Behind the National Front victory

June 5, 2014

Far-right parties won major gains in elections for European parliament from May 22-25, led by the National Front in France. The FN (by its initials in French) won a clear victory in the popular vote with 24.85 percent, giving it a third of France's seats. The FN took votes from the main center-right party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), led until recently by former President Nicolas Sarkozy. But the biggest loser was the Socialist Party (PS) of President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls--two years after its landslide victory against Sarkozy, the PS managed to win just 13.98 percent of the vote.

In an article published in French at the A l'encountre website, where he is editor, veteran socialist Charles-André Udry, a member of the Movement for Socialism in Switzerland, analyzed the results in France.

THE RESULTS for the National Front--running in the Rassemblement bleu Marine (RBM) election coalition--have been the subject of numerous analyses in France. Which is only normal, especially immediately after the European elections held on May 25. We'll discuss some aspects of the political and electoral situation here.

1. These were, of course, European elections. But according to reasonably reliable polls, 68 percent of voters for the National Front voted out of so-called nationalist motivations. Among these motivations, the question of immigration topped the list, with between 30 and 32 percent, according to the polls. Three elements must be kept in mind here.

First, an increasing proportion of the electorate has become habitual voters for the National Front. An electoral base for the National Front has been established, renewed and expanded in new areas.

Second, in the news commentaries, there has been an analytical anachronism--they don't mention generational differences. A layer of young voters--people who generally fall under the superficial sociological category of "dropouts," and who suffer some of the most acute effects of social precariousness as a result of the crisis--are voting for the RBM without reference to its past. They are not generally embracing the RBM's historical continuity with the extreme fascist right, going back to historical markers such as the Vichy government that collaborated with the Nazis, the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria--all symbolized in the person of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

A National Front banner from the 2012 election featuring Marine Le Pen
A National Front banner from the 2012 election featuring Marine Le Pen (David Oranje)

The National Front vote among this layer of 25 to 35 years olds represents an act of dissent against the brutal impact of the capitalist system that they experience and suffer from daily. This element has been prominent in the speeches of National Front leaders Marine Le Pen and Florian Philippot--who supported the "socialist" nationalist Jean-Pierre Chevènement during the 2002 presidential election. In their discourse, they make prominent references to the social elements of patriotism.

In this respect, the RBM portrays itself as "defending the weak" against "those at the top," according to their schema: the political caste that Le Pen calls the "UMPS," amalgamating the abbreviations for the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) of Nicolas Sarkozy and the center-left Socialist Party (PS) of François Hollande. This elite, according to the RBM, views the "real French people," whose who risk losing their identity and social place, with disdain.

That speaks to the real lived and felt experiences of these voters, for a variety of reasons. Thus, the RBM has been able to mobilize segments of indifferent and previously inactive voters by putting their a political-electoral trajectory in perspective.

Third, the vote against Hollande and the PS government--which according to the polls accounted for 69 percent of the motivations expressed by National Front voters--was combined with a vote motivated by immigration policy and by the "politics of social injustice." This adheres to the National Front myth of France as a kind of "closed and reassuring nation" that would support a better future for its members, where there lives would be a little more survivable.

We find here the classic components of an extreme right vote in the socio-economic context of turmoil, from France itself to the European Union and beyond. The RBM's base are victims of a brutal attack by capital, in which trans-nationalization doesn't at all exclude inter-imperialist clashes (coming under many different names, such as recovering France's "national competitiveness).

Thus, the presidential tone of Marine Le Pen's statement on the night of May 25 reflects the transformation of the RBM's "storytelling"--the narrative used to win support from a wider base for the essential elements of its discourse--as Le Pen prepares for the presidential election in 2017.

2. The RBM is today a significant political force in France. One must be completely blind to not see this.

The political structures set up by the Fifth Republic are such that, in the arena of legislative and presidential elections, no political party can claim a hegemonic position without an alliance. Thus, if the RBM is voted in, but without an alliance to back it up, it would be captive to some extent to its associations with other political forces. Moreover, its political machine is still weak compared to the conservative parties and the PS.

But the RBM project is clearly moving ahead. Now, it faces the challenges of not repeating the disasters when the National Front won municipal elections in 1995, and of avoiding the most damaging controversies.

For now, it can profit from the implosion of the UMP. The party is in a state of shock, not only from the European election results, but a number of financial scandals dating back to Sarkozy's 2012 presidential campaign. This has exacerbated the internal conflicts--which emerged during the European election campaign--among this more or less motley coalition that no longer has an undisputed leader. A police search of UMP headquarters on May 26 provided the spectacle of falsified financial documents uncovered alongside underhanded battles among party leaders.

A hypothetical triumvirate Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Alain Juppé and François Fillon would assure at least a momentary peace for the UMP before any further settling of accounts occurs. The aim would be for the right to rebuild over the next three years in order to become an electoral force by 2017, in time for the presidential elections. They will succeed only if the relative social peace in French society continues.
France's far-right National Front has benefited from bitterness with the established mainstream parties.

3. With one disaster following another in the media, Manuel Valls and François Hollande will have but a few days' respite--being in power, they won't have all three years to prepare for the presidential elections.

Of course, the MEDEF, France's largest employers' organization, will focus on this theme: If the government wants to "get results" and "save itself"--avoiding the fate of former Socialist Party Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who was pushed into third place in the 2002 presidential election by Jean-Marie Le Pen and missed the runoff election--it must, starting in September 2014, impose austerity measures even more rigorously, in order to provide business with "competitive advantages," so that the "pact of mutual accountability" leads to job creation, and unemployment falls.

In other words, make a pilgrimage to Lourdes and hope that the wheelchair comes out of the spring from the grotto with new wheels. A social liberal true believer, Valls and the core of his bourgeois party are ready to accept socio-political suicide--because for them, it isn't suicide, but a necessary cure for the problems of the French economy.

It is hard to understand how the PS can still be considered by some on the left as qualitatively something other than a European copy of the U.S. Democratic Party.

The same PS where support for President Hollande has reached the level of an abyss. The same PS whose result in the European elections was worse even than the party's disastrous showing in 1994 European elections when, with Michel Rocard as party leader, the PS won only 14.49 percent of the vote. But commentators who referred to the 1994 vote forgot one reason for it--to take down Rocard as a potential competitor within the PS, President François Mitterand underhandedly helped Bernard Tapie's group Radical Energy, which won 6.01 percent of the vote.

In such a context, the radical left faces many challenges that seem overwhelming. References to historical analogies aren't very useful and the improvised "new developments" referred to in some analyses are more than once illusory. Understanding how to seize the continuities and discontinuities in the situation is an essential element to elaborating a strategy. We will return.

Translation by Karen Domínguez Burke

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