9.5.12

Some reflections on the rise of the far right in France


4 May 2012 - The scores of supporters following Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right party the “Front National”, disoriented and confounded many commentators during the first round of the French presidential elections on 22 April 2012. Indeed, 18.3% of the votes supporting Le Pen represent a sizeable part of the electorate. By taking a closer look at the results and their context, as well as considering some outsiders’ analyses, some light could be shed in regard to this dire picture and bring forward a slightly different picture.
Compared to the 2007 elections, when the Front National won a bit more than 10%, the recent tallying of votes for the Front National demonstrates a significant progression. However, compared to the votes scored by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, when he ended up on the second round and gained a strong 16%, the progression of Marine Le Pen this year does not look so much like a tide but rather a small wave.
We have to remember that the strategy of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 was to hijack the traditional themes of the far-right about identity and migration to his benefit, so that he could gain the support of the traditional electorate of the Le Pens at the risk of anchoring his party further to the right. This strategy paid off very well in 2007: Sarkozy siphoned the far-right electorate, won the elections and rebalanced somehow cosmetically his approach back to the centre right during the first year of his mandate. But these are gambles that you can play once in a lifetime.
Sarkozy tried again to use this strategy in the current campaign by going even further towards the far-right than in 2007 – taking 2 main risks:
(1) to break its party (UMP) into pieces as he is losing the support of the traditional non xenophobic right and the liberal right who don’t recognise themselves anymore in a party increasingly looking like a carbon copy of the Front National;
(2) to lose also the support of the Front National supporters who felt betrayed after his siphoning strategy of 2007. At the end of the day, they did exactly what Jean-Marie Le Pen has been saying: “people always prefer the original to the copy” – and indeed they heavily supported Marine Le Pen this time. The chances that they support him in the second round are not very likely as Marine Le Pen herself declared that she would be voting “white”.
Furthermore, the success of the far-right is also attributed to the fact that far right messages have been campaigned for – non-stop – during the last 5 years by the current President himself and his government;a fact unprecedented in the history of the 5th French Republic.
But this relative success of the far-right should not obscure many of the other interesting features of the French Presidential elections, including:
A) The emergence of a strong progressive left, bringing a coherent political alternative and bridging social movements (trade unions, movements in favour of “other globalisations”, etc.), as well as the political ecology: the Front de Gauche (Left Front, a coalition of 7 left parties and political organisations including the Communists and the Left Party). Actually, the most impressive progress to be seen is, in my opinion, that, while the percentage of the electorates of Sarkozy and Hollande remained very stable, the Left Front progressed from 3% in 2009 (when it participated for the 1st time in the European elections) to a towering 11,7%.
Interestingly, from an anti-racist perspective, the Left Front distinguished itself during the whole campaign with a strong anti-racist and equalitarian message, taking very strong liberal positions on migration issues, advocating among others for the regularisation of all migrant workers in France, without restrictions, as well as for an unconditional jus soli or “right of the soil”: born in France, then French!
B) The Left Front and the Front National of Le Pen have been shoulder to shoulder in many popular industrialised areas, both of them progressing considerably in the votes, while Hollande remained relatively stable and Sarkozy lost ground. The Left Front even progressed considerably in traditional strongholds of the Front National such as Marseille and the southern area – upholding this strong equality message.
C) Contrary to the dominant discourse about the transfer of votes from blue collar workers from the left to the far-right, the breakdown of the votes in popular areas demonstrates that there has always been a block of 20-30% of the blue collar workers who have been voting for the right. And actually, over the last 30 years, this is the very segment of the popular electorate the far-right has increasingly won to its cause. The usual supporters of the left, on the contrary, went to increase the camp of the abstention and that’s precisely where the Left Front and the Socialist Party have been reclaiming their votes with sizeable results (+ 3,5 million voters in 3 years).
This also leads to a renewed polarization of the political debate in France by the delineation of two clear – and totally opposite – political projects with clear-cut alternatives: one in favour of equality and inclusion on the left, and the other in favour of discrimination and the exacerbation, exploitation and delegitimization of differences on the far-right with the Front National.
D) Further, under the pressure of the Left Front, even François Hollande had to readjust its programme on the issue of redistribution of wealth in the French society by campaigning for taxing at 75% on all incomes above 1 million € per year.
This readjustment of the Socialist Party has finally offered a strong alternative that speaks to all voters from the lower to the upper middle classes that have faced increased declassing during the current financial and economic crisis. By recreating a political adversary different from the migrant, the Muslim, the Roma, the people receiving social benefits (as per the far-right narrative)… this new approach from the Left created a more constructive discourse appealing to a majority of voters, in all layers of society.
Prof. Emmanuel Todd recently assessed the situation on a well-known French media watch website: by not being able to capitalise and unite voters against a small group of people monopolizing most of the resources of the country, the far-right Front National missed a historic opportunity to move beyond its identity discourse. In the views of Prof. Todd, the Front National will definitely remain in its usual margins of 10-19% of the votes, whereas the left will keep on reinforcing an alternative model to the current ultra-liberal policies that will increasingly appeal to the majority. In a sense, the score of the Front National could be its swan song in terms of electoral progress and proposals of alternatives.
So, indeed, as a preliminary conclusion, the future could look much less bleak than we might be brought to think in the light of the traditional media frenzy around the far-right tallying of votes.
Michael Privot
Source: http://www.enargywebzine.eu/spip.php?article197&lang=en 

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