The far right plurality in the French elections: How did it come to this? (AWTWNS 2 June 2014)

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The far right plurality in the French elections: How did it come to this?

2 June 2014. A World to Win News Service. The National Front (FN) triumphed in France’s European Parliament elections, coming in first with a quarter of the votes. They administered “a slap in the face” to the traditional right trailing far behind, and left the Socialists and their allies “humiliated” and “in ruins”, as commentators said. With under 14 percent of the vote, today’s governing Socialist party looks like the fringe group the FN used to be.

Why this happened and what it means are questions that will be better understood after closer study of the 25 May polls and further developments. For now, looking not just at these elections but more broadly at French society and politics, at a minimum it can be said that we are witnessing the rise of a nationalist and anti-immigrant atmosphere with fascistic overtones in the context of a broader cultural upheaval. The utterly defeated reformist politician Jean-Luc Melenchon called it a “volcanic eruption” that could reconfigure the country’s political landscape and a sign of a “war of civilizations” in the cultural sphere.

Fascism is one of those terms often used so loosely as to mean almost nothing, and yet it’s not hard to recognize it when you see it. The FN was founded as one of the more or less avowedly fascist and neo-Nazi movements of the 1970s, spurred by the conviction that France should have hung on to its colonies, especially Algeria, and ultimately rooted in the regime of Philippe Petain, the general who ruled France in collaboration with the Nazi occupation during World War 2. It is part of a broader constellation historically grouped around the Catholic Church in opposition to secularism, the republican form of government and often Jews.

But at this time the republican and parliamentary form of rule is not in real danger, nor is it the question on many minds. Until recently, the leading issue has been the perceived threat to the patriarchal family. Last year these trends mobilized many hundreds of thousands on the streets to “defend the family” against the recent legalization of same-sex marriage and especially the spectre of gay adoption, seen as the symbolic end of the world as they feel it should be, just as antithetical to Christian morals and values as Jews were once considered to be.

The FN’s electoral victory took place on similar symbolic grounds, but was more avowedly political – and perhaps the FN chose a more narrow focus to broaden its appeal. The party’s current leader, Marine Le Pen, tried to distance it from the explicit anti-Semitism of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and even expelled members for repeating the kind of casually Judeocidal remarks the FN founder is famous for, but she has not taken any distance from Jean-Marie himself, who remains the party’s honorary head. With this ambiguity, she simultaneously soft-peddled and retained the anti-Semitism that, as her supporters all know, is a core element of the party’s identity and still a cohesive factor among reactionary sections of the middle and lower classes, even though it is no longer fashionable among the French ruling class.

She has not been even slightly ambiguous about the party’s historic racism. Speaking at an FN rally on the eve of the European parliament elections, her father warned that the French were in danger of being “replaced” by “an immigrant invasion”, and then added that there was still hope: Monsieur Ebola [a lethal disease that recently broke out in West Africa] could solve that in three months.” Some people were shocked, but she defended him, saying that he was merely making neutral comments on events in Africa and not advocating anything.

It is true that her programme “only” calls for drastically restricting immigration, expelling broad categories of foreigners and giving preference to the French-born in employment, housing, social benefits, etc., and not anyone’s elimination. But the Nazi party, too, advocated the removal and not the elimination of the Jews until 1942, when they decided that the “final solution” was the only solution. It is strategically vital to understand the real differences between the FN’s hard core, its broader base of support, and the millions who voted for it without much thought. But most people who voted for it – and almost everyone else – understood that a vote for the FN was a vote to get rid of foreigners one way or another.

The FN’s traditional areas of greatest support are, in fact, places with relatively few immigrants, not most cities but places like rural Alsace, the rust belt north and areas along the southern coast with a high percentage of pieds noirs, families of former French settlers in North Africa. Even without a detailed examination of all the electoral results, one thing that stands out is the new degree of FN support in those areas and now more broadly throughout much of the country and its white lower classes. That breakthrough was heralded in the March municipal elections when the FN won Henin-Baumont, a northern former mining town that was a stronghold of the revisionist Communist Party (PCF) and Socialists for generations.

