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‘Le Pen’s programme remains far-right despite efforts to soften image’

The presidential hopeful’s views on immigration, citizenship, Islam and democracy are all symbolic of a far-right ideology, argue political experts

Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement national) will face off against Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the election on Sunday (April 24) Pic: Spech / Shutterstock

In the second round of this year’s presidential election on April 24, president-candidate Emmanuel Macron will fight it out against Marine Le Pen, just like in 2017. 

Read more: Presidential TV debate and election: the week ahead in France

Several French political experts have argued that Ms Le Pen’s campaign policies remain far-right despite ‘dédiabolisation’ (de-demonisation), a process through which the Rassemblement national (RN) candidate has reformulated her image to appear more ‘respectable’ and less extreme. 

To this end, Ms Le Pen’s campaign has centred largely on public spending power, and her newest poster shows the candidate leaning against a desk, smiling, accompanied by the phrase “for all French people”. 

However, the RN candidate’s views on immigration, citizenship, Islam, press freedoms, the EU and the sanctity of the French Constitution all continue to point towards a far-right ideology.

Changing the Constitution

Political scientist Jean-Yves Camus defines the extreme right as being “an organicist conception of a community based on ethnicity, nationalist or race,” and a rejection of “representative democracy.” 

This latter point resonates with Ms Le Pen’s claims that she would call a referendum on her plans to change the status of foreigners and nationality, which would go against the French Constitution. 

This referendum would seek to impose a ‘priorité nationale’, which would control “the access of foreigners to any public or private employment, the exercise of certain professions…or [participation] in trade unions…as well as their access to social aid.”

Read more: What is Le Pen’s ‘French nationals first’ policy and is it legal?

Ms Le Pen would hold a referendum on the subject because France’s highest constitutional authority, the Conseil constitutionnel, cannot scrutinise a law adopted by referendum. 

“The Conseil constitutionnel will not have a say with regards to [changing] this article [11 of the Constitution], it is the people who will tell us whether it is a yes or a no,” the RN’s Jean-Paul Garraud told Franceinfo.

Priorité nationale is currently unconstitutional because “as soon as foreigners settle lawfully in the country, they have the same rights as citizens,” constitutionalist Dominique Rousseau said. 

The laws potentially passed as a result of Ms Le Pen’s referendum would therefore modify the Constitution while bypassing the authority of the Conseil constitutionnel.

Any change to the Constitution should normally be adopted in identical forms by both the Assemblée nationale and the Sénat.

“This ‘referendum democracy’ desired by Marine Le Pen, which shuts out elected parliamentarians and institutions likely to exercise their power to the contrary, is illiberal,” Prof Rousseau said.

Political scientist Erwan Lecœur, who is a special in far-right ideologies, also stated that the idea of a priorité nationale referendum “clearly has an extreme right vision,” as it constitutes a form of “hyper-democratism: the idea that the institutions of the Republic should be replaced by popular common sense.” 

Discrimination against foreigners 

One of the “elementary principles” of Ms Le Pen’s programme is the idea of “putting our own before others.” 

As part of this, she wishes to limit access to French nationality to those who show “merit and assimilation,” and would only allow undocumented immigrants to be regularised in “exceptional cases.” 

Under Ms Le Pen, asylum applications would always be processed abroad, family reunification would be brought to an end, the spouses of French citizens would no longer have an automatic right to apply for nationality and children born in France to foreign parents would no longer have birthright citizenship. 

“Marine Le Pen wants to bring French citizenship back to being a jus sanguinis [a right based on that of one’s parents],” said Prof Rousseau. 

“But, what makes the French people is not blood or skin colour or religion, but adherence to the values concretised in the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen [of 1789].” 

“Marine Le Pen is the historical continuation of what her father did with the Front national [which was renamed Rassemblement national in 2018],” said historian Valérie Igounet. 

“This anti-immigration xenophobia is a marker of a nationalist programme and of the extreme right.” 

Controlling Islamic practices 

Ms Le Pen has expressed a desire to “combat Islamist ideologies,” but has not defined what this means in concrete terms. 

However, “we consider someone who wears the veil to be an Islamist,” Ms Le Pen’s chief of staff Renaud Labaye has previously told Le Monde.

One of the key proposals of her initial campaign was “banning the headscarf” in public places, but she has now said that while this remains an “objective,” it is no longer a “major priority” and would be discussed in Parliament.

