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The National Front and its influence among French workers

lundi 7 juillet 2014

(Article written for a debate organized on the 5th and 6th of July 2014 by the Alliance for Wokers Liberty (AWL) in London ; "Is the far right winning over Europe’s workers ?" with Matt Cooper (Workers’ Liberty) ; and Theodora Polenta (Greek socialist activist) NPNF)

I would like to make an introductory remark about the title of today’s debate. Then I’ll describe how does the National Front attracts and sometimes even recruit workers, I will deal with some misconceptions about this Far Right party and finally discuss two conceptions of antifascism.

1. The title of today’s debate

Today’s debate is labelled « Is the Far Right winning over Europe’s workers ? »

This question is full of traps and I will mention only three of them.

First trap : what is the Far Right ? Do we mean the fascist/neo-fascist Right, or all the radical nationalist currents in Europe, usually labelled today as « national-populists » ? In other words do we target the British UKIP or neo-Nazi Golden Dawn ? The xenophobic Dutch PVV of Geert Wilders or Italian fascist groups like Casa Pound ?

Second trap : what do we exactly mean by workers ? I won’t elaborate on this subject but it’s obvious that clear-cut class definitions are essential to define a radical antifascist policy. Therefore it should not surprise us antifascism leads to unproductive alliances if they rest on vague concepts like “the people”, progressists, Republicans, democrats, etc.

Third trap, implicit in today’s debate formulation : how can we measure the influence of this « Far Right » over workers, outside electoral results which are always biased ?

I’m active in a Parisian working class district hosting an important foreign population. Our network tries to help illegal foreign workers to obtain their papers through legal actions and mobilizations in the schools, or to get them out of detention centres when they are arrested. So, in this district, I almost never come across French Far Right workers who openly express racist or fascist views. (I must admit though I often meet Chinese workers who express xenophobic ideas against Arabs or Africans, and vice versa, but as they are not allowed to vote and are not politically organized as a reactionary pressure group, it does not really concern today’s discussion.) My main sources of information about the National Front are either articles or books written by journalists or social scientists who have been temporarily in contact or even active inside the National Front, either openly or under a fake identity. So from their experience I can formulate some hypotheses about who are these workers active in the National Front, or who votes for this Far Right party, but obviously I will not be able to give you a fully-argued answer to the question at the centre of this debate.

2. The National Front and French working class

Until now, the National Front has never succeeded to form its own party or permanent trade union structures among the working class or even among other classes like the traditional petty-bourgeoisie (shop keepers, craftsmen, etc.). In the 1990s it had a policemen’s trade union for a few years (1995-1998) but it was banned. The National Front tried to build trade unions in public transports in Paris and Lyon (1996), in prisons (1996-1998) among post office workers, tenants, teachers and small bosses, but all these projects failed. So its members were obliged to enter the most reactionary – scab, right Christian or anti-communist – trade unions with apparently little success. Apparently, during the last ten years, they recruited some militants inside the CGT, former Communist Party trade union. This evolution was revealed when these militants announced their candidacy for last municipal elections. It some cases it was well known inside these trade unions before the elections, but they did not want to disclose it and attract media’s attention because they are in a very awkward position on the questions of racism and migrants. Let’s recall the « Bourse du travail » (trade unions headquarters) was occupied during 14 months in 2008/2009 by the CSP75 (Parisian coordination of undocumented workers). So everything which concerns migrants is a very controversial question in the trade union movement, including in the CGT.

There are presently only a few towns in France where the National Front has succeeded to become locally rooted in working class districts. At last municipal elections in March 2014, it won 1500 municipal counsellors and 14 mayors. (France has 36 785 mayors and 536 519 municipal councillors, so the NF has a long way to go to conquer power on a local level).

Until now, National Front militants have experienced difficulties to appear publicly as such. They encounter all sorts of problems, inside their own families, at work, in their building, in their neighbourhood as soon as they are spotted as National Front supporters. Some say they loose their jobs, others tell that the atmosphere at work becomes so unpleasant they are obliged to resign or are denied a promotion, or a pay raise, etc. Others tell their car tires or windows are damaged, they are physically threatened, insulted, their house or car covered with graffiti, etc. Whether these stories are partially true or not does not matter very much ; these rumours or real strong reactions against the National Front have impeded its militants to openly act for their party until a recent period. Women for example often use their maiden’s name not to be recognized when they represent the National Front in municipal elections ; militants don’t distribute leaflets and put up posters in the district where they live, but in a far away neighbourhood, etc. That maybe one of the few positive consequences of the Republican antifascist propaganda against the National Front.

