The far-right factor in France's election
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is frantically racing to the right to win the votes of National Front supporters.analyzes whether he can succeed.
THE SECOND round of France's presidential election on May 6 will, as expected, pit the candidates of the country's two leading parties against each other--and opinion polls show that right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy is probably headed for defeat, also as expected.
But the shadow of France's far right, emboldened by a strong showing in the first round of the presidential vote, looms over the campaign as it heads into its final week.
On May Day, supporters of Socialist Party candidate François Hollande will gather for parades and rallies, traditionally organized by unions and the left. But in Paris, there will be two competing events.
Heaping insult on injury, Sarkozy has called on those who do "real work" to attend his open-air rally near the Eiffel Tower on May 1. The call itself was another slander against unions, particularly those representing public-sector workers. Less comically, Marine Le Pen, leader of the fascist National Front, will preside over a demonstration on what the party calls "Joan of Arc Day"--where she will celebrate the Front's first-round success and point supporters toward parliamentary elections in June.
Le Pen outdid all predictions in the first round of the presidential election on April 22, winning 6.4 million votes, for 17.9 percent of the total--a record showing for the virulently racist and reactionary party. The size of Le Pen's vote overshadowed Hollande's win over Sarkozy--this is the first time an incumbent president lost a first-round vote--and a good turnout for left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Sarkozy's predicted defeat is a signal of the depth of opposition to the austerity agenda he represents--as is the result for Mélenchon. But the advance for the fascists shows the polarization of French society and the urgent need to build a left alternative that confronts this threat.
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WITH LESS than a week to go before the second-round vote, Sarkozy has become more and more poisonous in a naked attempt to win over National Front supporters. He trails in opinion polls, but only by single digits. Analysts say he has a chance to win if he can get nearly all of Le Pen's voters to turn out and vote for him.
So Sarkozy, already notorious for his arrogance and racist scapegoating, has dropped all pretense of keeping any distance from the fascists.
His speeches since the first round have focused relentlessly on immigration and security. Sarkozy claimed the government deficit is due to immigrants coming to France to collect generous welfare benefits--a lie that will be familiar to anyone who listens to right-wing politicians in the U.S.--and he has denounced Hollande's mild proposal to give immigrants resident in France the right to vote in municipal elections.
Sarkozy continues to save special abuse for Muslims. Last week, he claimed that Hollande had the support of "700 mosques," and of Tariq Ramadan, the Islamic academic who remains a favorite target of the Islamophobes.
But the scapegoating goes beyond this. In claiming to stand for the French people who do the "real work," Sarkozy is linking his attacks on immigrants and Muslims to attacks on unions. Thus, in a speech last week, he declared, "Some earn more by not working than others do by working." The "some" who allegedly don't work include not only immigrants supposedly collecting state benefits, but public-sector workers whose rights on the job have been a prime target of Sarkozy's administration.
The Left Front candidate Mélenchon accused Sarkozy of taking his talk about "real work," in contrast to people who receive salaries or assistance from the state, "word for word [from] the text of a 1941 poster" of Marshal Philippe Pétain, leader of the French regime that collaborated with Germany's Nazis during the Second World War.
Of course, it's not like Sarkozy's campaign for the first round was any less filthy. At one point, Le Pen declared that a conspiracy was afoot to conceal the "fact" that 90 percent of the meat consumed by Paris residents was halal--meaning it was prepared in ways that make it permissible for Muslims to eat. Sarkozy joined in the fear-mongering, claiming halal meat was an issue that all France cared about.
None of this is new for Sarkozy. The man built his career on racism and right-wing politics.
Sarkozy became head of the main conservative party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UPM), in 2005, while he was serving as Interior Minister. According to French socialist Yann Terdechène, "[H]e built his reputation of being tough on crime by organizing spectacular (and, of course, totally ineffective) police operations hyped by the media--and by insulting immigrant youth with his talk of 'cleaning the cities.'"
In November 2005, immigrant neighborhoods, first in Paris and then in cities around the country, erupted in protest and rioting after police in a Paris suburb chased two North African teenagers into an electrical power facility, where they were electrocuted. Sarkozy's response was to publicly denounce the rioters as "scum" and order police to crack down.
