{Political analysis} Observing le Pen and the National Front beyond the emotion. Part2: why they haven’t been stopped

This is Part 2 of a post started here (Part 1) on the historical evolution on the French Right and how le Pen and the National Front got to occupy this place in French society.

So here we are: a few days before Round Two of the 2012 French presidential elections and Marine le Pen has mobilised 6.4m voters to score 17.9%. Whilst she did not qualify for the grand-final the threat of a Hard Right taking over the ‘Gaullist’ consensus of the past decade seems more acute than ever.

So after decades of reporting and analysis, why have mainstream parties failed to stop the rise of the National Front?

It is not due to apathy in a sense that there has been no shortage of genuine emotion and energy spent denouncing the insidious social effect of the scapegoating and rampant xenophobia. All politicians and journalists have a theory on the topic and never miss an opportunity to share it.

The hypotheses you will find in the French mainstream media: the economic crisis, unsustainable levels of immigrants, frustrated popular class voters living in the banlieues,..

The economic crisis first comes to mind to explain the rise of the Far Right across Europe. The parallel with the economic recession of the 1930s is obvious, albeit less dramatic. However whilst tougher economic conditions are definitely a contributing factor in pushing people towards authoritarian parties, it cannot explain why the National Front has been able to stay well above 15% over a long period of time that started before the GFC.

A second hypothesis keenly shared among the French is the victimisation of the National Front voters especially those living in the peripheral suburban ‘banlieues’. The gist of this argument is that the banlieues have turned into intractable traps for low socio-economic classes, who remain stuck in high unemployment, high crime and drug trafficking.

During the boom of the 1960s those banlieues were first populated with cheap labour who immigrated from the old colonial empire (hence a high population of northern Africans). In a second phase in the 1980s France switched from aLabour immigration to a ‘Family reunion’ immigration, allowing the first migrants to sponsor relatives from their countries of origin. The mainstream consensus today is that those areas are failed social experiments under the pressure of unsustainable levels of immigration, that the working classes living in these banlieues feel abandoned to migrants and therefore vote le Pen. Sarkozy summarised this entire appreciation in 2005 when as Minister of Interior he declared that he intended to “expurgate the suburbs with a Kärcher” (those yellow water high-pressure cleaners).

Living aside the debate about the initial responsibility of the French society in building and populating those zones to benefit from the cheap migrant labour at the time of the post WW2 boom, seeing those banlieues as a permanent thorn in the side of the rest of society is simply a grave error of analysis.

Indeed, a close look at the data indicates opposite trends. For instance, dispelling the myth of a poverty trap, 85% of the poor in France do not live in those banlieues. Dispelling the myth of migrants stealing jobs from French workers, 42% of janitor jobs are performed by low-paid migrants because ‘French natives’ don’t want to do them.

Even at the macroeconomic level, instead of costing French society, immigration actually brings 12.4 billion euro per year to the budget of the state via various taxes.

If economic data is difficult to relate to, Canadian journalist Doug Saunders eloquently illustrated those points in his book Arrival City. In an insightful book somewhere between a travel dairy and an anthropological study, Saunders travelled the world from Brazilian favelas to French banlieues. There he observed that contrary to popular belief, those ‘arrival cities’, far from being dead ends, are vibrant communities at the fringe of cities and serve as launchpads to better lives and transform French society from one generation to the next.

Indeed, whilst unemployment statistics show static numbers, they are not counting the same people from one census to the next. In fact they are the areas where mobility is at its highest: studies show that 61 % of the people living in‘Sensitive Urban Zones‘ (officially labelled ‘ZUS’ for ‘Zone Urbaines Sensibles’ in French) in 1999 did not live there en 1990. It is through those dynamic Arrival Cities that French society is being transformed.

Even more ironically, Saunders observed that French Muslims have the highest rates of social integration across Europe, “by adopting the language, the family sizes and the liberal attitudes toward premarital sex and homosexuality. The problem is that nobody gives them jobs.”

To be clear, the point is not to be in denial of the uphill battle faced by those suburbs. It is that they are not the traps the National Front and Sarkozy want voters to believe they are. In fact, studies also clearly indicate that the main issue does not lie in the banlieues per se, but with the rest of French society that remains stubbornly reticent to give opportunities to migrants.

