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The French Far-Right Isn’t Scary Anymore and That’s the Problem

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Like it or not, France is a country where the far-right has its say. After the significant victories of France’s extreme-right National Front party in the first round of mayoral elections last week, the French spent the following week squeamishly wondering how it came to that. There seemed to be a sense of disbelief that those results could actually be happening here, now, in France, and there was a frenzy of media speculation about who and what was to blame. There’s been much less speculation about the idea that maybe it’s not just political strategy gone wrong. Maybe this France —a real voting part of which supports a far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-European, nationalist party— actually is France today.

Yesterday, in the second round of France’s mayoral elections (all cities elect their mayors at the same time), the far right-wing Front National (FN) party got 7% of the vote. That’s compared to 46% for the center-right UMP party, and 41% for the socialists. It’s of course a humiliating defeat for Hollande’s party and his administration, especially because a number of the cities where the FN did particularly well are, and have been for years, traditionally socialist cities. But it’s an especially symbolic victory for the FN because the party only fielded candidates in about 600 of the 36,000 municipalities in France and nonetheless got a much larger proportion of the vote.

There are now at least 12 new Front National mayors of large towns in France–there were none before–and over 1000 town councilors.

This all feels like an aberration, a nightmarish drift that must be due to some unique convergence of terrible political circumstances. This can’t really be what France is about.

France is mortified. A France that votes extreme-right doesn’t match the image that most French people have of their own identity (a majority of voters after all did vote for the center-right UMP and the socialists). This all feels like an aberration, a nightmarish drift that must be due to some unique convergence of terrible political circumstances. This can’t really be what France is about. This is not the modèle français which many people still fervently believe is a national export.

Aside from the searing political defeat for both of the major parties, what disturbs the French is the idea that France is the kind of place where extremist ideology—racist and nationalist and traditionally anti-Semitic in the case of the FN—can get a foothold. After the first round of elections last week, leaders on both sides of the traditional spectrum came out with their decades-old salvo against the FN: that the party is undemocratic or “anti-Republican,” as the French often describe extremism. Prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called for “Republicans” (non-extremist, responsible voters) to do whatever it took to prevent FN mayors from being elected. He even urged socialist voters to vote for center-right UMP candidates if they had a better chance of beating an FN candidate (evidently voters didn’t hear the call: there was record abstention yesterday, that beat the record abstention of the week before).

But it all rang a bit old and dated. Not because the FN isn’t truly extremist—it is a party that urges draconian crackdowns on immigration, whose platform of security, nationalism and anti-Europeanism reeks of another era, whose policy proposals include banning Halal options from school lunch menus, and forging alliances with other far-right parties across Europe. When it comes to ideology, the FN is truly scary.

But the establishment parties have been using—and repeating—the same arguments against the far-right for years, portraying them as illegitimate pariahs. Yet these aren’t the first victories the FN has gained over the years. In 1995, five FN mayors were elected, in 2002, the founder of the Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the presidential run-off, and in 2012, the current FN leader, Marine Le Pen, got 18% of the presidential vote. And yet every time the far-right scores big, the political establishment reacts with the same horrified trepidation as though it were the first time and they can’t believe it’s happening. Willful political amnesia.

The problem is that neither the FN nor France is the same as it used to be. The FN has changed its tone, if not its ideology. And France itself has changed. Since Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the original party founder, took over the party in 2011, she has famously changed its approach and its targets. Gone are the repeated anti-Semitic outbursts of her father, gone is the active targeting of immigrants and religious beliefs, or even specific parties on the left or the right.

The strategy for these municipal elections was deliberately non-ideological: the Front National was simply the party that was against the political establishment. They were the alternative to the elite, to the failure, to the inefficiency—worse—to the perception of indifference that evidently has been taking hold of many French people. As one analyst said, “voters are not looking for the most competent candidate, but the one who shares their feelings about the state of French society.” That France looking for an understanding of their reality—for shared feelings—may not be a France that is part of the traditional French “Republican” identity, but it’s a real France. And that France votes, in part, for the far-right.

The big debate after the first round of the elections was whether the vote for the Front National was one of “sanction” or “adhesion“: a disappointed sanction of Hollande’s socialist government, or a truly active support of the far-right. Because if it was a sanction vote, we can still be the French people we think we are, it’s just that things right now are really bad: the economy, the unemployment which went up again between the two rounds of voting, the growing sense of disillusion with the government’s ability to actually resolve problems.

The reality is that it’s probably both sanction and adhesion. Yes, the FN has changed, but so has the identity of the French. France is clearly no longer the country where it is unimaginable for “Republicans” to vote for the extreme right. Whether sanction or adhesion, the change in France is more significant—and chilling—even than the number of FN candidates elected.

The truly historic change, as Marine Le Pen herself described it, is that now the far-right has “arrived as a major independent force—a political force at both national and local level.” The FN said it was viable and legitimate, and many French people now agree.

It might be terrifying, but it’s also real. France and its Republicans may want to update their idea of what France really looks like.

Featured image: Stock Photos from Frederic Legrand – COMEO/Shutterstock

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