The Front National is increasingly thought of as "a party like the others"by Jim Wolfreys / December 6, 2016 / Leave a comment
Front National presidential candidate Marine Le Pen ©Bakounine/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images François Hollande is the first standing president under the Fifth Republic, established in 1958, to announce that he will not seek a second term. This is more than just a personal failure for France’s most unpopular president ever. It is a symptom of an ongoing crisis of parties and institutions. France’s electoral system, based on a two round, first-past-the-post ballot, was designed to undermine small parties that challenged the status quo. Yet next year an “outsider” party, Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN), is currently expected to make it through to the second round of the presidential election. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, did the same in 2002 to widespread consternation. But this time the Front poses more of a threat. The warning signs have been there for some time. In the 2012 presidential poll the organisation achieved its highest ever score, with nearly 6.5 million votes. In 2014 it sent more deputies to the European parliament than any other party in France. Last year it won the first round of both the departmental and regional elections with around a quarter of the vote. The Front’s success offers a spectacular rebuttal to claims that populist racism can be undermined by adopting a tough line on immigration. Ever since the party’s electoral breakthrough in the early 1980s, mainstream politicians have fallen over themselves to show how concerned they are about immigration. Leading figures on the centre-left and right have claimed that the FN asks the “right questions” and that the French have reached a “tolerance threshold” when it comes to migrant numbers. They have promised to charter planes to deport illegal immigrants, complained of the “noise and the smell” made by immigrant families, and told Romani people to “go home.” For over three decades, countless laws, decrees and circulars have been introduced to tighten borders, make immigration more selective, regulate access to citizenship and deal with delinquency in “problem” areas. Police have swooped on hostels housing undocumented migrants and refugee camps have been destroyed. Muslims have been subjected to increasing scrutiny and stigmatisation and bans imposed on the hijab and the niqab. The government’s own human rights body has noted that racist language is becoming more commonplace and is feeding off the way issues of national identity, immigration and religion are being exploited in public debate. If the Front National today is increasingly perceived as a party “like the others,” this has more to do with a drift towards intolerance by mainstream parties than with the changes to the Front’s image introduced under Marine Le Pen’s leadership. It has become harder for rivals to dismiss the FN as beyond the pale when they have embraced so much of its outlook. Nor does the FN look quite so draconian after more than a year under the state of emergency introduced after the November 2015 terrorist attacks. Opinion polls currently put Marine Le Pen just behind the centre-right’s new candidate, François Fillon. He has spoken of his opposition to multiculturalism and of his plans to railroad through controversial economic and workplace reforms within weeks of being elected. He is advocating public sector cuts and labour market deregulation that go further than the FN’s proposals. The Front is aware that its electorate is more concerned than centre-right voters about wealth redistribution. It will pose as a popular, anti-establishment alternative to Fillon. FN vice-president Florian Philippot has already denounced the “unprecedented violence” of Fillon’s programme, claiming that he wants “the destruction of public services and therefore the state.” The Front National has yet to demonstrate that it is capable of winning a majority in the second round of a national election but it has made significant advances since 2002. With the Socialist Party in disarray, Fillon is currently favourite to win in 2017. But his strategy is a high risk one: he is expecting voters to back his extreme austerity rather than the FN. In 2002, demonstrators filled the streets between the two rounds of the election, calling on the electorate to back the incumbent, Jacques Chirac, against Jean-Marie Le Pen: “Rather the crook than the fascist!” Chirac won eight out of ten votes in the second round. The Front today represents no less of a danger to civil liberties, minorities or the labour movement than it did in 2002. But a decade and a half down the line French society has become more unequal. Political debate has become more intolerant. Mainstream parties have become weaker. They can no longer take it for granted that voters will rally to them on the basis that they represent a lesser evil. At the very least, 2017 is likely to remind us that such appeals are subject to the law of diminishing returns.