After Sunday’s first round of the regional elections, the extreme-Right Front National is being called “France’s leading party.” Its candidates led in six Regions. Its spokespersons are now invited to take part in election-night specials by the different TV networks, private and public. This legitimization of the party seems to be progressing inexorably as the media and the establishment political parties they support look on, powerless to stop the process. But in fact, the media have played a part in legitimizing the Front all along. And it should not be forgotten that as far back as 1986, Socialist president François Mitterrand had encouraged the FN, using his executive power to allow proportional legislative elections in order to undercut the establishment Right. And that Right has moved closer and closer to the Front’s positions, especially during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. The Front National may be a threat to France, but to some degree at least, it isFrance.
The question now is not whether the FN will win the presidency of one of France’s Regions, but how many presidencies and legislative majorities it will win. And the establishment Left and Right and the media are in panic over what they can do to stop the Front.
The Front’s spokemen tend to be young, smart, and modern-looking. They tell us, during the minute or so they are given at the start of the program to outline their major themes, that they are the only party that represents real change. They refer to the two leading official parties, PS (Socialist) and LR (Les Républicains), as the “LRPS”, implying that there is no real difference between them. The Front’s leader and presumed presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, has now eased comfortably into her party’s growing legitimacy. It is almost as if the party’s real face – the sneering bulldog face of her father, founder Jean-Marie Le Pen – were no longer visible. If one looks closely at Marine, however, chieftain’s features and mannerisms clearly emerge, despite Marine’s younger, female (if not feminine) repackaging. And the candidate for the Regional presidency in the South, Marine’s niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, is young and, on the surface, attractive.
But no one who looks below the surface has illusions about what the Front really represents. Just as Jean-Marie’s face is visible in the hatchet-carved contours of Marine’s, the party’s real program – or at least that is what the Front is surely counting on – is legible like a watermark. There is no need – they hope, and their future victory depends on it – to trumpet racist, supremacist rhetoric anymore. They can discuss economic issues and pretend to have truly new solutions, and they can spotlight Front members and even candidates who are of North African or Black African descent, much as the Republican Party in the USA now does. Voters can vote for a party whose stock in trade has always been racism and xenophobia out of simple, ingrained racism or out of a genuine fear of “immigrant hordes” – to borrow a phrase from another politician who plays on the same fears – just as the party itself denies its real face in presenting these token members and candidates. But in the party’s pronouncements, phrases like “respect for our culture and our identity” send a barely-coded message.
And the Front’s candidate in the Ile-de-France region, the aristocratically-named Wallerand de Saint-Just, is more indicative of the party’s real values and traditions – those of the reactionary, anti-Socialist, anti-labor, and even anti-republican, bourgeois and even aristocratic, traditionally Catholic “Old France.” For, hidden just below the surface of France’s i-Phone-toting society, a discreet segment of the population defends “traditional values,” with some even calling for the restoration of the monarchy. Not so discreet, in fact, as time goes on and the Front National consolidates its influence. In 2010, for example, young “traditionalist” Catholics, male and female, staged an attack on gay demonstrators at a “kiss-in” on the square in front of Notre-Dame cathedral, shouting “habemus papam!” – a reference to the election of conservative Pope Benedict XVI and to their preference for the Tridentine Mass. Behind such “traditions,” one can perceive the outline of the Vichy regime, whose façade of tradition and family values in fact concealed a willingness to surrender to Nazism in exchange for ridding France of a government that genuinely represented the working class. Saint-Just is among the reactionary Catholics, aligned with the Society of St. Pius X, who have illegally occupied the church of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris since 1977. A ceremony in honor of Holocaust-denying historian and declared Fascist Maurice Bardèche was held in the church in 1998. St-Just is now being sued by his environmentalist opponent in the current elections for saying in a tweet that the Left bears responsibility for the Friday the 13th terror attacks.
