Already stressed by economic stagnation since the onset of the banking crisis in 2008, and by the interminably threatened, but repeatedly averted, collapse of the Euro, Peter Fysh asks can the French political system survive racist exploitation of the refugee crisis and the shock of deadly terrorist attacks at each end of 2015?
In the regional elections of Sunday 6 December the National Front (FN) topped the poll at the third election in two years, increasing their own vote each time, with 28.6% of the votes cast against 26.8% to Les Républicains (formerly the UMP) – the conservatives – and 23.5% to the Socialists (PS). On the back of an upsurge of patriotic feeling and President Hollande’s stagey declaration of war on the Islamic State, this actually represented something of recovery for the Socialists from the European election of May 2014, when their failure to dent the unemployment figures and successful right-wing mobilisations against gay marriage had brought them down to 14%.
But it’s the fascists who have the wind in their sails. Their result is a sensational advance on the 11.4% they gathered at the same elections in 2010. They topped the poll in six out of the thirteen contests and for the first time in their history qualified to go through to the second round in every region. In a triumph for Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, grandaughter of the party’s historic leader Jean-Maire Le Pen, and Marine, his daughter, the current FN president, each won just over 40% of the poll in two of France’s most industrial regions, including the major conurbations of Lille and Tourcoing-Roubaix in the north, along with Marseille, Toulon and Nice in the south. Even if the other parties pool their votes on the second round, Marine and Marion will likely soon take charge of their regions’ executives. And they will almost certainly be joined by Florian Philippot, who is ahead in the region including Alsace-Lorraine, with major cities such as Metz and Strasbourg.
Over and above all the background reasons that account for the Front’s endurance (corrupt politicians, austerity imposed by right and ‘left’, proportional voting, the multiparty tradition) this was a vote firmly structured by its context. The electors’ receptivity to the party’s strident anti-refugee message and condemnations of the other parties’ failure to stop Jihadist terrorists entering the country at will was shown by the result in Calais, a former Communist stronghold, where Marine’s vote share of the vote shot up to 50%, from 18.7% in 2010.
These victories will give every racist in France a psychological boost and hand a megaphone to the three leading members of the Front who are best placed to use it: Marine, their presidential candidate, Philippot, the party’s vice-president, a smooth managerial type who some say has master-minded Marine’s effort to ‘normalise’ the party by toning down her father’s provocative anti-Semitism, and the 25-year-old Marion, their only MP. But the immediate policy impact will be slight. The regions are only 10% self-financing, the rest of their money coming from transfers from the state. Seventy per cent of it is spent on transport and education, the rest tied up in long term infrastructure projects,co-financed with the state. They have no say in immigration or deportation and they have no police powers, despite Marion’s wish to put a regional force on the railways. In short they can do absolutely nothing to further the party’s agenda of strengthening border controls and interning the 11,000 Muslims currently under surveillance by the anti-terror police. So the Calais voters who told journalists that they expected the FN to sort out the shanty of 6,000 refugees on the edge of town are likely to be disappointed.
Still wanting to treat the FN as an anti-democratic force, the PS have withdrawn two of their lists, urging voters to shut them out by throwing their support to Sarkozy’s Républicains. Yet the truth is that the eternal outsiders are now swimming with the stream, both on their key security issues, and also in ideological terms.
For all the devastating impact of the attacks in St Denis and Paris on 13 November, Hollande had an opportunity, if he had wanted to take it, of fostering unity and lowering the emotional register by announcing that these were the actions of criminals, which required a police operation of investigation and capture, and at the same time encouraging people to remain calm and to hold back from jumping to conclusions while this job was done. Instead, it was left to ordinary Parisians, in their responses to television news reporters, to celebrate the conviviality of shattered communities, which were among the most mixed of any in France. Hollande, like Bush and Blair before him, wrapped himself in the national flag and declared a state of emergency, saying that France was at war with an external enemy who had the means of striking any one of us, a message with which all other parties concurred, including the Communists and Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche. This approach could only have the effect of turning the criminals into soldiers, increasing the likelihood of more attacks, opening a highway for the FN to point the finger of suspicion at all Muslims, inviting the electorate to vote for the party which had been the most far-seeing all along and boosting the flow of refugees. Finally it was a propaganda gift to the IS, reinforcing their argument that French Muslims should prefer jihad to a re-enactment of the crusades.
Ideologically, the main tool that mainstream politicians and intellectuals use to try to cement national unity is the insistence on the unique French tradition of laïcité, forged historically through conflict with the Catholic Church. They claim that the successful cohabitation of diverse cultures is due to the traditional banning of religious identification or religious opinions in the public sphere. Not content with the pretty well-known ban on public employees or school students wearing the headscarf or hijab, politicians of left and right are constantly at pains to underline their secular orthodoxy by demanding the ban’s extension to private sector nursery workers, the free-meal charity les restaus du coeur or mothers accompanying children on school trips, while others have fulminated against women only sessions at swimming pools or tried to introduce laws forbidding a preference for a doctor of one’s own gender. It follows that anyone who actually asked for any of these things is to be regarded with suspicion and even discriminated against, as when a conservative politician introduced a bill to withdraw child benefit from women who failed to respect ‘republican values’. The parallel insistence that France is the cradle of human rights turns politicians’ rhetoric into an Orwellian travesty of the slogans of 1789: liberty means prohibition, equality is uniformity, fraternity becomes suspicion. Not surprisingly, in some cases intentionally, they have increasing difficulty in drawing a line between themselves and the National Front. An indication of how desperately few are the voices which challenge this suffocating obligation to conform is that it even affected the Trotskyist left when a bitter row over whether to accept members who wore the hijab broke out at the 2011 congress of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), leading to the resignation of a number Muslim activists.
