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De Gaulle’s Ghost Is on the Ballot in France

The French right is not “fascistic,” but Gaullist—and that’s what the French people want.

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Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, in one snapshot in time, is the most popular party in France and not by a little bit. The RN scored more than 31 percent in last weekend’s European parliamentary vote: French President Emmanuel Macron’s party, which came in second, did not reach 15 percent. People in France and throughout Europe don’t quite consider elections for the Brussels parliament ones that really count: Brussels’ power may be growing, but remains less than that wielded by national governments, at least in the minds of most voters. But the smashing of Macron’s party by Le Pen’s, unexpected and striking, has thrown European politics and financial markets into a tizzy. 

After their win, the RN called on Macron to dissolve Parliament and call for new national elections—hardly expecting that he would. A few hours later, Macron did just that. In three weeks, France will go to the polls again for a two stage election to choose a new legislature. Macron is gambling that faced with the stark option of putting the Rassemblement National in power in Paris where it really counts, the majority of French voters will recoil, choosing again the party of the liberal centrist president—as they did in the presidential votes of 2017 and 2022. 

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A second possibility, the RN will do well enough that Jordan Bardella, the precocious Le Pen lieutenant who led the party to victory in the Euro election, will be asked by Macron to become prime minister and form a government in coalition with other parties. The RN will then be in power, constrained by Macron in an unpredictable cohabitation, and likely lose some of the luster it has gained as an opposition party, able to criticize everything and held responsible for nothing. Marine Le Pen, who plans to run for president again in 2027 and now polls better than Macron, would lose her shine too. 

Both these scenarios seem as plausible as one which sees the RN’s rise as inexorable; despite the party’s victory in the last vote, it remains a long way from power. 

Nevertheless, it’s worth taking stock of what Marine Le Pen has achieved politically, against considerable odds. Twenty-two years ago, her father, Jean-Marie le Pen, who had created the National Front as a vehicle for a collage of right wing resentments (Vichy, loss of Algeria, mass immigration), came in a surprising second in a multiparty presidential primary. The French political and media establishment across the political spectrum united against him for the second round—forming a “Republican front”, refusing to debate him, denying him major media access, treating him as a political leper. He garnered 20 percent of the vote in a two-man race. This was the party Marine Le Pen inherited from her father in 2011, one shunned by most serious French people, even though, as was already clear, it came closest to representing French sentiment on the critical issue of immigration. 

The actual relationship between Marine and her father (still alive at 96) is a subject for a playwright of genius, but the political outline is thus: Marine setting out to “dedemonize” the National Front by maintaining its core views on immigration, eschewing the casual antisemitism her father trafficked in, and putting a greater focus on working class economic issues. The intent was to create a nationalist social democratic party, culturally right and economically center-left. She eventually kicked her father out of the party he had founded and soon after rechristened it as the Rassemblement National, borrowing a word evoking the Gaullist organ of the ’70s and ’80s. By 2017, the de-demonization had at least partially succeeded (she came in second in the presidential election to Macron, scoring 34 percent in the two-person race). 

After a better presidential showing in 2022, the RN became the largest force in the French Parliament and could not always be ignored or bypassed legislatively. Major voices in the political media were implicitly or explicitly pro RN. In 2022, the popular and talented right-wing author Éric Zemmour ran for president on a platform further to the right than the RN, which only helped normalize Marine le Pen’s party. 

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In the next few weeks, one will hear a lot about French uniting against the “fascist threat to the Republic” which the RN’s rise supposedly represents: Anti-Marine demonstrations began Sunday in Paris before the final votes were tallied, and more leftist demonstrations “against the brown menace” were planned in major cities. 

This charge is a lie, of course: Marine Le Pen’s party is as grounded in the rules of democracy as any in France. In my experience, if you meet a young enthusiast, party worker, or political aide working for the RN, they invariably come from a family of Gaullist parents. De Gaulle was called many things by his opponents after World War II, including an aspiring dictator. By the time of his death, he was acknowledged, sometimes grudgingly, as France’s greatest leader of the 20th century, proven correct against the majority sentiments of his countrymen on the issues most existential for France—first, to submit to or fight Nazism, and second, to persist in maintaining or walk away from colonial rule over Algeria. 

At the top of the issues facing France today are immigration and the foreign policy questions raised by the Ukraine war. Continued immigration from Africa and North Africa will sometime this century reduce the descendants of white native born Frenchmen (Français de souche) to a minority in France, an event with incalculable cultural and political consequences. The circumstances in the suburbs of several major cities, “no-go zones” for the police or “territories lost to the Republic” as they are often called, provide one sort of preview; Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission” represents a more optimistic version. 

