Is Marine Le Pen a Fascist?

The French presidential contender’s reliance on referenda suggests she is more of a Bonapartist.

By , a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.
French presidential election candidate for the far-right then-National Front party Marine Le Pen delivers a speech in Hénin-Beaumont, France, on April 23, 2017.
French presidential election candidate for the far-right then-National Front party Marine Le Pen delivers a speech in Hénin-Beaumont, France, on April 23, 2017.
French presidential election candidate for the far-right then-National Front party Marine Le Pen delivers a speech in Hénin-Beaumont, France, on April 23, 2017. ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images

Ever since its publication in 1954, historian René Remond’s classic work Les Droites en France has framed and, at times, enflamed how French historians discuss the political right. A growing number of scholars have, of late, insisted that Remond’s analysis is obsolete, superseded by events over the past few decades. Yet, the event that now rivets our attention—the faceoff between candidate Marine Le Pen, a figure often described in France as a “facho,” or fascist, and French President Emmanuel Macron in the second round of France’s presidential election on Sunday—suggests that Remond is more relevant than ever.

With the French Revolution, not only was the political left born but so too was the right. Although historians tend to focus on the former­—1789 was, after all, all about liberty, equality, and fraternity—Remond turned to the latter. The funny thing about the right, he observed, was there was not one but three rights—triplets that, to varying degrees, resented the event that had heaved them into the world.

The first to appear was the Legitimist, fanatical about reversing the revolution and restoring the Bourbons. Then came the Orléanist, dedicated to the parliamentary legacy of the revolution but determined to keep out the people. The oddest offspring, however, was the romantic Bonapartists, dedicated to a ruler who, by channeling the will of the people, guaranteed their equality, glorified their fraternity, and garroted their liberty.

Ever since its publication in 1954, historian René Remond’s classic work Les Droites en France has framed and, at times, enflamed how French historians discuss the political right. A growing number of scholars have, of late, insisted that Remond’s analysis is obsolete, superseded by events over the past few decades. Yet, the event that now rivets our attention—the faceoff between candidate Marine Le Pen, a figure often described in France as a “facho,” or fascist, and French President Emmanuel Macron in the second round of France’s presidential election on Sunday—suggests that Remond is more relevant than ever.


With the French Revolution, not only was the political left born but so too was the right. Although historians tend to focus on the former­—1789 was, after all, all about liberty, equality, and fraternity—Remond turned to the latter. The funny thing about the right, he observed, was there was not one but three rights—triplets that, to varying degrees, resented the event that had heaved them into the world.

The first to appear was the Legitimist, fanatical about reversing the revolution and restoring the Bourbons. Then came the Orléanist, dedicated to the parliamentary legacy of the revolution but determined to keep out the people. The oddest offspring, however, was the romantic Bonapartists, dedicated to a ruler who, by channeling the will of the people, guaranteed their equality, glorified their fraternity, and garroted their liberty.

In 1851, the first (and last president) of the Second Republic, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, used two tricks from the repertoire of his uncle, Napoléon Bonaparte. First, he overthrew the republic by a coup; second, he offered a plebiscite—a vote by French citizens—to legitimize the coup. Just as the elder Napoleon employed a plebiscite to ratify his self-promotion from first consul to emperor, the younger Napoleon harnessed it to transform himself from former president to future emperor. What had been, under the Roman Republic, a device of democracy had become, under the Bonapartes, an accomplice of autocracy.

In this campaign, Le Pen has emphasized the issue of pouvoir d’achat (“purchasing power”) over her more traditional focus on immigration. Although some of Le Pen’s aides worried that this move would repel her base, it has proven to be a canny move. With the war in Ukraine stoking inflationary pressures in France, Le Pen appears to some voters as not just prescient but also presidential. Last week, a Le Figaro poll revealed that a clear majority of French—54 percent—believe that she, not Macron, is more sympathetic to their lot and more capable to help them make ends meet.

But a different kind of pouvoir has always been Le Pen’s real focus. This became clear at a tense press conference last week. Sitting behind a wall of microphones, she declared that France faced an “unprecedented democratic crisis” and that referendums were its cure. After becoming president, Le Pen vowed that she would “organize a referendum on the essential questions of the control of immigration, the protection of the French identity, and the primacy of national rights.” In the referendum, the French would vote up or down on “la priorité nationale”: a proposal blocking noncitizens living in France from seeking employment, housing, health care, and social benefits. A yes from the people would make “national priority” the law of the land.

Because Le Pen also wants to ditch the principle of jus soli, which confers citizenship of those born on French soil, the number of noncitizens would increase dramatically. Moreover, as most constitutional scholars insist, such a law would violate the principle of equality embedded in every constitution France has enacted, stretching from the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” to the constitution of the Fifth Republic. Passage of this law, declared constitutional expert Dominique Rousseau, would “be like a coup d’état.”

During her initial campaign, Le Pen had sought, with some success, to soften her abrasive and aloof image by distancing herself from her father’s persona. Yet the press conference revealed that she had no more changed than her party did when its name changed from the National Front—bequeathed to her by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen—to the gentler Rassemblement National, or National Rally.