In any case, this positive trend is deliberately ignored by politicians and the media, as if it was more convenient to reduce the sum of social French issues to those suburbs and to contain it there; like Bernard-Henri Lévy when he loudly declared a few years ago that the “banlieues where THE key social issue” faced by the country (as opposed toany other form of inequality?…).

Why is this line wining? And why do most French commentators and politicians love it?

Because it more convenient for the ruling elite to limit the systemic issues of lack of wealth redistribution and social opportunities to 1000 suburbs than to question the entire system. This logic comforts them in the belief that the fundamentals of French society are healthy and do not need to be challenged. The next logical step is that for those who make the effort, the ladder of opportunities is still working well (the French call it “social elevator”).

The media also love this type of analysis because it enables them to sensationalise stories of riots and burning cars. Cheery on the cake, this reporting now looks even more scientific and intelligent with the recent ’socio-geographic discovery’ of new zones of discontent beyond the banlieues: the urban residential suburbs and the rural country populated by “les invisibles” (which would be best translated by “the forgotten nobodies” as Le Monde recently titled).


Liberation did a special issue diving into “Rural Country FN” trying to discover how farmers have been recently seduced by Marine le Pen. Le Monde published this insightful map showing Marine le Pen’s score across the territory. The evocative ‘brown shirt’ colour indicates where the her vote has been the strongest: not in the cities (in blue) but in those forgotten peripheries.

Whilst these geographic insights are absolutely valid, the temptation to limit the analysis of the National Front to this framework is a slippery slope. It is dangerous because it infers that the antagonism between urban city centres populated by enlightened elites (academics, professionals and hipsters) against suburban culturally disconnected areas populated by lower “popular” classes is the main explanation of those scores. Those demographics have recently been labelled “périurbains” (or “peri-urbans” living on the periphery of urban city centres)

This analysis is contested because it puts all those popular classes in the same bag, without acknowledging their diversity, on the premise that they don’t live in the right urban districts.

It is also contested because it leads to “cultural racism” against the popular classes by making them responsible of the current political crisis. Indeed, sociologist Annie Collovald and philosopher Alain Badiou argue that by describing them as “victims”, “lost without compass”, “living in disconnected suburbs”, by emphasising their lower academic qualifications, and by reducing their vote to a “uniformed protest”, mainstream media and politicians define a stereotype of “the Poor and the Bogans” disturbing the democratic order. They argue that this type of analysis stigmatises those “nobodies”, reduces them to a disgruntled miserable uneducated class that refuses to hear the arguments of modern liberals and that prefers the authoritarian and reactionary National Front.

Furthermore Annie Collovald believes that this has led to a dangerous change in the meaning of the words “popular” and “populist” (ie. related to the people, the very foundation of democracy). Originally the word ‘populist’ was used to stigmatise not the people, but politicians who would use demagogy to rally popular vote. Then in the 1980s ‘popular classes’ started to get a bad name: from a cause worth defending, they became a problem to be addressed. A sort of social racism started to implicitly develop against those “bogans” as if they were the ones creating a political demand that le Pen was merely meeting. The consensus around the analysis was that “unemployed and lower revenues were primarily moving towards le Pen, whereas well educated affluent classes were immunised against the National Front ideology“: a degree was your vaccine against fascism.

This consensus has been having dramatic effects on the Left and the Right

By integrating it in its mode of thinking the Left literally abandoned those working classes, which have traditionally been its social base. At the height of the economic crisis of the early 1980s, Mitterrand faced the dilemma between maintaining France’s membership in the European Monetary System, and thus the country’s commitment to European integration, or pursuing his socialist reforms. He chose the former, marking the Socialist Party’s conversion to neo-liberalism. In 1983 clearly marked socialist measures were abandoned and the Communist ministers who had been in cabinet since his election in 1981 resigned: the “Union of the Left” that had helped him win the election died. Take it as a coincidence, but just a year later in 1984 the National Front scored 10 seats at the European elections.

This shift transformed the French Socialist Party from a “Social Left” determined to propose a social and economic alternative to a “Societal Left” resigning to moderate and smoothen the effect of capitalism.

