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.