the FN is France’s third political power and the March regional elections showed it was still part of the political scene despite predictions it would lose heavily.
Globalisation, an exodus of French jobs to far-off lands, factory shut-downs, financial speculation and the recession only partly explain the 2010 success where the party took nearly 12% of the vote in the first round and 9% in the next.
Its success and unusual longevity for a far-right party – 38 years after its foundation – is down to a basic principle: total obedience to the leader.
President for all that time – until this year – was Jean-Marie Le Pen, the veteran of French politics after a 54-year career that started in 1956.
Born in 1928 and having studied law in Paris, he is a charismatic speaker. Often deliberately extremist, he is respectful of the French language, using a simple, not a simplistic, phraseology as he talks to le peuple (the common people) and certainly not to the Establishment elite.
Le Pen resigned from the party leadership on April 12 and in 2011, the FN leader will be chosen by the membership.
The climax of his career was reaching the second round of the presidential elections in 2002 – ousting Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Party candidate.
While the FN accepts EU rights such as freedom to live where you wish to in the EU, it also says the “massive” arrival of Britons since 2000 had caused house prices to increase, thus making home-ownership more difficult for many young French couples.
As for the left wing, the French far-left is not just ideologically opposed to the far-right but organisationally different.
The far-left is like a tree with many branches.
The roots are common to all far-left groupings, the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the trunk is Leon Trotsky’s revolutionary interpretation of 1917 (Trotskyism).
The branches upon branches are frantically detached one from another, sometimes rival but never interdependent – each splitting into a multitude of far-left splinter groups.
Only political scientists or political history specialists can see beyond the elusive, incomprehensible hydra that is the far-left, where Trotskyism has come to mean any form of radical thought and “extremist” is any left-wing communism.
However, the NPA and LO splinter groups are now following a heart-rending principle known in French as l’entrisme – opening – and will take part in “bourgeois election rites” but without any enthusiasm.
Since forming the NPA in 2009 Olivier Besancenot has tried to modernise the “archaic” Trotskyite image by moving to a “soft cultural change” for all militants.
With a degree in history, the Neuilly-sur-Seine postman is a rhetorical maestro and the first far-left leader to achieve a credible image.
He even accepted media-stardom.
He is “dead serious” and an advocate of a redoubtable Trotsky-ite doctrine – but when electors started reading the NPA’s proposals, many of them cooled down.
A weak showing in the regional elections – they got just 3.4% of the vote – was seen widely as a failure for Besancenot’s strategy.
As usual, the NPA had gone it alone with no alliances with other left or far-left parties – even a deal with the “clone-like” Lutte Ouvrière was beyond reach – but analysts point to the fact that LO got 1.1% of the vote.
Founded in 1968, LO has been led since 2008 by teacher Nathalie Arthaud and the party has stayed faithful to a traditional secrecy culture.
It avoids the media and prefers to use the internet, staying in close contact with a handful of loyal militants and sympathisers.
Far-left specialists use terms such as “sect” or “sectarian” to describe this.
The parties have common aims but different views on how to express and achieve them. Both see recent financial scandals, the global financial crisis, recession and the pension funds’ fast-profit philosophy as true indicators of capitalistic decline and probable disappearance.
Far-left parties and organisations have a considerable power and influence because of continuing strong anti-
capitalistic feelings among the majority of the French population in 2010.
Their social support can be found in certain social sectors – a non-exhaustive list of where to look would include: teachers and senior high-school pupils; teachers/students in universities; intellectuals (like Sartre in the past); artists; historians; journalists (Libération newspaper); media press (Télérama); employees in the publishing sector; civil servants; radical trade-unionists.
The difference between the left and the right is, essentially, simple: the FN wants to govern France one day, using democratic elections to achieve its aims, while the NPA and LO keep their strategy vague so as to avoid coming to power and having to assume government.