Actually the only towns where it was and is a bit easier for the National Front are those where the Reformist Left, generally the Socialist Party cumulated many flaws at the same time :

– the municipal leading team was totally discredited by its corruption : free official cars with driver, free restaurants, expensive travels paid by the tax payers, hiring of relatives and friends in the local administration, fictitious jobs, excessive number of State-financed temporary jobs, no tendering for public sector contracts ;

– SP mayors were heavily condemned or, worse, put in jail ;

– the Socialist Party was divided into several fractions fiercely fighting against each other, up to the point of falsifying internal elections results ; the SP used more and more advertisement agencies to promote its politics instead of mobilizing its militants,

– the Communist Party influence was weak, or dramatically declining, especially among migrant workers and their children,

– the Left mayor and municipal councillors were cut off from their working class electorate. They started, like in Vitrolles, courting the bosses and promoting pharaonic projects for their constituencies (in this case a stadium),

– unemployment raised to a very high percentage,

– local trade unions and associations were very weak, in crisis, etc.

This specific kind of constituencies has been deliberately targeted by the National Front for the weaknesses of the Left and workers movement, but also the destruction of all social ties (for example, in Northern France, the Catholic church and mine bosses organized and controlled all the aspects of miners’ daily life : company shops, company housing, company health system, holiday camps, sports teams, etc. So when the mines disappeared, it gave a death blow to all social links).

To illustrate the National Front policy I will take two very different examples : Vitrolles in the south of France and Hénin-Beaumont in the north.

-  Vitrolles
-  Vitrolles was an essential element in the struggle between the general secretary of the National Front (Bruno Mégret) and his president JM. Le Pen. Bruno Mégret, although he was supported by young nationalist-revolutionaries (i.e. fascists) at that time, wanted in the 1990s to make electoral alliances with the Right in order to become later the hegemonic force in this alliance. J.M. Le Pen had a very different strategy : he wanted to provoke a serious institutional crisis during which he thought he could appear as the charismatic Saviour of French Nation.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Vitrolles rapidly grew out from a small village into a rather chaotic urban agglomeration of 36,000 inhabitants. It attracted workers who were sacked in the North of France and offered a new job in the nearby steel industry of l’Etang de Berre ; workers who had left Marseilles to buy a house with a credit, etc. It had no old CP or SP tradition even if a Socialist (Jean-Jacques Anglade) was Vitrolles mayor during 14 years (1983-1997). In this region, there has always been a strong influence of the “pieds noirs” — the million French people who left Algeria after 150 years of colonization and came to live in France, mainly in the South. Politically this region was characterized by a tight cooperation between the Centre, the Right and the Far Right, a rather unusual situation at that time. This very special political climate benefitted to the National Front, transforming it into a “respectable” force as testified by the electoral agreements signed in 1986 and 1988 between the National Front, UDF (Centre) and RPR (Gaullist Right).

There was also a growing difference and even a conflict between two categories of workers :

– those living in the new districts regrouping new small houses, often pertaining to the upper working class ; these categories feared to loose their job, fall down the social ladder and become unable to pay their real estate credit ;

– those living in the older districts, in public housing flats with a strong proportion of foreign workers, unemployed, monoparental families but also militant associations which tried to preserve the unity between the inhabitants, whatever were their origins.

The aim of the National Front in Vitrolles was to deepen the differences between these two groups of the working class, the second group being denounced as parasites, Social security cheaters, lazy people not willing to work and living on benefits ; and the first group being hailed as hard working Frenchmen and women.

Mégret’s personal aim was to use the material means of the municipality (staff, cars, and phones, print shop) to take the leadership in the National Front.

The Socialist Party’s mayor (Jean-Luc Anglade) had ruined the local finances but Mégret and his wife Catherine did not do better when they were elected and run the town between 1997 and 2002. Apart from their financial incompetence, they also closed several active cultural centres considered as too leftist, stopped supporting financially many local associations, renamed streets and avenues, opened small museums to glorify French colonialism, promoted Provençal traditions, generalized video surveillance (a program with was launched by the Socialist mayor) and doubled the number of municipal policemen. They sacked 80 municipal employees, did not renew the contracts of 150 other workers. They waged a cultural war inside local public libraries, stopping subscriptions to Left or liberal publications, buying hundreds of books published by Far Right publishers, refusing even to buy children’s books when the author had a foreign name, etc. Their brutal management raised a strong opposition inside a minority of the local population (the majority was afraid), often from people who were not active in any party before and who took many risks, confronting during 5 years the fascist thugs hired by the mayor Catherine Mégret and her husband, Bruno Mégret. But in 2002 the nightmare ended (as well in two other cities – Toulon and Marignane – managed by the National Front, the two Mégrets lost the municipal elections and the Left won Vitrolles back.