Sarkozy won the 2007 presidential election with a hardline right-wing program that succeeded in taking votes from the National Front--the fascists suffered their worst election showing in a generation. Once in office, he presided over harsh austerity measures that have pounded working-class living standards. After his five years as president, there are a million more French people unemployed, youth unemployment tops 20 percent, and 8.5 million people live in poverty.
Accumulated bitterness at Sarkozy's reign exploded in late 2010 when the president forced through a pension "reform" that raised the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the age for full benefits from 65 to 67. Though the measure became law, Sarkozy sparked the largest wave of strikes and street demonstrations since France's "days of May" in 1968. His popularity rating plunged to 29 percent, an all-time low for a French president.
Whenever faced with opposition, though, Sarkozy turns to his tried-and-true methods. Before the 2010 strikes, Sarkozy tried to bolster his position with a highly publicized expulsion of 1,000 Roma immigrants--and by pushing through a law to ban Muslim women from wearing burqas and niqabs in public places.
Last year, France expelled a record number of immigrants deemed to be "illegal." And after a French-born Salafist, Mohamed Merah, killed seven people in southwestern France in March, Sarkozy tried to use the opportunity to whip up further hatred against Muslims, with roundups of so-called "extremists."
Sarkozy's policies inevitably give legitimacy to the National Front, which can rightly point out that Sarkozy is saying everything they have all along. As Raquel Garrido, who followed Jean-Luc Mélenchon out of the Socialist Party to form the Left Party in 2008, said in an interview with Al Jazeera, "[T]he more the UMP goes along with the themes that are suggested by the National Front--immigration, insecurity, halal food, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab--actually all it does is favor the National Front."
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BUT THE Socialists--and even radical forces like the Left Front--must also bear some responsibility for the fascists being able to set the terms of the debate.
For example, the Socialist Party favors the ban on burqas and niqabs. Socialist representatives in the National Assembly and Senate organized a walkout rather than vote on Sarkozy's version of the anti-Muslim law in 2010. But according to an Associated Press story at the time, most of them "support a ban. They simply have differences over where it should be enforced, underscoring the lack of controversy among French politicians on the issue." Mélenchon, too, opposes the right of women to wear the veil.
Likewise, the Socialists have also gone along with the scapegoating of immigrants, particularly when they controlled France's government.
In fact, in the face of Sarkozy's attacks on immigrants before the election's second round, Socialist Party leaders who are seen to be speaking for Hollande have tried to minimize the differences between the Socialists, the UMP and the National Front--stating that there is a "consensus" on the issue, according to British socialist Jim Wolfreys.
Hollande himself reflects the Socialists' compromises and capitulations to the right. He was forced by Mélenchon's firebrand campaign to tilt left during the first round of the campaign, promising, for example, to raise the top tax rate on income over 1 million euros to 75 percent. But now, Hollande is presenting himself as a moderate who will restore stability to the presidency after Sarkozy's turbulent years.
Hollande says he favors "fair austerity." And when Sarkozy signaled that he would escalate his anti-immigrant diatribes, Hollande meekly warned against making immigration "the only subject of the campaign." "There must be limits," Hollande said.
Compare that to the words Mélenchon used in the first round to describe Le Pen and her racist policies: a "filthy beast spitting hatred," "a bat" and "half-demented."
Sarkozy is still expected to lose on May 6. Hatred for his austerity policies runs deep, including among National Front voters in the first round, many of whom will likely abstain rather than vote for the establishment candidate of the right wing. For her part, according to political analysts, Le Pen would prefer Sarkozy and the UMP to suffer a humiliating defeat, which would give the National Front space as a legitimate force among the mainstream right.
But Hollande's return to the Socialists' preferred role of timid moderate--and, in fact, the Socialists' long record of faithfully imposing austerity during their time in office, at both the federal and local levels--leaves the possibility open that Sarkozy could whip up enough hate to win in a low-turnout vote.
