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Explaining Le Pen: Why France and Europe are flirting with the far-right


Explaining Le Pen: Why France and Europe are flirting with the far-right

Hot Topic Learn more about French presidential election 2017

By Michael Löwy, Emeritus research director at the CNRS, Paris

The polls for the presidential election in France confirm a tendency that had been apparent for some years: the steady growth of the support for the National Front. This is not a uniquely French development: across most of the European continent we have witnessed the spectacular rise of the far-right. The French case is one of the most serious, with the Front National’s breakthrough exceeding even the most pessimistic predictions. As the website Mediapart wrote in a recent editorial, ‘it’s five minutes to midnight’.

The present European far-right is very diverse, a variety ranging from openly neo-Nazi parties like ‘Golden Dawn’ in Greece to political forces who are perfectly well integrated into the institutional political game, such as the Swiss UDC. What they have in common is their chauvinist nationalism – and therefore opposition to “cosmopolitan” globalisation and to any form of European unity – xenophobia, racism, hatred of immigrants and Roma (the continent’s oldest people), Islamophobia and anti-communism. Moreover, most, if not all of them favour authoritarian measures against “insecurity” (usually identified with immigrants) by increasing police repression and prison terms and by re-introducing the death penalty. This nationalist reactionary orientation is often “complemented” with a “social” rhetoric, in support of the “simple people” and of the (white) national working class.

How to explain this growing success of the far right? The first element of explanation is the process of capitalist neo-liberal globalisation – also a powerful process of forced cultural homogenisation – which produces and reproduces on both a European and planetary scale identity crises, the obsessive search for sources and roots leading to chauvinist forms of religion and religious forms of nationalism, and which also feeds ethnic and confessional conflicts.

Directly related to this process of a neo-liberal world hegemony of financial capital, there is another important factor: the economic crisis that has riven Europe since 2008. With the exceptions of Greece and Spain this crisis has, almost everywhere, favoured the far-right much more than the radical left – unlike the European situation of the 1930s where in many countries the anti-fascist left rose in parallel to fascism. The current far-right has without doubt profited from the crisis, particularly in France. But this does not explain everything: in Spain and Portugal, two of the countries hit hardest by the crisis, the far-right remains only marginal. And in Greece, though ‘Golden Dawn’ has enjoyed exponential growth, it has much less influence than Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left. In Switzerland and Austria, two countries largely spared by the crisis, the racist far-right often gets above 20 percent support. Thus we should avoid the exclusively economistic explanations often advanced by the left.

Historical factors have without doubt played some role: a long anti-semitic tradition widespread in certain countries; the persistence of those currents who collaborated during the Second World War; and the colonial culture that impregnates attitudes and behaviour long after decolonisation – not only in the former empires, but in almost all European countries. All these factors are at work in France and contribute to explaining the strength of Le Pen’s party.

The international conjuncture, particularly in the Middle East, also favours this development, notably in France. The aggressive colonial and expansive policies of the Israeli government nourish anti-semitism (particularly among young Muslims) thinly disguised as “anti-sionism”, while the terror of Daesh and other murderous Jihadists feeds Islamophobia, ostensibly in the name of “secularism”. Of course it is not because of [Israeli prime minister] Netanyahu or [former al-Qaeda leader] Bin Laden that racism and xenophobia developed in France, but the negative events in the Middle East are cleverly manipulated by the far-right to promote its agenda, with considerable success. The same applies, of course, to terrorist attacks – such as the assassination of the editors of the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo – which are used as ammunition by the racist right to wage its “war of civilization” against Europe’s Muslim citizens.

It is important to stress that anti-immigrant racism has little relation to the reality of immigration: the vote for the Front National, for example, is particularly high in certain rural areas that have never seen a single immigrant. And Roma immigrants, recently the object of a hysterical racist campaign that made some impression – with the generous participation of the ‘socialist’ Interior Minister of the time, Manuel Valls – number less than twenty thousand across the whole of France.

The concept of ‘populism’ employed by certain political scientists, the media and even part of the left, is wholly inadequate in explaining the nature of the Front National (or of its equivalents elsewhere in Europe) serving only to sow confusion. One of the first to use the term to characterise Le Pen’s movement was the political scientist P-A Taguieff, who defined populism as “a rhetorical style that is directly linked with the appeal to the people”. Other social scientists refer to populism as ‘a political position that takes the side of the people against the elites’ – a characterization which goes for almost any political party or movement! When applied to the National Front (or other European parties of the far-right), this pseudo-concept becomes a misleading euphemism that helps – whether deliberately or not – to legitimise them, making them more acceptable, or even appealing – who isn’t for the people against the elites? – while carefully avoiding the troubling terms racism, xenophobia, fascism, or far-right.

‘Populism’ is also used in a deliberately mystifying fashion by neoliberal ideologues and media in France (as well as in Europe) in order to make an amalgam between the far-right, e.g. the National Front, and the radical left, for instance the Left Front, characterised as ‘right-wing populism’ and ‘left-wing populism’, since they are both opposed to neoliberal policies, ‘Europe’, etc.

The website Mediapart wrote in a recent editorial on the rise of the National Front in France: ‘it’s five minutes to midnight’. This is an accurate diagnostic. However, it is not yet too late to stop the “resistible ascension of Arturo Ui” (to quote the well known anti-fascist theater piece by Bertolt Brecht).

Michael Löwy, Emeritus research director at the CNRS, Paris

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