France and the European elections

By Patrice de Beer, May 27, 2014

Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen

Both UKIP and the French National Front (FN) have rocked the political landscape of their countries. But, why are so many French voters listening to slogans they have rejected for so many years? Why are so many young people, and even immigrants, voting FN today?

There can hardly be two neighbouring countries more different than France and the United Kingdom. But now, after the rcent May 2014 European elections, these ‘sweet enemies’ are faced with the same evil dilemma, the rise of populist, nationalist if not xenophobic – and anyway anti-European – forces which have rocked a decades-old dominance of the two main governing parties by becoming the strongest political force with more than a quarter of registered votes.

Conservative and UMP, Labour and Socialist have, often for the same reasons, been unable to foresee, check and counter forces who have been fattening on their weaknesses as well as playing the EU bogeyman in these times of economic crisis and ever-rising social inequality. Navel gazing and complacency has stopped appealing to voters.

Both UKIP and the French National Front (FN) have rocked the political landscape of their countries. Yet, the difference between UKIP and the FN seem glaring. We only have to remember the FN’s unsavoury origins: pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic and racist and those of its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, also founder of a dynasty whose second generation, his daughter Marine, is now in charge of the party, with the third, his grand-daughter Marion Maréchal, having already entered Parliament in 2012. It is just as shocking as if Nick Griffin’s daughter had cornered 27% of British votes.

It is clear why Nick Farage does not want to be associated with – and tainted by – his French counterpart. Even if he has been as skilful as the Le Pens in playing on voters’ fears and on the weaknesses of the political establishment, he wants to look like a well-behaved, ‘normal’ politician. This is also Marine’s dream, who wants to use her party to achieve power and not only as a platform to utter histrionic and xenophobic profanities, as Jean-Marie has done since the days he was accused of torturing prisoners during the French war in Algeria (1954-1962).

But, if you scratch the varnish of respectability she uses to hide the odious jokes her ebullient father loves to crack, you still find party stalwarts and candidates whose tongue is forked on sulphurous topics, or who have, or had, close links to paramilitary right wing groups considered by the FN as extremists. Anti-Europe, anti-Euro, anti-immigration, anti-American and even, for some leaders, pro-Putin. Nationalists much more than nationals.

As former Le Monde editor and now head of the investigative website Mediapart, Edwy Plenel says: Ms. Le Pen “is not a new far right, she is skilled and new in her tactics but her base is still the same intellectual lab from a century ago” within the French extremists and which ended, for most of them in collaboration with the Nazis during the Occupation. What is starkly clear, behind the new façade created by a very efficient PR, the FN’s leadership and national social ideology remain more or less of the same.

So, why are so many French voters listening to slogans they have rejected for so many years? Why are so many young people, and even immigrants, voting FN today? Because they want order in a world of disorder. And probably more for what the FN is standing against than for what it is.

First of all, many French people have for long shared the pipe-dream of “l’homme providentiel”, the populist leader who would solve everyone’s problems and wipe out politicians, crooks, traitors and financial vultures. From General Boulanger at the end of the nineteenth century to the Communist Party after World War II, which was still rallying up to 28% of voters until the late seventies. (Not to mention the humourist Coluche, whose mere threat of standing against presidential candidate François Mitterrand in 1981 shook the left, before he decided not to stand after all. Maybe his best joke ever!)

More seriously, just like most of those who voted communist never really wanted to live under Stalin’s terror – except for a small hardcore – few of the voters who, last Sunday, cast their ballot for the FN want to live isolated within closed borders under an authoritarian regime.

And, even if they are angry at Brussels policies, they are still more French citizens who want to remain within the EU and retain the euro. What they want to express is their fear of never-ending crisis in a world where, for the first time in generations, they believe their children will live a worse off life than themselves.

No politician is able to explain to them the rules of the game, to show them the way… and to tell them the truth. For them, one word encapsulates their feelings: “Enough”. Enough of Europe, of useless politicians, greedy businessmen and bankers and of babbling intellectuals who have also lost their traditional aura. No surprise that “Enough” is at the core of the FN platform.

To this neither the ruling PS or opposition UMP has found the answer. Thus their devastating defeat: 13% for the Socialists (vs 16% at the last European elections or 29% at the 2012 parliamentary, their worst score ever) and 20% for the right (vs 28 and 27%). i.e. one third of voters against 49% for Labour + Tories!

Their European programme was sketchy, unclear, and their promises were far removed from the positions they take in Brussels, an institution they defend when they meet there and lambast the minute they go back to their constituencies.

How can they explain to their voters that they can work together there perfectly well yet oppose each other head on in the National Assembly? Or that an idea one had supported when in power would become evil the minute it is pushed by a new government, like with the streamlining of the costly and inefficient administrative map with its municipalities, local communities, départements and regions? No surprise that the UMP is unable to bank on PS unpopularity any more.

Add to that the apparent weakness of President François Hollande and the permanent bickering within his government and party between rival cliques more interested with pushing their ideas and leaders as well as the fight within the UMP to grab the leadership, last year’s rigged election to the party leadership, the looming spectre of a comeback by Nicolas Sarkozy, the aura of corruption surrounding the former President, his team and the present party leader, Jean-François Copé – and you have a recipe for disaster. With no hope of any change for your average voters.

They all say they have understood voters but nothing seems to change. Except that the image of politicians as a breed has sunk lower and lower. Politics in France has become a problem of credibility. People know sacrifices have to be made, that we cannot go on borrowing on the world financial market to finance the country’s health and social system… But they don’t trust their leadership’s ability to lead them out of the crisis.

As a result, Hollande’s post-election speech acknowledging the voters’ anger and restating that there is no alternative to belt-tightening reforms has fallen flat. Unable to explain and lacking leadership, the ‘normal’ president might be following the only path possible, but he remains the least popular French president ever. As potential new chair of the European Parliament and former Luxembourg prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker once said, everyone knows how to tackle the crisis but no one has yet found the way to be re-elected afterwards!

But, please, never listen to us French when we talk about our own country! Including the so-called pundits. And the media, especially the 24 hour news channels who need to sell their news every 15 minutes!

They have played a very negative role in propping up Marine Le Pen, giving her and her party disproportionate coverage, treating her like a ‘normal’ politician and the FN as just a party among others, which it is not. We now have to pay a heavy price for the merchandising of news!

Are we the only ones? Probably not. But, for the most negative people on the face of the earth, who only see the gloomiest side of everything and everyone, and who is losing confidence in itself rapidly, this adds to the morbid ambience.

So, please again, make your own mind up about France by yourself, and don’t listen to the prophets of doom, French or otherwise!

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Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

Article courtesy of  Open Democracy

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