This readjustment also changed the constituency. In the 1990s and 2000s while the Socialist Party rightfully extended its focus to the youth, women, immigrants, gays and lesbians, it unfortunately lost its connection and relevance to the blue collars. This was a direct consequence of taking a neoliberal direction (albeit moderated) while still pretending to be the Left progressive opposition to that neoliberal ideology. It worked with those who have been benefiting from globalisation (those educated urbans) but faced serious contradictions with demographics hammered by these seismic economic shifts (those blue collars whose industries have been outsourced and off-shored for 2 decades).

The symbolic paroxysm of this neoliberal “betrayal” of the working class has been probably reached in May 2011 when the ‘progressist’ Think Tank ‘Terra Nova’ issued a memo “the Left, which electoral majority in 2012?” advising the Socialist Party to formally give up on the working class on the premise that its natural demographic decline (37% of working people in 1981, 23% in 2012) inevitably translated into electoral decline (“a drop of 40% of the electoral base of the Left”). To counter this trend, Terra Nova recommends to focus instead on “a new electorate: younger, more diverse, more feminine“. You can only imagine the outrage among the true leftist…

The ripple effect on the Right and the Far Right

The Right has also been impacted by the social transformations imposed by the new neoliberal rules. Indeed beyond the blue collars workers, the little independent shopkeepers also experienced the corporatisation of their market, the laws of competitiveness and profitably, the arrival of large franchises forcing small businesses to shut.

This has been the perfect storm enabling the National Front to strive. Whilst mainstream parties and the ruling class were themselves struggling to understand what this neoliberal world order meant for them, the drop-outs from the Left and the Right were precipitated into le Pen’s arms.

The primacy of the economic imperative that has depoliticised social issues has made politicians look like they are not in control (bond markets and ratings agencies are), to the point of rejecting on the masses the blame for the situation they find themselves in. Those stigmatised masses have grown more and more resentful of a system dehumanising them and treating them like mere financial parameters.

So what happens when you deny people’s humanity? They start making un-human fascist choices. And because there has to be an explanation for that sad state of affairs, alternative scapegoats had to be found. And as we saw inpart 1 of this post, Jean-Marie le Pen was the best at this game. In a nutshell, in his rhetoric immigrants took the blame for unemployment and crime; whilst politically correct progressives, journalists, artists, urban hipsters, unionists and academics took the blame for colluding as an establishment failing the nation.

Because of intellectual laziness, pure cynicism or slowness to comprehend the impact of the neoliberal changes, the mainstream media and political parties started to echo this scapegoating of immigrants (subliminally depicted as the symptoms of globalisation) instead of recognising that the real problem came from economic and social unfairness.

Reality catches-up with the parody: 2007: parody poster “Vote le Pen”… fast forward 2012: “le Pen is compatible with the (values of the) Republic”

2012: Sarkozy crosses the line

Sarkozy’s despicable attempt to realign his 2012 campaign on the National Front dogma is coming as the climax of a process that has been building-up for years. In 2007 he thought he had isolated the National Front by “siphoning” its electorate. Instead, he has been Marine le Pen’s most efficient press attaché during the 5 years of his presidency.

Sarkozy came to power on a promise to break with the compromises of previous governments. One apparent measure of his determination to do so was the trenchant language used on immigration. But it is this combination of authoritarianism and anti-immigrant rhetoric that has contributed to Sarkozy’s undoing at the expense of the National Front. Since it is based on the myth that immigrants (or ethnic minorities in general, or Muslims) are to blame for unemployment, crime or other aspects of social decay, it has become a self-defeating tool for the government.

Under Sarkozy, unemployment stood at its highest level for a decade, at 10%, and France has one of the worst youth unemployment rates in Europe. Here, the link between racism and authoritarianism is important. The debate over national identity engineered by Sarkozy’s party has seen Islamophobia reach a new pitch – at one point the party spokesperson compared the burka to a “Mickey Mouse mask”.

Yet however shrill the scapegoating of Muslims, it has done nothing to obscure the government’s impotence in the face of serious social and economic problems. Moreover, the realisation that Sarkozy is not an enforcer but a rather insecure figure in thrall to wealth and celebrity, has strengthened the claims of Le Pen to be the real authority figure in French politics.