In analysing the FN’s support, while those classified as workers and employees, both employed and unemployed, and people under 35, were much less likely to vote than the overall population, a relatively higher percentage of those who did cast their ballots among these categories voted FN. In general, the poorer the household, and the younger the voter, the more likely they were to either abstain or vote FN. Both cases express a rejection of politics as they have been practised in France.

According to a survey by the IPSOS polling organization, when potential voters were asked to list the two main issues in this election, two-thirds of FN supporters ranked immigration as their primary concern, while a third put the high cost of living first. Of course, pollsters often distort answers by how they pose questions, but shrinking buying power, unemployment or other kinds of economic hardship were cited by most voters. What is striking with the FN is the association of the two issues. Further, while the FN is opposed to the European Union in its present form, that stand is actually less central to its identity than for some “far left” parties (including what’s left of France’s anti-globalisation movement) that fared poorly in these elections.

In short, opposition to foreigners is the single most important defining feature of the FN. (Youth demonstrating against the party and everything it stands for, a few days after the elections, called it the “F-haine”, the hate party.) What accounts for its appeal on this point?

The most commonly mentioned factors don’t explain much. The presence of foreigners is not what provokes anti-foreigner hysteria. As many as a third of today’s French are products of immigration over the course of the twentieth century, and the percentage of immigrants has not changed much in recent years. Further, with eight percent foreign-born among its population, France doesn’t even come close to Spain, which went from having very few immigrants to the largest number in Europe in two decades, or to Italy in terms of new waves of immigrants reaching its shores. Yet far right parties did not advance in the simultaneously-held elections in those countries.

As for the economic situation, that, too, explains little about why it produced this particular set of results. The equation “Four million foreigners = four million jobs” roaming the social networks speaks to the psychological linkage between economic hardship and immigration, but it has little basis in fact. The broad section of the working class that used to enjoy stable employment and benefits, if not much pay, or in other words, the kind of people who were once the base of the PCF, the “people of the left”, as they were called, are not losing their jobs to immigrants – their factory jobs and whole industries are going out of existence, and most don’t want the jobs that foreigners do. Immigrants are not robbing anyone of housing and health and other social benefits. The rise of the FN is unimaginable without today’s economic hardship and job insecurity, but it is not the only possible consequence.

For example, there was no FN-like phenomenon in the European Parliamentary elections held the same day in Spain, where far more workers and employees have been plunged into destitution than France, nor in Greece, where the neo-Nazi New Dawn got 9.3 percent of the vote, about a third of the “far left” Syriza. Clearly the accelerating changes in the world economy and the economic structures in Europe and North America are setting the stage, but the plot has no inevitable dramatic arc.

Why the interplay between the economic situation and politics, culture, etc., have worked out this way so far in France is a very complex question, but some basic points stand out and have more universal significance. The fantasy fear of natives being “replaced” seems to be a symbolic marker for something else. If there is one word that FN supporters like to embrace, it is “identity”. In their minds, it is the identity of the country and its people that is in danger.

The real issue is not foreigners in France, but that the evolution of modern French society has made it feel foreign to many people. Although some people are disturbed when they see faces unlike their own in the open-air market, this doesn’t seem enough to make so many say, “I feel like a stranger in my own country.” The word “identity” refers to the values and culture that once officially defined France’s social fabric, the official common values and culture that were supposed to hold society together. Although most FN voters know or care little about Petain, his slogan “Work, family, fatherland” encapsulates a common idea of how society should be.

What kind of society people want is the big question. There seems to be nostalgia for what France once was, at least in certain faulty memories, during the “trente glorieuses” (the three decades after WW2), when the future seemed brighter even to people on the bottom, workers and other people received housing, healthcare and other social benefits endangered today, and the socially conservative, religious and patriarchal values of what had been a largely small town society still prevailed. All that was ferociously contested by the rebellion of May 1968, when millions of youth of all classes adopted the attitude of “be realistic, demand the impossible” (which meant a world that, however vaguely defined, would be totally better).

