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Nationalism in times of pandemic: How the radical and extreme-right framed the COVID-19 crisis in France

Author: Max-Valentin Robert, ERC PRIME Youth Project Researcher, European Institute, ─░stanbul Bilgi University; and Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Sciences Po Grenoble, UMR Pacte, France.

On March 17, 2020, the French authorities implemented a wide-ranging lockdown in an effort to contain the spread of Coronavirus. On the previous day, Emmanuel Macron had declared in a televised speech that France was “at war”, and that “many certainties and long-held beliefs will be swept away and questioned. Many things that we thought impossible are happening”.[1] The French media sometimes portrayed this global pandemic as a “globalisation disease”, and a challenge to the neoliberal order. Across Europe, radical right parties, and extreme-right organisations view this challenge as a validation of their own ideological leanings. Does this trend apply to France?

The movements that I will deal with are characterised by deep ideological divergences, but are also distinct in their degrees of institutionalisation: some of them are political parties which try to gain power by the ballot boxes, whereas others are media or small groups that are not enshrined in the electoral cycle. According to Cas Mudde,[2] extreme right ideologies “believe that inequalities between people are natural and positive and […] reject the essence of democracy” (popular sovereignty). On the contrary, the radical right accepts “the essence of democracy but oppose fundamental elements of liberal democracy” (especially, minority rights and the rule of law). Lastly, far-right would be “a combination of both the extreme and the radical right”. Thus, throughout this piece, I will use the term “radical” to describe the three political parties being dealt with (the National Rally, France Arise and The Patriots[3]). Nonetheless, I will use “extreme” to refer to the various small groups and media, which will be analysed in the last section.     

Statism, protectionism and Colbertism: the right-wing Eurosceptic parties and the COVID-19 crisis 

Unsurprisingly, right-wing sovereigntist movements[4] mainly framed the COVID-19 crisis as a display of the European Union’s failure. Claiming that “Nothing will be the same as before and [that] the Z generation will be above all the Coronavirus one”[5], the leader of the pro-Frexit party The Patriots (Florian Philippot[6]) also described the European states’ reaction to this health crisis in the following terms:

There are nations, and in times of crisis, we see that the natural space of solidarity and fraternity remains the nation. […] The European Union is therefore harmful in good weather and completely useless in times of crisis. So what is the justification for staying there?[7]

In Philippot’s discourse about this pandemic, the naturalisation of the nation as an area of fundamental solidarity interfaces with advocacy for closing borders, but also with protectionist and Colbertist views on economic issues. By commenting on Twitter, a newspaper article which dealt with the possible reopening of a mask factory in Brittany, the founder of The Patriots depicted the government’s questionings about this project’s relevance as the expression of “obsolete neoliberalism”.[8] His reaction towards the European Commission’s reluctance to nationalisations is enshrined in a similar perspective: “we must not accept the permanent and outrageous interference of those crazy people from the past world! If we want to nationalise, we must be able to nationalise.”[9] Philippot’s reluctance towards neoliberalism is visible in the way he tries to frame the outline of the future post-crisis context, by referring to what he calls an upcoming “debt slavery”.[10]

A comparable protectionist position characterises the ideological framing of Coronavirus crisis by the party France Arise, whose leader (Nicolas Dupont-Aignan[11]) declared that “the de-industrialisation of France has led our country into a situation of shortage”.[12] Furthermore, he published a video on his Facebook page about his party’s proposals concerning the pandemic: this video is mainly structured around economic issues, such as the need to achieve self-sufficiency in the production of masks and virus tests or the nationalisation of two companies (Luxfer and Famar).[13] The leader of France Arise calls for a state takeover of textile factories.[14] Another core element of Dupont-Aignan’s rhetoric is his emphasis on what he perceives as the lack of “presidential” temperament and as the ideology of Emmanuel Macron: “Emmanuel Macron is not a warlord. […] He is only the zealous helper of the market’s law, which consists of “letting it happen, letting it pass”.[15] During an interview given to the radical-right news magazine Valeurs Actuelles,[16] Nicolas Dupont-Aignan even described him as “prisoner of his globalist[17] framework”, and insisted that the government would face trial at the High Court of Justice.[18]

Thus, the framing of this pandemic by right-wing Eurosceptic parties tends to focus mainly on sovereignty and economic perspectives. The two political figures in question view this sanitary crisis as being eloquent of the EU’s collapse, and as a validation of their political state-centred approach. They are inclined to value statist responses on the economic field too, calling for nationalisation and protectionism. Even if Florian Philippot and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan episodically express culturalist stances about COVID-related events, these considerations tend to be less prominent compared with economic and anti-EU stances. On the contrary, the Identitarian rhetoric has a more central role in the National Rally’s discourse, which articulates hostility towards the EU and a strong distaste for multiculturalism. 

