Grumblings in Gaul
With so much being written about the election this year, now might be a good time to focus on something other than Rick Santorum’s constant need to talk about the intricacies of gay sex. Seeing the volatility of the Republican nominating process, one might think that the U.S. is in for one of the roughest elections in a while. I think we need to put this thinking in perspective.
After all, America is not the only country in an election year. Our closest allies and good — well, decent — friends, the French also have an presidential election. There are a small host of candidates running against incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy. These candidates span the spectrum of French politics: Francois Hollande, the socialist favorite who stepped up when Dominique Staus-Kahn was arrested in a Manhattan Hotel room for sexual misconduct, Jean-Luc Melechon, the token Communist, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front. It is this last candidate who presents a problem.
France is not the only country in Europe with a far-right, nativist party. Britain has the British National Party, or BNP, led by Nick Griffin, a white supremacist nationalist who endorses “ethno-nationalism.” In Russia, there is the People’s National Party, which similarly supports racist policies and pan-Slavism. Spain, Ireland, and the Netherlands all have similar parties. Germany and Austria, for obvious reasons, do not. All of these parties have arisen in response to the huge wave of immigration that has swept across Europe, and many use this issue to give themselves a voice in national politics, where they would otherwise be ignored.
In most cases, these parties remain marginalized, and even small efforts to push themselves on to the national stage—like Mr. Griffin’s inclusion in BBC’s Question Time—are met with public outrage by both the left and right. In a way, far-right parties can be useful, as their crudeness, blatant racism, and internal squabbles often discredit whatever ideas they are trying to promote. In France, a country where the left tends to be the dominant power, these parties can also be used to take votes away from more moderate Conservatives, such as Mr. Sarkozy.
While the existence of the National Front is not a problem, the fact that it has received 12% of the national vote is. I do not believe the United States has a right to dictate to other countries how they should vote, but U.S. citizens should take notice when one of our closest allies seems to be taking a party like the National Front semi-seriously.
The party’s rise is due in part to the efforts of its new leader, Marine Le Pen, to distance herself from the party’s neo-Nazi roots. By focusing on opposition to France’s membership the EU, Mrs. Le Pen has successfully taken votes from the UMP, President Sarkozy’s party. This has both increased the likelihood of Mr. Hollande winning the presidency and raised questions about how a size-able segment of the French electorate is polling in favor of a party like the National Front. Despite Mrs. Le Pen’s insistence to the contrary, the party still has much in common with its Neo-Nazi predecessors. Its policies on immigration reek of xenophobia, and its efforts at “historical revisionism” about the Second World War raise serious doubts about its leaders. The National Front’s motto Travail, Famille, Patrie (Work, Family, Fatherland) is, not coincidentally, the same as that adopted by the collaborationist Vichy regime in opposition to liberté, égalité, and fraternité.
Among the many accusations that can be leveled at French politicians, excessive conservatism is not usually one of them. But the U.S. needs to acknowledge the dangers which a candidate like Le Pen can pose, especially with the Eurozone crisis lending support to her protectionist economic arguments. As our own election is showing, promises of economic recovery often lead voters to consider candidates whose non-fiscal policies are dangerously radical.
In all likelihood, Francois Hollande will become the next president of France. That does not mean we should dismiss the danger of far-Right politics in Europe. If anything, this election shows how increased political polarization is not just happening in America. The economy, immigration, and a “culture war” are all mixing together to create a toxic stew of extremism and bigotry. Our own presidential candidates should take note.
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