On Monday 26th May, France woke up shocked after the political earthquake it experienced with the result of the European Parliament elections. The French left, the Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste, PS) reached a poor 14% of the votes, while the right (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, UMP) scored 21%; the most striking performance however was the 25% score of the ever stronger far-right party, the Front National, (FN). The result had been forecasted in polls during the months preceding the vote. Contrary to the presidential elections of 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round against Jacques Chirac, the rise of the FN was not a big surprise, but still a shocking development. After a little more than a week, the blast of the election results has faded and the press moves on to make its headlines on political scandals concerning the UMP. It seems that there is a lot to do to clean up this electoral and political mess – but what and whose mess is this?
Xenophobia in the country of Voltaire and Montesquieu?
These past years, French politicians have been good at finding excuses to justify the rising popularity of the far-right in elections: the financial crisis and morose economic situation, the failure of previous governments, and the abstention of the so called “protest vote” is not making their task any easier”. They can also comfort themselves: France is not the only country in the European Union where extremist and Eurosceptic parties score high.
The result is here, “a painful truth” as said by President Hollande. Nonetheless, the French chief of State and his government did not take responsibility for this failure. During his brief post-elections speech he highlighted the 60% abstention and high score of the far-right, analysing it as a vote of defiance towards Europe.
Unlike the traditional rhetoric of opposition parties to claim that citizens sanctioned the action or inaction of the incumbent government, many observers analysed that the FN vote is no longer only a sanction to the government. People do embrace the ideas of the far-right. According to a poll on the FN, the approbation rate of the far right party raised 10 points in two years. Several interconnected reasons can account for this tendency.
A failure of the political elite
First and foremost the socio-economic crisis is making a convenient scapegoat. It is nevertheless true that France is not doing well on the front of unemployment, competiveness and growth. In addition to the usual suspects, a historically unpopular French President criticized for his lack of authority has resulted in a weak government and a lack of required reforms. He came to power full of promises but after two years the French people are disappointed. Hollande did not lead a very different politic than Sarkozy and the right which previously had power; he did not manage to renegotiate European targets on a reduction of budget deficits and public debt, but proposed a 50 billion reduction of the State budget, a decision closer to austerity than measures stimulating the economy; he even took steps to massively support the business sector, quite a U-turn. His regular rollbacks on announced policies and reforms came with the price of high unpopularity, a loss of credibility from his core support, and more generally the majority of the French people.
Moreover, the political scene, both left and right, has been tainted by scandals: conflict of interest, corruption, fraud, tax exile, to name but a few. The most recent one touches upon the illegal financing of the failed political campaign of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012. UMP staff passed off €10million of invoices for events of the Sarkozy campaign as invoices for the party in order to bypass campaign financing law. Moreover, the service provider a, communication and event management firm close to the leader of the party, Jean-François Copé, allegedly overcharged for the provided services. The police found proof of the wrongdoing a few days after the elections and the latter resigned. The UMP is also going through severe dissensions, including power quarrels, and has lost credibility as the opposition party. In this context of mushrooming political scandals and dirty laundry being washed in public, people have just lost the faith they had in the ruling political elite, both from the right and the left.
Finally, constantly criticizing the EU and using Brussels as a scapegoat for their failures, mainstream parties paved the way for Eurosceptic’s success. They also consistently flirted with the far right’s favourite focus points, such as immigration, regaining sovereignty and protectionism. This really helped Marine Le Pen’s strategy of “normalisation”. She distanced the negative image of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was openly xenophobic, and posed as a strong and credible leader. With the “Rassemblement Bleu Marine”, she succeeded in reaching out to victims of the crisis with an emphasis on economic and social issues, in addition to the traditional Eurosceptic themes of sovereignty, stopping free movement of people, and exit of the euro. She made it ok to openly support the FN, relieving the usual shame people have of voting for FN, calling her supporters “patriots”. The FN went from provocation to proposals (most unrealistic), offering French people an alternative to mainstream parties and filling the gap left by a failed political elite.
Cleaning the mess starts today
After the elections, I had to face questions from foreign friends and colleagues about why France, the birthplace of Human Rights, has became racist and nationalist. What was my reaction towards this, did I feel ashamed? Well, of course I am sad and worried about this result. I am sad because high scores of the far-right in several EU countries means that EU citizens are increasingly afraid of each other, buying the rhetoric of fear whilst – in order to reform the EU – we need courage and trust. I am worried about 140 Eurosceptic Members the European Parliament, potentially forming a far right and a Eurosceptic group, able to draft reports and amendments, if they ever deign attend committee meetings and not only sign the register at the Plenary sessions. Finally, I am ashamed when I hear about the rampant corruption in the French political class. This is part of the reason why the far-right is thriving, posing as a credible alternative to mainstream parties.
Efforts should be put in “sanitising” political elite from the rotten apples. It is necessary and it will be challenging; both side of the political spectrum have skeletons in the closet but they would rather not throw scandals at each other. A change in mentalities and in the law has to occur to increase ethics and transparency. Finally, French politicians should stop blaming Brussels and take responsibility for their failures. They should reject populist temptation if they want to avoid paving the way for the far right.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organisation.