Right-wing and extreme right-wing groups in France

Tord Björk | ESF,political culture,right wing,Uncategorized | Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Luis Weber and Ewa Ziolkowski at the Prague spring conference

Right-wing and extreme right-wing groups in France

About the latest regional elections in France

by Luis Weber

Regional elections took place in France on March 14th and 21st, 2010. With regard to the subject of our conference, two remarks should be emphasized, in my view :

−    the huge rate of abstention, over 50%, very high in the French context and which expresses, among other reasons, the lack of interest in the big «traditional» parties.
−    the score obtained by the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, about 11,5 %, to which we should add the results of the other extreme right-wing lists, generally born of splits of the NF itself (about 1 %). Certainly, these results are lower than those the National Front and the other extreme-right candidates got at the beginning of this century: more than 19 % for example in the presidential election of 2002. And about 15 % in the regional elections of 2004, if we want to compare with a ballot of the same nature. But, meanwhile, Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP had made a lot “to siphon” the electorate of the NF – I will return to this matter – with certain results: in the presidential elections of 2007, Le Pen lost more than a million votes and fell again back to 10,5 %. The fall seemed to accelerate when the lists of the NF obtained only 6,3 % in the European elections of 2009, passing from 7 members of the European Parliament in 2004 to 3 in 2009. What led the medias to emphasize two facts after the regional of this year: the victory of the Left and the “bounce” of the NF.

From there, I suggest making at first some reminders on what represent regions in the French institutional context and to say how far it can influence the elections at this level. Then, in brief too, I will propose some thoughts about the place of the extreme right in the French political context. Finally, I will propose some considerations on the possible reasons of the “surge” which I have just evoked.

Regions are a recent creation in the French institutional architecture. Historically, France has been a very centralized country. Since Napoleon, the State was dominating, being the only level holding the legislative power, the only one collecting taxes and consequently having resources. Municipalities, which are very numerous, and especially departments (around one hundred) had thus hardly any consistent autonomy. Regions (they are 22 in continental France, to have an element of comparison with departments) were at first purely administrative groupings. It was only in 1972 that they were endowed with elected assemblies. Their competences have been will been actually widened up from the so-called decentralization laws, the first of them having been adopted in 1982, a short time after the election of the first left president of the Fifth Republic, François Mitterrand.

Since then, there has been more and more devolution of competences to the regions:

– In the economic field, through the elaboration of regional plans of economic development,
– For transportation, with a regional plan of infrastructures and of transports,
– For education, culture and, especially, vocational training

These competences are consistent, they allowed the left in the electoral debate to campaign on the theme: “voting for the Left is giving regions the means to become a social shield “, that means for the people, by opposition to the decision of the government, after the election of Nicolas Sarkozy, to establish a ” fiscal shield ” for the rich, limiting their fiscal contribution. But, according to an argument moved by the Right to justify the very high level of abstention in these regional elections, regions would be still too recent to interest the population, who hardly knows about their very role and doesn’t even know the name of their presidents, as diverse polls have shown. This explanation is obviously a little bit short-sighted. It seems to ignore that abstention increases in all the elections, with the exception of the presidential one. And especially that it is particularly important in what we call in France the “sensitive areas” (that means where most people are poor, at least socially disadvantaged) within the  big cities and their suburbs. And that this abstention also expresses the depreciation which strikes today politics in general and the “traditional” political parties more specifically.

The place of the extreme Right

One should not make a mistake, this place has existed for a long time. Since the end of the 19th century, there have been in France populist politicians whose influence sometimes threatened the very republican institution, at that time still fragile. They were supported by all those who had not really agreed, a century later, to have been the losers of the French Revolution or those who, later, were going to be, from another point of view, the losers of the Industrial revolution, mainly the tradespeople and the artisans in the cities.