The Coronavirus crisis framed by the National Rally: an anti-European and Identitarian interpretation

The National Rally (Rassemblement National – RN) seems to deliver an ambivalent framing about COVID-related events. Indeed, similar to the right-wing Eurosceptic parties brought up previously, the RN interprets this event as a “validation” of their protectionist stance, as these statements from Marine Le Pen show:

Today, in light of this crisis, the government becomes aware than anything we have ever asked for, claimed, suggested, is exactly what was needed. From stopping off-shoring of strategic assets to the possibility of nationalising our companies when they are in trouble, without forgetting to stop this madness that is the Maastricht Pact. From the moment when your opponents start to defend the same thing you do, this is a sign of credibility.[19]
I am happy if he [Emmanuel Macron] is economically patriotic, if he wants to be independent and sovereign.[20] 

The RN leader described the role played by the European Union in this sanitary crisis as “totally non-existent and even harmful”,[21] and argued for “recovering a strategic state”.[22] Jordan Bardella (MEP from the National Rally) accused European institutions of being “guilty for non-assistance to people in danger”.[23] Likewise, Le Pen depicted the EU of “staying blocked in an ideology of total free trade” and Emmanuel Macron of having “sold to foreigners many of our industrial jewels”.[24] She articulated this economic statism with advocacy for closed borders (especially by referring to the South-Korean management of the crisis[25]): “Borders are like the skin: they let in what is good and stop what is bad”.[26]

However, the National Rally did not only satisfy itself with trying to frame the COVID-19 crisis in the sense of a “legitimisation” of its economic program: following the proclamation of lockdown on March 17, 2020, state authorities were criticised for not enforcing lockdown measures with equal severity across the country, and some political figures accused the government of granting exceptions to working-class inner cities. Thus, RN spokes-persons attempted to interpret this difficult enforcement in a culturalist way, in order to distinguish between ”good“ and ”bad“ citizens, disciplined native French people and unruly immigrants. For example, the MEP Nicolas Bay declared that “France is experiencing a two-tiered lockdown. There are places where measures are strictly abided by the French, and some places where, generally speaking, the law is not or loosely enforced, and it is also the case in a period of lockdown”.[27] Likewise, Jean Messiha, member of the National Office of the RN, alluded on Twitter to “the non-respect of lockdown in the areas of non-France”.[28] Besides, Marine Le Pen accused some mosques of having diffused the call to prayer since the beginning of lockdown: “For some time now, a number of mosques have been taking advantage of the lockdown orders and the monopoly of the security forces to make the muezzin’s call to Islamic prayer resound through loudspeakers in the public space”.[29] This anti-Islam position, and more generally, this rejection of multiculturalism, tends to go hand in hand with Euroscepticism in the RN’s ideological framework, and illustrates a general reluctance towards globalisation, which is perceived as a destabilising phenomenon – destabilising not only in the political-economic and identity fields but also in health issues.

The COVID-19 and the lockdown policy seen by the extreme right: between conspiracism and victimhood

The anti-Muslim extreme-right tried to frame the Coronavirus crisis within a general rejection of immigration and multiculturalism. For example, the website Riposte laïque evoked the riots of Villeneuve-la-Garenne[30] by associating Islam with a COVID-like disease: “Conqueror Islam (pleonasm) took advantage of the polarisation on the Coronavirus to inoculate the Corano-virus a little more, with the benevolent help of (un)healthy carriers of the “Cuntovirus”.[31] By evoking the non-enforcement of lockdown in working-class inner cities, the anti-immigration activist and writer Renaud Camus (who popularised the notion of “great replacement” in French radical circles) described these areas as “the Occupant’s barracks”.[32]  Another striking feature of these extreme-right movements’ discourse in today’s health crisis is their constant recourse to conspiracy theories as explanations for lockdown measures. For instance, in an article published in its website on April 22, the anti-Muslim organisation Résistance républicaine alludes to “an institutional coup d’Etat”.[33] In a similar perspective, the anti-Republican and Traditionalist Catholic movement Civitas[34] asserts that “a police state has been set up, which uses drones with surveillance cameras, helicopters with thermal equipment”.[35] This organisation even interpret COVID-related research as a plot orchestrated by Bill Gates:

