Paris: Portrait of a City in Green and Brown
Marine Le Pen’s inexorable rise augurs poorly for France and Europe.
- The French government has elite civil servants who take leave from state service to seek political office.
- The Islamist atrocities on Paris and killings at Charlie Hebdo have helped the Le Pen operation.
- The Le Pen ladies could lose if socialist voters voted for conservative candidates in their two regions.
- In so many regions of Europe, a nationalist, anti-immigrant politics is winning support.
- For many, the enemy is the EU as was the League of Nations for nationalist populists in the 1920s.
Forty thousand politicians, hangers-on and eco-preachers took over Paris – to talk climate change. Instead, they will prove once again that international agreement is going the way of the League of Nations in the 1920s and 1930s. So much for green Paris.
Meanwhile, throbbing all over the rest of France was the drum-beat of the oldest politics in the book. All back in force is rabid nationalism, laced with open racism, hate of other religions and snake oil promises to provide jobs, boost pensions and abolish competition.
No wonder that Le Monde, one of France’s leading dailies, now colors its political map of France in 1930s brown to represent the Front National (FN) of the Le Pen family. They include foremost Marine Le Pen, the party leader and her niece Marion Maréchal Le Pen (a name that evokes Maréchal Petain’s anti-semitic Vichy puppet regime of post-1940 France).
And of course, hiding in his old man’s armchair until it is safe to come out, the rabid Gallic Trump and alleged war criminal, grandpapa Jean Marie Le Pen, who founded the party.
The crucial second round
On Sunday, when the second round of voting takes place, it will be decided whether there would really be a political earthquake. Perhaps there are enough French voters ashamed at the idea of their country handing important elected office to a party descended from the worst politics 20th century Europe was able to offer.
“The rise of French fascism” was how the centrist liberal British Independent headlined Marine Le Pen’s win last Sunday and while politer journalists prefer the vapid term “far”- or “hard-right,” the Independent’s bluntness is closer to the ideological truth.
The niece, Marion, 25, wants to restore ‘the Christian identity’ of France. She is anti-gay, threatens to remove subsidies from family planning clinics and discourage abortion if she becomes president of the Mediterranean France region from Marseilles to Nice, which goes up the Rhone to summer art festivals of la belle France.
The aunt and party leader, Marine, is based further north. She is likely to head a region which has the rail and ferry access to England at Calais, as well as the border with Belgium. Marine has to go easy on Christian morality as a double divorcee. She isn’t worried that some of her key aides are gay.
Curiously, however, the word “outing,” however, is now used with pride by the professionals and elite state functionaries who are coming out as FN supporters and ready to stand as candidates.
Elite political class
The entire French government system is based on top-drawer civil servants, the famous graduates of l’Ecole nationale d’administration, or Enarques who take leave of absence from state service to seek political office.
President Francois Hollande is one, as was President Jacques Chirac and Alain Juppé, the former prime minister. The latter has shrugged off an 18-month prison sentence for illegal party funding to be the main rival today to Nicolas Sarkozy, as candidate of the mainstream right for the Elysée in 2017.
Sarkozy himself qualified as a lawyer has been a full-time professional politician holding different elected office since his 20s.
It is this caste of elite Paris politicians who are held responsible for the high unemployment, the cuts in public services, the lack of new start-ups, the closure of traditional industries like coal, steel and shipbuilding in the north where the FN has sunk roots.
However, now, some recently graduated members of that same elite are prepared to take their chances with the FN as a way of getting elected to office.
Smart economists and election campaigners have drafted new programs that shut down references to Jews or Holocaust denial but instead draw up a list of policies that resonate with worried, anxious French citizens.
Thus, the FN wants to close frontiers, increase pensions and protect public sector jobs, protect French industry, quit the EU and NATO, and stigmatize all incomers but especially North African Muslims. They also want to keep French jobs for French citizens. This was a slogan pinched from the old PCF – the French communist party — whose white working class electorate has transferred to the Le Pens.
The Islamist atrocities on Paris, the Islamist killings at Charlie Hebdo or a kosher supermarket have all been a bonus for the Le Pen operation.
Left and Right in disarray
The disarray of the main left and right since Sunday has been remarkable. The Socialists said they would stand down all their candidates in the two regions most under threat from Marine Le Pen and her niece.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls is urging left voters to vote for the mainstream right to block the FN. Sarkozy and Juppé refused to reciprocate and many Socialists whose bread and butter political activity is local are unhappy about being told they cannot run for minor office.
So as the left and right parties slug in out in the 13 regions under contest, the FN may walk up the middle.
However the French paper Figaro reported a poll showing the Le Pen ladies, aunt and niece, losing if socialist voters did indeed follow party instructions and switch their votes to conservative candidates in their two regions where Marine and Marion Le Pen came out on top on Sunday. If so, much air will come out of the FN balloon.
Some perspective is needed. Regional councils have never really been the force for decentralized government that a U.S. state or a German land is. They control railway timetables and cultural activities. They are a nice sinecure for local politicians who can’t cut it in national politics and to be president of a regional council gives, well, regional profile.
More than half of those eligible to vote could not be bothered to turn out last Sunday. Out of the total registered electorate, the FN got 13%, the Socialist and Greens and a small leftist party got 17% and the mainstream right got 14%.
This isn’t going to be like Hitler winning a majority of seats in 1933. However, it is now a given that Marine Le Pen would get into the second round of the Presidential election in 2017.
But, as with her father in 2002, all the other votes would then go to mainstream candidate, either Hollande for the left or Sarkozy or Juppé for the right.
Complacency is now coming under question. In so many other regions of Europe, a populist, nationalist, anti-immigrant politics is winning support.
Appeal of “Catholic” politics
Voters are able to sense that no post-1945 party can offer jobs, fair income, homes and a sense of economic energy and social hope, while also shaping a nation in which everyone speaks the same language and women are covered from head to toe in a shapeless black garment while their husbands or fathers re-establish a new patriarchy.
The massive people movement that sees surges of young Europeans moving across the continent for work, plus the new drang nach Norden – the unstoppable drive to northern Europe from people fleeing persecution in the Middle East and Africa has destabilized too many settled communities.
It has left citizens without a sense of who runs their lives: their national government, globalized capitalism or unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels.
In this conjuncture of identity fear, social dislocation and economic insecurity, hate of the political elites grows and the appeal to vote for nation and against “foreign” is powerful.
It is the appeal for the new populist, rightist, Catholic politics in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia with proto-FN parties doing well in Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland and Italy.
It is the Brexit populism in Britain and the clamor for nationalism in Scotland and Catalonia. The problem is that the fears are real and lack of solutions from the mainstream European political class is obvious.
For many today, the enemy is the European Union, just as the League of Nations was for nationalist populists in the 1920s and 1930s.
This Sunday will tell the world how far and how fast the Front National is able to advance. But the political crisis of Europe is only about to begin.