Don’t be mistaken, this is not an endorsement of Marine Le Pen and her nationalistic far-right party. But there is something positive about the upheaval in French politics indicated by the electoral breakthrough of the National Front. For it heralds a long-overdue collapse in the old discredited establishment. From that collapse a real democratic alternative beckons.
Given France’s dark past of fascist rule and collaboration with Nazi Germany under its Vichy regime, it is understandable that the meteoric rise of the far-right National Front has sent shockwaves through the country. French state complicity in European fascism may have been 70 years ago, but it is still a source of deep shame that offends national pretensions of democracy.
However, the idea that France’s ruling Socialists and the other establishment party, the more conservative Republicans, stand as a bulwark against a slide towards fascism is a travesty. They are both part of the deep malaise in French politics – a malaise that afflicts most European states. As in the United States, the two-party system is just two sides of the same coin. Namely, a plutocracy of elite rulers under a bankrupt capitalist system that parasites off the majority of people, and which thrives on militarism and war.
So, the rise of the populist National Front in France is less something to fear as an ominous shift towards fascism. It is more a sign of an awakening among people that signals a correct cognisance that the established order is obsolete as a democratic choice. In a strange way, the rise of the NF could be welcomed as a symptom of collapse in the prevailing establishment, an established order which has for decades promoted elitist rule, widening poverty and warmongering.
What really has the establishment in France rattled is not so much the alleged rise in far-right politics, but the collapse of its own legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate. Ironically, the establishment is evoking a fear of the dark past in an attempt to rally voters to their reprehensible elitist fold.
This partly accounts for why mainstream French left and right politicians and media have reacted with «shock» to the landslide wins in last weekend’s regional elections for the National Front (NF) led by Marine Le Pen. The newspapers, Humanité and Figaro, representing left and right, both ran the same headline on news of the poll results: «Shock». That synchronicity says a lot about the common vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Le Pen’s party – which is anti-European Union and anti-immigrant – has taken the lead in six of France’s 13 regional governments in the first round of elections. This weekend sees the second round of elections. The NF may not hold on to its first-round lead in the six regions where it has come out top so far.
Nevertheless, already Le Pen can rightly claim to have scored an historic electoral breakthrough. As it stands, her party is first among voters having won 28 per cent of ballots cast, with the Republicans in second on 27 per cent and the ruling Socialists of President Francois Hollande on 23 per cent. It’s a historic breakthrough.
Hollande’s Prime Minister Manual Valls has gone into hysterical mode. He has called for an electoral «pact» with the Republicans, led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Valls is urging Sarkozy to form a «patriotic front» to keep Le Pen’s party from securing the six regions where it is aiming for eventual victory this weekend. The Socialists are intending to withdraw its candidates from three regions altogether and the party is exhorting its supporters to vote for Sarkozy’s Republicans.
Sarkozy has rejected the proposal of a pact, saying that «it’s every man for himself».
Therein lies a symptom of the crisis afflicting the French political establishment. Both the conservative Republican and nominally Socialist parties are indistinguishable on substantive issues. So much so that a pact is being proposed. How’s that for lack of democratic choice? Both have presided over years of neoliberal capitalist policies, promoting corporate business interests and profits, retrenching workers’ rights and slashing public welfare. This is reflected in chronic unemployment and poverty across France, as in most Western so-called democracies.
On foreign policy, the Republicans and Hollande’s Socialists have promoted militarism and overseas’ wars in the Middle East and Africa in subservience to the US-led NATO alliance. Sarkozy launched the disastrous military intervention in Libya in 2011 to overthrow the government of Muammar Gaddafi (who was once a financial benefactor of Sarkozy), while Hollande has exacerbated conflict in Syria and antagonism with Russia by likewise slavishly following Washington’s agenda for regime change in foreign countries.
Forget «Republican» or the S-word. As with the American Republican and Democrat parties, they are all members of the War Party. The party that serves elite corporate interests of militarism, financial oligarchy and imperialist warmongering around the world.
France has suffered increasing social hardship and austerity from the neoliberal economic policies implemented by both ruling parties. While we could expect that from Sarkozy’s brand of rightwing politics, the Socialists have also shown themselves to be «socialist» in name only. Hollande and his crew are charlatans, who don’t deserve to be associated with the concept of socialism. It is not surprising therefore that Hollande’s party of betrayal is trailing in the regional elections, having only won three out of 13 administrations.
Various media reports indicate that traditional «Socialist» voters have deserted the party for Le Pen’s National Front. Party leader Marine Le Pen topped the poll in the northern region of Nord Pas del Calais Picardie with a personal tally of 40 per cent. The region has been hit with years of de-industrialisation and unrelenting unemployment – the latter at 12 per cent. The trend epitomises the collapse of Hollande’s so-called Socialist party.