In the 1930s, influential groups in France looked with sympathy at what took place in Germany and in Italy with the rise of fascism. During the 1929 crisis, of which middle classes became the main victims, the believers in an authoritarian regime, a “national” extreme-right groups rather than “fascists” one, in the Italian or German way, leaned on the widespread antiparliamentary feelings, fed by some financial scandals and the ceaseless changes of government, to organize real riots in February, 1934. The parliamentary Left, then in power, denounces it as an attempt of fascist coup d’etat. The result was however going to take away the danger for a while: labor unions, which had divided in 1921, reunified ; the Popular Front Left won the 1936 elections. But the war and the invasion of the country were going to allow the extreme-right leagues to take their revenge in 1940, with the end of the Third Republic and the coming into power of marshal Pétain. I do not insist here on what in France we call the collaboration, which was going to allow the extreme-right not only to serve as auxiliaries to the Nazis but, as it is revealed more and more today, to play an active role in the deportation of the Jews and the gypsies, as well as of the political opponents, the communists, the socialists but also many right-wing people refusing  fascism.

One can understand that, under these conditions, the extreme-right seemed to disappear, with the exception of some very tiny groups, during the decades which followed the Second World war. For example, when Le Pen decided to stand for the 1974 presidential election, as a representative of the then very young NF, he got 0,75 % of the votes cast (to compare with the about 15% he obtained in 1988 !). But the recollection of the dark years of the occupation and the treason of the “national Right” does not explain the whole situation. We can add some other factors:
– The strong economic growth until the middle of the 1970s, which led to speak of the Thirty glorious (years) to indicate these three decades. The considerable increase of the average standard of living, alomost no unemployment, deprived the extreme-right of one of its favourite arguments: to denounce ” the system “, ” the profiteers “, “the politicians”, ” the parliamentarism”, etc.

– The strongly nationalist character of the Gaullism, which satisfied the ” national right “, not so much inclined under  these conditions to adopt extreme-right views.

On the other hand, the decolonization (around the early 1960s) meant for France  the loss of its colonial empire and, consequently, of its influence in the world. It allowed the extreme-right to lean on a feeling of frustration and the demonization of those, the  Arabs in particular, who became some years later most of the migrants. If the decolonization process was almost peaceful in Africa, it was very violent in Indochina (today Vietnam) and, especially, in Algeria. Whole generations of soldiers were sent into this ” dirty war ” which, furthermore, did not want to say its name. Officially, the matter was only to “pacify” Algeria !

All this was going to give to Jean-Marie Le Pen (who went himself as a volunteer to Indochina and to Algeria, where he has been accused of having practised torture) and to the National Front the main ingredients for their political emergence.

The National Front defines itself at the same time as being a part of the “national Right” (which may explain its trend towards xenophobia and even racism, with the motive that the French identity would be threatened), as being populist (The NF criticizes elites and advocates appeal to the people, which must obviously be embodied in a charismatic face, the leader) and sovereignist (the NF thus refuses any transfer of sovereignty, it is against Europe and fustigates globalization). We shall note however, it is a tradition in the French radical right, that it does not consider itself as an extreme right-wing party!

The deterioration of the economic situation from the 1970s, the rise of  unemployment and then poverty, was going to feed the populist discourse of the NF. According to its leaders, it defends the poor people, accuses the rich and the political and economic elites, without moving back from the resumption of the old anti-semite slogans, taking so up another solidly anchored tradition of the ” national right “. This populist discourse does not hesitate to denounce – just in semblance, the economic and social programme of the NF being indeed properly reactionary – the consequences of the liberalism, which will deeply affect people from the early 1980s. It meets all the more success as the relinquishment from 1983 of the policy of “breaking off with capitalism” promised by the Left and François Mitterrand upon their arrival into  power in 1981 allows the NF to appear as the only “anti-system” party, the communists being from these years identified with the Union of the Left which discredited lastingly itself among popular classes by this “turning point to rigor “.

One should add to this the fact that from the same time, most immigrants settled down durably in France, in particular through the possibility of “family regroupment”, supposed to be the counterpart of the end of immigration announced in 1974. For the NF, the immigrants become the cause of all the troubles. “They take the work of the French people “, when ” they do not eat their bread “. They “Islamize” France. In that time, immigrants came indeed mostly from North Africa and, gradually, from sub-Saharan Africa. This rhetoric finds thus considerable echo in regions, particularly in Southern France, where those we call in France the “Repatriated” from Algeria, having left this country when it became independent in 1962, have started a new life.

