Words by Rui Sihombing
“Greece was the laboratory, France will be the battleground.” These were the words offered by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, speaking in Paris at the annual Festival of Humanity in September last year.
Putting aside the dramatic phrasing for a moment, it’s a fair call on the significance of the upcoming presidential election in France this April. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to live in the tumult of the 1930s, then 2017 onwards might be a fairly good approximation of it. Especially if things pan out according to Marine Le Pen. Often stylised as a ‘French Donald Trump’, Le Pen is the face of France’s right-wing National Front (NF) party and a serious contender for the presidency. How serious is serious? At the time of writing, Le Pen is marginally leading the opinion polls at 27%, two percentage points above François Fillon of the centre-right Republicans. It’s a frightening prospect for a Europe swept by a tide of chauvinistic politics, from the Austrian Freedom Party to the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn.
It wasn’t always like this. Chatting with a former professor from The University of Paris- Sud, she told me a little anecdote from four decades ago. As a young graduate student, her and a friend had accidentally walked into a small convention room to find it occupied by around thirty burly middle-aged fascist thugs. Standing at the front of the room? Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father and former head of the party. Back then, the NF weren’t much more than a fringe party of neo-Nazis. So fringe, in fact, that Jean-Marie couldn’t even reach the 500 signatures required to run for president. The only serious attention the NF received was related to the debate over whether fascists should be given a voice in the media. In the end, Jean-Marie did get his media platform, and a few decades on we’ve reaped our sow. The NF have since moderated their image, de-demonised their reputation and, most importantly, swapped their miniscule basement meetings for grand public rallies. But for those of us not so inclined towards xenophobic nationalism, there’s at least some temporary breathing space owing to the two-round French voting system. If no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first-round of voting on the 23rd of April, a run-off vote takes place a fortnight later on the 7th of May between the two highest-polling candidates. With the French left unlikely to progress past the first round, it’s expected that a significant number of centrists and leftists will turn out to vote for the other candidate (probably Fillon or independent Emmanuel Macron) to prevent Europe’s first elected far-right head of state since World War II.
It’s not an entirely new scenario. Back in 2002, a shock first-round result saw Jean-Marie Le Pen progress to the second round of voting, before conceding a landslide defeat to Republican Jacques Chirac. It’s not worth getting complacent, though. Jean-Marie’s holocaust denial has seen him kicked out of the party, and new faces like Florian Philippot have been able to construct a more family-friendly visage for the NF. A neighbour of my host in Lille, an unashamed fascist and member of the old NF, decried it as “a silent coup within the party”.
But will this silent coup be enough to win Le Pen the presidency? Opinion polling indeed suggests that Marine, like her father, will lose by a big margin in the second round. Opinion polling also suggested Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, so there’s that. Nonetheless, Le Pen’s strength remains in her ability to portray herself as an alternative to the status quo. The NF have been able to capitalise on the precarity of a economically stagnant rural France, especially in the former socialist strongholds in the north. Once the preserve of the left, the protectionist, welfarist and anti-establishment rhetoric of Marine Le Pen’s contemporary NF now speaks to a depressed, insecure France yet to see the supposed benefits of European integration.
Yet alongside this supposed disdain for the establishment remains a toxic contempt for immigrants and foreigners. Time and time again, history reminds us that during spells of economic uncertainty, it’s the misanthropes and xenophobes that rise to the top. Len Pen is no exception. Although she may not win come May, Le Pen’s victory has been her ability to make xenophobia not only acceptable, but also popular.
One only has to look at Fillon, who is adopting a similar anti-immigration stance in order to appeal to an increasingly fearful electorate. We’ll see what happens in May, but don’t expect anything resembling the “liberty, equality, fraternity” engraved on walls across the country.