Not since the 1930s has a far right, indeed a fascist party done so well in an election in Western Europe, writes Alastair Stephens
The Front National (FN) led by Marine Le Pen, since she inherited that position from her father, Jean-Marie, topped the poll with 30% of the vote in the first round of voting in regional elections.
The context for the Party’s success is entirely predictable: high unemployment, political crisis, rising racism. The reasons though are different, for whilst some of these misfortunes are givens, others aren't. That capitalism suffers crisis we know, and on each occasion it releases the same evils. The reactions to these are political choices. The breakthrough of the FN is a result of the failure of the left, in the broad sense of the term, to either address the causes of the crisis or the ideological environment in which the far right has been able to grow so large.
Breakthrough for The Fascists?
And a breakthrough it is. The FN not only topped the poll nationally, it came first in six of France’s thirteen regions. The main party of the right, Les Republicains led by Nicholas Sarkozy, came in second with 27% whilst the Socialist Party of President Hollande trailed behind on just 22%.
The disaster is all the worse for the Socialist Party as they won all the regions in 2011: from landslide to wipeout in four years.
It FN is expected to win the northern region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Cotes d’Azur in the south. This would be a real advance for a party which though a fixture of French politics for three decades, still has no MPs and only controls a handful of local councils.
The threat they present is real. The party has its roots in Fascism despite Marine's attempts to ‘detoxify’ the brand since taking over from her father. And these election results are not a one night wonder. The FN topped the poll in last year's European elections in France too.
All of the same elements that led to the rise of Fascism in the 1930s are present in today's France. The country is in a deep economic crisis: the economy has barely grown in years and unemployment refuses to drop below 10%. Faith in the major parties is also on the slide.
It need not have been like this. Many thought that a corner had been turned in 2012 when Francois Hollande was elected President, replacing Monsieur Bling, the egregious Nicholas Sarkozy, the most effective figure the right had managed to produce in a while.
In a hard fought and polarising election Hollande promised to raise taxes on the rich, to create jobs and to make “big finance” his enemy.
When he beat Sarkozy it raised hopes across the continent. It had shown that elections could be won from the left. It was the first great crack in austerity. Except it wasn't. There was no turn away from austerity. The question was fudged for two years, and three cabinets, until in August 2014 Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg spoke out against the continuation of austerity. He along with two left-wing ministers, Benoît Hamon and Aurélie Filipetti were then sacked when Prime Minister Manuel Valls formed a new government. The new Economy Minister was a right winger, Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker at Rosthchild.
This was to be the relaunch of Hollande's presidency. Austerity and neo-liberal reform were now the order of the day as the government committed itself to €50 billion of cuts over three years.
After raising such hopes it is not surprising that Hollande and his government’s poll ratings have inexorably sunk.
Formerly solid bastions of the Socialist Party, such as the former industrial areas of the north, started to succumb to the influence of the FN.
War and Islamophobia
The ground on which the weeds of French Fascism has thrived has also been fertilised by the continual rise of Islamophobia. The racism that characterises French society, in common with other Western countries, has come to be ever more focused on Islamphobia.
The backwash in France from the wars in the Middle East has been rising Islamophobia on the one hand, and in the last year a number of bloody attacks connected to Isis, all of these though, it must be noted, have been carried out by people living in France or Belgium.
The idea that Islam is an existential threat to French society has been legitimised by the war on terrorism. This is a message that some on the left have endorsed in a defence of ‘secularism’, which ignores the French state’s long-standing compromise to Catholicism. The rights of Muslims in France have been consistently assaulted in the name of ‘freedom of consciousness’. Every thing from the hijab to praying in the street has been restricted. France has been at the forefront of what seems to many as a war on Islam.
All this has been grist to the mill of Le Pen and Co.
Rhetoric against 'Islamisation' has figured more and more in the Front’s propaganda. Accusations of Islamophobia are thus dodged. Yet Marine Le Pen can compare people praying in the street to the Nazi occupation. It is a sadly twisted logic which can equate the poorest and most oppressed section of French society with occupation by Europe’s most powerful state. It is the same sort of thinking which led millions to believe that the Jews were an existential threat to European ‘civilisation’.
The version of Frenchness Le Pen postulates is one that excludes the 10% of the population who are Muslim. “To merit French nationality, you have to speak French, eat French and live French” Le Pen has announced, which of course in terms of school meals, the state obviously believes, means eating pork.
Le Pen’s rhetoric has seemed ever so less extreme however, and has gained more purchase, as public discourse has become ever more Islamophobic.
The left has, with notable exceptions, too often echoed this, proclaiming for instance that secularism requires laws to tell women how to dress.
In the wake of the recent killings in Paris this has become turbo-charged. The Socialist government has closed a hundred mosques and declared a war of revenge. This may have led to a temporary jump in Hollande’s ratings but there have been such jumps before, such as after the Charlie Hebdo killings. In an increasingly polarised environment, and with the looming threat of Islam seemingly ever closer, many have turned to the genuine article in terms of Islamophobia.
Those to the left of the Socialist party have also often been found wanting. All the French Communist Party's MPs voted for a prolongation of the State of Emergency. Their ally and leader of the Parti du Gauche, Jean-Luc Melanchon, opposed it but he does not have a seat in parliament.
The choices now facing the left in the second round are grim. There is pressure for third placed candidates to withdraw in the second round so that voters who supported the Socialist Party and the centre right can unite behind single candidates against the Front, as many Socialist voters felt they had to support Jacqueline Chirac against Jeam-Marie Le Pen in the presidential election of 2002.
This was never a good option, and given the bad place the socialists are currently in, this means ceding seats to the right. The Republicans are also not playing ball and are refusing to stand down where they are running third.
The right are playing games with Fascism, thinking that they can just use it for their own ends, just as Germany did in 1933.
The greater the victory in these elections for the FN though, the greater step for them towards the general election in 2017.
Whilst elections are important they are not the be all and end all, and the current array of electoral forces means that this isn't where the tide will be turned against the FN. A united front against Fascism is needed, but so is a united struggle against austerity, war and Islamophobia.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.