This article explains the victory of the Front National (FN) in the May 2014 European elections in France. Taking issue with standard academic accounts that conceive of the latter as ‘second-order’ elections, it argues that the FN won by harnessing voters’ growing anxiety about European integration as an electoral issue. First, the article contends that, on the backdrop of worsening unemployment and social crisis, Europe assumed unprecedented salience in both national and European elections. In turn, it argues that by staking out a Europhobe position in contrast to the mainstream parties and the radical left, the FN claimed effective ‘ownership’ over the European issue, winning the bulk of the Eurosceptic vote to top the electoral field.
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By issue ownership we mean a political candidate’s or party’s capacity to frame the vote choice according to her/its capacity to address and resolve problems of concern to voters as a function of ‘a history of attention, initiative and innovation toward these problems, which leads [them] to believe that [she/it] is more sincere and committed to doing something about them. (Petrocik, 1996, p. 826; Bélanger and Meguid, 2008; Green and Hobolt, 2008).
Although such anti-European sovereignism was predominantly to be found on the right, it also appeared on the left, particularly among Communist voters as well as supporters of Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s Mouvement des Citoyens, which campaigned against Maastricht on economic sovereignty grounds.
These socioeconomic concerns were crystallized by the mobilization of the ‘No’ campaign against the Bolkestein Directive, which sought to reduce non-tariff barriers by allowing service providers to operate across the EU under the regulation of their home countries. Portrayed as a lever for engaging an EU-wide regulatory race to the bottom, opposition to the Bolkestein Directive thus galvanized the campaign against the ECT by channeling broader social concerns over the trajectory of European economic integration (see Grossman and Woll, 2011).
A debate has emerged regarding the partisan provenance of this working class FN vote which opposes the tenants of gaucho-lepénisme, who construe it as a transfer of electoral allegiances on the part of formerly left-wing – specifically Communist – voters, to those who argue that this vote was fueled by formerly apolitical (niniste) or conservative working class voters (ouvriéro-lepénisme). That the party has seen a steady increase in working class support since the 1990s is indisputable, however; by the 2012 presidential election, the FN had become the leading party among industrial and service sector workers (Perrineau, 1997, pp. 80–84, 230–232; Bihr, 1998, Chapter 3; Mayer, 2002, pp. 107–109, 169–176, 251–256; IFOP, 2012b, pp. 9–10).
Traceable to the Freiburg School of law and economics, ordo-liberalism refers to the rules-based market economy and policy paradigm targeting price stability and budgetary equilibrium that has held sway in (West) Germany through the post-war period and which currently underpins EMU.
This distinction between Europhobia and Europessimism, or ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Euroscepticism, has been theorized in a number of ways. For the original definition – which is used here – see Kopecký and Mudde (2002). For more recent formulations, see Taggart and Szczerbiak (2013), Szczerbiak and Taggart (2008) and Mair (2007).
A debate has arisen about whether this strategy of normalization marks an authentic break with the FN’s political program when it was led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. Specifically, some have argued that it was under party délégué général Bruno Mégret’s stewardship in the 1990s that the FN first set about professionalizing itself, developing a national structure, and detoxifying its image to demonstrate that it could responsibly exercise power in collaboration with the mainstream right. However, Mégret’s normalizing strategy never sat well with Jean-Marie Le Pen. Combined with his suspicion that the former was seeking to displace him as FN president, Le Pen refused to countenance power-sharing with the mainstream right and instead remained much more comfortable in maintaining the FN’s ‘tribunary’ status as a fringe protest party. And though he toned down his rhetoric prior to the 2002 and especially 2007 presidential election campaigns, it was not until Marine Le Pen assumed the party leadership that the FN embraced an unambiguous strategy of normalization (Camus, 1997, pp. 56–74; Perrineau, 1997, pp. 64–100, 2014, pp. 67–82; DeClair, 1999, Chapters 5–6, Afterword; Mayer, 2002, pp. 177–196, 245–251; Crépon, 2012, pp, 60–63, 71–82; Shields, 2013).
In this vein, one should point out that the PCF abandoned its previous Europhobe line at roughly the same time that the FN came to espouse its own uncompromisingly anti-EU stance, thereby positioning itself as the sole party unambiguously opposed to European integration.
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I am most grateful to Daniel Stockemer for his assistance in editing the article, as well as the two anonymous reviewers for their insights and recommendations.
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Goodliffe, G. Europe’s salience and ‘owning’ Euroscepticism: Explaining the Front National’s victory in the 2014 European elections in France. Fr Polit 13, 324–345 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/fp.2015.19
- Front National
- European elections
- radical right