Le Pen-ed In?

It’s not just President Hollande who's under threat from France’s right-wing party. It’s Europe.


Europeans will likely wake up next Monday to find that Europe, or at least a certain idea of it, has begun its decline. Elections for the European Parliament and, for the first time, the EU commissioner, will take place on May 25 and two results seem fairly certain: Voter abstention will reach new heights (or depths), and parties committed to ending or curbing the EU will win a record number of seats. Perhaps no country exemplifies these trends more than France, Europe’s second-largest economy and a founding member of the EU. That bodes poorly for the already enfeebled Socialist government of President François Hollande and for the future of European unity.

Hollande’s Socialist Party was pummeled in last month’s municipal elections, in which the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and far-right National Front (FN) took the lion’s share of the vote. To avoid another battering on May 25, Hollande sacked the colorless Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault of the party’s more traditionally socialist wing and replaced him with Manuel Valls, a liberal on economic issues whose greatest ambition is to replace Hollande. This ambition is far from groundless. A poll released last week revealed that 18 percent of French voters are satisfied with their pallid president, while nearly 60 percent express their satisfaction with the fiery Valls. Prime ministers often enjoy more popularity than their bosses under the 5th Republic, but the chasm separating Hollande and Valls is unprecedented.

In normal times, Valls’ popularity would translate into votes for the Socialist candidates for the European Parliament. But these are not normal times, despite — or because of — a president who had campaigned as "Mr. Normal." In response to France’s rising unemployment and flat-lining growth, the norm was defined by traditional socialist nostrums: taxes on the rich and middle class were raised, the safety net was preserved, and Paris asked the EU for slack when it came to the deadline for bringing the deficit to three percent of France’s GNP. But the socialist approach flopped miserably: Unemployment rose while foreign investment withered, a taxpayer revolt brewed at home while Brussels (and Berlin) warned Hollande that they would not push back the deadline any further.

With the nomination of the neo-liberal Valls, Hollande has redefined the government’s norm. Corporate taxes have been slashed, the Foreign Ministry has been given the crucial portfolios of commerce and tourism, and Hollande has reassured foreign firms that "France is open for business." Inevitably, the Socialist rank and file, blue collar and state workers, have been left holding the bag: Pensions and health care have taken a big hit, while government salaries have been frozen. As one disabused Socialist remarked to Le Monde, Hollande’s new economic agenda is identical to former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s, except that it has a "human face."

Valls began campaigning for the European elections two weeks ago when, in a speech to young Socialists, he asked them not "to cede any ground to the extreme right." But his tepid call to arms seems like it will fall on deaf ears. In a poll taken last weekend, little more than 16 percent of voters said that they would cast their ballots for the Socialists. No doubt, the Socialist base has decided to avoid the voting booths where the choice is between two parties whose economic agendas seem nearly identical.

Bad news for the Socialists usually spells good news for the UMP, but that might not be the case this time. The same poll reveals that only 22 percent of respondents said they will vote for UMP, which is neither a union nor popular. It is instead a fractious collection of career politicians who are fighting tooth and nail to fill the shoes of Sarkozy, even though many in the party still see the former president, despite his many legal problems, as their leader. As for their aspiration to be "popular," the UMP elite, like their Socialist counterparts, are products of the elite grandes écoles and no more have a common touch than does the gauche caviar with whom they alternate in power.

But the most impressive aspect of this election is how unimpressed most of France appears to be. Fewer than 35 percent of French voters intend to cast ballots at all on May 25, a level of abstention that speaks volumes on the average citizen’s disaffection from their national parties, as well as their distance from the EU. In a poll just published by Le Monde, fewer than 40 percent of French citizens believe that membership in the European Union is "a good thing." An overwhelming majority hold that while the EU has brought peace to the continent, it has done little else. Whether in protecting their economic interests or defending their borders against unwanted immigrants, the EU has failed spectacularly in the eyes of a majority of French.

This disenchantment with politics and disconnect from Europe fuels the most striking result of the poll — and the biggest upset to the status quo. Twenty-four percent of respondents said they plan to vote for the National Front. Ever since the municipal elections, the FN’s leader, Marine Le Pen, daughter of the party’s founder Jean-Marie, has proclaimed that her party has shouldered its way onto a stage long monopolized by the traditional right and left — which she mockingly fuses into a single acronym, the "UMPS."

In the past it was easy to write off the FN, but no longer. The FN was once a party full of neo-Nazis and skinheads who were attracted to its anti-Semitic, xenophobic, and authoritarian bent. (A flame Le Pen père keeps alive: In a May 20 speech he announced that "Monsieur Ebola" will help solve France’s immigration problem.) Under Marine Le Pen the FN traded black leather for business suits and anti-Semitism for Islamophobia. Though as pugnacious and, at times, outrageous as her father, Marine Le Pen has been mostly more careful and strategic. As a result, her effort to "normalize" the FN is paying off. More than one third of those questioned in a recent poll by Le Monde now align their own values to those of the FN.

The FN’s two principal targets are France’s Muslim population and the EU. Le Pen applauds Switzerland’s recent decision to impose an immigration quota, thus flouting an accord with Brussels on the free movement of Europeans and encourages France to do the same. On May 1, during the party’s annual ce
lebration at the statue of Joan of Arc in Paris, the FN leader exhorted her followers to "stop the EU." Under a pounding rain, Le Pen urged the crowd to "Do your duty as patriots" and voice their opposition to a "Europe that crushes us."

Le Pen’s tirades against "Europe" have found a growing audience and not just in France. Her election-year goal to increase the number of FN deputies in Strasbourg from three to 25 is realistic. Le Pen already serves as a Euro-deputy — though she’s known to be a chronic no-show despite the monthly €11,000 salary — but her aspirations are bigger: She intends to parlay her victory into a European Alliance for Freedom, a constellation of mostly extreme right-wing parties. Having struck an agreement last year with Geert Wilders, the platinum-blond leader of Netherland’s Freedom Party who cannot decide which is more monstrous, the EU or the Quran, she has since invited other extremist and "euro-skeptic" parties, like the Freedom Party of Austria and Italy’s Northern League to join their alliance. Britain’s Nigel Farage, whose United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is also surfing the waves of anti-EU sentiment at first insisted his party would never join because the FN has anti-Semitism "in its DNA." But Farage may soon conclude that he can be persuaded to overlook this particular genetic flaw. He has since applauded Le Pen’s success in France and on May 21 suggested that the UKIP might form an informal alliance with the European Alliance for Freedom.

If UKIP does make common front with the Alliance, the coalition will achieve critical mass. Once a parliamentary group in Strasbourg claims a minimum of 25 members from seven different member states, it becomes eligible to receive generous subsidies, offices, support staff, and a communications budget. For now, it remains an open question whether the alliance will use this largesse as a hammer to smack the EU over the head or if its sudden wealth will domesticate, even "Europeanize," it.  Either of these outcomes would, of course, be ironic. But in either case, it will be tragic that "Europe" will not emerge strengthened and Europe’s Muslims will not feel any more secure. Nor, for that matter, will the leaders of France’s traditional political parties on the left and right. Not only is European politics entering a new era, but so too is French politics.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of the forthcoming book Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment.


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