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Delivering hope – is there a green answer to the challenges raised by the rise of the Front National?

By Edouard Gaudot

The success of the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the first round of the French Presidential election, and the success of similar nationalistic parties in other European countries, has left many wondering how the greens and progressive forces should respond to this perceived threat to European values. Edouard Gaudot suggests that the answer lies in offering hope to those who feel rejected by the political and economic system.

Hope! It is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness.”

The Architect to Neo in The Matrix reloaded, directed by the Wachowski brothers, 2003 

“L’espérance pour moi est fasciste”

Lucien Rebatet, Les Décombres, 1942

Something rotten in the kingdom of France

On 22 April 2012, ten years after the tragic elimination of the socialist contender Lionel Jospin by the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, the first round of the presidential election in France gave a clear lead to Jospin’s heir, François Hollande (28,6%), just ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy (27,1%). The incumbent President has now to solve an impossible equation if he wants to remain in power: wooing as many far-right voters from “Marine”, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, (17,9%), without scaring away François Bayrou’s centrist electorate (9,1%). In comparison Hollande’s task looks easier, as he received already unambiguous support from Eva Joly’s Greens (2,3%) and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s radical Left Front (11,1%) and needs only a fraction of Bayrou’s voters to finish ahead.

In the wake of a stunning result that surpassed all polls, the extreme-right and eurosceptic candidate Marine Le Pen boasted that she was France’s sole and real “opposition leader”, carrying on her denunciation of “the system” embodied by the two finalists of the race. She clearly expects Sarkozy’s defeat to initiate a reshuffle of the Right, around her strong position, starting with the forthcoming parliamentary elections. As a matter of fact, the speeches and positioning of the current majority, show that the walls between an “evil extreme-right” and the “droite républicaine”, are currently falling. Marine Le Pen’s strategy of “de-demonisation” has paid off – indeed well helped by Sarkozy’s constant radicalisation since 2010 and his infamous Grenoble speech.

Perhaps it is right to explain, as so many scholars and analysts point out, that nothing has changed in-depth with the FN, that it remains true to its core values and electorate since the beginnings; but one should be fair and credit Marine Le Pen at least with one important success: her father’s party was more a reactionary coalition of disgruntled opponents to the system, filled with the survivors of every historical lost battle against the Republic, Dreyfus, de Gaulle, decolonisation (especially Algeria), Europe, “May 68”, etc. She moved it from its reactionary stance towards a new future-oriented streamlined force, decided to play the democratic game with a winning, and not simply distorting, aim. Marie-Christine Arnautu, the Front National’s vice president even insisted: “This was a professional campaign compared to 2002. In 2002 it was a protest vote. Today this is no longer the case.”

But how much of the FN is conviction and how much is protest – I would suggest counting as protesters those who will eventually vote for Hollande on the 2nd round. A subtle combination of strategy (blowing up a demoralised and leaderless Right) and game (challenging the system and its political categories), this share of FN voters seems to me to follow a militant approach much more clearly than those who will eventually settle for the “parliamentary” version of their political priorities. For sure, we’ll have also to refine our analysis of the phenomenon, according to the rampant radicalisation of the incumbent president, who has already brilliantly demonstrated his absolute determination to fish in Marine Le Pen’s pond.  In its strategy, as well as in its platform, electorate and success, this Front National “new look” is a kind of post-fascist, populist and trendy faction, quite similar to what Gianfranco Fini did with the heirs of Mussolini in Italy in the 1990’s – and as Sarkozy unequivocally decided to fish in Le Pen’s pond, here (again) the parallel with Berlusconi is evident.

Strangely, no one amongst observers, commentators and politicians seems to consider that one dominant emotion in the choice to vote for a post-fascist party like the FN could be a positive one: hope. Hope: this powerful resource of political commitment. This driver, this faith that can carry mountains.

What “anger”? Of what “people”?

Surely, like its traditional version, this new extreme-right continues to play on the usual mechanisms of exclusion and differentiation, in order to be heard and seen. The scapegoat may be changing, but the principle does not. Every “foreign element” is considered a parasite or an invader, against which protection is necessary. Jewish yesterday, today generally Muslim: Islamophobia has become the focal point for the extreme-right and gradually for the conservative right parties. No religion here, since Islam is only conceived as a rapidly spreading ideology, naturally destructive of social and cultural balances. And it becomes then possible to fight it off in the name of political liberal values such as freedom, equality and secularism: subtle and clever trick which allows then to cry for  another “betrayal of the elites”. For the confluence point where extreme-right as well as all various populist movements do converge, is this same simplistic opposition of a fantasised “people” against real “elites”.