Read more: Marine Le Pen says French headscarf ban ‘no longer main priority’

The idea of prohibiting the use of headscarves in public is “a measure which goes against laïcité [French secularism], which in no way bans wearing religious symbols in public spaces,” said jurist Nicolas Hervieu. 

At the same time, Ms Le Pen would seek to conserve the practice of installing nativity scenes in public places at Christmas, suggesting that she would treat the religious symbols of Islam differently to those related to Christianity.

This would go against the equality between religious faiths enshrined by 1905 law on the separation between the Church and the state.

Tightening national security

A large section of Ms Le Pen’s campaign proposals relate to stepping up the fight against crime and delinquency, in response to the “lax attitude” of previous governments with regards to “thugs.” 

She has said that she would recruit 7,000 police officers and gendarmes and increase prison spaces from 60,000 to 85,000.

Communes with more than 10,000 inhabitants would also be required to house an armed police municipale team.

Ms Le Pen would also reintroduce minimum sentences for all criminals so that everyone convicted of a crime receives a punishment. 

In addition, a “presumption of self defence” would be imposed with regards to police forces. “The law already includes numerous self-defence provisions when police officers use their weapon,” lawyer and Ligue des droits de l’homme member Nathalie Tehio told Mediapart.

“To say that this is not sufficient would mean wanting to create an indiscutable presumption. Police officers would be able to breach the conditions which surround the use of their arm, or of using force in general.

“The fact that the police would come above others with regards to justice reflects extreme right values,” Mr Lecœur said. 

“The cornerstones of Marine Le Pen’s France are the police and order, and not justice.” 

Read more: What is Marine Le Pen’s position on the death penalty?

Encouraging a high birth rate instead of a ‘flood of migrants’

“The central and most constant ideal of the extreme right is to explain that the nation is in danger, because she is at once being attacked from the outside and undermined from the inside by a sort of hedonism and individualism which encourages people not to have children,” Dr Camus told Libération in July 2021.

It is with this in mind that Ms Le Pen seeks to protect “France’s birth rate,” to combat the “flood of migrants” which could “modify the composition and the identity of the French people.” 

To encourage people to have more children, Ms Le Pen would introduce a “0%-interest loan for young French families, converted to a grant for couples who have a third child.” 

Opposition powers would be weakened

Marine Le Pen has often been criticised for her conception of press freedoms. On April 12, she said during a press conference that she would reserve the right to choose who was a journalist and who was not. 

“According to her vision, intermediary bodies and a whole host of opposition powers would no longer mean anything,” said Mr Lecœur. “The media, justice, unions, she obviously wants to abolish them.” 

Ms Le Pen has joined incumbent president and candidate Emmanuel Macron in saying that she would get rid of France’s TV licence fee (redevance audiovisuelle), which helps to ensure media neutrality.

She has said that she would privatise certain media outlets, and has also said that “we have every reason to hate the CGT [union] and [its president] Philippe Martinez.” 

Strengthening ties with other ‘illiberal’ democracies 

If she is elected on April 24, some fear that Ms Le Pen would attempt to form a nationalist, populist bloc of European nations. 

“Her allies are clearly parties and personalities from the extreme right,” said political scientist Gilles Ivaldi, making reference to the Alternative for Germany, Freedom Party of Austria and Italian Lega Nord populist parties. 

Ms Le Pen has also talked about forming a stronger alliance with Poland and Hungary, two EU member states that frequently clash with Brussels over topics such as immigration, LGBT+ rights and the rule of law. 

“Poland, Hungary and myself all probably share a common vision of the necessary transformation of the EU into an alliance of nations, as we do for the necessity of the primacy of national law over EU directives,” Ms Le Pen said. 

Mr Ivaldi has said that the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán “is in the process of creating an autocratic regime,” with Mr Lecœur describing his government as “an illiberal, authoritarian democracy, under the heel of a leader who will make things so that people think like him.

“In Hungary, there are no longer free media, universities can no longer say what they want, homosexual people are pursued. Tonnes of freedoms have been abolished.” 

RN MEP Jean-Paul Garraud has, however, argued that “Hungary is a democracy.”

Related articles 

Le Pen praises Brexit; Macron and allies say she is hiding Frexit plan

'I'll leave', 'I'll celebrate': your reactions to idea of a Le Pen win

Macron and Le Pen’s election rematch: A lot has changed since 2017

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