An awful lot is being written and said these days on french-speaking radio, TV, internet and newspapers about the rise of the french National Front (Front National, or FN hereafter) in recent surveys and in last week’s result in local elections (of which the second round will take place this Sunday, hence the turmoil). The arrival of Marine Le Pen at the helm has given the far-right party a new look: out goes head-on provocation and the scent of Arab-bashing skinheads that was the hallmark of ex-leader (but still honorary president) Jean-Marie Le Pen, in comes smooth talking, political correctness, a feminine figure, and the building of a political bureau which includes some serious people such as David Mascré, respected scientist, thinker and writer with more diplomas than he has letters to his name. According to the left-leaning newspaper Marianne, there even exists a FN shadow cabinet made up of high-ranking civil servants and known figures coming from other parts of the political spectrum, such as the sociologist Laurent Ozon, ex-Green and the economist Jean Roux, ex-PS (socialist party).
I’m writing this post two days before the 2nd round of local elections which will determine how the FN fares against its major opponents, Sarkozy’s conservative UMP and the social-democrats of the PS. This follows three posts with reference to Sarkozy and the FN which you can find on this page. The main issue Sunday is not so much the general outcome of the election but whether there will be, or not, a coming out of absentee voters (over 50% abstention in last week’s vote) to block the FN by voting for the other side, whatever that side may be. The kind of reaction that helped Chirac beat Le Pen (father) in the 2002 presidential with 80% of the votes.
On the right, the UMP is split between those (led by Sarkozy) who prefer voters not to turn up rather than vote for anything but the UMP, and those who want them to turn up and vote against the FN. On the left, the epidermic reaction is to demonize the FN and insult its voters – which is probably counterproductive as insult is generally understood as meaning lack of arguments. It is quite typical of many on the Left so utterly certain of being morally correct that they don’t even need to argue, namecalling should do it. As an aside, they are generally the same who oppose freedom of speech on moral grounds and support the Gayssot law. A critique of the « new » FN should start by analysing it’s political progamme and the fundamental beliefs shared by the members of its political bureau.
The key points of its political programme can be summarised in a few lines:
- Exit of the Euro zone and a protectionnist stance. Europe to be recast as a forum of sovereign states rather than a autonomous entity.
- A hard line on immigration and a « French First » social policy
- Exit of NATO and attempt to regain international diplomatic and military standing. Includes defending French as a worldwide language.
The fundamental beliefs of FN policy makers, to judge by their public profiles, is that France is a sovereign country that can only survive as a homogenous entity, with a shared set of beliefs and values. Society has to be hierarchized, with the best minds at the top. Discipline and respect of institutions is inherent to any « good citizen ». There are interesting parallels to draw between the FN view of France and the Japanese tradition glorifying obédience to the hierarchy, self-sacrifice and a very homogenous culture. It is a historical fact that rifts in shared values in french society lead to civil war, from the religious wars to the Revolution to the Paris Commune to Vichy, and to some extend 1968 and the 2005 rampage of youth burning cars across the country. But of course these events are triggered by revolt against a supressive establishment and is a sign of societal health rather than a flaw, at least when seen from a progressive rather than conservative point of view. But the FN is highly conservative almost by definition.
An interesting point that is generally ridiculed by french media is the matter of exiting the Eurozone. The french establishment, from right to left, is in favour of « strong Europe » whereas the french public is rather opposed to it, as we saw during the referendum on EU constitution. The real-life impact of adopting the Euro in 2001 was a sharp rise in prices for oft-purchased items such as food and commodity products, which translates in the general public as an overall increase in price with no corresponding increase in incomes, to the sole benefit of banks and shareholders. This fuels the appeal of the FN proposition to get back to the Franc, especially in the low-income classes (the median monthly income in France is around 1 500 E, with a full-time minimum wage around 1 360 E). But on a more general level, the cost-benefit analysis of the Euro is not done by any party except the FN, but it is done by public figures such as Emmanuel Todd and Alain Cotta who consider that the euro is doomed unless some major changes are made in the way the European economy is managed, ie: taking account of the fiscal and economic differences between eurozone members who cannot all obey the same rules (hence the current crisis in Portugal), and protecting the eurozone from industry-destroying imports. The current EU proposal for an « economic police » goes exaclty in the opposite direction: stricter rules, punishment, disregard for democratic choice, glorification of greediness by the financial establishment. Therefore it seems better to exit the Euro now before it crashes. I have a certain sympathy for this argument, which is also in line with the notion that we need to get out of the speculative economy to get away from the predatory grip of Big Finance. But the question remains of exactly how going about doing just that.
In any case the election results on Sunday will lay the path for the coming political battle leading up to the presidential elections in 2012, and perhaps launch a real debate on how to manage the economies of France and Europe.