The French vote “against”…

Journalist Fred Niel's says the first round of the French election shows France really cared about t

What a surprise! What surprise? Well, there isn’t one. That’s the surprise… No-one was expecting everything to go as predicted in the polls: Nicolas Sarkozy came on top in the first round, and will take on the second-placed Ségolene Royal in the final round of the presidential elections, on the 6th May.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, who took on Jacques Chirac in 2002 after pushing aside the Socialists’ Lionel Jospin, lost a million voters; and those who still voted for him were drowned in the sea of French citizens who took part in this election, thanks to an abstention rate of 16%, the lowest since the beginnings of the Fifth Republic. The result: he only got 11% of the votes, against 17% in 2002.

The shock of 2002 pushed many young people, traditionally more prone to abstention, to get their views heard in the polling booths in 2007. For the same reasons, many voters used a “vote utile” immediately, helping those who had a real chance of getting elected – Sarkozy, Royal, or Bayrou – instead of having the pleasure of voting for a “smaller” candidate (the Greens’ Dominique Voynet, for instance, has lost her lustre: only 1.57% of votes for her, compared to 5.25% for the ecologist candidate of 2002, Noel Mamere).

The high turnout proves that the French really cared about these elections. But if so many of them voted, it was often more to oppose a detested candidate, rather than to show enthusiasm for the ideas of someone else. It seemed vital to people to make a stance against a candidate who seemed too dangerous. A strong minority of socialists dislike Ségolene, who they consider barely competent, and too rigid; but they’ve decided to support her to prevent Nicolas Sarkozy, the ultimate bogeyman, from getting through to the Elysée. The vote for Bayrou is also a protest vote: the slogan “neither left nor right”, without quite knowing what would go in their place, contributed to his success. Finally, it’s with Sarkozy that we find a healthy dose of “committed” votes. If many vote for him because they loathe the socialists, for several voters he also embodies, in a positive way, the energy and the willpower which France is seen to lack today.

What now? According to an Ifop poll for the Journal du Dimanche, put together on the Sunday evening after the results were announced, Sarkozy would beat Royal 54% to 46%. That’s partly because many of the “centrist” voters for Bayrou will return to their roots, the right, in the same proportions: 54% of them say they will vote Sarko, 46% Sego. The polls, it turns out, were actually pretty reliable. Will they be this time too? Royal and Sarkozy are going to have an almighty scrap in the next two weeks in order to seduce the centrist electorate. Sarkozy, after seducing far-right votes with rhetoric about immigration and security, claimed on Sunday evening that he dreamed of a “fraternal France”, which would protect the weak. As for Royal, she made it clear she belonged to no “clan” (in other words: the Socialist Party and its old dinosaurs), throwing some coy glances towards the centrists. The battle has only just begun!

Frederic Niel is a French journalist based in Paris, who has worked for Reuters, Phosphore magazine and other news organisations.
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.