How to stop the far right

Observations on French elections

Faced with the rise of the BNP and its handful of seats on English councils, we should look across the Channel and draw the lesson: do not panic and do not, like some politicians, try to use them for your own ends.

Given the unpopularity of the current French government, some commentators predicted that, in the regional elections, the extreme right-wing Front National would at least maintain the 17 per cent support it got in the 2002 presidential elections. In fact, it fell to 12 per cent (the lowest point since 1988) and its number of council seats fell from 275 in 1998 to 156. Even in areas such as the Nord Pas de Calais, where its vote remained at more than 20 per cent, the FN made less progress than expected and many traditionally left-wing voters reverted to supporting the Socialist Party.

What has halted the FN's rise? First, 2002 brought an end to coalition or "cohabitation" governments. French voters once again saw a clear line between government and opposition, offering political alternatives and giving an outlet for voter frustration, disillusionment and anger. And if you look at countries where the far right has been successful in recent years - Austria, for example - you will see that they nearly all have a history of consensus politics and coalition government.

Second, media attention and panicked political reactions have abated - a combination of the novelty of the FN wearing off and calculated ostracism. Hoping things will go away may not seem a very proactive strategy (I can hear half-baked references to the 1930s, as I write) and it is not quite what I am advocating. But the far right has shown a talent for capitalising on the publicity generated by its adversaries' panic. The far right thrives on upping the ante, and the mainstream parties and the media should not assist it.

And the lessons for Britain? First, Michael Howard was right to encourage Conservative politicians to do their bit in such places as Burnley, where the BNP has support; a decision by the main parties not to contest such seats (or to play down their differences) would be folly. But Howard's mix of condescension towards BNP supporters and disingenuous outrage over Labour's immigration policy was wrong. His equivalents in France have stopped venturing out to FN strongholds as if on anthropological treks, and articles bearing such titles as "A voyage to Lepenie" no longer grace the pages of weekly news magazines.

Catherine Fieschi is lecturer in comparative politics at the University of Nottingham