Right now it is hard to see how the FN’s momentum can be slowed. The next presidential elections are due in May 2017, less than 18 months’ time. Nobody imagines that the Syrian civil war will be ended and the refugees back home before then, so the martial tub-thumping will continue and a new terror attack might have the potential to sweep Marine Le Pen into government. After all, if right, left and the FN are all singing from the same patriotic hymn-sheet, does it make any sense any more to prefer another mainstream ‘republican’ party to the FN, cast as ‘anti-republican’? The Socialist government have already abused the state of emergency by serving house arrest orders on known ecological activists ahead of the COP21 conference – could the FN do any worse? If their electors are disappointed to discover that the regions pack little institutional punch, they will be susceptible to the argument that their heroes should be given the power to finish the job.
There is certainly a large body of opinion in France that believes that it doesn’t matter any more. They take at face value Marine’s banning of publicly expressed anti-Semitism, the expulsion of her father and that of other ‘mavericks’ who have overstepped the boundaries of the new-style ‘respectable’ discourse. Reassured by the presence of Philippot, graduate of the same elite civil service training school as themselves, some politicians put their faith in the tendency of the system to ‘institutionalise’ new parties, whose councillors are seduced by the official cars, freebee trips and lavish expenses. Others snigger at the spats and splits within the Le Pen family, pointing out that Marion still consults her grandfather while he and Marine are no longer on speaking terms. Marion has several times taken part in demonstrations against gay marriage, has recently called on new immigrants to recognize and respect the Christian heritage of the country, and promised to cut subsidies to family planning clinics, essential sources of abortion advice, while Marine has always supported the right to choose and only paid lip service to the campaign against gay marriage.
It is by no means clear, though, that these developments are signs of weakness in the party. It is true that Jean-Maire Le Pen’s provocations ensured the survival of the party’s radicality by keeping institutionalisation at bay, but the bigger it gets, the better strategy (advocated by the Mégret faction expelled in 1998) is to tone down the rhetoric in favour of exerting a gravitational pull on the traditional right sufficient to break off chunks of it and pull them into the FN orbit. In fact during the last 20 years there has been regular traffic in both directions as individuals have switched parties to enhance their career prospects. A particularly effective example of it was Marion Maréchal-Le Pen being able to break away from the Républicains a former key supporter of her main rival at the regional elections, Christian Estrosi, which undoubtedly harmed the latter’s campaign. Furthermore, the party has always harboured a number of schools of thought, more or less informally organised, from out and out Nazis to the generation who fought against Algerian independence to Catholic fundamentalists. The fact that Marion has drawn closer to this wing of the party may reflect her convictions or it may be a tactic enabling her to build a group of personal supporters, but it in no way brings her into enduring conflict with her aunt. The party is big enough for them both and this variety is an essential component of its success.
More concrete proof that the leopard has not changed its spots and evidence of what it would do if it gained power can be gleaned from a comparison of the record of the two waves of FN mayors elected in 1995 and 2014. Of the latter, the mayor of Hénin-Beaumont (pop 28,000) has ended the free use of council premises by the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme and sent the association a bill for 36,000 euros. The cutting of social projects in Beaucaire (pop 16,000) and Marseille’s 7th district (pop 150,000) is similarly and openly justified as a move against conduits of anti-FN agitation. In the case of Beaucaire, the ending of a 53,000 euro subsidy to a centre providing school support to 100 students triggered the withdrawal of a further 131,000 euros in match-funding and caused it to fold. Uneasiness with public scrutiny saw the mayor of Mantes-la-Ville (pop 20,000) limit the public gallery at council meetings to 20 places, abolish councillors’ opportunity to abstain in any votes that take place and, uniquely, refuse to allow representatives of the PS and LR to attend the count at Sunday’s election, while the mayor, of Fréjus (pop 53,000), barred a journalist who had published details of his association with extreme-right sects from his first press conference.
