Can Europe Make It?

How the rise of the Front National is reshuffling the political game and endangering France’s relationship with Europe

Maximilien von Berg
29 April 2014

The rise of the Front National (FN) in France can be explained, firstly, by the failure of traditional government parties – the Socialist Party (PS) and the centre right party (UMP) – to echo people’s concerns and to offer working solutions with tangible results. Second, by the change of leadership it operated in 2011. Marine Le Pen has orchestrated a break-up with her father’s old party. The lifting she gave it was well-timed and necessary for an organisation that had become deflated. But beyond a new figurehead and a general rise in popularity of so-called extreme right-wing parties across Europe, the Front National’s potential has been fundamentally altered. Unless the centre-right reacts, or the social-economic conjecture improves, the FN’s popularity may prove long-lasting.

The FN campaigns on exiting the Euro and NATO, the reintroduction of tariffs, and a slashing of immigration quotas. Its plan is a simple rejection of most of Europe’s achievements since World War II. Basically, the party proposes to turn inwards to find solutions and a brighter future. This amounts to the old nationalist adage. Le Pen may be right that France should start a self-assessment of its problems. Whether her solutions are the right ones is another matter. But Marine Le Pen’s programme differs sharply from that of her father, at least economically. Marine Le Pen’s economic programme is much more basic and brutal than her father who used to caress a more economically liberal stance, closer to Poujadism of which he was a frontrunner once upon a time. Looking at the modern FN’s programme, it borders the ideology of the hard left of the political spectrum.

Any analysis of the rise of the FN requires some context as to the role the party has historically played, and the role of its historical and now ailing leader – Jean-Marie Le Pen. The FN’s struggle to carve its course away from the extremist stigma and fascist and anti-Semitic sympathies was protracted. The ‘diabolisation’ – understand demonisation – of the Front National in France has endured throughout the existence of this party. It was founded in 1972 by the organisation ‘Ordre Nouveau’ with Jean-Marie Le Pen as its leader. His culminating success was to beat socialist candidate Lionel Jospin in the first round of the 2002 presidential election and take on Jacques Chirac, the president, in a run off for the second round. The fresh endorsement of Marine Le Pen, his youngest daughter, changed the dynamics. She has been able to leverage her soft power to reshape her party as one for which it is no longer shameful to cast a ballot. Using her assertiveness, debating skills, a less radical and provocative tone, her gender and her ambition, she transformed the FN into a party that is now perceived as ‘Republican’ – a term used to designate consistency with French institutions.

The fact that more people than ever may cast their vote in favour of the FN in the EU elections, according to surveys, is an indication that mainstream parties are not answering the questions and issues these people care about. The FN simply presses on people’s fears of economic austerity advocated by the EU, of being governed by a remote group of bureaucrats in Brussels, and of foreigners stealing their jobs. These are concerns the PS refuses to acknowledge on the one hand, and the UMP has failed to tackle in depth on the other. The truth is that the FN has also changed its positioning and has become less extreme.

If the consequence of demonising the FN and its themes makes the mainstream suppress any of the so-called extreme right rhetoric, then these parties will not address people’s concerns. Henceforth, centrist parties can provoke their own demise, or at least concede victories to the FN in the next European legislature. Mainstream political parties – primarily the PS and the UMP – which are still extremely dominant in the French assembly thanks to an electoral system that favours larger parties, should isolate the FN by directly addressing the theme and language the party capitalises on – for European elections are proportional and will not hand the PS and UMP the same advantage as they do at home. Would having fundamentally anti-European parties influence the course of Europe not be a sordid irony?

The UMP should tackle FN themes head on – not ignore the FN – because it is stealing more voters away from the UMP than from the Socialists. Instead, the UMP has been campaigning against the PS and the FN has been campaigning against the UMP. The FN is eating the UMP’s voter base. FN themes resonate with voters for a reason: immigration in a highly unemployed society, high unemployment in a state providing huge amounts of public spending, and flat growth in a highly indebted country provide easy ammunition for a protest party like the FN, which has always campaigned against Europe, never served in government, and has always been an outcast from the political establishment. The PS’s sense of political correctness bars it from discussing the real, dirty problems, to find their root cause, and to make the unpopular decisions that come with reform. But the UMP must do so if it wants to beat the FN.

The right wing has a core of supporters that have been present for over a century in France. Fascist cells still survive and the cult of Marshall Petain has increased, if anything, since his death. Petain and figures of the old regime are resurfacing from latent movements who do not have a voice in today’s politics. In fact, the rise of an amenable version of FN in the person of Marine Le Pen may spark further action on the radical right, but she is receiving new and hefty support from moderate middle class voters. As long as people fail to grapple with a changing world the FN may surf the wave. The FN’s approach is simplistic and focuses on a few topics: the negative effects of the globalized capitalist economy; the failure to accommodate waves of immigrants and more generally the immigration policy; and an emphasis on security. The FN’s economic arguments come close to those of extreme left and communist inspirations. In fact, with the exception of the FN’s take on immigrants, they take similar stands. Yet, the FN remains as ideologically dry as the PS – see my previous blog – although it is much more dangerous than the PS because it is solely destructive.

In Hungary, Austria, and Switzerland movements show the possibility of right wing parties gaining real power. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders is already in a 38 MEP alliance with Le Pen and their counterparts in Italy, Slovakia, and Sweden - aiming to receive increased EU funding while working against it. Nigel Farage, the leader of euro-sceptic UKIP, is also poised to achieve success and add to the anti-European trend within the heart of the EU. Ultimately I cannot emphasise how important it is that voters do not vindicate simplistic anti-European issue parties. These parties raise worthy issues while providing no answers except to pull out of one of the greatest political projects ever conceived and implemented. Isolation and more hardship would lie on that path.

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