Europe is now in post-mortem mode. Though Sunday’s European Parliament elections did not deliver a deathblow to the idea of Europe, they definitely sounded a warning knell. All over Europe, extremist, far-right or far-left parties have won the elections or made significant electoral gains. These are parties that, for the most part, contested on an anti-immigrant, anti-Euro, nationalistic, anti-EU platform. Or, in a most curious paradox, they want in to opt out.
The pan-European outcome is definitely a victory of the Euro-sceptics and the EU rejecters. And it does not get more blatantly anti-EU than the stand of the French front-runner, the National Front (FN). “Our people demand one type of politics: politics by the French, for the French, with the French. They don’t want to be led anymore from the outside, to submit to other laws,” said a jubilant Marine Le Pen, whose party secured 25 per cent of the vote, outstripping the governing centre-left Socialist Party and the centre-right UMP. Her party advocates a withdrawal from the Euro and Schengen zone, with tighter borders and a return to the “nation”.
Labelled a “political earthquake” by the French prime minister, the election results sent shock waves through France, with President François Hollande calling for an emergency meeting of the cabinet and attempting to reassure the French through a televised broadcast. Yet, the shifting faultlines of the French political landscape have been obvious ever since the FN garnered 46 per cent of the popular vote in a recent by-election and since the municipal elections in March, when they won 15 town halls. A country that voted the Socialists into power a mere two years ago is now beginning to veer to the far right.
The reasons for this electoral success are not hard to find. Under Marine Le Pen’s charismatic leadership, the FN has gone through a makeover and donned a softer, more acceptable mask. Le Pen has replaced the extreme racist, anti-Semitic diatribe that was the trademark of the party under her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, with a more palatable (to some), though firmly anti-Islamist, anti-Roma and anti-immigrant, discourse. Her party has acquired new legitimacy in the eyes of many who were uncomfortable with its previous, even more extreme positions. Now, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s shocking remarks, like his recent pre-poll statement, “a deadly Ebola epidemic would solve the country’s problem with immigration”, do not seem to deter voters.
Moreover, the politics of fear that is deeply engrained in the FN’s DNA has been deftly exploited to create a climate of insecurity among France’s disaffected working class and unemployed youth. The blame for high unemployment and rising crime is laid squarely at the door of immigrants who, according to the FN, are able to slip in easily due to Europe’s open-border policy. Another of the FN’s pet themes, the dilution of “French” culture through the growing Islamisation of France, is used to whip up anti-immigrant sentiments and win votes.
Lastly, for the FN, the erosion of purchasing power and the decline in living standards are to be imputed to Europe’s free markets, the Euro and the EU-imposed austerity measures. In short, for the FN, Europe is to blame for most of France’s ills. Marine Le Pen has gone so far as to identify the EU as public enemy number one.
The FN’s appeal has also been bolstered by the record disenchantment of the French with Hollande’s Socialist government and its ineffectual policies as well as the French voter’s growing disillusionment with the infighting and divisive politics of the main opposition party, the UMP. The high rate of absenteeism, 57 per cent in the European elections, worked to the FN’s advantage. However, French voters consider the European elections to be of secondary importance and it is almost certain that the FN would not have the same measure of success in legislative elections, were they to be held today.
The far-right’s electoral success in France has been mirrored by the UK Independent Party (the UKIP) and the far-right Danish People’s Party. An upswing in Euroscepticism has generally led to a higher vote for protest parties that have positioned themselves as anti-Brussels and as opposed to the European project. Despite the significant inroads by anti-EU parties, the main pro-EU centre right and left groups continue to enjoy a comfortable majority in the European Parliament and therefore, no major shift in policy is likely to occur. However, if the Eurosceptic parties across Europe were to form a political caucus, they could make their voice heard more forcefully. Le Pen’s pre-poll intention was to form such a caucus to block a planned trans-Atlantic trade pact. Though politics makes for some strange bedfellows, few of the far-right parties appear willing to unite with the FN. It remains to be seen if Le Pen can win them over.
At the national level in France, an extremist party with a radicalised, nationalistic agenda like the FN is now becoming mainstream. Alarm bells need to be sounded more vehemently. The party now poses a serious threat to the republican values on which France has been founded.
The author is a Paris-based freelance writer