While the mayors are under strict instructions to stay respectable for the moment, Stéphane Ravier in Marseille sailed a bit close to the wind by taking his son on to the public payroll on a temporary contract. In this he is taking a leaf out of the book of the earlier generation. Daniel Simonpieri (mayor of Marignane 1995-2008, the last four years on the UMP ticket) and Jean-Marie le Chevallier (mayor of Toulon 1995-2001) were both convicted of crimes including favouritism, false accounting, embezzlement, and sentenced to a year’s prison suspended, along with fines and disbarment from office for a certain period. Their colleague Jacques Bompard still today the Mayor of Orange after being elected on the FN ticket has survived multiple changes of label and multiple court cases. In his FN phase he distinguished himself by vetting the public libraries and removing the books he disagreed with and by organised harassment of his political opponents. None of this should surprise us. It is only in old war films that fascism is about disciplined cadres in impeccable uniforms. In reality, like any system which concentrates monopoly power in few hands and abolishes or seeks to hide from public scrutiny, it is synonymous with sleaze. It is top Nazi officials trafficking in stolen artworks, Mussolini’s generals rigging the contracts for their troops in Ethiopia and Franco’s officials lining their pockets from the state control of foreign trade.
It may be time also for anti-fascists to refresh their ideas about how fascism comes to power. Thanks to the writings of Trotsky, fascism is understood as the highest stage of capitalism, the stage which the ruling class had to resort to in order to keep the workers in check because the normal democratic means had broken down, while Daniel Guérin (Fascisme et Grand Capital) presented evidence tending to show that the Nazis were bankrolled by German big industry. In fact, later and more detailed research by H A Turner (German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler) showed that, up until the very last election in 1933, German Business did not favour the Nazis over any other right-wing party and the NSDAP had got itself to that point largely by raising money from its own members and voters.
Certainly in both Germany and Italy there were social upheavals that caused the ruling class to look for a system different from parliamentary democracy. In Italy it was indeed the rural and urban elite who financed and organised the squads of blackshirts that destroyed trade union organisation, particularly in the countryside, but Mussolini had the support of only a handful of deputies when he was installed as prime minister, and only an uncertain ascendancy over the squadist movement, derived from his press and oratorical activity. In both the German case and the Italian there were many in the old elites who simply thought it was worth letting the upstarts have a go so they could make a mess of things before the old ways were resumed. As we know the Nazis hit the ground running and soon rearranged things to their satisfaction while in Italy the structuring of the fascist party and the remodelling of state institutions took place only gradually after the other parties in parliament in 1923, under some threat of violence, committed suicide by voting a new electoral law which would give the leading party at the next election two thirds of the seats.
French big business is no friend of the FN, and there is no sound of marching boots because there are no major social struggles on the horizon. Yet we stand now on the brink of a period when no one knows what scale of repression might be deployed – and for how long – to curb a wave of terrorism, itself of unknown dimensions, which the government is determined to meet head on, a context that can only favour an increase in FN support. And French Parliaments also have committed suicide twice in living memory; once in 1940, when the very Parliament that backed Léon Blum’s Popular Front in 1936, handed over all powers to Pétain; then again in 1958 when, unable to control the army they had sent to Algeria to repress the independence movement, the left joined the right in investing de Gaulle as prime minister and asking him to write a new constitution. Against all expectations he not only quickly restored parliamentary democracy, but went on to conclude peace and complete French decolonisation.
Were the FN to gain office, the remake would more likely be based on the earlier, not the later scenario: the party would seek to persecute its opponents, tamper with the electoral system and curb the powers of parliament and the courts, which is why it is surely a mistake for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Parti de Gauche, to tell his supporters it doesn’t matter whom they vote for in the run-offs between the Le Pens and their conservative challengers on 13 December. The historical track record shows that a brutal fall in living standards always helps the outsider party as well. What better way to engineer that than attempt to take France out of the Eurozone and revert to the franc? But that, of course, is a whole debate of its own.
Ahead of 2017, a search through the democratic parties for a candidate who could compete with Marine Le Pen for the Presidency reveals a field of ruins. Hollande is seen as an uninspiring wimp who, by standing again would betray his promise not to do so if he couldn’t get unemployment down. He has lost the support of the Greens for his budget-balancing cuts and austerity policies and failure to make a single gesture to them on eco issues. They in turn are virtually inaudible thanks to infighting on the very issue of whether to be in or out of the government. Mélenchon has already suffered a bruising defeat to Marine Le Pen in a head-to-head parliamentary contest, and is anyway backing Hollande’s war policy to the hilt. On the right, Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy is utterly bankrupted by Sunday’s result. Already detested by the left for his record, in and out of the courts under investigation for corruption, after a short sabbatical he was forced to re-take control of his party sooner than he really wanted to when the secretary-general was caught trying to stuff the ballot in the election to see who would be the new leader; having borrowed most of the FN’s discourse in order to win the Presidency in 2007, he finds them back stronger than ever and has no further margin for manoeuver in that direction. Now he has to face a difficult primary in his own party to win the nomination.
Step forward Alain Juppé: a former prime minister and foreign secretary loathed by the left for his failed attempt to reform the social security and pensions system in 1995, the mayor of Bordeaux has a less abrasive style than Le Pen or Sarkozy and has in the last few years adroitly positioned himself closer to the centre by keeping the FN at arm’s length and joining only mutedly, if at all, in the chorus of Islamophobia. If he should win the nomination for the Républicains he looks like the best bet for running Le Pen close on the first round, with the Socialists eliminated, and defeating her, with the help of Socialist votes, on the second. Even then, though he might find that he had no option but to call the FN into government if they were the strongest party at the subsequent parliamentary election.