The incumbent candidate falters badly. His main opponent fares barely any better. The candidates from so-called ‘fringe’ parties garner more votes than either of the mainstream ones. The far right gains its biggest success. The only thing striking about the first round of the French elections was that there was nothing striking about it. It followed the pattern of almost every election across Europe over the past few years.
This Sunday Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande will slug it out in the second round. Missing, however, will be the politician who delivered probably the most significant result in the first round will, and who arguably will wield the greatest influence upon the French politics in the months to come, whatever the result of the second round: the Front National’s Marine Le Pen.
Already, Sarkozy and Hollande are scrambling for the far-right vote. Sarkozy has vowed to ‘defend the French way of life’, warning that ‘immigrant-run’ town halls may impose sharia law, and promising to cut immigration by a half. ‘The president-candidate’, Le Pen sardonically observed, ‘ is picking the pockets of my manifesto’. Hollande, meanwhile, has insisted that ‘limiting economic immigration is necessary and essential’, backtracked on plans to give immigrants the vote and promised to ‘maintain the law on the burqa’. ‘We were xenophobes, anti-Semites, racists, national preference was a terrible shame’, Le Pen mocked this week. ‘And all of a sudden, there is no more of that.’
The fact that in the first round virtually one French voter in five – more than six million people – voted for a neo-fascist party has rung alarm bells. Marine Le Pen cuts a different figure to her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, from whom she inherited the Front National, and has tried to detach the party from its fascist past. She has not succeeded. The FN remains a unrepentantly racist, insidiously anti-Semitic organization, still stuffed full of Holocaust deniers and anti-Muslim bigots. What has changed is the broader political climate. The Front National has always built its support by playing on playing on people’s fears, resentments and disaffection. As such fears, resentments and disaffection have moved from the edges of politics to its very heart, so the FN has been able to remake itself from a fringe threat to an almost-respectable alternative.
Hostility to immigration and bigotry about Muslims inevitably played a major part in Le Pen’s campaign. Mohamed Merah’s murderous rampage in Toulouse, which left dead seven people, including three children at a Jewish school, only helped to intensify the rhetoric. ‘How many Mohamed Merahs are arriving on boats and planes each day, filling France with immigrants?’, Le Pen asked at an election rally. ‘How many Mohamed Merahs are among the children of our immigrants?’
Yet what defined the FN campaign was not simply race and immigration; it was also the question of Europe and the euro. Under Sarkozy, the Franco-German alliance has been central to the attempt to rescue the Euro, and to impose austerity policies across the EU. Le Pen skillfully exploited disaffection with these policies, campaigning to pull France out of the Eurozone and to restore the franc.
Not just in France, but throughout Europe, there is a growing gap between the desires of the political elite and popular aspirations, a gap created by hostility to austerity policies and disaffection with the way that the democratic process has been eroded by bureaucratic machination. Austerity policies have ensured that those least responsible for the current economic crisis have to bear the greatest burden in resolving it. The imposition of such policies has weakened the democratic process. In the face of growing popular opposition, the Euro elite has simply ridden roughshod over the democratic will. Greece, for instance, has been all but turned into a colony of Brussels, which now oversees its budget and spending policies and effectively has a veto over ministerial decisions.
These issues should be political manna for the left. And yet, with the notable exception of Greece itself, which also goes to the polls on 6 May, it is not the left but populist and far-right politicians who are making the running. In Holland, where the government collapsed earlier this month because it could not agree an austerity budget, it is the anti-Muslim, anti-immigration populist Geert Wilders who stands to gain the most. He felled the government by refusing to accept the €15bn cuts in savings necessary to keep the country within the Eurozone’s new rules, insisted that he would not agree to ‘cut Dutch pensions to suit diktats from Brussels’, and is demanding a referendum on the euro. From the Northern League in Italy to the Sweden Democrats, from the True Finns to UKIP in Britain, hostility to Brussels’ austerity policies is now all too often fuelled by nationalism and xenophobia. The inability of the left to challenge austerity and defend living standards, combined with its willingness to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment and promote xenophobic policies, have inevitably weakened its influence and the strengthened that of the far right. The left has been made marginal by its failure to defend its own principles and to speak to its own constituency.
François Hollande has made much in the French elections of his opposition to Sarkozy’s austerity programme. His spending plans, and opposition to the ‘Merkozy’ strategy, has spooked both markets and politicians across Europe. Yet, especially with his promise to balance the books by 2017, the difference with Sarkozy is not as great as either politician would like us to believe. And having spent the run-up to the first round vote doing his best to avoid discussing questions of race, immigration and Islam, Hollande’s latest anti-immigration moves suggest that here, too, the differences are less than they may seem.
The other left-wing candidate in the first round was Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Front. He was certainly more strident in his opposition both to austerity policies and to the policies of the FN. Yet he represents a tradition that perhaps more than most bears responsibility for the current success of the Front National. The dominant force in the Left Front is the Communist Party (PCF), an organization that for half a century has at best pandered to, at worst promoted, anti-immigrant bigotry.
The FN’s initial electoral breakthrough, under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen, came in the mid-1980s. From the 1983 by-election victory in Dreux, north of Paris, to the 1988 Presidential election, in which Le Pen sensationally obtained over 14 per cent of the national vote, the FN exploited increasing hysteria over immigration and Islam to transform itself from a coterie of nasty chumps on the fascist fringes of politics into a national force, and eventually the third major party in France. In the 1980s two mainstream parties on the right, the RPR and the UDF, shamefully made local alliances with the FN. Even more shameful, however, was the role of PCF. As the BBC correspondent Jonathan Marcus put it in his highly perceptive book, The National Front and French Politics: The Resistible Rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen:
While the National Front has been the principal beneficiary of the political debate on immigration, it was not actually Le Pen’s party that first brought the issue on to the political agenda. It was in fact the Communists, who at the start of the 1980s, launched a campaign against what they saw as the over-concentration of immigrants in Communist-run municipalities… If Le Pen was condemned for fostering racism and division, then local Communist officials periodically expressed the sort of anti-immigrant attitudes that had helped to establish the issue on the agenda at the beginning of the 1980s.
In the 1970s Communist-run councils throughout France routinely excluded non-European immigrants from municipal housing projects on the grounds that their numbers had to be kept below what was called a ‘threshold of tolerance’. The most notorious incident took place on Christmas Eve 1980. Paul Mercieca, the Communist Mayor of Vitry, near Paris, led a gang of 60 men, mainly PCF members and supporters, in a ‘direct action’ to stop 300 immigrants from Mali being rehoused in the town. The gang turned off the water, gas and electricity at an immigrant hostel, and used a bulldozer to smash up the building.
The PCF General Secretary, Georges Marchais, published an open letter justifying Mercieca’s ‘refusal to allow the already high number of immigrant workers in his commune to increase’. The Communists were no racists, Marchais claimed, but immigration was one of the ‘evils’ created by capitalism.
Since the 1980s, the PCF has been in terminal decline. But having so insidiously linked the problems of the working class with immigration, having given political legitimacy to bigoted notions such as the ‘threshold of tolerance’, having made acceptable discrimination in social policy, including housing allocation, the Communist Party not only cleared the ground for the Front National, but also allowed Le Pen to don the mantle of defender of working class interests. The tragedy is that what should today be a genuine progressive challenge to austerity policies and to the democratic deficit in the EU has become instead, and not just in France, primarily the property of nationalists, protectionists and racists, and the defence of working class living standards is all too often pursued in the language not of solidarity but of bigotry. Whoever wins the keys to the Élysée Palace on Sunday, that is unlikely to change.