Monday, April 25, 2022

Feeling Pensive about the French Election

 The French presidential election was yesterday and Emmanuel Macron handily beat the right wing Marine Le Pen 58.5 - 41.5%. In many countries, the US included, that would be considered a blow-out. A week ago, French pollsters had them closer, at about 44 - 54. That's even better. But some of us see that margin as uncomfortably close.

 Le Pen isn't merely right wing, she's very far right. She's not Tory right; she's Putinist right. Her party, the National Rally, has only had that name since 2018. Before that, from the time her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded it in 1972, it was called the National Front. Any time a European party calls itself the National Front, you are safe in assuming that they are, in fact, fascists.* Le Pen père, an accused war criminal during the Algerian conflict, founded a party that fit most of the requirements: hyper-nationalist, xenophobic, pro "law and order", natalist, state-capitalist, and pro-military. Le Pen himself was a Holocaust denier and sold records of old fascist marching songs.

 France was no stranger to far right politics at the time. One of the first proto-fascist parties in Europe was Action française, founded in 1899 during the Dreyfuss Affair. It was militaristic, anti-republican, pro-church, antisemitic, and corporatist. During the interwar period it faded in the face of competition from more extreme fascist parties. A splinter of it still exists. Like most European countries, France has a wide selection of political parties. There are plenty of parties on the right, but in the sixties, none of them stood out. Le Pen and his comrades hoped to bring them all together as a single electoral block. As is often the case with radicals, they promptly split into two mutually hostile camps. After both factions bottomed out in 1981, when neither one was able to qualify for the presidential ballot, Le Pen was able to emerge as a deal maker who could peel off some voters from the mainstream right without watering down the party's positions too much.

 In 1988, Le Pen was back, getting a respectable 14.4% in the first round of the presidential election (fourth place). This wasn't entirely due to his personal appeal or that of his party. There was a general, global drift to the right happening at the time (Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, most of Latin America). In France, the major parties moved to the center, alienating many of their more enthusiastic supporters on both sides. Le Pen ran again in 1995, 2002, and 2007, garnering first round totals in the teens each time. In 2002, he shocked the political establishment by squeaking into second place and advancing into the final round of voting. Fortunately, he was massacred, garnering less than 18% of the vote. In 2007, he ran one more time, having his worst showing in twenty years. Soon after he began disengaging from active politics and turned his party over to his daughter, Marine.

 Le Pen fille set about creating a kinder, gentler face for the party, even though it remained solidly neo-fascist. She regularly expelled members of the party, including her father, who said the silent part out loud. Despite that, she was an ally of Putin who supports pulling out of NATO. She compared Muslims praying in public with the Nazi occupation. As a representative in the EU parliament, she formed a block of nationalist, far right parties. She can't help herself.

 Let's look at how the Le Pens and the Front have done in presidential elections over the years.

 National Front under Jean-Marie Le Pen

 1974        Less than one percent in the first round.

1981        Failed to qualify for the ballot.

1988        14.4% in the first round (fourth place). Jacques Chirac represented the right and lost the second round.

1995        15% in the first round (fourth place). Jacques Chirac represented the right and won the second round.

2002        16.9% in the first round (second place). 17.8% in the second round, losing to Chirac.

2007        10.4% in the first round (fourth place). Nicolas Sarkozy represented the center-right and won the second round.

 National Front/National Rally under Marine Le Pen

 2012        17.9% in the first round (third place). Nicolas Sarkozy represented the center-right and lost the second round.

2017        21.3% in the first round (second place). 33.9% in the second round, losing to Macron, representing the center-left.

2022        23.2% in the first round (second place). 41.5% in the second round, losing to Macron.

 A couple of trends are present here. I'll start with the most obvious. In fifty years, they've gone from less than one percent to over forty percent of the vote. That's horrifying. It might not be quite as bad as that. If you separate the first and second rounds, things are a little more complicated. In the first round, they have risen less than nine percent since 1988. The only reason they even make it to the second round this century is that there isn't a more robust right or center-right party in the running.

 The big shift is in the second round. The only time Le Pen père made it into the second round, it was because he unexpectedly managed to beat the center-left candidate by less than one percent. Facing a strong center-right candidate, he wasn't even able to increase his numbers by one percent. There is no denying Le Pen fille's increases in the first round since taking over. No doubt some of that is due to her kinder, gentler image and some, maybe more, of it is due to the new rightward shift in global politics. However, I'm arguing that her dramatic increase in second round numbers is as much due to her being the alternative to the status quo (a protest vote) as it is to people actually supporting the Rally's positions. Globally, this is what the right-wing power grab is fueled by: inarticulate anger, frustration, and fear, not support for their actual positions or solutions.

 The silver lining is that the Front/Rally/Le Pen's numbers in the presidential election are not reflected in the parliamentary elections. While the presidential system reduces the field to two choices, the National Assembly is still a free for all. In the current Assembly, the Rally has eight out of the 577 seats. They not only are not in the majority, they aren't a significant voice in the opposition. There will be an Assembly election in June. Le Pen has sworn to form a strong right-wing opposition block. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has also sworn to form one on the left. His party currently has 17 seats.

 So, while we should be alarmed about Le Pen's showing in the presidential election, it's too soon to panic. Putin's aggression has made neo-fascist parties vulnerable on one, um, front, but it's nowhere near enough to turn back the far right tide. Conservatives, moderates, and progressives need to present strong visions that counter far-right fear-mongering.

 Meanwhile, let's celebrate Macron's victory.

 * "Action" in the name is another dead giveaway. Action Jackson being the exception.