When Will the French Dam Against the Far Right Crack?

News Abroad
tags: far right, France, Emmanuel Macron, Marine LePen

Brian Sandberg is Professor of History at Northern Illinois University and a Residential Fellow at the IMéRA research institute in Marseille, France. He specializes in French history, working on religion, violence, race, and political culture. He is the author of books including War and Conflict in the Early Modern World: 1500-1700. 




On Sunday, President Emmanuel Macron won re-election in the French presidential election, defeating far-right leader Marine Le Pen by an impressive margin of 58 to 42 percent. Despite this victory, French politics are once again in disarray and the nation is deeply divided.


In the final stretch of the electoral campaign, President Macron and many political leaders had called on French citizens to rebuild a barrage républicain (republican dam) against the surging waters of the far-right movement in France. On Sunday, a majority of French voters responded by voting for Macron in order to block the far right and the republican dam seemed to hold.  


Yet, even in defeat, Le Pen and her Rassemblement National (National Rally) party claimed a historic “shining victory” by scoring the highest number of votes for a far-right party in any modern election in France. Indeed, the presidential elections have demonstrated the French far-right’s growing power within French political culture and its potential to win elections in the near future. Is the republican dam now fundamentally weakened?


Two weeks previously, Macron and Le Pen emerged as the two leading candidates in the first-round election. President Macron and his La République en Marche (Republic on the Move) party led with 27.85 percent, followed by Le Pen of Rassemblement National with 23.15 percent. The leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélanchon, leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), narrowly ended up in third place with an impressive 21.95 percent.


The two main political parties that were dominant for decades were both crushed. The center-right Les Républicains (Republicans), led by Valérie Pécresse, failed to win five percent of the vote, while Anne Hidalgo’s center-left Socialistes (Socialists) could only muster a miserable 1.75 percent. Meanwhile, an array of green and communist parties each garnered less than five percent of the vote.


In their concession speeches, most of defeated candidates called explicitly for their supporters to vote to re-elect President Macron in order to protect against a far-right takeover of the French state. Yannick Jadot, leader of Europe-Ecologie-Les Verts (Europe-Ecology-Greens), appealed for French citizens “to build a barrage (dam) against the extreme right by casting a vote for Emmanuel Macron on 24 April.”


Building a dam against the floodwaters of fascism has become more and more challenging since the term barrage was first deployed in April 2002, after the far-right Front National (National Front) party scored a shocking victory over the Socialists in the first round of the presidential election. That year, it was Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who defeated the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin in a “thunderclap” that stunned the entire nation and allowed him to face the incumbent President Jacques Chirac, leader of the center-right Rassemblement pour la Républic (Rally for the Republic) party, in the second round. Jean-Marie Le Pen was an ultra-nationalist leader, Holocaust denier, and overt racist who had been accused of torturing Algerian revolutionaries during the Algerian War. The threat of a total victory by the Le Pen’s Front National clearly frightened many French citizens.


The defensive posture and emergency nature of the response to the far-right threat was clear in the use of the term barrage, which can refer to a dam to hold back floodwaters, a defensive fortification to resist enemy forces, or a police barricade to control crowds. The imagery of the barrage in French political culture can also relate to a cordon sanitaire, a military blockade against the spread of epidemic disease. French voters mounted a defensive barrage républicain (republican dam) against the elder Le Pen in the second round in 2002, re-electing Jacques Chirac in a landslide victory of 82.21 percent to 17.79 percent.


In 2017, French politicians and analysts again called for citizens to rebuild the dam against fascism in the second-round election, when Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen somewhat expectedly ended up in a runoff. As in 2002, the republican dam held firm against the far-right in 2017, and Macron scored a landslide victory—becoming the youngest president in French history.


Twenty years after the first republican dam was built in 2002, President Emmanuel Macron and the challenger Marine Le Pen campaigned furiously in preparation for a single presidential debate and a second-round runoff election on 24 April 2022, in what was billed as a rematch of the 2017 runoff between Macron and Le Pen.


Yet, the 2022 second round election was not a simple repeat of 2017, since the French political landscape has been utterly transformed over the past five years. Marine Le Pen rebranded her party in 2018, changing its name from the National Front to the National Rally. Le Pen has worked hard to tone down her party’s extremist rhetoric and reinforce its patriotic image, despite retaining its far-right ultra-nationalist program. Meanwhile, the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement emerged in response to President Macron’s reform initiatives and Jean-Luc Mélanchon’s left-wing France Unbowed party has consolidated.  