But worryingly for Sarkozy’s Republicans, the NF is polling strongly across the country and all demographic groups. Marine’s niece, 25-year-old Marion Marechal-Le Pen topped the southern region of Provence Alpes Cote d’Azur – also with 40 per cent – where some of the richest segments of the population live. Both regions are tipped to give the NF outright victories in the second round of elections this coming Sunday.
For Marine Le Pen the results mark a stunning success for her strategic shift in reinventing the image of the party. Earlier this year, she sidelined her father, Jean-Marie, who founded the NF in 1972, in a bid to «detoxify» the party of its image of anti-Semitism and «jackboot fascism». Jean-Marie was given the heave-ho when he refused to stop repeating his notorious claim that the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews was a mere «footnote of history».
Despite the image overhaul, the National Front is still shadowed with the taint of fascism in the eyes of many French citizens. The party even under Marine’s leadership is still stridently anti-immigrant and seen as nastily xenophobic. Her niece, Marion, caused controversy before the latest elections by saying that «Muslims had to adopt French Christian heritage to be considered full nationals».
The National Front also made political capital in the wake of the Paris attacks three weeks ago. The gun and bomb assaults, which killed 130 citizens, was claimed by the Islamic State terror group. Two of the suicide attackers are believed to have entered France posing as refugees from Syria. The National Front tapped into widespread public fears that Islamist radicalism and home-grown terror are connected to the influx of immigrants from Arab countries, many of which are former French colonies. The party’s electioneering slogan was «we told you so».
There’s no denying that Le Pen’s party serves up a toxic brew of racist nationalism. In government and with the French presidential election looming in 18 months, it could spell a dangerously divisive political climate if Marine Le Pen were to take power.
On the other hand, it is easy to see why the NF is appealing to many French voters. They feel, rightly, that their social conditions are deteriorating from policies under both establishment parties. These policies are correlated with foreign nationals coming into France who are perceived to be taking jobs, lowering wages and adding a burden to social welfare budgets. Marine Le Pen has accused both the Republicans and Hollande’s party of deliberately encouraging immigration through supporting EU enlargement for the objective of lowering wages from imported cheap labour.
Le Pen has also accused the ruling parties of damaging the French economy through unnecessary antagonism with Russia. The loss of the €1.5 billion Mistral helicopter ship deal with Russia because of Paris’ support for Washington’s geopolitical isolation of Moscow dearly cost French manufacturing jobs.
Last week Le Pen also blasted Hollande for his regime-change aggression towards Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as being a major cause of Europe’s refugee crisis and stoking the threat of terrorism to France.
Underlying the spectacular rise of the National Front is not so much a popular affinity with the party’s inherent reactionary policies. It is significant that more than half of the electorate did not bother to turn out for the regional ballot. That indicates that the dominant sensibility of the French is one of apathy and disaffection with all the parties. The NF is thus largely a vehicle of popular anger and protest.
Le Pen’s NF has certainly tapped into popular grievances. And to a point, she correctly attributes the cause of these grievances to the bankrupt politics of the French establishment parties. In kowtowing to disreputable neoliberal economics and American-led imperialist wars, the so-called Socialists are always going to come off worse, simply because they can be charged with betraying their supporters and the wider nation.
What is particularly nauseating is the way Hollande and his premier Valls are appealing to people to rally behind the «republic» and its overblown claims of «fraternité, egalité, liberté». Their emotional manipulation of French voters by evoking the shame of the country’s dark past of fascism is bitterly ironic. If any party has inflamed the climate of fascism in France it is Hollande’s neo-imperialist, oligarchic-supporting bunch of phoney socialists.
Le Pen is partially right on select issues to do with poverty, foreign policy and war. The NF is harnessing the understandably huge discontent among French voters – a discontent that is shared by many citizens across the European Union. All the establishment parties are corrupted by association with bankrupt economic and militarist, pro-NATO, foreign policies.
But that in no way means Le Pen’s NF has the solution. Far from it. It’s more another symptom of a diseased political and economic system decaying under US-led global capitalism.
A genuine socialist program is needed. Not just in France, but across Europe and internationally. This socialism would unite the vast majority of working people across all borders and is based on anti-imperialism and anti-war, pro-peace, pro-justice and pro-prosperity for the many, not the few.
One positive thing from the rise of Le Pen’s NF is that it should serve to expose the failure of capitalism and those so-called leftwing parties that have prevented people from organising and choosing a genuine socialist alternative.
Parties like Hollande’s and the other establishment parties need be kicked out by the electorate before we can build a real democratic socialist alternative. In that way, the rise of Le Pen in France is to be welcomed as a harbinger of much greater, more thoroughgoing change for the common good.
A rise to power by Le Pen maybe is not welcome, but its shake-up of the bankrupt plutocracy is.