Children of the Fatherland: The rise of the extreme right in France, Part 1

The French go to the polls on April 23 to begin the selection of their next president. In the volatile world of French politics, the stakes seem higher than ever, as Marine Le Pen is poised to make history. After decades in the political wilderness, her party, the extreme right-wing Front National, just might pull off an upset.
Supporters of far-right leader and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election Marine Le Pen wave flags during a meeting in Marseille, southern France. Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron are among four leading candidates seen as most likely to progress from Sunday's first round and to reach the May 7 runoff between the top two. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Listen to the full episode53:58

The French go to the polls April 23 to begin the selection of their next president. In the volatile world of French politics, the stakes seem higher than ever, as National Front leader Marine Le Pen is poised to make history. After decades in the political wilderness, the extreme right just might pull off an upset. She's promised to take France out of Europe and to end immigration, as per her motto: "One community, one culture, one language". Part 1 of Philip Coulter's series on the rise of the right in France. Part 2 airs Tuesday, May 2; Part 3 airs Friday, May 5.

Sociologist Nonna Mayer talks about alternatives to the extreme right-wing policies of the Front National. 0:56


Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny's
Bloody banner is raised.
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They're coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!

The roots of French malaise are not hard to find. For generations, the political classes all promised much the same thing: a cradle-to-grave system featuring education, healthcare, a job for life, and retirement benefits. When all this started to fall apart with the international financial collapse, rising unemployment, the arrival of the refugees, and Islamist terror attacks, the promise went sour. France didn't seem to recognise itself any more.

Enter Marine Le Pen and the National Front, with their own promise to return France to something more familiar. The National Front is not just right-wing -- they're extreme-right, and vow to leave the European Union, ban Muslim immigration, bring back the death penalty, get rid of refugees and close the mosques.

The National Front offers the mantra of "France for the French", a heady cocktail for a nation in search of its lost sense of self. And who supports the National Front? It's not just the old-school anti-Semites, fascists and Vichy apologists: Marine Le Pen appeals to young people, too -- polls suggest about 40% of people who are 18-24 years-old will vote for her. It's the young who are disproportionately unemployed, it's the young who see her -- and the National Front -- as the key to their future. And the young will be around for a while, regardless of what happens in this election.

The roots of the extreme-right run deep in France -- as far back as the 1789 Revolution when there was pushback against the ideals of "liberté, égalité, fraternité ". It was Marine Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who built the modern National Front party, largely on hardline nationalist principles and toxic anti-Semitism. His daughter has struggled to free the party from its old, unelectable values, but for the French the questions remain: if such nationalism is part of the country's DNA, then what does it mean to be French today? Is Marine Le Pen, is the National Front -- France? A glance 0at the national anthem tells you how that call to arms might be seductive today: 

Form your battalions
Let's march, let's march
Let an impure blood
Water our furrows!

Guests in this episode:

  • Francois Picard, host of Debate and The World This Week on the Paris-based TV network France 24.
  • Nonna Mayer is research director at the Centre for European Studies at Sciences Po in Paris. She's written extensively about the roots of right-wing politics in France.

Special thanks to Tannis Gutnik for help with production and translation in France. Thanks also to Sylvain Desjardins and Gabrielle De Jasay at Radio-Canada in Paris, and to our Radio-Canada colleagues Julie-Anne Lamoreux and Cedric Wallon in Toronto, who read the translations.

** This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.


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