The main promoter of this vaccine is Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, presented to the naive as a philanthropist. But Bill Gates owns shares in the major pharmaceutical companies working on a Coronavirus vaccine project. Bill Gates is also funding ID2020, a universal digital traceability project. […] What does it matter to me to be spared from the Coronavirus if it is to end up as a slave to the New World Order with an implant that allows “Big Brother” to spy on all my actions and gestures.[36]

Comparable rhetoric can be noticed in the anti-Semitic, Pétainist and extreme right newspaper Rivarol:[37] its chief editor Jérôme Bourbon likens lockdown policy to a collective “house arrest”,[38] and the Rivarol’s columnist “Hannibal” asserts that:

the COVID-19, through containment, is a decisive shock aimed at establishing a world government. The ‘simulations’ of Bill Gates or the ‘expectations’ of the Rockefeller Foundation are actually requirements addressed to international institutions and the States. The Coronavirus has existed only to usher in the post-Coronavirus era.[39]

Likewise, in a video published on YouTube[40] political activist and ideologue Alain Soral[41] interpreted the lockdown policy as the transition from “libertarian“ liberalism to “authoritarian” liberalism, and as the road to a ”Satanist New World Order“.

Lastly, some of the aforementioned organisations tried to frame the government management of the pandemic in a victimising rhetoric, by presenting it as a policy implicitly directed against Catholics. Civitas declares on its online statement that Catholics “have been deprived of the liturgical ceremonies of the Holy Week and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ”. Criticising what they describe as a “submissive” attitude of the clergy towards public authorities, this movement pushes for a kind of re-Christianisation of public space:

What does it matter to me to be spared from Coronavirus if I am deprived of the sacraments and kept away from God? We need to get back to attending Holy Mass. […] We need processions with the Blessed Sacrament in the streets of our cities. We need penance for the apostasy of our nations and the application of iniquitous and unnatural laws. We need to bear public witness to our Faith.

Rivarol’s chief editor even describes Catholics who respect the lockdown as apostates:

We silence the bells, we close the doors of the sanctuaries. This is not that a terrible denial, a silent form of apostasy, the result of a sordid cowardness? Because faith, zeal in the service of God, valour in the face of adversity, refusal to obey unjust and exorbitant orders are not optional, they are not virtual.[42]

Similar to the National Rally, which emphasises a non-enforcement of the lockdown in some urban territories, these extreme-right movements accuse public authorities of being more complacent towards religious minorities. Unsurprisingly, anti-Islam organisations such as Riposte Laïque- claim that Muslims are favoured over Catholics, and anti-Semitic media such as Rivarol, denounce the privileges that Jews would allegedly enjoy.

Therefore, COVID-19 and its consequences do not seem to have transformed the ideological tenets of the radical and extreme-right parties in one way or another. On the contrary, this health crisis strengthens their already existing ideological leanings: sovereigntism and Colbertism for right-wing Eurosceptic parties, a common defiance towards the EU and multiculturalism for the National Rally, and a blend of self-victimisation, and keenness for conspiracy theories for the extreme-right. The Guardian’s columnist Simon Tisdall recently wrote that this pandemic “will reshape the world”, by tearing away at neoliberal globalisation, and by legitimising authoritarianism in national political systems.[43] Even if it may be too early to judge the relevance of this prognosis, the ongoing crisis does not seem to produce a huge transformation of the discourses of French right-wing radicalism, and more generally, does not seem to have changed the terms of the French political debate yet. But maybe the post-COVID context will be a more crucial moment for the future of right-wing radicalism and extremism.

 

[1] “Nous sommes en guerre” : le texte de l'allocution d'Emmanuel Macron sur le coronavirus », La Vie, 17 March 2020. Available on: http://www.lavie.fr/actualite/documents/nous-sommes-en-guerre-le-texte-de-l-allocution-d-emmanuel-macron-sur-le-coronavirus-17-03-2020-104699_496.php

[2] MUDDE Cas, The Far Right Today, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2019, pp. 192-193.

[3] These three parties respectively obtained 23,3 %, 3,5 % and 0,6 % of the expressed votes during the 2019 European Parliament election in France.

[4] We will not deal with the UPR (Union populaire républicaine – Popular Republican Union) in this article: despite its hard Eurosceptic stance, this party may not be accurately labelled « right-wing ».