The new gentrified National Front: no more skinheads and Nazi signs… ‘no more’ on the pictures that is.

The ‘popular’ precipitated into the arms of the ‘populist’

Marine Le Pen has therefore been able to pick up support from those disenchanted by Sarkozy, his credentials as an authoritarian alternative bolstered by the government’s legitimisation of the racism that dominated the National Front campaign. At a time of economic crisis, with Islamophobia on the rise across Europe, the government has had to learn, like all its predecessors, that the far-right is strengthened, not isolated, when mainstream politicians pander to racism. Sarkozy has been playing with fire – and has now got his fingers burned.

His last desperate attempt to seduce the National Front’s voters in declaring that their issues were legitimate is suiting Marine le Pen’s strategy. Sarkozy is likely to lose, he will leave a Right divided between centrists who will vote for Hollande and the Hard Right who is now openly saying they don’t rule out an alliance with le Pen.

The risk of this happening is increasing because she has been actively driving the gentrification of the National Frontsince she took the lead from her father in January 2011. Contrary to him, she is not interested in remaining a fringe buffoon provocateur. She ultimately wants to get into a position of power. Which is why she had repetitively disagreed with him about his constant WW2 anti-Semitic provocations, why she is trying to sideline the skinheads and radical neo-nazis whom she views as a counter-productive distraction to secure the vote of those “périurbains” and farmers.

This gentrification of the National Front is particularly pernicious as illustrated here again by the study published by the progressive Think tank Terra Nova. Their note mentions that “the New National Front was transforming and becoming more acceptable, that it was also moving from neoliberal to protectionist economic policies, equivalent to those of the Left Front.” Such an error of judgment is particularly worrying from people supposed to understand the political forces at play: the image of the National Front might have mellowed but its core value have not changed, and in fact a few skinheads messing around in political rallies are probably more less dangerous – because identifiable – than soft looking National Front politicians having the power to implement policies touching millions of people!

A further confronting explanation of the impotence of the Left in fighting the National Front has been provided by British academics Peter Fysh and Jim Wolfreys, authors of The Politics of Racism in France (*)

French readers will find it extremely confronting because it argues that the lack of serious opposition to le Pen can be attributed to the failure of mainstream anti-racists to link up with and defend the minorities which it targets, a reflection of the complacency bred by the enduring myth that France is and has been since 1789 the natural home of Human Rights.

They argue that the coercive power of the State is too often used to go after the symptoms of inequality instead of its causes, and that this is resulting in a system that does not really believe in “the right to be different”.

The irony is that this racist class system characterises a country that generally considers itself one of the least racist in the world. Fysh and Wolfreys believe that from the Right to the Left the Republican system is a nationalist construct, which still intrinsically carries the xenophobia of the former colonial empire.

Whilst extremely unsettling for yours truly raised under the gospel of French republican secularism, their critique of the French republican tradition is actually all the more interesting. Everyone expects the extreme right to be racist and anti-immigrant, but Fysh and Wolfreys detect a racist streak within republican values themselves. That is, the principles articulated by the Revolution implied the need to integrate all citizens into a society based on adherence to Human Rights. However, in addition to whatever hypocrisy has attended the application of these principles, the elevation of égalité over différence has been singularly unfriendly to those who have hesitated to “fit in”. It is this philosophical discomfort with ‘difference’ that would have handcuffed French anti-racists in their fight against the National Front.

They also acknowledge that Mitterrand’s initial policies toward immigrants had been admirably humane after his 1981 election. It was only as the socialist experiment began to sour in 1983 that the government reached to play the “immigrant card”.

Fysh and Wolfreys generally consider anti-racist groups in the old Republican tradition like SOS Racisme to be fatally flawed: uncomfortable with ethnicity, too “white”, too moderate, and too happy to cooperate with the “authorities”. Thus, according to the authors, a 1988 SOS Racisme conference adopted a program of six demands covering nationality, rights of entry, the right to vote, an independent police authority, housing and schools and simply “submitted them to the government”, rather than contemplating a militant campaign for their implementation.