“Compatible avec la République” (Compatible with the Republic) as Sarkozy relentlessly claims? Suffice to say that 6.5 millions voters, and a significant share of the youth vote, demonstrate that the Front National has simply become attractive – trendy, in a way. There is a lot of bewilderment in the recognition that so many young people could vote for such a party – but perhaps there is so much insistence on the forceful enrolment of the youth in the fascist regimes that we tend to forget how much revolt, commitment, and a true sense of idealism are deeply rooted in the mentality of the younger generations.

Suffering, pain, disorientation, loss of references, angers… Strangely, no one amongst observers, commentators and politicians seems to consider that one dominant emotion in the choice to vote for a post-fascist party like the FN could be a positive one: hope. Hope: this powerful resource of political commitment. This driver, this faith that can carry mountains.

It could be useful to dwell on the historical beginnings of fascism, at the time when it was only the rough doctrine of a socialist journalist from Milan, disappointed and frustrated by the misgivings and impotence of its national political system, unable to earn the due respect for its contribution to the 1918 final victory. We would remember then the revolutionary inspiration, the strong wind in the sail of radical transformation, the will to go forward, faster, stronger, and finish off with a despised establishment. In the beginning was Hope (at least a kind of), as Italian fascism presented itself as the only political force able to take down the ruling bourgeoisie and its detested social order, without replacing it with by proletarian dictatorship.

The rise of fascistic and/or populist movements on our European political scenes equates to a brutal kick in our post-materialist comfortable house of leaves, where we dwelled so far, in denial of the idealistic dimension of politics. This dream might well seem more like a nightmare to us, filled with xenophobic and racist sound and fury, repugnant impulses and destructive anger. Indeed. And we certainly would be right. But we’re not dealing with rationality here. The FN voters might choose the wrong anger. They probably choose the wrong enemy. But they’re definitely not wrong on this point: one is always right to hope.

Which makes the answer really difficult.

Is there a green answer to the Front National?

One could consider that it’s not the plight of ecologists and greens. That it’s first and foremost the task of social-democrats and other traditional left-parties to woo back lower-middle and modest classes, as well as the youth back into the progressive family. That the ecologist’s diagnosis on the complexity of the reality is far too sophisticated. That their answers to local and global unbalances are far too disconnected from the daily concerns of the voters. What could indeed be the answer to Marine Le Pen’s definition of globalisation: “have cheap stuff made by slaves over there to be sold here to unemployed workers?”

It must be possible to build up the green project within a broader alternative imaginary, carrying a form of revolutionary hope alternative to that of this fascistic revival.

Everything looks as if we had to relinquish every possibility to think the world as complex and instead opt, in full awareness, for simplistic approaches more or less generous, as the Melenchon capture of some core ecologist voters demonstrate. There is nevertheless a green answer. It takes the shape of a double question posed to those who placed their hopes into a malevolent form of populism. .

1. Who is going to make happen the green industrial revolution that we call upon? The engineers and civil servants of the ecological transformation will not be enough – and incidentally many were attracted by the Front de Gauche speeches on the ecological planification. But there is one very eloquent example: contrary to what happened in the mining sector in the past, the European steel industry is not dead. Its production processes are increasingly diversified and there is a growing demand for steel-products with a higher and finer level of technology. Windmills, tramways, trains, electric cars… there is no green industrial revolution without steel – but some high-quality steel, produced with a high level of social and environmental European standards; produced with a lower energy consumption and a sustainable ecological footprint; and well incorporated into a competitive national industrial fabric and integrated into a European single market protected by a carbon tax and a form of qualified access to market.

It is the industrial sector’s workers and employees, as well as the innovative and creative entrepreneurs who will be the engine of the development of renewables, the conversion of the automotive industry, the urban renovation combined to the fight against fuel poverty, the de-pollution industry and all these new employments, whether qualified or not, that are brought about by the potential re-industrialisation of our European territories.

2. Which political force guarantees that health and food quality must not depend on one’s means? At the heart of the social question lie environmental inequalities: there are those who have the means, whether material or educational, to choose or not, whether to take their car or not, to live here rather than there, eat healthy or not, avoid stress, junk food, professional diseases, etc. Fighting against social inequalities is indeed as well fighting against environmental inequalities – in housing, in rural and urban environments, in work conditions, etc.

In a nutshell, it might be time to go against extreme-right populism in a different way than the traditional angle of values and morals. It must be possible to build up the green project within a broader alternative imaginary, carrying a form of revolutionary hope alternative to that of this fascistic revival. It is important to use the resentment and its energy provoked by the unwanted consequences of globalisation, not directing them towards a specific population, but channelling it in a positive way.  The task is to deliver hope. And to incarnate it.

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