The two things I often hear from supporters of the Front National are ‘something has to change’ and ‘France was better in the past’. They have a desire for change that is largely driven by a sense of loss, a negative reaction to the state of France today. Shopkeepers list the prices of common items – eggs, milk – observing how much more expensive they are now. Everything, even inflation, is seen as evidence of French decline.
Front National supporters’ concern with immigrants (particularly Muslim immigrants) is best understood through the prism of this sense of loss. It’s not primarily about racism. Rather, it is born of the sense that ordinary French people are not being recognised or prioritised by the political class. The immigrant functions as a figure of those who are being prioritised in their place. Working French aren’t being put first, so someone else must be. Les Français d’abord! – French people first – is an FN slogan, and the party has policies for prioritising native French. ‘There are homeless people in France too’, people say, ‘why not help them before helping Syrians?’.
For FN supporters, the immigrant is also the figure that is undermining French culture, through his unwillingness to respect the ways things are done. Immigrants don’t want to integrate; they don’t respect France. They are apparently the reason that the French no longer feel at home in France. Nous sommes chez nous (We are at home) is another Frontiste slogan, often directed against the immigrant blamed for their own sense of unease.
The Front National has taken former Communists, former Gaullists, the young unemployed and now even parts of the business class. Every institutional disintegration has meant more Frontistes
The roots of the Front National lie in the 1950s Poujadist protest movement against government bureaucracy and big business. Poujadism, named after its driving force Pierre Poujade, was grounded in the worldview and interests of the small business owner and shopkeeper, who was being squeezed by taxes, Parisian bureaucrats and large business interests. The small business owner was a prime constituency of Jean-Marie Le Pen (a former Poujadiste) when he launched the Front National in the 1970s. The party was for independence and hard work, traditional morality and family values. It was against state bureaucracy, welfare, Europe and big business, intellectuals, immigrants and homosexuals.
The Front National still has a certain grounding in the values and perspective of the small business owner, particularly in the southern and south-west regions. These are regions where, to a degree, old-style French community and ways of life persist. Front National voters here are not talking about some fantasy of being French: it is the way they are actually living. They are calling for the way they are actually living to be recognised and protected. It is this that gives the party a social base, and means that it is more grounded than other populist parties, such as UKIP in Britain.