|Over the next four months, the word banalisation is going to feature heavily in the French press coverage of Marine Le Pen and the Front National’s respective election campaigns.|
Even though the word does not exist in English, it ostensibly has an easily intuited meaning – the process of rendering something banal, trite or common-place. In relation to Mme Le Pen and her party, the word describes the process by which the ideas and policies that the party stands for, which in the past have been seen as extreme, shocking or even unutterable (at least in polite society), have now become part of mainstream discourse and have ceased to shock. Moreover, the ubiquity of the FN and its presidential candidate in the quality and popular press is symptomatic of these former political pariahs’ gradual settling into the French political landscape. Like an eye-wateringly outlandish piece of experimental architecture, time and familiarity have smoothed the sharp edges, dulled the clashing palette and organically integrated the party into something which is of a piece with its surroundings.
There are a number of reasons for this change. Firstly, a party which has fought elections under the same name for almost half-a-century, with only two (related) leaders for the same length of time, must inevitably lose some of its capacity to shock. Whilst the mainstream Right has reshaped itself at each election, and seen a number of leaders come and go, the Extreme Right has, with the exception of some tiny political clubs and an embarrassing but relatively short-lived schism in the late 1990s, remained monolithic, and as predictable a double-digit election competitor as any of the other parties. Secondly, a party whose leader was notorious for grotesque and inflammatory statements, from historical revisionism via institutional corruption to personal impropriety, has seen a gradual toning down of that rhetoric, initially for strategic reasons but principally through the assumption of the party leadership by Marine Le Pen, who for the French public has a far more ‘moderate’ or ‘acceptable’ image than her father. In a recent poll by TNS-Sofres published by Le Monde, the number seeing her as representing “a patriotic traditionalist right” was almost as high as those “a nationalist and xenophobic extreme right”
Thirdly, and most importantly, reactionary statements on immigration, nationalism, law-and-order and cultural homogeneity are no longer the preserve of the FN alone. After years of rejecting the FN’s policy positions and isolating the Extreme Right party from all attempts at rapprochement, to an extent which almost exaggerated the distance between the parties, the UMP deliberately ‘shifted Right’ to appeal to FN voters and consolidate the party and its presidential candidate’s support in the 2007 elections. This was a strategy that succeeded and failed – succeeded, in that Jean-Marie Le Pen and particularly the party did see their vote drop well below that in 2002; failed, in that many of the policy promises on tougher restrictions on immigrants, harsher sentencing and national preference were not met and even where they were, have not , perhaps unsurprisingly, produced any tangible benefits likely to offset the effects of the current economic crisis.
Particularly on the issue of immigration, the UMP’s repositioning has led to the FN trying to distinguish itself by moving from a positional argument (“we have the strongest line on immigration”) to a valence argument (“we will succeed where others have failed”). Marine Le Pen’s own programme puts it most succinctly: “C’est dans le domaine de l’immigration que Nicolas Sarkozy a peut-être le plus durement trahi les Français en général et ses électeurs en particulier, en menant, à l’inverse de ses discours et de ses promesses, la politique d’immigration la plus laxiste de l’histoire de la Ve République.” [It is in the area of immigration that Nicolas Sarkozy has probably betrayed the French people, and especially his own voters, the most, in overseeing the loosest immigration policy in the history of the Fifth Republic – quite at odds with what he promised]
The UMP and its president would contest the notion that its policy positions reflected any influence by the FN, but were instead the product of a rational and reasonable discourse. However, when its own members use language synonymous in the past with FN rhetoric, for instance the UMP deputy Brigitte Barèges using the phrase préférence nationale in relation to unemployment, it is difficult for many to distinguish between the two – certainly more difficult than identifying the differences between Mme Le Pen’s purported ‘UMPS’ hegemony. The principal outcome, then, has been to legitimise much of FN discourse for electoral gain, thereby eliminating the future possibility of rejecting this party’s policy proposals as unacceptable, at least in the short to medium term.
Banalisation, then, would appear a remarkable euphemism for describing what its users clearly regard as a highly detrimental process, and indeed its use by mainstream politicians smacks of an admission of defeat. “Really, what’s the harm in voting Marine Le Pen / FN?” may well describe a voter’s solipsistic view of their own election contribution, but there is nothing banal or trite about the adoption of previously extremist values and views into common currency. For, whilst the rhetoric may have been toned down, there is little that has changed in the FN’s programme – immigration numbers would still be cut, from 200,000 a year to 10,000, with a clampdown on family members joining their relatives; 40,000 new prison places, together with a complete removal of all automatic sentence reductions; immigration and criminality are explicitly linked; a referendum on the death penalty (admittedly a step back from its immediate restoration), and so on. As Le Monde’s editorial on 16 January put it, “the heart of its project [is] retrograde, nationalist and xenophobic.” None of which is banal.
There is a slightly more technical use of banalisation alongside its more common usage in French. An unmarked police car is “une voiture de police banalisée”. As the police sometimes find it easier to carry out their job without flashing lights and name emblazoned across the bonnet, so Extreme Right parties which blend into the political background may well enjoy similarly improved success. In the end, however, whether banalisée or not, the penalty will be the same.