Politics

Asterix’s Village: France after the European Elections

Fear stalks the land in France. The day after the European elections, the papers were talking about an “earthquake”, a “tsunami”, a “volcanic eruption”. How could it be that in the home of universal human rights, where for 200 years the words “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood” have been carved on every town hall, the ‘Front National’, with its demagogic leader Jean-Marie le Pen who preaches “the inequality of the races”, was able to attract 25% of the French electorate? How could it be that his daughter Marine le Pen, a mortal enemy of the European Union, became a star overnight, fought over by reputable European newspapers and television companies? What is wrong with France? And why does the daughter want to “de-demonise” the party founded by her father – which means of course to drive the devil out?

Meanwhile, Jean-Marie le Pen – far from being driven out – is the Honorary President of the party, and his daughter defends every racist comment he lets slip. She interpreted his recent observation, as reported from Marseille, that “Monsignore Ebola” would be able “to sort out the problem of overpopulation in Africa in three months” as expressing his “concern” for Africans. Concern? Sheer cynicism. And she claimed that his threat on 7 June to the Jewish singer Patrick Bruel – that he (le Pen) would “consign him to the ovens” – had been “misinterpreted”, and called it “a political error”. Not – it should be noted – a “moral” error. The old guy had already off-handedly dismissed the gas chambers as “a detail of the Second World War”. He was convicted in a court of law, but he has to keep on board the hard core of the FN, for whom his tactician of a daughter is too soft.

From declaration of war to “Bleu Marine”

In the Front National, there would certainly be devils to be exorcised – a whole squadron of them. For among the first members of the party co-founded by Jean-Marie le Pen were officers of the French SS Division Charlemagne and veterans of the infamous Milice, a Gestapo support organisation which had excelled in the hunting down of Jews and the murder of partisans, as well as of the OAS (Organisation armée secrète), a politico-military terror organisation which in France and North Africa murdered politicians, journalists and other advocates of the decolonisation of Algeria. At the time of its foundation on 12 October 1972, the Front National was a collection of murdering vigilantes and fascist gangsters.

And the founding members gave this body the name of a military combat organisation: Front National – National Front! A declaration of war! Marine le Pen tried to find a friendlier designation; during the Presidential election of 2012 she called the movement “Bleu Marine”, or marine blue, to try to expel the tainted associations of the old name. But her father – who on 15 January 2011 passed the sceptre to his daughter after forty years as autocratic ruler, and thus effectively transformed the extreme-right party into a hereditary monarchy – vehemently opposed every attempt to modify the baptismal name of his party.

A new ideology or just a more adept media strategy?

Institutions are so deeply marked by the traces imprinted on them at birth that they find it very difficult to lose them. In the case of the FN, the burden of its political and familial inheritance is so great that it is little wonder Marine le Pen, when pressed a little by journalists, slips into the anti-communist and racist delusions of her father. “99% of French journalists are on the left,” she was unguarded enough to say to the reporters from Spiegel magazine, who had no answer to such temerity; and to Cicero magazine she opined that anyone who ventured into the Parisian district of Barbès and got out alive could count themselves lucky. Barbès is one of the liveliest and most appealing districts in Paris; of course, there are many Africans and Arabs living there, and it seems that in her luxury villa in Saint-Cloud she feels threatened by them. She also harbours a boundless admiration for Vladimir Putin, who, she told Kurier magazine, is defending “the values of European civilization and the heritage of Christendom, just as we are”. It seems unlikely that she meant love for one’s neighbour.

She maintains that her programme “Les Français d’abord” (“The French first”) should not be interpreted as racist or xenophobic as she is fighting “against immigration in itself, and not against immigrants as people”. Its demands are: a drastic reduction in the immigration rate, from 200,000 per year to 10,000; an immediate halt to family reunifications (in contravention of international law!); abolition of the Schengen agreements and an end to the freedom of movement within Europe; preferential treatment for French citizens in the allocation of housing and jobs (unless the firm can demonstrate conclusively that a foreigner is better qualified) – in short, a milder version of the Nuremberg Laws. The question of whether she has made an ideological break with her father is therefore redundant: they think the same, but speak with different tongues.

