The Danger of Populism in France and Elsewhere

Brignoles is a small town in the department of Var, in south-east France, previously known mostly if at all for its dried prunes.  It has now become better known as a result of the result of the surprising political upheaval in a local council election there on October 13, 2013.  The candidate of the far-right Front National (FN), a 48-year-old former boxer named Laurent Lopez, in the second round of voting gained 53.9% of the vote, while his opponent, of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), the center-right party led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, received 46.1%.  No left-wing candidate was on the ballot.

Though less than half of those eligible to vote in this small town did so, the FN immediately claimed that the electoral success proved it could rally French people and that the French "mainstream parties have been completely shunned and defied by voters."  The euphoria seemed understandable; the party has gained support since 2009, when it obtained only 6.34% of the vote in the elections for the European Parliament.

Even more encouraging for the FN was the publication of a French national poll in October 2013 of voting intentions in the elections in May 2014.  It showed the FN at the top with 24%, while the UMP got 22%, the Socialist Party led by President François Hollande got 19%, and the Left Front party got 10%.  The question now facing France is, will the present success of FN be the forerunner of future dynamism and triumphs in French politics, making difficulties for mainstream political parties, or will FN decline into a minor player?

Misgivings about any future role by the FN arise in view of the history of the party, founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen.  A colorful figure, his rhetoric was marked by racism and political extremism.  He was convicted a number of times for racism, in addition to expounding anti-Semitic beliefs.  He was fined by a German court for minimizing the Holocaust, arguing that the Nazi gas chambers were a "detail" in the history of World War II.  Yet in spite of these extreme views, in the presidential election in 2002, he did gain 17.9% of the vote, becoming second, in the first round of voting , although he failed in the second round, won by Jacques Chirac with 82% of the vote.

His daughter, Marine Le Pen, a former lawyer and even for a time a public defender, a twice divorced mother of three, and in a sense symbolically feminine, is now leader of the FN.  She has attempted to change the image of the party in the attempt to "de-demonize" it.  She has selected members of ethnic minorities as electoral candidates, appointed a 31-year-old graduate of the elite ENA college as her deputy, and removed some of the extreme positions expressed by her father, especially any mention of anti-Semitism.  Indeed, unlike her father, she has denounced the Nazi extermination camps.  She advocates a curious policy mixture of protectionism and a welfare system.

Yet it is important to be wary of the FN.  Its support has expanded geographically from the southeast to the north and northwest.  In elections in the 96 metropolitan districts of France, it has managed to get more than 20% in 43 of them.  Attracting a combination of fervent believers and the "alienated," it thus challenges both the center and leftist parties.

Caution and realism are both in order in assessing FN.  At present, the party has only two members of the lower chamber of parliament and no senators.  It has only 118 regional councilors out of a total of 1880.  It has 3 of the 74 French members of the European Parliament in Brussels; in all, there are 766 members coming from the 28 states in the EU.  Even after the electoral victory in Var, the FN winner, Lopez, will be the only member of the 43-member council.  The FN now claims that because of the supposed desire for change by the French, its present success pertains to the death of Republican France.  But echoing Mark Twain, the report of its death is an exaggeration.

The reality is twofold: the FN has benefited from current problems in France, but the gentler image projected by Marine Le Pen has flaws.  The current support is partly due to the high level of unemployment, the weak economy, the allegations of corruption by former ministers, and a rising crime rate.  It draws support from small shopkeepers concerned with competition from large shops, from low-paid workers, from the unemployed, from those opposed to the European Union, and from those protesting against the political and economic system, especially younger people, who are said to be pessimistic about their future.

Above all, the FN is anti-immigrant.  Marine Le Pen has argued that France has seen more and more veils, then more and more burkas, and now it is witnessing Muslims praying in the streets.  For the FN, the occupation of France by Muslims is underway.  There are no tanks or soldiers involved, but the Muslim presence is still an occupation.

The party has focused on law and order, stricter border controls, and anti-immigrant policy, especially relating to the Romas, the gypsies from Romania and Bulgaria who live in shantytowns around the large cities.  This last issue was particularly attractive to voters of the Brignoles district.

This anti-immigrant policy is akin to similar ones advocated by political parties with which the FN has links in other European countries: the FPO in Austria, the Greater Romanian party, Ataka in Bulgaria, the UKIP in Britain, the Alternativa Sociale in Italy, the Vlaams in Belgium.  All these parties, whether one calls them populist, or fascist, or anti-immigration, or anti-Semitic, or extreme right, spell danger for democratic societies and their values of tolerance, freedom and equality. 

In addition, a major problem for France is Marine Le Pen herself.  In spite of her charm offensive, the European Parliament in July 2013 removed her immunity from prosecution so that she can be prosecuted in France.  That EP immunity covers members of the EP for any opinion they express within the parliament.  But immunity cannot be claimed to cover the committing of an offense.  Le Pen has been, in a case that started in 2001, accused of incitement and hatred because in December 2001 she had compared Muslims praying in French streets to the Nazi occupation of France.

Le Pen must therefore now defend her utterances and actions in a French court.  All political parties understand that the Muslim population in France, now estimated to be more than six million, or 10% of the population, most of whom have come from former French North African colonies, constitutes a difficult and growing problem.  France was the first EU country to ban public wearing of the Islamic veil (niqab).  Nevertheless, Le Pen is a polarizing politician, dividing the country rather than rationally trying to find solutions for the Muslim problem.

It is up to the center and moderate left wing parties in France to find those rational solutions.  The French population must resist the enticing temptation of populism espoused by the FN.  The democratic world in general must be conscious of this danger not only to France, which should assist in this resistance, but also to itself.

Republican France and its battle cries of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity must survive.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.