Le Penisation of France will continue and will remain at the heart of the country’s politics. How a country which stands for the gospels of liberty, equality and fraternity will stand the ground will be worth watching. But at any cost, the Republican flavour of the French polity must be restored. Else, France will lose all its very charm that it has been known for ages
The rise of the far right in France is posing a danger to its Republican fabric. No single reason can be ascribed to the development of such political trends. But the right in France derives its benefits from everything happening in the country in the last one decade or so – a sliding economy, high unemployment ratio, mass migration, a broken welfare system, falling standards in public services, job insecurity, impending fear of loss of social status, near failure of the “European project” and last, but not the least, the ever greater rise of jehadist forces. Beyond these forces, what exactly plaguing the entire French political system is the failure of the Socialist Party, along with the right, to deliver the services to the people. But this time around, it is not only France which has witnessed the ugly heads of the right, but this has emerged as a potential force across Europe. Sadly, it has come all the way over a decade or so, without getting much attention from the mainstream media. The xenophobic movements in Britain and Denmark came without having a Socialist Party. Whereas, these forces have sprung up in Switzerland and Poland without their economies moving downwards unlike what has happened in France. Though their economies were doing comparatively better than many of their counterparts in Europe, the ultra-right has come to the centre stage without much effort. Ironically, the far right parties could not register as an alternative force in these countries where unemployment was much higher than that of France. In 2015, the rate of unemployment in Spain was 21.6 per cent, Greece 24.6 per cent and Cyprus 15 per cent, but in France it was just 10.8 per cent. But we could hardly see the far right wave moving towards these European nations.
However, the next spring will be a decisive time for the French people: whether to vote Francois Fillon, who already secured a colossal 89 per cent of the vote at the primary run-off to become the presidential candidate from the centre-right Republican Party, or to offer a historic opportunity to Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front (FN), to be the first ever far right president of the country. The rise of the FN has set entirely a different tone for French politics. Many political observers say that Fillon is a wrong choice who could not serve the country to the best of his capacity as Prime Minister under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. He could neither represent novelty nor anything new in the current scenario in France. But people, particularly a huge conservative Catholic lot in his local town La Sarthe, expect that he should be the next occupant of the Elysee Palace. His local fans feel that Nicolas Sarkozy spoiled the office of the President for a decade, and Francois Hollande has further helped in deteriorating the condition of the country. At a time when France is facing the wrath of the Islamists from all corners, will Fillon be able to put up a credible challenge to Le Pen, who has already earned a substantial support from the people of the country?
But then how the far right leaders like Le Pen are rising so high in the popularity chart in a liberal nation like France? The FN was founded in 1972 by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who made it to the run off stage in the presidential poll against Jacques Chirac in 2002. He was symbolised in public as a leader whose rhetoric was full of racism and political extremism. In addition, he was known for expounding anti-Semitic beliefs. However, the transition of the FN from the father to the daughter is marked by some significant aspects: she, a former lawyer, has worked hard to change the image of the FN. Her efforts to de-demonise the party include bringing more multi-ethnic candidates, inducting the young lot to the party forums and removing some of the scars brought to the party as “anti-Semitic” by her father.
Let’s see who are the main supporters of the FN. It strongly attracts both the alienated and fervent believers. It draws major support from the small-time shopkeepers, from low paid workers, the unemployed youth, anti-EU groups, and especially those who are currently protesting against the economic and political decaying of France. In fact, the massive flow of immigrants from mainly Syria and the rest of the war-torn nations of the West Asia and North Africa has actively provided fuel to her campaign to protect France from all the outsiders. She has been arguing that France has seen more veils, then more and more burkas, and now it is witnessing Muslims praying in the streets. For the FN, it is nothing but the “occupation” of France by the Muslims. To the FN advocates, it is an occupation of entirely a unique style, without having the presence of the tanks and soldiers. That is why the FN is campaigning tirelessly against the immigrants, targeting mainly the Muslims. Today, the Muslim population in France is more than 10 per cent of the total population of the country. And most of them have migrated from the former French colonies in Africa over decades.
But despite her charm offensive, Le Pen, at heart, is a polarising politician. Still her party candidates came first in six out of the 13 regions and in 46 out of 96 departments in the first round of regional elections on December 6, 2015. It is surprising that the FN has improved its tally across France in the second round of the elections, even where both the Left and the Right were in strong positions. Many political observers in Europe believe that around 18 to 20 per cent people who voted for Sarkozy in 2012 may have moved towards the FN in last December.
In fact, in comparison to the other political parties in France, the FN displays full momentum and cohesion in every move it has made so far. And the FN can communicate much better to the alienated youth than any other political dispensation as of today. The worst part of the established parties in France is that they all have no convincing strategy to challenge the FN in public.
But for the FN, it is a long journey. And this time, Fillon, who has social conservatism on his side and closer ties with Vladimir Putin, may of course annoy the French liberals. Reports say that he could also damage the chances of winning for Le Pen, mostly in the rural conservative pockets of France.
Nevertheless, complacency about the strength of the right in Europe in general, France in particular, is absolutely misplaced. The optimists across Europe say that the concerns about the wave of the far right are normally overblown by the media. To them, it has been made hyper-sensitive which in turn helping the leaders of these parties in grasping the mood of the public much better than before. The European optimists feel that the best strategy now is to “ignore the far right”. They are also not entirely wrong. They argue that Marine Le Pen comfortably won the first round of regional elections in 2015, but in the crucial second round, she was badly defeated by her rivals. When it comes to the AfD in Germany, they opine that the party has no language of its own as it massively borrows from the far right rhetoric of the 1930s, and hence it has no force or potential to overthrow the rock-solid centrist coalitions of Germany. Thus their findings cannot be brushed aside as they are drawn from recent political events in both the countries. But the moot question is that will the optimists be always right? Are they oversimplifying the contexts and forces around which the far right in both France and Germany are veering around? Of course not.
The far right drumbeat will be intensified in near future. Its polarising effect will be more than doubled. Le Penisation of France will continue and will remain at the heart of the country’s politics.
How a country which stands for the gospels of liberty, equality and fraternity will stand the ground will be worth watching.
But at any cost, the Republican flavour of the French polity must be restored. Else, France will lose all its very charm that it has been known for ages.
(The writer teaches Sociology at OP Jindal Global University in Sonepat)