Capitalising on delusions

Marine le Pen differs from her father in one respect only: her predilection for protectionism. Protectionism is the political expression of fear. It is at the centre of her programme, which is meeting with such approval in France. The demand for protective tariffs and “national preferential treatment” was the bait with which Marine le Pen attracted all those who felt threatened by economic developments: the unemployed, 37% of whom, the blue-collar workers (43%…), the white-collar workers (38%…), and the young people under 35, 30% of whom voted Front National – utterly incredible figures for sections of the electorate that used to vote for the Socialist party or the Communists, but who have now gone over to the people who call themselves “patriots”. France is disorientated. This explains the temptation to find scapegoats on whom to pin the blame while at the same time dreaming of Asterix’s village writ large, where the Gauls live peacefully together, slaughtering wild boars and raising the stockades. But: how will the “ordinary folk” the FN so love to invoke keep their heads above water when the protective tariffs and the planned reintroduction of the inflationary Franc serve to make daily life even more expensive?

In reality, the FN does not have economic goals, but ideological ones. Its economic demands are a masquerade. The economy does not interest Madame le Pen. The Front National harbours the postcolonial dream of returning France to its former greatness. She still believes that France is a world power – the “heart of Europe”, as she said in an interview. The aim of the Front National is to make France the leader of the non-aligned states. But time is not a machine that can run backwards; the dream of former glory is an illusion.

The real roots of the crisis

I have been living in France for many years, and I am still waiting for a politician who will tell it like it is. Whether on the left or the right, everyone wants to blame the problems on someone else: on the immigrants, the benefits system, the lazy unemployed, the Roma, China, the overvalued Euro, the expansionary Germans, the arrogant Americans or the bankrupt Greeks. The truth is that the crisis in France is structural, because the country failed to make the leap into the modern era: apart from the TGV high-speed trains, the nuclear power stations which it is desperately trying to sell, and the Airbus which it shares with Germany, it has only old industries; the digital evolution has passed it by and it produces neither television sets nor computers nor mobile phones, not even fridges, let alone the cameras with which to make a film about it.  France is a de-industrialised country.

Incapable of finding a solution, the government raises taxes here and reduces them there, cuts benefits, cancels public sector salary increases and even intervenes in takeover negotiations for ailing big companies – because the belief that the state can fix everything has persisted in France since Louis XIV; but still the budget deficit grows, the trade balance gets worse, company insolvencies multiply, and slowly but inexorably unemployment increases.

Preventing the FN vision from becoming a reality

I observe in France a peculiar disintegration of the social fabric, a sort of general exhaustion of the population, who for years have not heard from the politicians a single concrete plan for the future –  just hollow speeches about past glories. Nothing is being done about the fossilization of the society, in which youth unemployment is skyrocketing and all access to preferment is blocked by insider networks, so that you have to have the right contacts in the village just to get a job as a cleaner in the town hall. What is needed above all is an end to the re-feudalisation of the society, so that income disparities that are eroding the middle classes do not continue to break the population into two opposing camps. What is needed is a top-to-bottom reform of France to shake it out of its catatonic state and catapult it from its memories of a glorious past into the present.

Otherwise what will happen is this. In the Presidential election of 2017 Marine le Pen goes through into the second round, and in 2022 she wins. She dissolves the National Assembly and persuades the French people of the need to provide her with a parliamentary majority. She carries out all of her past threats. She puts a stop to immigration, and commands the navy to drive back out to sea any refugee boats that might be heading for France. She forbids Muslims to build mosques or to pray on the streets in order to drive them away from France in disgust. She introduces the death penalty. She replaces all French ambassadors, prefects of police, generals, senior judges and public prosecutors. From now on, these posts will be occupied by FN people. She has untrammelled power. She can decide on the deployment of armed forces abroad. She can press the nuclear button. She can suppress uprisings in Africa and in the banlieues. She can declare a state of emergency. She can do what she likes, and no-one can stop her because the constitution enables her to do anything. The monarchical structure of the Fifth Republic gives her free rein. All this is compatible with the constitution in General de Gaulle’s “republican monarchy”; he detested the democratic parties, and for that reason he placed an elected autocrat at the pinnacle of the state. His dream would finally have come true – as a nightmare. By legal process, France would have become a radical rightwing country.

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