A poll published last week in Le Monde confirmed a very worrying trend in French politics. Following Marine Le Pen’s breakthrough in the 2012 presidential election, wherein the Front National leader received more than 6.5 million votes, and its first members of parliament since the 1980s were elected, the extreme right party appears increasingly normalised in French politics. When Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the 2002 election as a result of the poor performance of the two mainstream parties, hundreds of thousands of French people took to the streets to express their disgust at a party that’s rooted in neo-fascism.
Ten years on, things have changed dramatically and there were very few demonstrations when Marine Le Pen beat her father’s 2002 record by more than 1.7 million votes. More importantly for the future of the party, this latest poll shows that the mainstreaming of extreme right discourse has succeeded and that the stigma attached to the party has all but disappeared. Indeed, only 18 per cent of respondents in Le Monde believed that the UMP should fight the Front National (down from 38 per cent in 2002), while 28 per cent felt that, depending on the circumstances, alliances were a valid strategy (up from 15 per cent).
Beyond the mainstreaming of the party itself, its ideas are also becoming normalised. In the same poll, 54 per cent of respondents declared that ‘too many rights are given to Islam and Muslims in France’, despite studies demonstrating the discrimination suffered by this minority. Along with this stigmatisation of ‘the other’, another extreme right idea also received increasing support, with 65 per cent believing that ‘justice on petty crime is not tough enough’ and 54 per cent wanting ‘more power to be given to the police’. These alarming trends reinforce the findings from another recent poll in which a majority of respondents declared their distrust of politicians and democracy (with 82 per cent declaring that ‘politicians act mostly in their own personal interest’ and 72 per cent that the democratic system does not work well, and [their] ideas are not represented well’). Again highlighting the fertile soil in France for the growth of extreme right politics, 86 per cent believed that ‘authority is a value that is too often criticised today’ and 87 per cent that ‘we need a real leader (chef) in France to bring back order’. Surprisingly, these last two statements were supported by more UMP sympathisers than FN. Returning to ‘the other’, it was telling that in the same poll, 70 per cent felt that ‘there are too many immigrants in France’ and 62 per cent that ‘we don’t feel at home like we used to’. Still, a self-righteous majority (74 per cent) felt that it is Islam that is intolerant.
Obviously, these figures are not unexpected, in fact they are the result of a continual process of legitimisation of the extreme right begun in the 1980s and accelerated rapidly after Nicolas Sarkozy’s rise to prominence in the 2000s. Sarkozy’s borrowings from the extreme right have led to the breaking of many taboos and, in the last election, the destruction of the remnants of France’s united front against the extreme right. After a presidential term where extreme right rhetoric played a central role in his election and popularity, Sarkozy made clear who he was targeting in the 2012 elections. Henry Guaino, his personal adviser and speech writer, declared early in that campaign that “it is true that in a society in crisis, immigration is a problem.” For him, the theme of the campaign came directly from an extreme right manifesto: the election was about “how to face the societal crisis, the identity crisis, the moral crisis, the civilisational crisis we are currently experiencing. It is about which qualities, which personality one must have to face this perilous world into which we are entering.” There were no words about the Great Financial Crisis, no words about economics, debt or unemployment; the crisis was a more essentialist one, one of identity. Claude Guéant, Sarkozy’s minister of the interior, went even further, declaring that “all civilisations are not equal in worth”. He clarified that he was not targeting any culture in particular, but quickly highlighted the importance of banning the hijab in public places, as well as street prayers. A day later, Sarkozy confirmed Guéant’s point was merely “common sense”.
The clearest attack against the ‘Republican Front’ – the unspoken pact between most French parties against the extreme right – was given by Sarkozy himself when he declared after the first round that the Front National was “a democratic party”, and later that its values were “compatible with the Republic”. The final blow was given when, in a speech on 24 April 2012, he declared: “I give preference to the community, but I don’t see why we couldn’t give preference to nationals.” That simple sentence marked the acceptance of thirty years of Front National discourse, where a French person should be given priority over an immigrant with regards to jobs and public services; in this speech, the president of France affirmed that discrimination on the basis of nationality, with all the racist undertones acquired with each Front National campaign, was now something worth defending.
Therefore, this penchant for exclusion highlighted by Le Monde’s polls and experienced by the French is not the mere result of a push from the extreme right; it is in great part the responsibility of mainstream actors such as Nicolas Sarkozy. It is also the responsibility of those taboo-breakers who have legitimised a stigmatising discourse which was until recently marginalised for its proto-fascist quality. Finally, it is the responsibility of the French for accepting the explanation that the Other, whoever they are, is responsible for their fears and insecurity.
Published in the Independent on 11/02/13