Most spectacularly, the rise of Éric Zemmour has galvanized far-right political supporters across France. Éric Zemmour is a journalist, political pundit, author, and media personality who has gained a large following through his radio and television appearances. He has hosted his own talk radio show, Z comme Zemmour, and has written a number of books on French politics and culture—notably Mélancolie française (2010), Le Suicide français (2014), and Destin français (2018).


Zemmour founded the new Reconquête (Reconquest) party in 2021 and launched a presidential bid, garnering an impressive 15 percent of potential voters in some early polling. His political rallies have been controversial, attracting diverse groups of far-right militants. Zemmour’s racist, Islamophobic, and anti-immigrant messages have relied on ultra-nationalist and neo-imperial historical narratives rooted in crusading culture. Zemmour argues that France is in “decline” or preparing to commit “suicide” by departing from its nationalist and imperialist past. French society, he warns, is in danger of being overwhelmed by Islamic law and French people are menaced with “replacement” by Arab and African immigrants. Zemmour envisions himself as a leader on the model of Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle, and he aims to restore the France nation through ideological purification and racial expulsion.


Far-right parties such as Zemmour’s Reconquête frequently rely on gross distortions of the past to construct alternative histories that rely on racist, xenophobic, ultra-nationalist narratives of their nation’s history. Zemmour has helped to provoke French “Culture Wars” that are being waged by politicians, pundits, and media personalities on television news programs, talk radio shows, and social media platforms, as well as in cultural and educational institutions. A group of French historians recently responded to Zemmour’s politicized vision of French and European history with a new publication, Zemmour contre l’histoire, critiquing Zemmour’s “falsifications and political manipulations of the past.”


As the first round of French Presidential Election approached, Zemmour slipped in the polls, but his ultra-nationalist and anti-immigrant program continues to resonate powerfully in French political culture. A number of Marine Le Pen’s supporters seem to have been Zemmour followers who voted tactically to bolster Le Pen and ensure that a far-right candidate reached the second round.


In his concession speech after the first-round election, Éric Zemmour seemed almost giddy at his fourth-place finish, with 7.07 percent of the overall vote. He enthusiastically called for his Reconquest supporters to vote for Marine Le Pen in the second round, and the crowd erupted with applause. Many of Reconquest members have already declared their support for the remaining far-right candidate. Marine Le Pen has welcomed the Reconquest supporters and has invited all French citizens who did not vote for Macron in the first round to join her National Rally.


One of the biggest questions in the second-round election was whether or not the millions of enthusiastic left-wing France Unbowed supporters would turn out to vote in the second round. During his election-night speech, Jean-Luc Mélanchon thundered three times that he and his followers would “not give a single vote to Madame Le Pen.” However, Mélanchon refused to call explicitly on his supporters to vote for Macron, and many of them still seemed undecided and some reportedly planned to vote for Le Pen as a protest vote. In addition, an astonishing twenty-five percent of French eligible voters did not vote at all in the first-round election.


As the second-round election day approached, politicians and concerned observers from across the political spectrum once again pleaded with French citizens to rebuild the dam against the far-right. Yet, Éric Zemmour’s extreme positions and militant rhetoric seem to have succeeded in making Marine Le Pen’s version of far-right politics appear “softer” and more acceptable to a broad section of the French citizens.


Meanwhile, over the past several years, the very language of dam-building has been appropriated and repurposed. The Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests)—and many news reporters—have appropriated the language of barrages to refer to their barricades and roadblocks deployed against President Macron.


Over a year ago, well before the start of the presidential campaign, political analysts on France Culture were already questioning whether a dam could really hold back a resurgent Marine Le Pen. Many French politicians and political observers recognize that deep cracks have appeared in the republican dam.


After landing a place in the second-round election, Marine Le Pen began using the language of barrages herself, openly calling for French citizens to “build a dam against the return of Emmanuel Macron” at an April 14 campaign rally in Avignon. Perhaps some French voters cast ballots for Le Pen in the second round as a protest vote against Macron, but there are many signs that most of the voters embrace many aspects of the National Rally’s political program. Marine Le Pen seems to have succeeded in sanitizing the image of the National Rally and normalizing far-right political positions. The French far-right has become a real force in French political culture.


The republican dam has held for now, but the French far-right is stronger than ever, and the French legislative elections are approaching in June. Enthusiastic far-right supporters are already discussing plans for the next presidential election in 2027. Reconstructing a republican dam against the French far-right may be much more difficult in future elections.