While that movement is long gone, many people feel that the backward motion in society since then has not been thorough enough and they want to reverse verdicts on basic questions like whether or not oppression – of immigrants and homosexuals, for instance – is morally right, and how strictly Church teachings should govern society. This contradiction is made even sharper by the changes in society since the 1960s, especially the further undermining of the old forms of the oppression of women and traditional family and gender relations, and new cultural admixtures that many people welcome.

It is precisely because moral and social questions like those remain unsettled in public opinion, and many millions have taken a strongly progressive stance against today’s backlash (even if not lately), that some forces on high, as well as many people among the masses, want to settle accounts with May 1968 once and for all.

The rise of the FN has to be put into perspective from several angles. First, the European parliamentary elections are not very consequential, compared to presidential elections, for instance, and, as usual, about 57 percent of registered voters didn’t bother to come out. Thus, the FN got a quarter of less than half of the electorate. But some people are much too reassured by that thought. The FN has brought together an emboldened and enthusiastic movement of people eager to get rid of immigrants, non-whites, gays (not a campaign issue, but “everybody knows”) and who knows what else, while the traditional parties have lost their legitimacy and even their morale. Those who hate both the world as it is and the world as the FN wants it to be have been left passive and adrift.

Second, the FN approach and programme is more in keeping with mainstream politics than most observers admit – although Marine Le Pen is not one of them. She has often accused both the traditional right and the current Socialist government of stealing her programme: “Why accept a copy when you can have the original?” The entire French political spectrum has been moving in the FN’s direction for years.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in relation to “security” and immigration. All the mainstream party programmes echo the FN’s call for the police to exercise “zero tolerance” toward immigrant youth and their friends in public housing estates. The current Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls has made “zero tolerance” and repression of immigrants the hallmark of his political career.

As a rising young mayor he stopped the opening of a hallal (Islamically acceptable) supermarket and tripled the size of the local police. As Interior Minister he bragged that he set a record for immigrant expulsions and sent the national police rampaging against immigrant camps and squats to encourage their occupants to accept “voluntary” deportation. He, more than any other single individual, made it socially acceptable to hate Roma (Eastern European Gypsies). Once any ethnic group has been told that they “have no place in France,” and, more generally, once immigration is called a “problem” and immigrants become targets, one could conclude that Valls and the Socialist Party have legitimized the FN’s more radical “solution”.

The Socialists and the traditional right have accepted the FN as a party like the others, not only because of their openly declared intention of poaching its voters, but even more, because they cannot fully criticize its ugliest features without exposing their own true face. Their electoral democracy means that instead of using reason and arguments to win voters away from the FN’s positions, while also firmly insisting on principles, instead they adopt those positions themselves. They pretend they have no choice – if they don’t deport enough people, the FN will come to power and deport even more. Their “democracy” is an excuse and a device, not only for trampling on the rights of immigrants and other injustices that should never be considered acceptable, but also for deceiving and degrading the population.

A few days after the Euro parliament elections, secondary school students used social media to organize demonstrations against the FN in Paris and at least a half dozen other cities, as well as in front of their schools. Unlike most of the dead “leftist” events in France, there was no blaring sound system to hide the fact that people are bored, and few of the usual accoutrements such as mass-manufactured posters and slogans. It was just kids chanting, “We are all the children of immigrants” and “FN, the kids shit on you.” We are not going to see PM Valls, himself a Spanish (that is, “white”) immigrant, embrace that slogan or approach. The pro-Socialist media mocked these youth, because their protests added up to only about 10,000 countrywide, and more, because, since most youth didn’t vote, the FN victory was “their fault”. The answer, their elders in the Socialist, Communist and other parties said, is to begin to mobilize the youth for the 2017 presidential elections.

Generation after generation has been pulled into the electoral game in the name of smashing the FN. Yet the FN is more powerful than ever, and the mainstream parties have never been more like the FN. A particularly brutal police attack on an immigrant camp in Calais just after the elections seems like a warm-up for the future Socialist campaign. France’s economic and political system is what has brought the country to where it is today. It would be tragic if a new generation were to be fooled into thinking that defending that system is the best they can do.

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