Little distinguishes Marine’s notion of “national priority” from “national preference,” the term employed by her father during his time as leader of the National Front. Similarly, the daughter’s use of phrases like “unprecedented democratic crisis” is bland shorthand for her father’s earlier and earthier claims that France’s political class, though mouthing republican and democratic pieties, was nothing more than “a cosmopolitan, totalitarian, and corrupt oligarchy.”

Since the elite firmly controls the levers of institutional power, the solution both Le Pens have offered is a referendum. In the 2002 presidential election, when he stunned the world by reaching the second round, Jean-Marie attacked what he called “creeping totalitarianism under the mask of democracy.” Hence, he called for the “establishment of a national and popular republic based on the use of referendums.” This would return to the people, Jean-Marie declared, the voice they had lost.

Jean-Marie’s appeal fell on deaf ears: He was trounced by Jacques Chirac, who won more than 80 percent of the vote in the second round. But Marine believes the promise of a plebiscitary democracy is a winning proposition. Along with a referendum on national priority, she would encourage further referenda on what she calls citizen initiatives. They could, she has said, address “every subject,” including the death penalty and abortion, and require just 500,000 signatures to be launched. (Such referendums are possible even now, but crucially, they require 4 million, not 500,000, signatures to reach critical institutional mass.)


Marine Le Pen has marinated too long in her father’s ideological stew to forget the referendum as an essential ingredient. But does its presence in the Le Pen stew make it taste more like Bonapartism than fascism? In the final edition of Remond’s book, published in 1982, the historian argued this was the case. He noted that the National Rally party, like its earlier iterations, from the Boulangist movement in the 1880s to the Poujadist movement of the 1950s, issued not from the left—which is the case of fascism—but from the right; that it sought to conserve, not destroy, traditional social structures; and that it aspired to authoritarian, not totalitarian control. In effect, whereas fascism denies the legitimacy and legacy of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, Bonapartism accepts aspects of both.

Moreover, Bonapartism, unlike totalitarianism, bases itself on plebiscitary principle. Both Napoléons turned to the people, not their representatives, to legitimize their coups against the republics they once led. While Le Pen is not planning an actual coup, her promise to hold a referendum nevertheless smacks of the Bonapartist tradition. One hitch: There is no legal means for Le Pen to either enact or act upon such a referendum. Although two articles allow for changes in the constitution through referendums, they are very clear on the whys and whens. In the case of Article 89, the constitution can be revised only after the most rigorous process. If each of the two legislative chambers—the National Assembly and the Senate—pass the proposed change, they must then meet in a joint session, where the bill requires a three-fifths majority to pass. Only then can voters decide its fate in the form of a referendum.

Not surprisingly, only once has a constitutional change—shortening the presidential term of office from seven to five years in 2000—managed to jump through all of these hoops. No less important, Le Pen knows that even if there was a majority in the National Assembly to support her proposal, the Senate, which is not facing elections, would prevent it from going any further.

This leaves Article 11, which allows the president to submit a referendum on the “organization of the public authorities” or with “economic or social policy … [or] public services.” According to legal experts, the constitutional change Le Pen seeks does not qualify under any of these rubrics. In 1962, this did not stop then-French President Charles de Gaulle, who famously used this article to change the constitution to allow the direct election of the president by popular suffrage. De Gaulle’s gamble paid off: More than 60 percent of voters marked “oui” on their ballots and, quite suddenly, the already awesome powers of the presidency were dramatically reinforced.

Inevitably, Le Pen made this Gaullist connection not only during her press conference but also at the end of last night’s debate against Macron, when she trumpeted her plan to hatch “une renaissance démocratique.” To hasten this rebirth, Le Pen again promised to enable citizens to launch referenda. More important, she cited de Gaulle when she pledged to offer a referendum on adding “national priority” to the constitution. “Let me be clear: I will use Article 11, as did General de Gaulle in 1962.”

Perhaps if she had made this claim earlier in the debate, Macron would have replied that de Gaulle’s use of the referendum was, at the time, widely seen as an extra-constitutional act. It sparked a political firestorm, enraging not just the left and center but also former Gaullists like the Senate’s then-leader, Gaston Monnerville.

He might have added two other crucial elements to this story. First, the 1962 referendum spurred the Constitutional Council to make clear that Article 11 cannot be used to do the very thing Le Pen seeks to do—namely, alter the fundamental text of the constitution. Second, in 1969, de Gaulle again used the referendum, this time to reform the Senate. Unlike the earlier referendum, this one fell flat, and almost immediately, de Gaulle announced he would resign from office.

This decision reflected, at least for de Gaulle, the plebiscitary nature of referendums. He understood it was a vote less against the proposed law than against his own person. Yet when Le Pen was asked if she would step down should her referendum fail, she replied she would not. It would mean, she explained, a political, not personal, failure. Whether this, too, is Bonapartist is an open question. What does seem clear, though, is that whether it is Bonapartist or fascist, a Le Pen government will seek to radically change France not for the better but for the worse.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.

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