SOS Racisme’s strategy was all the more problematic because the “authorities” proved highly unreliable. Politicians cynically employed racism to win votes. Fysh and Wolfreys highlight socialist Mitterrand as the most manipulative. One moment he cast himself as “the friendly uncle, protector of youth and minorities”. The next, with his 1988 “re-election in the bag and having no further use for a lively and radical youth movement”, he betrayed them. The clearest illustration of socialist cynicism arrived with the so-called “Headscarf Affair” in 1989. Virtually the entire “official” left–socialists, communists, and intellectual celebrities as Régis Debray, Alain Finkelkraut, and Elisabeth Badinter joined the Right in agreeing on the need to defend the secular character of the Republic by forbidding Muslim girls to wear headscarves in state schools. This “affair” was an utterly manufactured crisis, in Fysh and Wolfreys’s opinion, since the scarves presented no genuine “threat to republican norms”; it was only an attempt to exploit racism for political gain. What is worse, “the mainstream parties’ exploitation of racism served to legitimise the National Front and further entrench it in French politics”.

Zinedine Zidane (Football player), Rachida Dati (Minister under Sarkozy), Najat Vallaud-Belkacem (Hollande’s campaign spokesperson): all of migrant decent. Examples of successful Republican integration or exceptions masking Republican complacency?

“What is to be done?” was already asking Lenin in 1902… : reclaim the “people’s agenda” and change the “republic”

In conclusion, the Far Right is likely to remain high as long as the “people”, the “popular” and “immigrants” are reduced to a “problem” getting in the way of a neoliberal utopia driven by financial imperatives and benefiting enlightened elites and technocrats.

If a consensus emerges from the research done to write this post, it is to appreciate that from an historical perspective, the changes put on society by the neoliberal globalisation are equivalent to the transition that happened under the Industrial Revolution and caused political forces to reorganise. As explained in part 1 of this post the Right had to swallow that the Monarchy was never going to come back and accept the democratic republic: progressive ‘Orleanists’ cut the reactionary ‘Legitimists’ loose and moved on. Similarly today, the Right will have to face its contradictions: if it is in truly favour of a globalised world of open circulation of goods and services, it will have to also accept the migration of people.

Democratic politicians will have find an articulate way to explain that the National Front is deceiving and misleading the working classes they pretend to defend because they offer them the wrong scapegoats: foreigners (who are yet best placed to share the working class’ interests) and intellectuals (who want to redistribute and share the wealth). However the National Front carefully omits to confront the real oppressors and systemic issues at the root of their voters’ discontent: the hegemony of speculation and finance over the productive economy, the lack of wealth redistribution, and the high level of corporate and shareholder profits in the GDP compared to real wages.

“What is to be done?” was already asking Lenin in 1902…

This globalisation has also opened society to democratic scrutiny like never before. So contrary to what the Terra Nova paper says, instead of abandoning the popular classes the Left will need to “repopulate” the democratic system by being inclusive, and not become an enlightened elite. Democracy only exists through its vigorous debates and robust democratic political conflicts, which perpetually test and revalidate its checks and balances. In other words, a President or Prime Minister is not a CEO and a government is not a corporate executive team!

French demographer Emmanuel Todd actually believes that this process of reconquest by the Left has already started. He believes that the notable result of the 2nd round was not le Pen’s but the score of Left Front Jean-Luc Mélenchon (11.1%) who was responsible for three-quarters of the increase in the total Left vote and obtained the highest ‘radical’ Left score since the communist party in 1981 (15.4%).

It is also serendipitously echoing Fysh and Wolfreys criticism of the republican system that one of the key measures proposed by Mélenchon – as well as by the Left wing of the Socialist Party – is the end of the current “5th République” presidential system put in place by de Gaulle in 1958 during the decolonisation, and the implementation of a more parliamentary people oriented “6th République”.

The next 5 years will be crucial for France because Marine le Pen is seriously betting on the inevitable disappointment with Francois Hollande, the split of the ‘Gaullist Right’ and her ability to federate a ‘Populist Right’. If this happens without strong alternative on the progressive side, then the odds of the National Front getting on a winning ticket in 2017 will look seriously worrying.

{ Sydney – 4 May 2012 }


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