The rise of the Front National is only part of the problem
The ‘shock’ is not the rise of the Front National, but the failure of the system to bring forward a positive alternative.
As with every recent election, France woke up this morning shocked and groggy. The Front National is front page material, somewhat of a theme recently. Right-wing Le Figaro and communist L’Humanité share the same title: ‘Le Choc’.
With 27.96% of the vote, Marine Le Pen’s party has come top nationally, leading by a larger margin than predicted by polls. The centre right Union de la droite (Les Républicains, the MoDem and UDI) came in second with 26.89%, while the Parti Socialiste collapsed to 23.33%. This is a terrible result for the centre left who had won in all but one region in continental France in the previous two elections in 2004 and 2010.
Yet can we still call such results a shock in light of the past three years? In 2012, Marine Le Pen received 17.9% of the vote in the presidential elections. Later that year, the party received 13.6% in the legislative elections against the odds set by a majoritarian system which had successfully kept the FN out of the National Assembly since 1988. In 2014, the party won in the European elections with 24.86% of the vote. Finally, in March this year, the FN came third in the departmental elections with 25.24% of the vote in the first round.
Yesterday’s results are no longer out of the ordinary in France, and the media pretending to be shocked by them can only point to denial or utter lack of imagination as to what is to be done to reverse the tide.
With potential alliances between the centre left and right, it is difficult to know exactly how the second round will pan out. However, the strategy divisions within both camps have already confirmed that things have changed in France.
The Republican Front, the traditional choice against FN candidates in the second round of elections, no longer seems a natural option. Nicolas Sarkozy has already announced that he will not withdraw his candidates or merge lists with the PS. The PS is officially calling for unity, but divisions are clear within the ranks and one regional list has already refused to withdraw: for Jean Pierre Masseret in the Grand Est region, the Republican Front is ‘a failed strategy; when we withdraw lists, the FN gets stronger’.
Whatever the decision of the centre left and right, it is likely the FN will be celebrating its first regional victories next weekend, with Marine Le Pen and Marion Maréchal Le Pen ideally positioned in the North and South East. If they were both to win next Sunday, the FN would be able to use these regions as experimental laboratories to pursue their mainstreaming strategy.
It would also allow the FN to continue its balancing act between a more modern, reconstructed line represented by Marine Le Pen at the helm of the party, and a more radical, conservative line with Marion Maréchal Le Pen, who is often considered closer to her grandfather’s vision. This would mean that the party would not have to choose one version over the other and could continue to appeal to very different electorates, in order to bring them together in 2017 for the presidential elections.
If the FN wins regionally, it is unlikely it will act in a radical manner. It will send signals to its electorate through mostly symbolic, although concerning, measures such as those put in place in the various towns the FN conquered last year. However, with an eye on the presidential elections, it is probable that these will be limited and that the party will try its best to counter its opponents’ demonising narrative and appear as innocuous as possible.
By doing so, the FN would reinforce its mainstream status, acquired through the reshaping of its discourse over the past three decades, away from traditional extreme right tropes. While its ideological framework has remained constant, the party has been extremely successful at reshaping public discourse to fit its own agenda, becoming, against all odds, the champion of secularism, today commonly understood in terms of Islamophobia.
Yet it would be wrong to assume that the FN is solely responsible for its own success. Without the mainstream left and right, the Le Pens’ party would have never been able to achieve such prominence.
Its first breakthrough in the 1980s was partly the result of the airtime Jean-Marie Le Pen was given by Socialist president François Mitterrand in his attempt to divide the right, having lost the support of much of his electorate after moving away from the PS’s radical agenda towards neo-liberal austerity.
In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the presidential elections. The coverage was dramatic and all newspapers called for unity against the return of fascism. Jacques Chirac, who had been embroiled in corruption scandals, was re-elected with 82% of the vote in the second round, benefiting from the vote of many left-wing supporters who remained scarred in the aftermath. That Le Pen was in fact stagnating in terms of votes was ignored by commentators and politicians alike, who preferred to shun their responsibility in the climate of distrust and alienation which had become the norm in French politics.
In 2002, abstention skyrocketed, while the three major parties’ vote plummeted. Focusing on this rather than the ordinary, albeit concerning, performance of the extreme right would have created a more positive environment for the reinvigoration of politics. However, this was not to be: abstainers were vilified as immoral citizens, and those who had voted for smaller parties blamed for the rise of the FN. Democracy was no longer a question of choice, but the mere ritual acceptance of a divisive and unequal system few supported.
As Sarkozy rose within the ranks of the mainstream right, the programme and discourse of the FN became increasingly legitimised and the issues which appealed to at most 10% of registered voters became those government parties and the media chose as central to their campaign strategies. To hide their inability to offer anything positive with regard to the real concerns of the population (employment, education, tax etc.), both the centre right and left focused their energy on questions of identity, playing right into the hands of the extreme right.
Yet while the climate remains extremely hostile in France, not all hope is lost. While the media, pundits and politicians will hype the FN in weeks to come, there has always been another way to understand the situation, and plan a more positive response.
Today, the FN benefits from an extremely fertile environment. The terrorist attacks in France and the reaction of both centre left and right wing parties have legitimised the FN’s discourse against Islam and its demands for ever more authoritarian security measures. Furthermore, as 9 out of 10 respondents to polls declare that they no longer trust political parties, the FN stands ideally placed as an outsider, having never held major responsibility. Still, despite all its efforts, an extremely favourable environment and the utter failure of mainstream parties to reconnect with the electorate, it has so far failed to appeal to more than 15% of registered voters.
Yesterday, 85% of the population did not feel the FN was the solution to their problems. 50% did not feel any of the parties on offer deserved their vote. Scaremongering is no longer sufficient for mainstream parties to gain votes, and their policies and politics are now starting to look increasingly devoid of democratic legitimacy – something which would be even starker had many not voted for them in fear of the FN.
That is not to say that abstention is monolithic or that anything positive will rise automatically from it. Yet abstainers are not immoral, irresponsible or apathetic voters, as studies have shown. In fact, in today’s political environment, it is hard to blame those who find more reasons not to vote than reasons to vote.
People may have died for this right, but their fight was not for us to have to choose between the bad and the worst. Their fight was for us to choose what we feel would bring a better future, something that many do not feel is on offer today. The left should thus move away from short-term electoral strategies which have proven to alienate their electorate ever more, and instead rethink its approach to democracy away from a mere numbers game, to one based on ethics, equality and emancipation.
This article was published on OpenDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.