Back in 2011, when Marine Le Pen became president of the Front National, she set about an ambitious project of reshaping the party in her image. She aimed to preserve the core elements of national populism that defined FN’s vision under the direction of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, while forging a new balance between identity politics and the defense of the social welfare state, thereby targeting the French working-class and modest middle-class voters.
It seems to have worked. Although Marine Le Pen failed to get past the first round of voting in 2012 and FN was unable to take the lead in any French region in 2015, the party obtained the largest share of the vote. That allowed Le Pen to boast that she had transformed FN into “France’s greatest party” in terms of voter numbers.
At its core, FN is built around a coherent rejection of liberalism, both in economic and cultural terms. The party has always been culturally illiberal, but its new economic outlook is a real evolution from its strongly anti-communist tradition and its support for liberal economic reforms in favor of small businesses. While her father wanted to be a “French Reagan” in the 1980s, Marine Le Pen has embraced a protectionist agenda and Marxist rhetoric. This has also enabled FN to reinforce its opposition to the EU, which is seen as weakening national sovereignty and promoting foreign interests while imposing ultra-liberal economic policies in France.
FN’s program for this year’s vote stems directly from this illiberal vision, with a mix of economic nationalism (the so-called préférence nationale), defense of the French welfare state model, and assertiveness on identity and security issues. A strategic council of 35 personalities works around Le Pen to establish the party’s platform: Some proposed measures to appeal to the aspirations of disappointed left-wing voters, like keeping the 35-hour work week and rolling back the retirement age to 60, while others adhere to the traditional far-right program, and suggest limiting legal immigration to 10,000 people a year (it is currently around 200,000). But the platform could also very well be titled “France first.” There are proposed constitutional reforms to forbid all forms of communitarianism, promote French cultural heritage, and transform French economic and labor laws; social benefits would be distributed to French citizens first, and the government would enforce a three percent tax on imports.