Far-right party sustains rise in France

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

Since France’s anti-foreigner far-right party, the National Front managed to reach a second-round presidential run-off election in 2002 – when its founder Jean-Marine Le Pen was trounced by Jacques Chirac with 82 percent of the votes – it hasn’t really alarmed the political establishment as it has in that country’s recent regional elections.

Under Marine Le Pen, who seized the leadership from her father in 2011 and expelled him in 2014, the FN (known by its French initials) has been successfully advocating anti-European, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim policies. In the first-round regional elections early this month, the party led in seven of the country’s 13 regions and threatened to sustain that feat in the second-round polls on Dec. 13. (French electoral contests undergo two rounds of voting.)

However, the Round 2 result turned out differently: FN lost in all the 13 regions, including the bailiwicks of Marine Le Pen and her own ultranationalist niece.

Nonetheless, parallel assessments of the result – by the International New York Times and the Guardian – warn against possible further gains by FN in France’s presidential elections in 2017. This, because the party garnered 28 percent of the votes: 6.8 million, (up from the 6.4 million votes it got in the 2012 presidential race). That’s practically the same as the vote share of the ruling center-left Socialist Party of president François Hollande, which got less than 30 percent. The center-right Republican Party of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy was first, with a bit over 40 percent of the ballots.

“The result was a relief, given the anxiety and passions roused by the Paris terrorist attacks a month ago and by the continuing movement of refugees in Europe, but it is not necessarily cause to celebrate,” cautions the INYT editorial. It explains the FN defeat thus:

“In the end, it took a large surge in [voter] turnout from about 50 percent in the first round to almost 60 percent in the second, and the withdrawal of Socialist candidates in three key regions in favor of their mainstream conservative [Republican] rivals to make sure the National Front was defeated.”

However, the editorial points out: “Unbowed, Ms. Le Pen insisted that the large vote for her party put her on course for the presidential elections in 2017… Every vote cast for [her] contributes to her unwarranted credibility and ensures that stopping her next time will take an even greater effort.”

On its part, the Guardian editorial stresses that the FN’s failure to gain power this time is only a partial defeat, and that the sense of relief “must be tempered with apprehension.” Victory would have had a dramatic impact as it would have brought to power “an anti-European and anti-immigrant party into one or more of the regions, with perhaps radical consequences for policy-making.” This is because French regions are chiefly responsible for education, economic development, and arts and culture in their respective jurisdictions.

FN’s large share of the votes and the fact that its regional councilors have tripled in number and are now more numerous than those of the Socialists gives them “a good share of patronage opportunities and much local influence,” the editorial points out. Thus, winning in 2017 is “not utterly beyond the bounds of possibility” for the extreme-rightists.

The division in French politics has been redefined, according to Marine Le Pen, in the face of the European Union’s crippled economic recovery from the 2008-2009 global financial-economic crisis. It is no longer between the Left and the Right, she says, but between “patriots and globalizers.” Thus, FN’s xenophobic message: “France for the French.” About this, the Guardian observes:

“Voters buffeted by unemployment [11 percent], dismayed by immigration, scared of terrorism, and angry at growing inequality, crave for the alleged certainties of a past where the strong nation-state was a rampart for the citizens.”

Both the Republicans and the Socialists, who have succeeded each other in power for years now, have failed to prove themselves as “dynamos of reform,” notes the Guardian. And with FN’s entry as a “quasi-fascist, anti-semitic and anti-Muslim” alternative, it adds, the problem of France is “peculiarly difficult, and presents its mainstream parties with a challenge that all Europe must pray they can meet.”

The French political situation affirms the finding of a World Value Survey (which I wrote about last Oct. 3) that citizens in developed countries have become “less likely to express trust in democratic institutions, and less likely to reject nondemocratic alternatives.” While the ultra-Right gained traction in France, the ultra-Left arose in Denmark. Acceptance of Leftist alternatives has risen in Greece (where Syriza party won power this year), in Spain (Podemos), and to some degree in Britain and the USA.

Observers have noted that FN’s rise from the fringe to a mainstream party challenger in presidential elections is rooted in increasing voters’ mistrust and rejection of the political class. FN has worked on these sentiments, extending its reach from younger people and those with lower educational attainment, to public sector workers, private sector employees, and to every layer of society.

Speaking to her followers after last Sunday’s defeat, Ms. Le Pen accused her party’s rivals of ganging up against her. She denounced what she considered their hypocrisy and that of the political system.

She pointed to the “occult” connections between leaders who “claim to oppose each other but who, in reality, share power.” Despite their being on top, she claimed, the people’s problems remain unresolved, and worse, the country is being led into “chaos.”

Although our political culture is far from that of the French, there is much to learn from their current anxieties.

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