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National Front and AfD: Sisters or strangers?

Christoph Hasselbach / ccSeptember 12, 2016

France's National Front and Germany's AfD have things in common, but things divide them, too. In both countries the right-wing parties are positioning themselves in preparation for important elections in 2017.

Bildkombo Marine Le Pen und Frauke Petry
Image: Getty Images/AFP/L. Bonaventure/J. MacDougall

When the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party went from a standing start to pick up around 21 percent of the vote in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, outstripping Angela Merkel's conservative CDU, Marine Le Pen tweeted: "The patriots of the AfD have swept Mrs Merkel's party away. My congratulations!"

In fact, Marine Le Pen (pictured above with the AfD's Frauke Petry) is hardly in need of a boost from outside. She's already dashing from one election success to the next. In the recent European elections the Front National even became the strongest party.

It was not always thus. Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen did, spectacularly, make it to the final ballot in the 2002 presidential election, but the parties closed ranks against him in the second round and the Gaullist Jacques Chirac won with a large majority. For a great many French people, the openly anti-Semitic Jean-Marie Le Pen was, in the end, unelectable. He had described the Nazi gas chambers as "a detail of the history of the Second World War."

When his daughter Marine became party leader in 2011, she gradually disempowered her father and finally expelled him from the party for "serious misdemeanors." Since then she has been trying to establish a more moderate tone – which has proved very successful.

Front National-Gründer Jean-Marie Le Pen
For Le Pen's father, Nazi gas chambers were only a 'detail' of historyImage: picture alliance/abaca/L. Liewig

Fear of globalization

However, most of her political ideas are scarcely less radical than her father's. She wants France to go back to the franc, leave NATO, and hold a referendum over continued membership of the EU. The Brexit decision in Britain is playing right into her hands. She wants to see deep cuts made to social welfare for non-French citizens living in France, and for people only to get French citizenship if they are of French descent or have earned it, not "just" because they were born in France.

Most experts say that what people who vote for the AfD, the Front National and other right-wing parties in Europe have in common is a fear of globalization, of the loss of state power. The refugee crisis, they say, has only exacerbated this fear. Nicolas Lebourg, a French researcher into radicalism, believes that, as far as the flow of migrants is concerned, the populists are profiting from "the co-incidence of several crises at once," including the financial and European crises.

According to Jean-Dominique Giuliani, the president of the Robert Schuman Foundation in Paris, voting for right-wing populists is "a reaction to Europe's lack of credible answers, and a protest against states that fail to find any solutions for the questions that concern people." In this way, Giuliani says, the questions of immigration and identity have become very big issues, and have been taken up by right-wing populists.

Le Pen needs international contacts

Österreich Treffen Patriotischer Frühling in Wien
Courting international contacts: Le Pen with Austria's Norbert Hofer of the Freedom PartyImage: Getty Images/AFP/H. Neubauer

So far the AfD has tended to distance itself from the Front National. Markus Pretzell, an AfD member of the European Parliament, has joined forces with Le Pen's ENF ("Europe of Nations and Freedom") parliamentary grouping. However, his domestic partner and the co-chair of the AfD, Frauke Petry, has still not met Le Pen.

Claire Demesmay, a Frenchwoman with the German Council on Foreign Relations, believes "that the AfD in Germany has little to gain if it's seen to be close to the Front National," because in Germany the FN is seen, correctly, as a party of the extreme right. A party that has been linked to anti-Semitism is something "you can't score points with in Germany," she says. However, she adds that, in terms of focal issues and orientation, there are many similarities between them.

On the other hand, for a French politician who wants to be president, it's important for her to show "that she has international contacts and a certain degree of recognition on the world stage, and that includes Germany." The FN's manifesto calls for an alliance between Russia, France and Germany as an alternative to the EU, "a sort of triumvirate," says Demesmay, to try to establish a "global leadership." Its point of contact in Germany for this project, she says, is the AfD.

Other parties adopting FN objectives

But while so far the AfD has had to content itself with a role in Germany that, while growing, is still small, in the coming year Marine Le Pen has her sights set on nothing less than the French presidency. Polls indicate that she has a good chance of making it to the final ballot, possibly even as the candidate with the most votes. That, of course, depends above all on who the other candidates are. The incumbent, François Hollande, is said to have no chance whatsoever, if indeed he were to stand again. At the moment it's not thought that any other Socialist would have a chance, either.

So it mainly depends on the conservative Republican candidate. If they put forward the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, various polls indicate that Le Pen might even beat him in the first round. They suggest that the moderate Alain Juppé, who is regarded as a serious politician, would be in a better position. However, when it comes to the final ballot, most political observers anticipate a repeat of the phenomenon of 2002, when Marine Le Pen's father lost by a landslide against Chirac: Even most left-wingers are predicted to vote, albeit reluctantly, for the conservative candidate in order to stop Le Pen. And because the general opinion is that this other candidate will be a Republican, the French are calculating that whoever becomes the Republican candidate will also move into the Elysée Palace.

Claire Demesmay also believes that the likelihood of Marine Le Pen becoming the next French president is "practically zero." Rather, she says, it's more likely "that other parties will adopt some of the National Front's ideas." This, she says, is already starting to happen: "That's a real and immediate danger."