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UNFORTUNATELY, some liberal and left writers have downplayed the significance of Le Pen's first-round showing.
Britain's Guardian newspaper, for example, ran several articles which aimed to prove that Marine Le Pen hadn't improved on previous votes for the fascists--though it was hard to get around the fact that she won 2 million more votes than her father, Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, did in his best election.
Meanwhile, journalist Diana Johnstone, in an article published by the CounterPunch and ZNet websites, grouped Le Pen among the candidates who were "basically on the left"--because she was critical of the bankers and bureaucrats who are driving the austerity agenda in defense of the euro. Johnstone acknowledged Le Pen's "criticism of Muslim practices in France and demands to reduce immigration quotas," but wrote that "her position on these issues would be considered moderate in the Netherlands or in much of the United States."
That understates the extremism of Le Pen's bigotry. But what's worse is the confusion--exhibited by other writers as well--about Le Pen's populist rhetoric against European bankers and "the rotten Parisian elite that always short-changes us." It has nothing whatsoever to do with the left-wing challenge to Sarkozy and neoliberalism.
To start with, anyone who knows the history of fascism in the 1930s will remember that the Nazis denounced the financial elite, too--with special enthusiasm if anti-Semitism came into play.
When Marine Le Pen attacks the euro currency and the European financial bureaucracy overseeing a continent-wide austerity program, her appeal is to right-wing nationalism--above all, that France's sovereignty is being threatened. In reality, France has been a partner (a junior one at least) with Germany in imposing conditions on the countries suffering most in Europe's debt crisis. The priority has been to protect the interests of the rich--including, yes, the "rotten Parisian elite" that Le Pen rants about--while pushing the burden of the crisis onto working people.
The National Front's claim to be on the side of French workers is "typical of fascism and extreme right-wingers," as Raquel Garrido said in his interview with Al Jazeera, and with the economic crisis of the Sarkozy years still taking its toll, the far right is bound to gain a hearing among some workers.
But Le Pen's denunciations of the European Central Bank are inextricably bound up with the hard core of National Front politics--racist hate and scapegoating. Opinion polls showed once again this year, as in the past, that most Front voters are driven by the party's anti-immigrant stand, not criticism of the euro. Election-day polling revealed another frightening fact: almost half of National Front voters were between 25 and 44 years of age.
Marine Le Pen is being credited for "modernizing" the National Front by ditching its old associations with open admiration of the Nazis and other relics from her father's era. But the Front remains connected to what Cedric Piktoroff, a member of France's New Anticapitalist Party, described as "violent extra-parliamentary groups" that have "been involved in violent attacks against the left." According to Piktoroff, just days before the first round of voting, National Front members attacked people putting up posters for the Left Front.
All of this illustrates the importance of the decision by Jean-Luc Mélenchon to make opposition to the National Front a central part of the campaign in the first round. "[W]e were correct to concentrate our campaign on an analysis and radical criticism of the proposals of the far right," Melenchon said in a speech on election night. "We had good reason to do that, and if we had not done so, perhaps the results this evening would have been even more alarming.
At times in the past, not only the moderate Socialist Party, but far-left organizations in France, have downplayed the importance of taking on the fascists and trying to stop them from winning votes. By contract, as Garrido explained, Mélenchon's Left Front "showed that we thought the National Front was trying to present itself as a party defending workers' rights, but actually it isn't. If you look at its program, it always opposes the redistribution of wealth from capital to labor."
What happens next? Mélenchon and the Left Front have called on supporters to go all-out to "defeat Sarkozy"--essentially, a call to vote for Hollande, despite Mélenchon's harsh and justified criticisms of the Socialist Party leader as a servant of the neoliberal policies that caused the crisis.
Still, the success of the Left Front in galvanizing opposition to the status quo among a significant minority in French society shows the potential to build an alternative that can represent the interests and the demands of French workers.
Whoever wins on May 6, the attacks on working-class living standards will continue--and the threat of the far right will loom, especially with parliamentary elections set for June. Beyond the vote in June, the challenge for the left in France now is to prepare for the battles to come in workplaces, on campuses and in communities.