The policy platform of Marine Le Pen’s party aspires to terminate the cultural transformation of France through mass immigration. She calls (in her 2022 presidential bid) for an end to family chain-linked immigration, for asylum applicants to be screened outside the country, for the right to public housing to be given to French people first, for the expulsion of criminal illegal aliens, and, perhaps most importantly, for limiting access to French citizenship to those satisfy criteria of “merit and assimilation.” These measures would put an end to most mass immigration pathways (being born on French soil, claiming asylum, one’s brother, parents, etc. already being there) which make France more Third-World every day. 

These measures are broadly popular in the French electorate, which is why Marine Le Pen has been at the center of the French political conversation for decades despite an establishment united against her. They are also Gaullist, in a way that the politicians who managed to become De Gaulle’s political heirs never quite managed to be. Though the issue was too far in the future to be seriously talked about, De Gaulle himself was a multiculturalism skeptic. His views are summarized by this conversation recorded by his aide Alain Peyrefitte. 

“It is good that there are yellow Frenchmen, black Frenchmen, brown Frenchmen. It demonstrates that France is open to all races, and has a universal vocation,” he said. “But under the condition they remain small minorities. If not, France will no longer be France.” 

He went on to say that those who preach integration are “birdbrains, even if highly educated…Arabs are Arabs, French are French. Do you believe the French body politic can absorb 10 million Muslims, which will soon be 20 and after that 40…My village of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises will soon be Colombey-les-Deux-Mosqueés.” 

That passage, at once famous and ignored, shows De Gaulle to be more racially essentialist than today’s mainstream manners would tolerate, and completely estranged from the current establishment dogmas of the West, very much including those of the leaders of France’s Gaullist parties, who more or less submitted to the mass immigration he feared. His musings were prompted by the concept of holding on to Algeria as a colony and integrating it further into France—which was, in the 1950s, the French establishment, colonialist, pro–Algerian war position. The idea that France itself would be turned into a sort of de facto colony for Algerians and anyone else who wanted to settle there was, it must be said, completely beyond his scope. 

Le Pen’s party is unquestionably more Gaullist in foreign policy. In the past six months, Macron has jumped to the forefront of Europe’s Ukraine hawks, perhaps the only European leader who seems genuinely eager to satisfy Ukrainian president Zelensky’s ambition to transform the Ukraine conflict into a broader NATO-versus-Russia war. What De Gaulle might have thought of this is not hard to discern. One of his most famous foreign policy phrases was a “Europe from the Atlantic the Urals”—his vision of an area of common civilization, very much including Moscow and Saint Petersburg. 

The Cold War, with a communist regime in Moscow opposed to everything De Gaulle cherished, stood in the way of his pursuing any kind of pro-Soviet foreign policy, and he made clear that when push came to shove—as in the Cuban missile crisis, he stood with Washington over Moscow. But he withdrew France from NATO’s military structures to protest Washington’s refusal to share nuclear information about NATO forces on French soil, and sought for France an independent foreign policy. The idea that he would support expanding NATO into Eastern Europe as an anti-Russian alliance after the end of the Cold War, and back Washington’s desire to spread American military bases targeting Russia to Ukraine and the Baltics is of course ludicrous. By contrast Marine Le Pen has remained ambiguous about the Ukraine war, criticizing Russia’s invasion, maintaining that most Crimeans feel attached to Russia, criticizing Macron’s musings about escalating French military involvement. The weeks will likely increase pressure to clarify—but she will certainly come down as more of a Gaullist, less an anti-Russia hardliner. 

In the weeks to come we will hear repeated expressions of deep concern about the threat posed by the “extreme right”—in France, in Europe, embellished by claims Europe faces a “fascist” threat from the RN and the other assiduously legalistic and democratic right-wing populist parties. One can be legitimately skeptical about many aspects of Marine Le Pen’s party—whether their economic and fiscal plans make sense, whether they can muster enough elite talent to run the government, whether they would actually be less adept at maintaining the French welfare state than Macron. And of course Le Pen, talented, hard working political leader that she is, is no De Gaulle. But in terms of what she and her party stands for and aspires to emulate, the closest model is that of France’s greatest 20th century leader—the culturally conservative anti-Nazi who brought an end to the France’s colonial wars.