Monday, April 23, 2012

Le Pen and the Fear in France

The results from the first round of the French Presidential Election are in, with Sarkozy and Hollande making it to the second round. Polls invariably show Hollande, a socialist, beating Sarkozy handily in the May 6th final round.

French flag
Vive la France, pas le racisme!
Photo by Fran├žois Schnell
Just a quick recap: in France, the first round of voting for Presidential candidates was yesterday. Since none of the 10 candidates won more than 50% of the vote, the top two candidates, Sarkozy and Hollande, will face on on May 6th. At the present time, barring Hollande getting caught with a live boy or a dead girl (old US political joke, sorry) it looks like the next French president will be a Socialist. I can't say that Hollande makes me particularly happy and I hope that there will be enough power in the government to put the brakes on some of his more radical ideas.

What worries me, though, is Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front. She took 18% of the vote with more than 80% of the French people voting. There is simply no way that Sarkozy can win without courting her voters and he's quite ready to do so. From the article:
Sarkozy had run a rightwing campaign from the outset, chasing voters on the extreme right by focusing on immigration, saying there were too many foreigners in France and following Le Pen's lead in claiming unlabelled halal meat was a key concern of French voters. He had recently stressed conservative family values and the Christian heritage of France. His strategists will now have to decide whether he lurches even further to the right.
At this point, there's really no choice for Le Pen's supporters, but I'm curious to see Hollande's response. He's already made anti-immigration comments and I suspect that just a few more well-chosen comments here and there might pull enough Le Pen supporters to his side of the line to seal Sarkozy's fate. Will he go there? I seriously doubt that he will be as blatant as Sarkozy has been, but there will be hints of it in the next couple of weeks.

Le Pen may have lost the first round of the Presidency, but her quiet message of hate is working its way through the country. It's fashionable to express concerns about Muslims. It's fashionable to talk about cracking down on immigration. It's fashionable to pick an external enemy to rally internal support. And while Marine Le Pen may have toned down her father's pro-Nazi rhetoric (he has stated that the Nazi occupation of France wasn't particularly inhumane and has referred to the Nazi gas chambers as a mere detail of history), she is still running as the candidate for his party.

To my knowledge, Marine Le Pen has never publicly repudiated her father. She's even been courting Israel, apparently thinking that in having a common enemy withe Muslims, the Israelis might forget her past. In fact, I think they might actually be cautiously optimistic about her, but it's hard to know. All I know is that there are two types of people who are voting for her: those who vote out of fear and try to ignore the bad signs and those who know exactly what they are voting for. Either way, it's a disgrace.

Lest you be smug and think "it can't happen here", I submit that it can happen anywhere.  It's the structure of the French Presidential election system that allows people to initially vote for "third party" candidates without fear that they'll throw the election to the enemy. Currently, the rallying cry is against Muslims, against immigration, a "law and order" crackdown with little thought as to right or wrong or examination of root causes. We see this in many political parties, not just Le Pen's National Front. We see this in many countries, not just France. As long as the economic climate remains bleak and cultural tensions are high, there will always be opportunists ready to prey on those who give in to fear. This is a human thing, not a French thing.

What worries me is that Le Pen's failure to make it to the second round might actually be worse than the alternative. A long, slow rise in the polls with a careful cultivation of support is what she's looking for here. Getting to the second round and being decisively defeated may have focused too much attention on her and ended her chances of making another serious run. Now she has credibility and a future. Don't count her out.
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