The official Left and Right are now united in pointing to the Front as a threat to “our values,” to democracy, to the Republic. Their spokespersons attempt to call out the Front on its real values, history, and alignment. But they can’t debate positions that are unspoken. They attempt to discredit the party by pointing to the loans it has received from supposed “Russian Mafiosi aligned with the dictator Putin.” This is a reference to Konstantin Malofeev, founder of the international investment fund Marshall Capital Partners. It would be more accurate to call Malofeev a successful young entrepreneur, whose interests include telecoms, real estate, and agriculture. Somehow these loans are supposed to raise a red flag in the minds of readers/viewers of the official media, which have participated in the campaign to portray Vladimir Putin as a brutal dictator for years now, following the standard NATO party line. The problem is that Putin is now an ally of France and to some extent of the US in the “struggle against terrorism.” And if you think about it for a minute, all the Front is doing is seeking funding from corporate interests – exactly what all the “legitimate” political parties do. The problem is that French corporations are not yet ready to openly support the Front. But it’s a fairly safe bet that they will if the Front’s legitimization and rise to power continues to advance. And after all, is there really a fundamental difference between the “Russian mafia” and large French corporations, other than the fact that the latter publish Sustainable Development reports and sponsor the COP 21 environment conference?
France’s official Right and Left, along with the media, have themselves to blame for this situation. The Socialists are in danger of losing most of the Regions where they now hold power, and worse, of being on the wrong side of a momentum that is likely to carry either the Front or the official Right to power. François Hollande has used the recent tragedy to bolster his status with potential Front voters, calling the terror attacks “attacks on the values of the Republic” and at the same time using them as an excuse to curtail civil liberties and freedom of speech and of the press – those very same values –, increase surveillance of citizens, and increase the powers of the police. He used the emergency powers he put in place just after November 13th, and which the legislature has now voted to extend, to arrest peaceful organizers of protests at the COP 21. Aren’t such measures more or less exactly what the media and the “respectable” politicians are warning us we can expect from the Front if it takes power?
As for the official Right, or the “Republican Right” as the media call it to distinguish it from the extreme Right, it has never been very far removed from the Front, and current leader and former president Nicolas Sarkozy captured the presidency in 2007 by co-opting the Front’s themes of law and order and fear of an immigrant invasion. Sarkozy has feigned courting the Front National, even saying once that “Marine Le Pen is compatible with the Republic” – no doubt as a way of giving voters a signal that if they vote for him they can count on getting what the Front promises and still maintain respectability by voting for a party they can admit they voted for. Indeed, the Front’s popularity was long underestimated partly because many voters who vote for them will not admit it in a poll or to family and friends. Now, of course, more and more of such voters will come out of the closet. The “Republican Right” has tripped itself up: If Le Pen is “compatible with the Republic,” then who needs the Republican Right, who have been in power many times and never ushered in the “real change” politicians are always promising? The result of all the overtures to the Front’s voters is that the voters no longer see any difference between the two.
The same is true of the Socialists. Their own pandering to the Front national vote is nothing new. It shifted into a higher gear when Manuel Valls became Prime Minister and, taking a page from Sarkozy’s playbook, staged arrests of undocumented working parents who had come to fetch their children at school and hounded the Rom population. Valls physically resembles Sarkozy – short and cocky – and his intention of duplicating Sarkozy’s strategy is transparent. The Socialists have made it clear from the start ¬– indeed, from the time of the Mitterrand government – that they are Socialists in name only and at best are a kind of Social-Democrat party. Hollande had declared during his presidential campaign that “my real adversary is finance.” But since he took office, he and his Prime Minister have announced several times that they “love business.” Their real constituency, in fact, is enterprise and finance, and their mantra is “growth.” They have shown themselves to be facilitators of the Washington Consensus, privatizing publicly-owned companies to the point where one would need a very strong light to see the outlines of the fundamental Socialist values – that housing, health care, education, and transportation should be protected from the forces of finance and the market. The environmentalists, considered a constituent element of the French Left, have now distanced themselves from the Socialists. In fact, there is now a socialist wing of the Socialist party. These factions have now struck compromises and merged their tickets with the Socialists to face the “threat” of the Front National. Such maneuvers can only cause voters to wonder how much substance there actually is behind the political rhetoric. The PS seems to hope that citizens will continue to vote for them out of a belief that they still do embody those values, but no longer talk about them out of a need to attract voters away from the Right. But again, if the Left has become indistinguishable from the Right, and since both have had their chances before, who can blame voters for giving the sanitized Front National a chance?