- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
Writing at Slate, Anne Applebaum counters the conventional wisdom that the Strauss-Kahn arrest is great news for France’s struggling president, Nicolas Sarkozy:
But here is a prediction: Sarkozy will not benefit from Strauss-Kahn’s ugly demise. The main beneficiary will be the politician with the fastest-growing constituency in France at the moment: Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen and now the leader of the uber-nationalist, anti-European Union, anti-immigration National Front. Much more presentable than her father, Le Pen started polling higher than Sarkozy in March, not least because she offers populist economics and promises to prevent the number of North African immigrants from swelling. And she has good reason to believe in her chances: Once before, in 2002, Marine’s father unexpectedly wound up in a presidential runoff against the then-president, Jacques Chirac. Chirac won in a landslide, but the French establishment got a good scare.
Maybe they weren’t scared enough: France seems consumed by the same kinds of scandals, the same grumpiness about foreigners, and the same sense that the political class is out of touch as it did 10 years ago. French politicians continue to live in a world remote from that of the "ordinary" people they are meant to represent. Strauss-Kahn’s arrest certainly won’t make any of the mainstream parties more popular than they were last week. How many will want a radical alternative?
These are all good points, but I still think the phenomenally unpopular Sarkozy will take what he can get. Given France’s two-round electoral system, good news for Le Pen would also seem to be good news for the president. In the poll Applebaum cites, the National Front is still polling below 25 percent. It’s pretty unlikely that, with Strauss-Kahn out of the picture, Socialist voters are going to switch their allegiance to the Front. Even if there’s a surge in anti-establishment support for Le Pen, it’s probably not going to be enough to deliver a first-round victory. In a runoff between Sarkozy and Le Pen, left-wing voters will have to hold their noses and vote for Sarkozy just as they voted for Chirac against Marine’s father in 2002.
That said, the arrest would seem to be bad news for one constituency: immigrants. If the scandal cripples the Socialists, the far-right may come to be seen as Sarkozy’s primary competition in the race, meaning the president will have to pander even more to anti-immigrant sentiment. As Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse wrote in March about Sarkozy’s recent denunciations of "multiculturalism" — which hasn’t, in any case, been official policy in France for years — as a transparent ploy to appeal to supporters of the Le Pen family’s brand of right-wing politics:
It’s long been common practice for center-right parties in Europe to lift far-right platform planks on insecurity, immigration, and Islam — the "LePen-isation" of French politics, for example, has been denounced by the left for decades — but this latest populist turn presents several practical and political problems. A key difference between the anti-Islam backlash and earlier waves of anti-immigrant sentiment is that the communities concerned are no longer immigrants, but citizens, and the influx of new immigration has been dramatically reduced. The old far-right rhetoric that blamed foreigners for social or economic woes ("two million unemployed = two million immigrants," went Le Pen’s 1983 slogan) doesn’t work anymore because its logical consequence — deporting them — is legally impossible.
The understandable urge of European leaders to watch their right flank has the potential to backfire politically. Government leaders have amplified the anti-Islam discontent by making it official and respectable. The "national identity" and burqa debates in France were blatant overtures to the National Front electorate. But as Le Pen himself once observed, voters tend to prefer the original to the photocopy. Sarkozy’s strategy, far from containing the far-right challenge in France, appears to have vindicated the National Front’s long-time insistence on the Muslim threat to French identity. For example, Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter who has recently taken over leadership of the party, now leads in some polls for the first round of the 2012 presidential elections. She recently quipped, "A little more blah-blah about Islam and laïcité, and I’ll soon be at 25 percent" in the polls. This is exactly what happened.
Nor is scare-mongering about Islam a winning formula for domestic tranquility. Muslim citizens may well tire of being singled out not only by far-right parties but also by centrist governments themselves. That may wind up giving common cause to disparate and diverse Muslim populations, now divided by ethnicity and national origin, as well as sectarian and ideological orientation. In other words, imposing restrictions on religious freedoms without ensuring basic institutional equality for Islam could eventually lead Muslims to rally in defense of religious values — exactly the outcome governments are hoping to avoid.
With Le Pen already taking full advantage of the Strauss-Kahn scandal, you can expect Sarkozy to accelerate his pandering and more measures along the lines of the recent burqa ban.