The always excellent Bernard Girard has a very interesting discussion of the evolution of the FN to date, what is likely to happen to the party's positions going forward, and what might be done to counter its gains. I won't try to summarize Bernard's argument here, but I do want to relate it to a lecture I heard yesterday about the Tea Party movement in the United States. There are many, many differences between the Tea Party and the Front National, so let me say that up front. But there are also similarities. Theda Skocpol, who gave the Tocqueville Lecture at Harvard yesterday, has been following the activities of the Tea Party since its inception and has attended many meetings of various Tea Party groups. She pointed out that the Tea Partiers are extremely good organizers and very knowledgeable about the political process, particularly at the local level. They are much less astute when it comes to the content of policy, she argues, contenting themselves with broad and often inaccurate characterizations and Manichaean symbolism.
The same is true of the FN, which is strongly implanted in many localities and has mastered the tactical level of political organization. The FN has a far more coherent national organization than the Tea Party, however. The latter is in fact suspicious of attempts to create an organization above the local level, whereas it is hard to imagine the Front National without its national leadership. Another difference is the role of what Skocpol calls "the roving billionaires" in the American movement. There are a number of very wealthy individuals in the US with long-standing ties to right-wing causes who have showered large sums of money on selected Tea Party candidates. In some cases (Utah, for example) they were successful in the sense that their chosen candidates defeated less extreme candidates in the primaries and went on to win House or Senate seats. In other cases their money resulted in the selection of an unelectable candidate (as in Delaware). I am not aware of any such financial backing for FN candidates. But Skocpol's point is that the billionaires and the Tea Party do not have identical interests, and the rank-and-file are well aware of this.
Another element in the Tea Party's success in the US has been the fascination of the media, especially Fox News, which has allowed the movement to build a national following without a national organization and despite wariness of co-optation by the rank-and-file. Now, there is nothing comparable to Fox News in France, but it is undeniable that the media--and even bloggers like myself--have been fascinated by Marine Le Pen's transformation of the movement. Indeed, there is a strange complicity between her detoxification of the FN's rhetoric and the alacrity with which journalists have seized on the theme of change vs. continuity on the extreme right. This complicity draws a veil over the beliefs and attitudes of the FN rank-and-file, because it is the leader's rhetoric that is most easily available for analysis. What the FN's électeurs de base say to one another in private is much more difficult to ferret out. This is what Skocpol and her collaborators have been trying to do for the Tea Party in the United States. Their findings are quite interesting. If anyone knows of any comparable work in France, please let me know.
Finally, Bernard observes that Jean-Luc Mélenchon has in a sense been Le Pen's most effective adversary by attacking her on her own populist and republican turf. In the discussion after Skocpol's lecture, it was pointed out that the absence of a left populist movement like Mélenchon's is one of the reasons for the current severely distorted political landscape in the United States. But Bernard also points to the need for persistent and consistent critique of the FN's policy positions. I would say that this is what is lacking in France, despite the presence of a vocal populist adversary.