Marine Le Pen’s party is now the largest group of French MEPs. Photo: Getty
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The Front National’s success in France shows that “protest votes” can no longer be easily dismissed

The party’s success in the European elections marks the end of its time as a marginal voice in French politics.

Victorious and branding itself France’s “leading party”, the Front National (FN) stormed the European elections with results which have sent shockwaves through the nation and beyond. Although the media is awash with shocked commentary from those who decry the damage being done to France’s reputation abroad, there can be no real surprise at how the French have got here. A hapless Left led by a president better known for his affairs than his policies, a divided and navel-gazing Right and an eye-watering rate of unemployment combined with a lack of any real growth, means the French have every right to feel frustrated. They have certainly chosen to voice that discontent.

Polls suggest that in this election, despite the European stakes, 38 per cent of voters sought to express their discontent with the government – among the key issues, 31 per cent listed immigration, following closely by purchasing power (30 per cent), the eurozone crisis (27 per cent) and unemployment (27 per cent). Although the French remain predominantly pro-European, there is still a widespread sense that Europe has failed to protect against the economic crisis and is not responsive to French needs. After five years of no growth under both initially the Right and now the Left, a sense of widespread despondence with the abilities of the main political parties is being felt.

Back in March, the Socialists were punished when they lost over 155 cities in municipal elections, a sign of an electorate weary of a wavering president who has sought to change everything about his government from his prime minister to his team at the Elysée in a bid to win back support. So far his efforts have failed and the FN has capitalised on mass disaffection. Though this will rank as one of the worst defeats for the Socialist Party, with a 10 point difference between their score (around 15 per cent) and the FN (25 per cent), it is even more symbolically damning that it should be a defeat inflicted by what many have continued to view as a vocal but marginal party in French politics.

Marine Le Pen’s masterful revamping of her unabashedly racist father’s party as an anti-EU, “pro patriot” movement which prefers to refer to love of the French nation than hatred of foreigners, has led to her becoming a fixture in the French media (which largely shuns her father). In the 2012 elections, the FN scored almost 18 per cent, up from just under 11 per cent back in 2007, labelling itself “France’s third party” and warning that it could no longer be dismissed as a fringe voice.

In fact, Marine Le Pen’s greatest success thus far has been the normalisation process she has applied to the FN, and the distance created in public perception between her father’s overtly racist legacy and her new image – an image she protects assiduously having threatened to take anyone who brands her party racist to court. This “softening” eased her way towards a media platform and enabled her to make significant contributions to political discussions – as during the latter days of Nicholas Sarkozy’s presidential campaign in 2012, when the agenda was led by topics raised by the FN. More recently, the party has succeeded in making debates about immigration a near constant fixture in the media, fodder for FN supporters who then decry – tautologically – that the FN is the only party addressing the “real” issues. It is more worrying still that while support for other parties appears to be waning, the FN is the only party with a significant increase in support since 2009.

Attitudes are changing too. Back in 2002, there were protests in the street when the FN made the second round of the presidential elections and a display of national unity emerged in support of then presidential candidate Jacques Chirac. But there are no comparable responses to the fact that 24 new FN MEPS are now preparing to take their places in Brussels, the largest number of French MEPs from any one political party. Polls even suggest that 42 per cent of the French are “not disappointed” by the FN’s result.

But the racism is never far from the surface. Just last week Jean-Marie Le Pen – who remains the party’s honorary president and has just been re-elected – suggested the country’s immigration “problems” could be resolved by the Ebola virus. Marine herself, despite her “softer” image, compared Muslim prayers spilling out of prayer rooms onto the street (due to lack of facilities for French Muslims) to the Nazi occupation. Recently a supporter of the FN referred to France’s black minister of justice Christiane Taubira as a “monkey”, while throwing bananas at her.

As the FN has increased in visibility and political clout, two camps have emerged over whether the party represents a genuine cause for concern. Some claim the FN is a protest vote, a vote of anger against a political class seemingly so oblivious to the daily struggles of many people trying simply to maintain their standard of living. They point to the fact that in real terms, because of a high rate of abstention, the FN actually appealed to fewer voters than in the last presidential elections. But in Marine Le Pen’s constituency in the north-west, the FN polled over 32 per cent, a result which has led some, such as far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus, to state that the “National Front’s results can no longer be relativised”. For a start, all parties polled less than in the presidential elections and despite the rate of abstention, there is some indication greater participation might not have affected results dramatically. And despite attempts to minimise its progress, the FN has never polled well at EU elections, with its highest score being around 14 per cent in 1989. It has quadrupled its score since 2009, a result which would not be overlooked in the case of any other party.

What’s more, the party now achieves support among a generation which might have once been expected to be out protesting against it, polling best among young people and the working class. Many of the latter represent a significant loss for the Left, and particularly the far-left party of Jean-Luc Melenchon, himself a charismatic leader who shares many of Le Pen’s views on Europe and anti-globalisation and yet performed comparatively poorly.

Many voters feel the European project is being undertaken for interests other than their own. A common theme across the European elections seems to be a disconnect between what is happening in Brussels and the people on the streets of individual countries. The increasingly common refrain that the bureaucrats in Brussels are disconnected from the lives of ordinary people has gained traction, particularly as austerity has bitten across the continent. Parties like the FN across Europe are the loudest critics of an EU which even EU insiders, such as former adviser to European Commission president Philippe Legrain, admit mishandled the economic crisis. According to Legrain, Brussels’ response to the crisis was “generally inept, often misdirected and frequently outright destructive”. Parties like the FN offer simple solutions to complex problems. Although pro-EU parties continue to speak of European reform and building the European project, decision makers’ accountability and accessibility to the electorate represents a significant stumbling block, fuelling the voices calling for a return to simpler methods of governance. In many ways, Marine Le Pen’s project, with her warnings of an invasion of GM American products, a return to a national policy on agriculture, and calls for resistance in the face of neo-liberalism all speak to genuine concerns over the ability of individual nations to protect consumers and producers alike in an open, global market.

Whether she will carry any weight in Europe where she will be required to form alliances to forge a voting bloc almost seems like taking the charade a little too seriously. After all, this is a eurosceptic party which wants out of the euro and the Schengen agreement, and which has its sights on issues much closer to home. Instead, the result is a clear indication that so-called protest votes can no longer be easily dismissed. FN voters no longer feel the stigma of voting for a party with its roots in France’s darkest history. The ability of the current political class to bounce back notwithstanding, there is every likelihood that those voters who gave their allegiance to Le Pen in this election, may swell by 2017. Le Pen is unlikely to win the presidential election (yet), but her party’s ability to define the terms of the debate and to shift the discourse towards divisive and regressive policies looms. Racism is at its most worrying when it is carried out by states and Le Pen’s inroads into the institutions of national and supra-national governance should concern us all. But more broadly, the construction of an accessible European project in which individual citizens feel they have both a stake and a say needs to be placed top of the agenda.

 

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.