Stanford scholar views France's nationalistic politics with a historical eye

Appeared in Stanford Report, June 26, 2014

Marine Le Pen and the French political party she leads, the National Front, are the topics of a book being written by Stanford Associate Professor Cécile Alduy.
Photo Credit: Jacques Brinon/AP

In an unexpected turn of events in May, France's far-right National Front political party won the largest share of votes (25 percent) in the European Parliament election and 24 of France's 74seats.

While the National Front victory was one of numerous wins for right-wing groups across Europe, the National Front has ascended in popularity quite rapidly – thanks in part to a strategic rebranding initiative led by party president Marine Le Pen, the daughter of longtime National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. She has guided the party away from the anti-Semitic, radical rhetoric that characterizedher father's tenure from 1972 to 2011.

Stanford Associate Professor Cécile Alduy, a scholar in French literature, is currently working on a book about the evolution of the National Front's discourse under Marine Le Pen's leadership. Her research interests span Renaissance poetics, the cultural history of gender, and the history and mythology of national and ethnic identities since the Renaissance.

In an interview, Alduy shared her study of modern French politics and how Renaissance ideologies are playing out there today.

How does your academic background inform your ideas about contemporary French politics?

I think that it makes me particularly attentive to two things: first, the long history in which recent evolutions in the definition of French national identity take place and, second, the rhetoric of political discourse. That is, the fact that politics is a lot – and maybe first and foremost – speech, communication and symbols. Political leaders act – and are judged – as much by what they say as by what they actually do. 

How do you apply French history to current affairs?

My first book examined the rise of a proto-national sentiment in French Renaissance literature – how poets and rhetoricians elaborated certain myths, figures and narratives to give shape to a nascent national consciousness. This led me to be on the lookout for reminiscences or reincarnations of such representations of collective identity in contemporary literature and public discourse.

During the Renaissance, it took a lot of rhetorical guts to describe France as a unified kingdom when most of its people did not speak the same language and its borders were still in flux. Poets and lawmakers worked hand in hand to establish French as the official language throughout and to rein in regional and religious differences. One of the images that helped was that of the king of France as the incarnation of the people. I see reminiscences of this powerful image in the attempt made by several political leaders in the past 10 years to appear as providential men (or women), particularly in the far-right self-portrayal as the voice of the people.

Your forthcoming publication, Marine Le Pen: Words, Myths, Media (to be published by Seuil in 2015), investigates Le Pen's use of language. What about her political discourse do you find most striking?

What is most striking is how she has managed to smooth out her father's rhetorical asperities – such as his anti-Semitic gaffes, for instance, including the latest one on rounding up a bunch of artists for the next fournée, or batch for the furnace – to offer instead a sleek, almost mainstream rhetoric to the public. In contrast to the often clearly racist slurs of her father, she has launched a two-pronged attack on immigration on cultural and economic grounds.  Immigration from non-European countries is in her words unsustainable because of cultural rather than racial differences, and even more importantly because it is unaffordable in the current economic crisis.

Could you provide an example of Le Pen's "semantic takeover" and explain her media strategy?

Marine Le Pen has decided to portray her party as the true champion of laïcité (France's strict notion of the separation of church and state, which forbids any display of religious affiliations in public offices and schools). But she has stretched the concept so much, and in a unique unilateral direction, that in her mouth, laïcité is a politically correct, and readily acceptable, word for an attack on any display of the Muslim faith in public – not just in public schools but in the streets.

She is collapsing two different meanings of "public" into one: public-funded entities (schools, companies or government) and everything that we say is "in the public eye" or that happens "in public." This is a devious play on words but it works: people, including politicians and journalists, have started to confuse the two notions. The meaning of laicité is dangerously slipping from that of a legal framework that guarantees the neutrality of public education and services to a restrictive normative system of values that excludes from the national community certain behaviors and religions.

How has the French mindset about immigration evolved from the Renaissance era to today?

Immigration was not seen as a problem in the Renaissance – rather the opposite. For one thing, foreigners could be taxed more and on more things. They also brought new art forms, technologies and money.

France's notion of national identity was constructed during the Renaissance as something cultural rather than what we would now call "ethnic." French poets and authors of the Renaissance put forward an image of France as the "Mother of the Arts and Letters" (a phrase, incidentally, reused by Marine Le Pen in her speeches). France was to be unique in the world because of its contribution to the arts, to philosophy, literature and sciences. The French kings were adamant to invite foreigners who could help them achieve these goals (Leonardo da Vinci is only the most famous example).

This is a very different take from now, when anti-immigration movements point out what they think is the unbearable economic and "civilizational" cost of immigration for the country. (Economists have concluded that the balance sheet of immigration in France is actually positive but the representation of immigration as costly continues to prevail.)

This summer you will be working on "Extreme Rhetoric: 40 Years of National Front Speeches (1972-2013)," a digital humanities project and database of Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen's public speeches since 1972. What will you and your fellow researchers be looking for?

We are looking for what has changed and what has not changed in the party over the last 40 years. We want to uncover the structural components that form the backbone of its ideological makeup and point out the evolution in diction, word choice and topics.

For instance, the representation of history in their discourse has not changed over the last 40 years. Father and daughter have been telling the same narrative of France's decadence: both wax lyrical in their nostalgia for a Golden Age, lament the fall of France from its former grandeur, resort to conspiracy theories to account for its fall, and call for a renewal thanks to the union of the people to a charismatic leader (themselves). But the enemies have changed. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, communism was the threat. Now it's Europe, globalization and even unregulated capitalism.

Both leaders differ also in the kinds of rhetorical authorities they are trying to embody. In a smaller-scale study of Marine Le Pen's lexical universe last year, I showed how she beefed up the economic side of her discourse, quoting liberal French economist Thomas Piketty and American economist Paul Krugman, for instance, to present herself as a pragmatist and an expert. Her father, by contrast, situated his discourse almost exclusively in the realms of moral principles ("the good," "justice," "moral obligations," etc.) and rarely condescended to explain how his economic agenda would work in the real world. But their platform has not changed. In other words, the content remains the same, but the rhetorical surface has been reworked.