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 is a writer, broadcaster and academic with a focus on current affairs, the Middle East, Islam and France. She currently works as a broadcast journalist for TRT world, a global news network, and was the presenter of documentaries including BBC One's “A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited”.

She is a Research Associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies (CIS) at SOAS University, where her research focuses on British Muslim integration issues. She also undertakes the centre’s media outreach and research dissemination in relation to its work on British Muslim communities.
Myriam is currently a PhD (DPhil) researcher at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco. 

She tweets @MFrancoisCerrah

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.