France is, this Sunday, a firewall against fascism in Europe. It’s not just another election, nor is the Front National (FN) a respectable rightwing party. On the surface, Marine Le Pen has distanced herself from the FN and forces a smile in the debates. She presents herself as a new kind of leader, but is the heir to a long French tradition that must be fought and stopped without underestimating how seductive it has proved in times of crisis.
Decades ago, her father, and the founder of the FN, Jean-Marie Le Pen, wrote a book called La France est de retour [France is back], in which he declared himself a spokesperson for a “popular” and “social and national” right wing. Specifically, he accurately defined himself as a nationalist populist. This phenomenon has deep roots in France. For some historians it was born over a century ago, before the Dreyfus affair (1894-1906). The point is that a new right has taken shape, challenging the conservative party and also feeding on a far-left audience, destabilising the political landscape and mobilising the masses. It is credited with being the representative of the people, seen as honest in comparison with the criminal, corrupt politicians and the elites. A far right that is still looking to impose the people’s emotions on the elitist logic. A right that was and is called social and that offers protection to the small guy against those in power. Popular nationalism a century ago needed three elements and it still needs them now: the idea of the great France’s decline, a group to blame (immigrants?, Jews?, Europe?, the Euro?, globalisation?) that is stealing France from the French and a saviour. The FN of the 21st century isn’t trying to attract the traditionalist bourgeois vote, rather the vote of the angry France which demands quick solutions and the return of welfare.
The rejection of globalisation is the great ideological engine for Le Pen today. The economic crisis, free trade and multiculturalism diluting the cultural essence, understood to be weakening the “French exception”. This is the breeding ground for French-style protectionism.
Le Pen is the snake’s egg. She has burst into the heart of French democracy with the brutality of the political and family tradition that she embodies, but disguised as a respectable leader. She skilfully makes her aggressiveness play to her advantage, defining it as “the expression of the anger of the silent minority”.
The ideas leak
She speaks with unblushing lies, with scorn, hate and threats, as seen in this week’s television debate with Macron. The liberal candidate is a 39-year old former banker, a cold technocrat who hasn’t answered many of the unknowns about his leadership ability. But the Front National’s candidate has demonstrated that she doesn’t possess any of the qualities required of the inhabitant of the Élysée Palace.
The campaign has been tense and dishonest. Up to the last moment, there has been foul play from the so-called fachosphère (the online Francophone alt-right, from facho, “fascist”). Insinuations and gutter politics against Macron, published in American media sources close to Trump, sent viral by some of the Russian accounts that contaminate the social networks and then cited by Le Pen herself in the middle of the televised debate. Data theft.
Le Pen expresses a reality that Macron will have to confront with enormous difficulties if he wins. Since the 80s, the FN has penetrated deeply into the political landscape and far beyond its ideological boundaries.
On 21 April 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen pushed the socialist candidate Lionel Jospin out of the second round by winning 4.8 million votes. On 23 April 2017, his daughter won 7.6 million votes, beating not only the socialist candidate, but also the candidate from the traditional right wing. In 2002, Jacques Chirac refused to debate the far-right leader between the two rounds. He didn’t want to face him across the same stage because he said that would contribute to “trivialisation of hatred and intolerance”. In the intervening years, however, Le Pen’s ideas have gained strength and won public respectability.
The social ills that have led to the growth of the far right can’t be hidden and they will manifest themselves again in the third round coming with the elections to the legislature in June. France is a country with an enormous public sector and unsustainable debt. The loss of the rights acquired, which are probably unsustainable at present, will be the battle of the next few years. In fact, the public sector spends 56% of the country’s GDP.
Paradoxically, these great difficulties will arise in the short term if Emmanuel Macron manages to win. The alternative is an authoritarian, xenophobic government that would end any possibility of reform of the European Union. A France of hate. Macron will win if the maximalist left that has previously sent Lionel Jospin to the dustbin of history and Jean-Marie Le Pen to the second round of the presidential election to face Jacques Chirac holds its nose and votes. Economic reform in France is inevitable, the reduction of the public sector is essential, the French will have to vote and choose between being governed by their heads or the darkest of their hearts. That’s how difficult the choice is in times of rage. That’s how dangerous it is for the whole of Europe.