This rather complex reality of the National Front in the French political scene from its first big electoral successes (it started in 1983, on the occasion of a municipal but highly mediatized election in Dreux near Paris, then at the European elections of 1984 the NF got about 11 % of the votes, after a quite small 0,75 % in the general election three years previously!) may explain the main features of the NF’s implantation today:

– In regions formerly industrialized as Lorraine or the North of France, where the crises of the mining and of the steel industry dislocated totally the economic structure and, consequently, the social structure. They are also regions where these industries, operating with lowly qualified workers, attracted many immigrants, in particular of North Africa after the Second World war (before, they came rather from Poland, from Central Europe or from Italy). They are established today since two, even three generations and are French. It does not prevent the NF from stating that they remain immigrants and Muslims, what allows it to play upon the fears already mentioned.

– In the South of the country, in particular along the Mediterranean Coast, the strong presence of the “repatriated people” from North Africa allows the NF to exceed there also 20 % of the votes in the last regional elections. In this region, the NF was even able in the past to govern relatively important cities.

Certainly, this very simple scheme (with a Southeast / Northwest bow where the NF  exceeds everywhere 10 % of the votes and sometimes 20% as in Marseille in the South and in the region of Lille in the North; a sharply lower presence in the rest of the country) does not exhaust the reality. The National Front is sometimes very strong in cities of Côte d’Azur the population of which is rather wealthy. Also, it happens that whole villages of the rather rich region of Alsace vote mainly for the National Front. But, globally, this image is however rather close to the reality.

The dangerous game of the Right

Historically, the border between the right and the National Front has always been rather permeable. When the National Front obtained more than thirty members of Parliament in the National Assembly in 1986, most of them were formerly lected as candidates of ordinary ight-wing parties.

With Nicolas Sarkozy, the ambition became quite different: he would have wanted to attract the voters of the National Front not so much through  policies  capable of ending the disparities which are preying on the country and which add fresh fuel to the NF vote, but by taking back some of the themes which made the success of the NF:

– a bit of populism (” I listen to you, contrary to the other politicians who do not”),

– a big emphasis put on the matter of security (Sarkozy was Minister for Home Affairs before becoming President of the Republic and election campaigns have been for years opportunities to display police forces and to focus on well chosen criminal affairs such as assaults on elder people, etc.)

– and a relatively new form: the theme of national identity.

Some words on this matter. From the formation of the first government under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, an important institutional innovation was introduced with the creation of a Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Jointly liable development. This last element – Jointly liable development – was lately added, in order to calm down the outcry of indignation against the three first ones and their amalgamation. From a symbolic point of view, the association of national identity and immigration made indeed a strong gesture, making clearly of the immigration a problem for the national identity. We were thus very close to the usual rhetoric of the NF on this matter. This ambiguity was going to be stressed by the initiative of a ” debate on the national identity ” taken in November, 2009 by the Minister concerned, one of the former leaders of the Socialist Party Éric Besson. To tell the truth, he just endorsed a promise made by Nicolas Sarkosy during the presidential election campaign. But the dates finally chosen are blurting out the real objective pursued: the debate had to end with a national colloquium two weeks before… the regional elections of March, 2010. In fact, the debate started very badly. As many observers forecasted it, it quickly  turned into a debate on immigration and not around national identity. Which opened a boulevard for the most extreme opinions, so much that the government was forced to bury rapidly the debate itself in oblivion. The real winner was thus the NF, the favourite themes of which came back onto the front of the stage, this time even without any initiative of its own. But, as it was said on other occasions in France, ” the voters prefer generally the original to the copy “. This episode thus very probably restored some legitimacy and voters to the NF and to its ideas, without any benefit for the President’s UMP.

By way of (a brief) conclusion

The crisis and its consequences on the population, in particular on the most fragile groups, maintains the fear of the future and the loss of confidence in the capacity of the political elites to bring up long-lasting solutions. This provides credibility to the populist themes developed by the extreme-right, including xenophobia and racism. In a country like France, this “refusal of the other one” has privileged targets, in connection with the history of the country in the 20th century. For years, these targets have mainly been the “Arabs”, and more generally the Muslims (islamophobia), including their children having been French for one or two generations. But the changes of geopolitical nature and the new flows of immigration which result from it (Eastern European countries, Turkey, the Middle East and Asia – Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, etc.) create new tensions. It is an issue the Left and the anti-globalization activists cannot ignore today.

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