The last weeks have been cause for concern for people like me who hold dear the values of freedom and tolerance.
It all started when a series of opinion polls showed alarmingly high levels of support for the Front National, France's largest far right party. In most of the scenarios tested, Marine Le Pen, who recently replaced her father as head of the party, managed to squeeze into the second round with a vote share between 16% and 22%. People quickly dismissed these results as temporary anomalies that were explained by Sarkozy exceptionally low popularity and the Socialist Party's lack of a candidate for the 2012 elections.
But I saw something else, something much more worrying. In my last "Idiot of the week" post, I explained the reasons for which I believe that the FN rise is no temporary blip and has deeper roots than is commonly thought.
In normal times, what differentiates the FN (and other extremist parties) from mainstream political organization is that the former practices a very crude and un-evolved form of politics. Its appeal relies (amongst others) on fear, anger and an idealization of the past. Mainstream parties, on the other hand, propose practical and realistic solutions to the problems of the time. However today, this distinction is blurred because nobody in the French political sphere seems to have the slightest connection to reality. Sarkozy's UMP adopts a strategy of putting somewhat peripheral and populist issues such as secularism, the burqa and polygamy at the center of the debate. On the other side of the spectrum, the Socialist Party is absorbed in internal power struggles and is incapable of formulating any sensible proposition beyond ludicrous plans to increase the number public servants by 300 000 and bring the minimum wage to 1 500€ per month. So what is basi
cally happening is that we are all playing the same game that the FN: populist politics based on fear and supported by completely unrealistic propositions.
In such an environment, it's kind of hard to marginalize the FN and confine it to the fringes of the political debate. (...) The UMP is only making things worse by making the FN's stance mainstream.
Last week, my view was (alas) confirmed when the FN scored over 15% of the vote during the Cantonnales elections. The Socialists's score was 25% and the UMP's 16%.
I believe that we are at a turning point in the history of the French political system. For decades, the far right was radioactive. It was too deeply associated with anti-semitism, fascism, overt racism and reactionary nationalism. The FN, however hard it tried, was confined to a niche market and was structurally incapable of going mainstream. All in all, it was condemned to be a nuisance. A vocal nuisance but a nuisance nonetheless. This is no longer the case and we need to realize this very quickly if we want to avoid a disaster in 2012.
The basic problem with our approach to confronting the FN is that we are fighting yesterday's wars. We are still stuck in paradigms inherited from the 80s and 90s and fail to acknowledge that the political scene has evolved and that we are facing a different FN whose image in the public mind has changed.
Our defense against the FN needs to be rooted in the realities of the moment. There were times when public perception of the FN beyond its small group of core followers was overwhelmingly negative, when the name Le Pen was enough to scare and disgust most French voters. But these times are now gone. We can longer address the new FN like we addressed the old. Derision, condescendence and simplistic accusations of racism are no longer enough. In short: the FN has stepped up its game, it's high time we stepped up ours. The reasons for that have to do with both the party's re-branding operation and the deplorable state of the political debate.
Like I wrote earlier, as mainstream parties sink into internal warfare or populist politics, the superficial nature of the FN's rhetoric is not as glaring as it used to be. No longer is its total incapacity to present a coherent project for government a problem. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen has managed to shed her father's demons and has re-branded the FN in a spectacular way. Unlike her father, she is an excellent communicator capable of appealing to the masses and making bigotry and intolerance look like simple common sense. She represents a more modern FN, younger, more democratic too and less reactionary. We need to address her as a politician in her own right and not as a copycat of her father.
The FN also has an incredible knack for posing itself as a real alternative when in fact its policies are nothing but a mix of old fashion souverainisme, economic dirigisme and plain isolationism. There is nothing new with what the FN proposes. It is only because we allow it to adopt the posture of the victim and hide behind vague principles and grandiloquent tirades about the lost grandeur of France that it manages to pass as a credible force in the political game.
All in all, by perpetuating the old strategy of linking the FN to fascism and constantly deriding it instead of confronting it on concrete issues, we are fighting windmills and giving traction to its claim that the media and the rest of the political class are a caste disconnected from reality. Instead of fighting yesterday's wars, we most confront the enemies that we have and acknowledge that different threats require different answers.