[5] “Florian Philippot : Appel à la constitution d’un très large front Patriote et Souverain”, Les Patriotes, 22 April 2020. Available on: https://www.les-patriotes.fr/author/fphilippot/

[6] Former National Front vice president (2012-2017) and former MEP (2014-2019). Self-styled Gaullist, he left the National Front because of strategic divergences with Marine Le Pen: Florian Philippot pushed for radical Euroscepticism (exit from the eurozone) and lesser emphasis on identity-related issues. He founded his own political party (The Patriots) in 2017, which advocates Frexit.

[7] Quoted in CLEMENT Nicolas, “Quel “monde d’après” la crise ? Florian Philippot et Geoffroy Didier s’affrontent sur l’avenir de l’UE”, Valeurs Actuelles, 17 April 2020. Available on : https://www.valeursactuelles.com/clubvaleurs/politique/debat-quel-monde-dapres-la-crise-florian-philippot-et-geoffroy-didier-saffrontent-sur-lavenir-de-lue-118296

[8] Available on: https://twitter.com/f_philippot/status/1252630119367270400

[9] Available on: https://twitter.com/f_philippot/status/1252312174409723905

[10] Available on: https://twitter.com/f_philippot/status/1251856725092601857 See also : “Ils veulent rétablir L’ESCLAVAGE POUR DETTE avec la CRISE ! On réagit ?”, YouTube, 22 April 2020. Available on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YrjiRZEpv0

[11] Originally coming from the Gaullist and liberal-conservative party UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire – Union for a Popular Movement), Nicolas Dupont-Aignan was one of the only UMP parliamentarians who campaigned in favour of the No during the European Constitution referendum of 2005. After having left the UMP in 2007, he created his own party in 2008 (Republic Arise, which began France Arise in 2014). Dupont-Aignan was candidate for the presidential elections of 2012 and 2017, and supported Marine Le Pen in the second round of 2017 presidential election.

[12] Quoted in “Coronavirus: le parti de Nicolas Dupont-Aignan saisit le Conseil d'Etat”, L’Express, 27 March 2020. Available on: https://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/societe/justice/coronavirus-le-parti-de-nicolas-dupont-aignan-saisit-le-conseil-d-etat_2122154.html

[13] Available on: https://www.facebook.com/nicolasdupontaignan/videos/538203136881079/ [14] “Nicolas Dupont-Aignan : "Ce gouvernement sera comptable devant la Haute Cour de Justice", Sud Radio, 30 March 2020. Available on: https://www.sudradio.fr/societe/nicolas-dupont-aignan-ce-gouvernement-sera-comptable-devant-la-haute-cour-de-justice/

[15] “Les irresponsables, selon Emmanuel Macron”, Le Blog de Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, 13 April 2020. Available on: http://blog.nicolasdupontaignan.fr/

[16] LEJEUNE Bastien, « Coronavirus : “Emmanuel Macron est prisonnier de son schéma mondialiste” », Valeurs Actuelles, 3 April 2014. Available on: https://www.valeursactuelles.com/clubvaleurs/politique/coronavirus-emmanuel-macron-est-prisonnier-de-son-schema-mondialiste-117819

[17] Coming from far-right circles, the concept of “globalism” (mondialisme) refers to an ideology whose target would be to unify the world around common political institutions (and even a global government), to surpass the nation-state level.

[18] “Nicolas Dupont-Aignan : “Ce gouvernement sera comptable devant la Haute Cour de Justice”, art. cit.

[19] Quoted in SAPIN Charles, “Le RN savoure le virage idéologique du president”, Le Figaro, 2 April 2020, p. 21.

[20] Quoted in “Coronavirus : Marine Le Pen estime que "le gouvernement a menti sur le niveau de préparation du pays”, France TV Info, 1 April 2020. Available on: https://www.francetvinfo.fr/sante/maladie/coronavirus/les-mensonges-du-gouvernement-ont-provoque-ce-confinement-general-assure-marine-le-pen-rn_3894403.html

[21] Quoted in BERTELOOT Tristan, “Le RN en boucle sur ses vieilles propositions”, Libération, 1 April 2020, p. 11.