-  Hénin-Beaumont
-  More or less at the same time, a similar attempt to win a municipality with a strong local support was organized in Hénin-Beaumont, in the north of France. Since the 1970s, the main industries (mines, textile and steel) have progressively disappeared in this region. Today 60% of the local population are poor non tax payers ; 23 % receive the RSA (analogous to the Australian New Start Allowance), that is 395 pounds per month for one person and 592 pounds for an unemployed couple, and 776 pounds if they have 2 children.

In Hénin-Beaumont, this attempt to win a municipality was led in a much softer way by a sales representative (Steve Briois) ; he did not try to wage a too violent ideological battle as his friend Mégret did, at least that it was not his main activity. He started inquiring about how the mayor managed local finances. And when his inquiry in 2002 and his public denunciation led to a trial he went to court everyday, packing the courtroom with National Front militants, and commenting the event on his daily blog. He also organized several “happenings” on the local market ; for example once he collected oranges for the Socialist mayor condemned to 3 years of jail.

In 2003, Steve Briois and the National Front started to focus on local strikes and factory closures. He tried to come at the gates of these companies and even to enter inside but was not well received by workers and CGT trade unionists. Nevertheless he gave locally a more “social image” to the National Front, and that was the most important result for him and his party.

Steve Briois became municipal counsellor in 1995, regional counsellor in 1998, European deputy in 2014 and mayor of Hénin-Beaumont in March 2014. In this long struggle, he was strongly supported during the last five years by Marine Le Pen (who is always followed by dozens of journalists, a significant asset for any candidate...). Briois’s methods were very different from Bruno Mégret and he did not use so many fascist thugs of the skinhead type or at least he taught them how to have a more respectable dress code and try to stay “cool” in front of their political adversaries ; he recruited among former local Socialist, Communist or Right militants thanks to his long and patient work as a municipal counsellor.

The various campaigns he led in this old working-class town enabled him and Marine Le Pen to appear as much more “moderate” than Mégret and his team in Vitrolles in the 1990s. As Briois had always lived in this town, and started to be a radical right activist when he was 16 years old, he was well known by everybody. More and more people started appearing openly as supporters and voters of the National Front. It has became easier for them as Marine Le Pen started changing the public image of her party and convincing the public, with the help of the media, that the National Front was caring about workers not only about bosses interests. J.-M. Le Pen had made once a similar move in 2002 but at that time the National Front’s economic program was openly in favour of private initiative and diminution of State intervention.

-  Feverish social demagogy
-  In the recent years, this economic program has not been drastically modified, but the official rhetoric of Briois and Marine Le Pen has tried to appear more compatible with workers’ needs : Briois demagogically said he was proud of Jaurès (19th century socialist leader), Pierre Mauroy (Socialist Prime minister coming from a working class background), and several local Socialist Party mayors and famous Second Word War resistants. Supported by Marine Le Pen, he pretended the National Front :

– was in favour of the 35-hour working week and wanted to keep the retirement age at 60 years,

– wanted to “tax the rich”,

– demanded the creation of a sliding scale of wages ;

– defended the idea of nationalizing the banks if necessary and obliging the companies to give back public subsidies if they relocated their actives (in the North of France, several companies took the money of the State and disappeared).

– denounced the “evils of finance capital” ;

– and demanded that the prices of basic products should be controlled by the State.

A program which could be defended by the Communist Party, the social-chauvinist Parti de Gauche and even the Trotskyists !

But we must never forget that the National Front says for many years, like the bosses union and all mainstream economists,

– that companies pay « too much » labour-related contributions and taxes,

– trade unions have « too much » power

– and strikes should be “regulated”.

So we shall see in the future if the National Front will go farther in this demagogic “social” direction or maintain a traditional bonapartist attitude between the opposing interests of the social classes it pretends to represent.

-  Restoring social links
-  Obviously, the National Front regularly distributes in working class districts leaflets against insecurity (bank robberies, burglaries, night incidents involving young migrants, Franco-Arab or Franco-African youth, suburban riots, etc.), Islam and migration. But if this classic Right of Far Right propaganda has some echo among workers it’s not enough to really make a difference on the local level.

