Nationalism, Racism and the Right

The dilemma for Hollande. To be more Right to win nationalist votes, and the National Front would be even more Right to win back those votes.

The rising menace of France’s National Front


Two months after millions of French people mounted a mass demonstration of national unity in horrified reaction to the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket terrorist killings in Paris, the dangerous, divisive National Front (FN) party is once more riding high.

The anti-European Union (EU), anti-immigrant FN, excluded from the January march, is set to win the biggest share of the vote in regional elections this month, revealed polls that show it taking a third of votes in the first round. An increasingly confident Marine Le Pen, the party’s charismatic leader, declared to the Financial Times last week: “It is the Front’s moment.”

President Francois Hollande, his approval ratings again sliding after a post-Charlie boost, is braced for a stinging defeat for his ruling Socialist Party. The centre-right UMP, once more led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, has signally failed to provide coherent opposition to a weak government.

Even with a strong showing in this month’s poll, the FN will still have only marginal representation in Parliament and local government. But Ms Le Pen has her sights firmly fixed on the presidential election in 2017. After winning almost 18 per cent of the first-round vote in 2012, polls now show her poised to reach the second round next time, as her father Jean-Marie achieved in 2002. The difference is that, while he was trounced in the run-off by Mr Jacques Chirac, it is no longer unimaginable that Ms Le Pen could win. At least one poll has shown her beating Mr Hollande in a second-round face-off.

A Le Pen presidency is still an outside bet. The French centre would rally against her. A nascent economic recovery could soften FN support. But, as the far-left Syriza party showed in Greece, radical movements in Europe are capable of riding to power on a deep disaffection with the political mainstream.

There should be no illusion that a Le Pen victory in 2017 would be a disaster for France and for Europe. France is not Greece. It is Europe’s second- largest economy and, with the United Kingdom, its top military power. The arrival in the Elysee Palace of a leader committed to dismantling the single currency, erecting protectionist barriers and unstitching key tenets of Western security policy — Ms Le Pen has backed Russia on Ukraine — would reverberate across the continent and beyond. To say nothing of the risk to the already fragile social fabric in France of the FN’s overtly anti-immigrant policies.

Nor should Ms Le Pen be underestimated. Unlike her father, she is deadly serious about building a party of government, working assiduously to broaden its appeal.

She has shifted the FN away from the crude anti-Semitism that characterised it under her father (though a deep vein of racism and Islamophobia persists within its ranks). She has shed the anti-state stance of the old FN, embracing traditional French republican and secular values. Her anti-austerity economic policies — to protect welfare, raise wages and pensions, cut utility prices and control consumer lending rates — strike a populist appeal, especially on the left.

Faced with this, the Socialist and UMP response has been dismal, both parties consumed by infighting. Mr Hollande’s espousal of much-needed structural reforms came late and was undermined by his earlier unpopular resort to tax increases. Mr Sarkozy persists in adopting hardline positions intended to lure voters away from Ms Le Pen, but which tend, instead, to lend her legitimacy. Never has the need been greater for France’s mainstream leaders to offer a clear message that can rally the millions who came out onto the streets in January. THE FINANCIAL TIMES


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