Sunday, May 06, 2012

Democracy in France, Volume II: The Extreme Right

The first round of the French presidential election took place two weeks ago, and Marine Le Pen, the candidate from the extreme right-wing Front National or National Front party, won almost 18% of the vote.  She came in third and was eliminated, but the score and the resulting political fallout have dominated headlines as we wait for the second round vote on May 6th. What to make of a country where almost one in five electors votes for a party that is, at its heart, xenophobic?  What to make of Sarkozy's subsequent veering to the far right in a desperate bid for those electors?  With the global economic crisis as a backdrop, this eerily recalls the 1930s.  The mainstream press is horrified, for there are ghosts here that no one wants to disturb.

The National Front is firmly rooted in the xenophobia and antisemitism that survived the war and the anti-leftist radicalization that followed, but those roots are hidden these days, mostly.  The party has been dédiabolisé, or "undemonized;" ironically made almost respectable for the mainstream electorate by the very mainstream media that fears it.  Marine Le Pen is a more sympathetic figure than her father and she's adept at maintaining her distance from the more incendiary elements of her own party.  She talks about immigration, but she also talks about the price of gas.  More than anything, she sells fear, and a bitter nostalgia for an imagined France that was once secure and prosperous but is now considered weakened and threatened by outside forces.   

Leave the Euro.  Close the borders.  France for the French.  Her message is meant to basely appeal, and to shock.  Her party rarely wins enough votes to govern; they've had most success, ironically enough, at the European Parliament, where a proportional allotment of seats earns them deputies even when they don't win a majority in the election.  Yet they speak to a slice of the French population that feels increasingly disenfranchised and abandoned, confused and threatened by immigration and globalization.  The votes the National Front wins are hotly contested by the mainstream right, who then mimics their discourse; this, in turn, both pulls public policy to the right and lends the FN further credibility and more votes.

Who votes for the FN? The National Front vote is lower- and lower-middle class, suburban yet also increasingly rural.  FN scores higher in the east and southeast of the country than in the center and west. In some areas, such as the economically depressed northeast, the vote seems to be in reaction to real job losses and economic hardship.  In many other places, however, the vote can't be explained by simple economic logic.  How to explain the majority FN vote in a small rural village where little has seemingly changed since the 1970s?

There's more than economics or crime rates at play: the National Front vote is also and increasingly an anti-establishment vote, filling in a certain sense the same role as the Tea Party in the United States.  Mainstream politicians in France, whether they hail from the right or the left, went to the same schools, live in the same rich Parisian neighborhoods, and employ the same language.  As denizens of the same ivory tower, they are regarded with equal skepticism by many French.  Enter Marine Le Pen, populist, with language that is direct and indignant, claiming to speak truths that no one else dares to address.  Press and politicians alike consider her a pariah.  Like her father before her, she parries with troubling and aggressive soundbites addressed to her audience of electors, not to the elite.  A vote for Le Pen became a vote against the other politicians, rotten, tous pourris.  A vote qui dérange, that's meant to stir up trouble; an unacceptable vote and therefore a powerful vote, not necessarily cast with much more than a desire to tear down and turn things back.

Sarkozy, in his last-ditch effort to win the election, doesn't seem to come to the same conclusion. He sees capturing Le Pen's 18% as his only chance to slide by Hollande, and he's not afraid to transparently adopt more and more of her populist, anti-immigration language.  I doubt it will work.  How could an incumbent possibly win the protest vote against the status quo?  Marine Le Pen refuses to endorse him, saying that she personally will cast a blank ballot.  Meanwhile many in the center right are distancing themselves from Sarkozy, while the extreme right is undoubtedly looking on pleased.  It has been theorized that Le Pen is waiting for the implosion so she can build up her party on the ashes of the mainstream right.  I fear in any case that the vicious circle will continue in the short term, with the FN gaining support and thus a certain inevitability and perceived acceptability.  At some point, if they continue to gain power, they will inevitably lose their credibility as outsiders.  Such a change in fortune still appears far off, alas.

I know, you're thinking "For someone who doesn't even read Le Monde, Parisienne is suddenly quite interested in French politics."  I've been making up for lost time in this election, obsessively reading Le Monde and tardily trying to make sense of the French political landscape.  For a clear explanation of some of the origins of the National Front, I highly recommend a "web documentary" put together last year by Le Monde about François Duprat, one of its founders, and the strategist behind the mainstream populism that brought FN out of the shadows.  If your French comprehension is good enough to follow the video (which are alas unsubtitled), it is well worth watching.

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