[22] Quoted in “Coronavirus : Marine Le Pen dénonce les ‘’incompétences’’ du gouvernement”, Le Point, 29 March 2020. Available on: https://www.lepoint.fr/politique/coronavirus-marine-le-pen-denonce-les-incompetences-du-gouvernement-29-03-2020-2369243_20.php

[23] Quoted in “Bardella (RN) se veut "constructif”” dans la crise du coronavirus”, Le Point, 3 April 2020. Available on: https://www.lepoint.fr/politique/bardella-rn-se-veut-constructif-dans-la-crise-du-coronavirus-03-04-2020-2370034_20.php

[24] Quoted in BOURMAUD François-Xavier, “Macron et Le Pen rejouent leur bras de fer sur la souveraineté”, Le Figaro, 2 April 2020, p. 21.

[25] DELAPORTE Lucie, “Covid-19: face aux erreurs du pouvoir, l’amateurisme de Marine Le Pen”, Mediapart, 7 April 2020. Available on: https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/france/070420/covid-19-face-aux-erreurs-du-pouvoir-l-amateurisme-de-marine-le-pen

[26] Quoted in BERTELOOT Tristan, “Le RN en boucle sur ses vieilles propositions”, Libération, 1 April 2020, p. 11.

[27] Quoted in “Les violences urbaines, “faillite du vivre-ensemble", selon Bay”, Mediapart, 22 April 2020. Available on: https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/fil-dactualites/220420/les-violences-urbaines-faillite-du-vivre-ensemble-selon-bay

[28] Available on: https://twitter.com/JeanMessiha/status/1252994222115954688

[29] “Appels à la prière islamique: Le Pen (RN) dénonce ‘’une nouvelle escalade’’”, La Croix, 4 April 2020. Available on: https://www.la-croix.com/France/Politique/Appels-priere-islamique-Le-Pen-RN-denonce-une-nouvelle-escalade-2020-04-04-1301087872

[30] On the night of April 18th, a man was wounded during a police operation, in this city of the Hauts-de-Seine district.

[31] “Ramadan 2020: guérilla urbaine en plein confinement!”, Riposte Laïque, 21 April 2020. Available on : https://ripostelaique.com/ramadan-2020-guerilla-urbaine-en-plein-confinement.html

[32] Available on: https://twitter.com/RenaudCamus/status/1251059918678999041

[33] “Coronavirus : un coup d’Etat institutionnel est en marche. Décryptage de 3 intox”, Résistance républicaine, 22 April 2020. Available on: https://resistancerepublicaine.com/2020/04/22/coronavirus-un-coup-detat-institutionnel-est-en-marche-decryptage-de-3-intox/

[34] This association began a political party in 2016. During 2017 legislative elections, Civitas concluded an electoral alliance with two other far-right movements: the Party of France (founded by former FN members) and the Jeanne Committees (created by Jean-Marie Le Pen after his exclusion from the National Front).

[35] “Communiqué de CIVITAS – Du Coronavirus et de ses consequences”, Civitas, 20 April 2020. Available on: http://www.civitas-institut.com/2020/04/20/communique-de-civitas-coronavirus-de-consequences/

[36] Ibid.

[37] This newspaper was created in 1951 by ex-collaborationists and Vichy regime’s supporters. Holocaust denial and hostility to Jews are core elements of their editorial line. This media is radically opposed to Marine Le Pen, described as too liberal on moral issues, too philosemite and too “gay friendly”.

[38] “Confinement ou assignation à résidence?”, Rivarol, 25 March 2020, p. 1 ; “Prolongation d’un mois de l’assignation à résidence!”, Rivarol, 15 April 2020, p. 1.

[39] “Apocalypse, what else? “, Rivarol, 22 April 2020, p. 12.

[40] “Soral a (presque toujours) raison – Réflexions sur le couillonavirus”, YouTube, 28 March 2020. Available on : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z239B52Y-EQ

[41] Ex-Communist, he was member of the National Front’s central committee between 2007 and 2009, before leaving this party because of what he described as its “Zionist” line. He founded the political association E&R (Egalité et Réconciliation – Equality and Reconciliation) in 2007, whose ideology is close to the nationalist-revolutionary thought, and is characterized by a deep anti-Semitism, a strong third-worldism and a support for Putinism and Chavism.

[42] “Du coronavirus au collapsus : Comment le pouvoir sème la panique et le chaos”, Rivarol, 1 April 2020, p. 2.

[43] TISDALL Simon, “Power, equality, nationalism: how the pandemic will reshape the world”, The Guardian, 28 March 2020. Available on: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/28/power-equality-nationalism-how-the-pandemic-will-reshape-the-world

 

 

Authors:

Published: April 27, 2020, 5:21 p.m.
Edited: March 26, 2021, 11:56 a.m.