When the National Front has devoted municipal councillors like in Hénin-Beaumont, they do pretty much the same as what the Communist and Socialist parties did in the past : they visit people systematically at their homes, listen patiently to their problems, carefully note their grievances, try to exert pressures on social services so that people get a new flat, a domestic help at home for an elderly person, a financial help of some sort so that can send their children to a holiday camp or pay part of their debts, etc. The National Front municipal counsellors create a network of “district correspondents” who inform them of all the little problems (from a traffic light which does not work to a fight in the street involving “Muslims”). Obviously these “correspondents” can also spy on all political opponents. The NF militants organize paying banquets for the 14th of July (a national day). They sell pins, lighters, scarves representing Jean-Marie Le Pen or Marine Le Pen.

When it has the financial means, the National Front opens local headquarters which are used both for political aims and as a centre of local life where anybody can come and chat, drink a coffee, help to fold leaflets, etc. Their headquarters become a very lively centre of the local social life, recreating links which had disappeared, playing the same role as the “People’s houses” (run by the Socialist or Communist parties) or the “Bourses du travail” (literally Labour Exchanges, a sort of Labour council, they were very active under the influence or revolutionary syndicalists before WW1). The National Front organizes “aperos” (for these very popular events, including during breaks on the work place, you don’t need to dress up with a tuxedo and a tie or an elegant dress ; the aim is just to get “happy” with your friends, colleagues, party comrades, etc.) anniversaries, etc. And obviously this “nice” side of the National Front is presented to, and promoted by, the media.

Steve Briois also tours the different National Front federations to promote the “Hénin-Beaumont” model in other regions.

-  The NF xenophobic program has not disappeared
-  The difference with what the Left used to do is that the National Front puts forward xenophobic but unfortunately appealing solutions to people who are unemployed or fear to loose their job. It proposes

– to deport all undocumented workers,

– to restrict foreign workers’ social rights (specially if they are unemployed, delinquents, parents of delinquents, “bad parents”, etc.),

– to suppress the French nationality of the naturalized foreigners who have committed crimes,

– to extend to the private sector the French State policy (no foreigner can be employed with the status of a public employee) : what was called before “national preference” has been now renamed “national priority” by Marine Le Pen but its content is the same.

Obviously National Front mayors and municipal councillors can’t apply all these measures today, because they are illegal...

So they have successively used two tactics :

– they first tried, like in Vitrolles in 1997-2002, to implement these discriminatory measures by force and were therefore condemned by the courts to pay heavy fines which contributed to the town’s bankruptcy so it was a bad move on the long term. Mégret made this choice in Vitrolles, not because he thought he could really win but to show to the public opinion « the UMPS establishment » was not defending the interests of French people ;

– today, under the leadership of the “moderate” Marine Le Pen, the National Front militants present these measures as a concrete solution to unemployment when they will come to power and be able to change the laws.

In Hénin-Beaumont, in the north of France, like Mégret did in the South, and probably other mayors today, the National Front tries also to reactivate local traditions which have disappeared, like a parade of flowered floats (“corso”) or a festival around medieval themes ; for years Briois participated to every ball and dances with old ladies ; he memorized all the names he could stock in his memory and never forgets to shake hands with his voters or kiss them on the cheeks every time he meets them.

Caring about local working class or popular traditions is an excellent way for the National Front to get votes and also to reinforce its nationalist agenda. I have not seen Ken Loach’s last film Jimmy Hall but from what I have read, it seems these techniques of “bonding” with the local population have a long history.

-  The National Front is inspired by the CP ideology in the 50s, 60s and 70s
-  To sum up, the National Front is copying, in some working class regions, the organizational techniques but also part of Stalinist party’s policy in the 1950s and later : a strong nationalism, an attachment to local traditions, a will to defend local jobs, a certain critique of “bad bosses” (i.e. foreign bosses, multinationals or Stock Exchange speculators). Officially today the National Front claims not to be racist (actually it has always put forward this claim) but its militants have difficulties to control their xenophobic and specially their anti-Islam and anti-Roma prejudices. But their ideas are not very far from what Georges Marchais, French CP leader, wrote in 1981 : “One should stop legal and illegal migration, the housing crisis is worsening, there is a cruel lack of social housing, French families can’t have access to these flats, and the social benefits distributed to pauperized migrant families are killing the communes budget.”

What’s new at least with Marine Le Pen is that the National Front has recently introduced a small dose of “tolerance” in the traditionally conservative social ideology of the Far Right. “Tolerance” towards divorce (Marine Le Pen has divorced twice and is not married with her present companion), abortion (she refuses to suppress the law which legalized it), homosexuality (she has close collaborators who are gay ; she was interviewed in a gay magazine, etc.). It’s interesting to note that the Far Right and the CP on these themes (family, abortion, gay and lesbian rights) had the same conservative policy until the 1990s at least, and that the CP has educated generations of workers along this line which did not contradict the National Front program, at least until recently.

