France’s Election and the Long Shadow of History

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron (right) meets Algerian Foreign Affairs Minister Ramtane Lamamra. Algiers, Algeria, February 13, 2017. (Bensalem Billal/Sipa/Associated Press)

The upcoming French presidential election will prove the biggest test yet of the continued and apparently unstoppable rise of the country’s far right and National Front party over the past three decades. The ramifications of this year’s polls will be compounded by the outcome of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States. Is France set to record a third shock victory for nationalist, anti-globalization forces which take pride in fighting “le système”?

A major factor in determining this will be the connection of the French far right to the country’s past, particularly its colonial age. The National Front’s invocation of history began with co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen—the father of current party president and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen—who had a deeply colonial pedigree. Le Pen was a paratrooper in the French army in Indochina, and later Algeria, where he was committed to disrupting the pro-independence National Liberation Front.

Initially, France’s National Front was mostly made up of staunch supporters of “French Algeria,” who had bitterly fought against independence in 1962 and felt betrayed by the willingness of the mainstream right—represented by then President Charles de Gaulle—to let the country’s most important colony go its own way. This move toward a strong defense of what was seen as France’s “colonial mission” allowed the far right to conveniently overcome the stigma attached to it in the wake of World War II, when its leaders had been too eager to collaborate with the Nazis. While fascism had been one of France’s main ideological drivers in the years leading up the conflict, the far right’s political capital in 1945 was close to nil. Marine Le Pen recently reignited debates from that time with a denial of state culpability in the rounding up of Jews for Nazi death camps.

By the time of the 1980s, the National Front was able to move out of France’s political wilderness, prompting reactions from mainstream political parties, who have until now countered its growing influence through the concept of a “republican front.” The National Front’s main mode of deriving success became its relentless denunciation of immigrants, which, in its vocabulary, primarily meant North African Muslims. These migrants were admitted to France as a source cheap labor to contribute to the country’s postwar economic boom. They became more visible as an ethnic minority as policies of family reunification turned them from guest workers into long-term residents and, later, citizens.

Since that time, the National Front has been able to introduce some of its core arguments into mainstream political discourse. These revolve around immigration, national identity and, more recently, “Christian values.” These processes reached a peak with the decision of President Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) to create a highly controversial Ministry of National Identity, which was directly inspired by the National Front’s agenda.

France’s past continues to cast a long shadow upon debates in the current election cycle. This includes discussions over what official position the country should adopt on its colonial history, in a range spanning unbridled celebration, obliviousness, and repentance. This feeds into the conversation around the country’s current international standing in a post-imperial world no longer dominated by European powers. In this absence, the far right advances those Christian and national values as a way of maintaining France’s supposed special status, and present them as endangered by the internationalist, cosmopolitan evolution of the world. Debate over France’s future role in the European Union is also closely related to the fact that the continental powers are no longer the political heavyweights they once were.

The international stature of any credible French presidential candidate remains measured primarily in terms of their ability to speak confidently with the country’s European partners; Germany first among them. Yet it is important to note that both Marine Le Pen and the center-left Emmanuel Macron sought to strengthen their standing by orchestrating high-profile visits to France’s ex-colonies. The former journeyed to Lebanon, where she tried to convey that France’s secular values were non-negotiable. The latter crossed the Mediterranean to reach out to Algeria, which remains France’s foremost former colony and still a major economic partner.

During his Algerian trip, Macron stirred controversy by stating in an interview with a local newspaper that French colonialism there was a “crime against humanity.” He thus reignited a long-running debate around the heated question of France’s collective responsibility in imposing a system which saw atrocities, cultural imposition, and lopsided power relations but also heralded the entry of many countries into the modern world. Macron’s call for France to apologize to those who had been affected by colonialism proved particularly controversial, and saw his lead in the polls drop.

Sixty years after the end of an epoch when the sun never set on “Greater France,” the French remain deeply intertwined with their colonial experiences and their outcomes. Many of the country’s internal tensions continue to be shaped by official or unofficial memory. Principal among these is the place of Islam in a secular republic that in the 19th century became a major player in Muslim territories in Africa and the Middle East. In some circles, Islam has been perceived as a challenge to core French values, echoing some of the concerns voiced at the height of the imperial period.

Discussions surrounding the place of ethnic minorities are also influenced by the past. Some representatives of these minorities now label themselves the “natives of the Republic,” in a nod to the “native policies” of the colonial period. They denounce the persisting influence of colonial tropes in the politics of the country even as other forces display new forms of racism which are reminiscent of those times. History casts a powerful shadow upon French political life and debates, particularly at political junctures such as the upcoming presidential election.

Berny Sèbe is Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Birmingham.