Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston and Women’s Institute of Houston. His latest book is “Victoires Never Last: Reading and Care in Times of Plague”.
François Rabelais, the once famous barbed and debauched observer of the politics of religious faith in 16th-century France, the clothes do not make the man – the clothes do not make the man. But what would he think of the politics of republican faith in France today?
Less than six months after the country’s presidential and legislative elections, the unprecedented is now commonplace, the unthinkable now commonplace.
The largest opposition party in the National Assembly now sits on the far right of the hemicycle: the National Rally (RN). It is led by Marine Le Pen, who will step down as party leader next month to focus on her work in the halls of the Palais Bourbon. And there is a lot to do: with 89 deputies, two vice-presidencies and seats on the defense and intelligence committees, never has a far-right party reached such importance in the history of republican France. .
As RN spokeswoman Laure Lavalette said, “The other parties can no longer pretend that we don’t exist.
But even if we cannot question the existence of the RN, we can wonder about the weight of the party’s past on its present and its future.
Let us remember this year’s series of shockwaves: first there was the French presidential election in June, when centrist President Emmanuel Macron saw his margin of victory shrink dramatically – from 66 % in 2017 to barely 58% – while his far-right party his opponent Le Pen rose from 33% to more than 41%.
Then, a month later, the legislative elections did not give an absolute majority to Macron’s party, the misnamed Renaissance. This forced Macron’s government to negotiate – often with little or no progress – with emboldened parties on both right and left. Thus, the stability once ensured by the determining principles of the Fifth Republic, based on a strong presidency, is today threatened by a return to the questionable practices of the previous republics, which relied on a powerful parliament.
An even greater shock, however, was the distribution of seats in the assembly. The poor performance of the traditional left-wing parties – the Socialists, Communists and Greens – created a dramatic contrast with the neighborhood’s new and boisterous kid, the radical La France insoumise (LFI). With 57 deputies, the movement of LFI leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon eclipses the parliamentary ranks of the other left-wing parties. And the latter’s concern for relevance convinced them to overcome their hesitations in the face of LFI’s projects and personalities. They now sit on the left of the hemicycle as members of the NUPES coalition, under an acronym that is just as awkward as their coexistence has been since.
As political scientist Jean-Yves Camus notes, the RN is now well on its way to notabilisation, or respectability. And this process has been made possible not only by the major parties in the country, but also by the cable and television news channels. Representatives of the RN, notes Camus, have become essential both in the national media and in the many regional stations. The French, he worries, “macerate” in this new beverage released.
This partly explains the recent clothing crisis in the assembly during ties as well. Before the newly elected legislature sits in July, Le Pen asked his MPs to mark the occasion in a way that demonstrated their “seriousness” – arriving in jackets and ties. As for LFI MPs, many arrived without ties, dressed in open-necked shirts and walking around in open-toed sandals.
The hustle and bustle that followed was predictable: right-wing deputies, men and women, deplored this act of disrespect towards republican institutions, while, in turn, several women from LFI denounced this act of machismo by wearing ties at the next session at this venerable Palais-Bourbon.
Although this controversy has now died down, the manner and behavior of these opposing extremes has not. And if the RN has made a lot of its role of “constructive opposition”, that is to say the adults in the room, LFI seems determined to facilitate its efforts as much by adopting a position of “firm opposition “. In practice, that has meant slowing down deliberations in the chamber by introducing hundreds of amendments to various bills, hurling accusations while opponents spoke, and staging walkouts before votes.
A study published last week by the Jean-Jaurès Foundation suggests that this strategy carries serious risks. The poll found that the ‘de-demonisation’ of the RN continues apace. So much so, in fact, that while 61% of respondents saw Le Pen’s party as the biggest threat to democracy in 2017, that figure has since dropped to 57%.
And at the same time, 57% of respondents now find that it is the populist left LFI that poses the greatest danger to the republic. In addition, a larger percentage of respondents believe that the RN is better placed than the LFI, the Socialists or the Greens to govern the country.
The recent 50th anniversary of the birth of the National Front – the predecessor of the RN – underlines the troubling nature of this change in public perception. In marking the anniversary, Le Pen sought to airbrush any mention of the party’s founder – his father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – not to mention the motley crew of Nazi collaborators and French Algerian insurgents present during his early days.
This disreputable crew is long gone, but as Rabelais might have said, the tie does not make the republican — the tie does not make the republican, or in the case of Le Pen, the street clothes do not make the republican. Ties and suits will never completely conceal RN’s continued hostility to immigrants or its enduring hospitality to illiberalism.
Faced with these antics, Rabelais may have repeated another famous verse: “Lower the curtain, the farce is played.”