-  A right-wing drift which started in the 1970s in Europe
-  Nevertheless this modernization of the Far Right is not actually a purely French phenomenon, it happened in other countries under various forms and it is influenced the appearance of new nationalist-populist parties.

Obviously in the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, where there has never been any mass Communist party, and where social democracy has had a class collaborationist policy with the bosses and the State, it does not take the same form as in Italy, Spain or Portugal, which have had mass Stalinist Parties and even militant Socialist Parties at least at one point of their history.

But in all Europe, there are new Far Right parties who often don’t come directly from a fascist tradition : the Vlaams Belang in Belgium, PVV in the Netherlands, Freedom Party (FPO) in Austria, UDC in Switzerland, Progress Party in Norway, People’s Party in Dane mark, even if some of their leaders may have a purely fascist past. And this development is due to the fact that European societies have known massive changes in the internal composition of the working class, in the nature of the so-called workers movement and the spatial and social organization of working class districts.

The working class vote for the Left has been declining in all Europe since the end of the 1970s. In France in the middle of 1980s it was reinforced by a change in the relation of forces between the Right working class vote and the Far Right working class vote. And this evolution was not limited to France. The profile of conservative workers, labelled “working class Tories” has been analysed in the early 1970s in Britain : these workers loved their company, admired their boss, and recognized the legitimacy of the “elite” and its competence. I suppose these right wing British workers have not disappeared with the development of the crisis.

The structural transformations of capitalism and world economy have accelerated the transformation of the working class ; the European Far Right has therefore focused its attention on the losers of the globalization process : the unqualified workers, and obviously poor farmers and shopkeepers, self-employed, precarious workers of all kinds. Welfare chauvinism has been growing and it targets migrants, which are supposed to be a threat for wages and social benefits and a threat to national identity. The new generations of workers who since the middle of the 1970s have known mass unemployment and precarization of their living and working conditions, and have watched the decline of the trade unions, the final transformation of social democracy into a simple appendix of the bourgeois State, and the collapse of the Stalinist parties, are much more sceptical about the Left than their parents and grand parents. They want to “give a chance” to the nationalist-populist parties or the “renovated” Far Right parties like the Nationalist Front because their values are much more conservative than the generations of workers born before the Second World War or until the early 60s. (As several AWL comrades have underlined during our common workshop with Theodora Polenta and Matt Cooper, the Far Right and nationalist-populist parties propose a reactionary narrative which can give workers the impression there is both an explanation and a solution to their problems.)

So, for all these reasons and many others, we have still a long and hard ideological and political battle to wage.

Y.C., Ni patrie ni


1. According to the OECD « France’s social benefit, Revenu de solidarité active (RSA), or active solidarity income, was introduced in June 2009 to provide income support to the working poor while enhancing incentives to return to work. » In fact, it’s a disciplinary system which controls precarious workers by all sorts of means, including intimidation, blackmail, psychiatrization, etc.

2. As he states himself : « To be active in politics is to sell an ideal. (...) Politics is marketing ; it’s not my fault if society is made like that. The difference between a political activity and a commercial activity is that what we sell is free. The only thing I ask people is to get out of their house on Sunday morning and vote. »

3. In French, as a joke, we stay « I will bring you oranges » when somebody risks a jail sentence.

4. Actually, Hénin-Beaumont is a product of the fusion between 2 communes : Hénin-Liétard, a traditional working class town, and a village called Beaumont surrounded by fields and farms. Few journalists noticed National Front votes were much higher in the rural area and village of Beaumont than in the working-class town of Hénin-Liétard. In such rural areas, there is no railway station or main road nearby, no police station, no post office, no shop or pub. Very few migrants live in these areas but the inhabitants are brainwashed by all the sensationalist images propagated by the various TV channels about incidents, riots or crimes involving so-called “Muslims” or “Arabs” in France. People are obliged to have a car (and sometimes 2 in the same family) which is a costly investment given the price of gasoline. They think they have no future, are abandoned by the State, a feeling exploited by the National Front at every election. One must also add very few journalists noticed that all the towns surrounding Hénin-Beaumont were still in the hands of the Socialist or Communist Parties, and had SP or CP mayors or MPs. So Hénin-Beaumont is still an exception, even if it a dangerous one.

5. He always used to say « I’m socially right-wing, economically left-wing, and nationally French » but after he defeated Jospin on the 1st row of 2002 Presidential election he went one step further and declared : « Don’t’ be afraid to dream (...), you miners, metalworkers, male and female workers of all the industries ruined by Maastricht euro-globalism. »

6. « Thanks to me, social workers have less work. We are very close to the people, like before, when it was still the party of Jaurès », said Briois.

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