Graham Murray reports on the ‘normalisation’ of extreme Right politics in France.
The defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy on 6 May 2012 should be celebrated as a victory against Islamophobia and racism. No other French presidential candidate from ‘mainstream’ politics tapped into the ideology of the far Right to the extent that Sarkozy did. In an unashamed bid to seduce Front National (FN) voters for whom he expressed his ‘respect’, Sarkozy effectively became the Petri dish of ‘Lepenism’. The discourse of the FN, once anathema to so-called French ‘republican values’ was ‘normalised’ under Sarkozy’s watch: from immigration to opposing the right to vote for immigrants, from France’s Christian roots to Halal meat and, of course, the dreaded burqa, Sarkozy – himself the son of an immigrant – borrowed the divisive and hateful discourse of the extreme Right and somehow believed that his fake ‘Lepenism’ would pass off for the genuine item.
Ultimately, however, Sarkozy’s achievement was to give credibility to the ideology of the far Right, and the timing was perfect: Marine Le Pen’s shrewd and polished style was the antithesis of her father’s provocative, vicious bulldog persona. Marine chose the well-trodden path of contemporary far-Right parties, distancing herself from her father’s apparent anti-Semitism and focusing instead on Islam and immigration. When Sarkozy attempted to tag onto one of Marine Le Pen’s hate campaigns and declared that the ‘principle subject of concern in the discussions of the French people … is this question of Halal meat’ even some of his own Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party members cringed. Satirists milked Sarkozy’s madness, with one cartoonist portraying closed factories, tax breaks for the rich, high petrol prices and deteriorating public services, all stamped with the word ‘Halal’, as if the latter really mattered more than the fundamental issues of the day. The 2011 law banning the wearing of the burqa was clearly an act of cynical Islamophobia which sought to attract FN voters rather than tackle a real ‘problem’. While France is home to five million Muslims, fewer than 2,000 of the country’s Muslim women are believed to wear a face veil.
Sarkozy surrounded himself with likeminded provocateurs in his bid to woo FN supporters. Interior Minister Claude Guéant provoked outrage when he told right-wing students ‘all civilisations are not equal’, a statement whose absurdity was mocked even by the FN. It was perhaps an ‘initiative’ of Sarkozy’s, Minister for Immigration, Integration and National Identity, Eric Besson that marked the nadir of Sarkozy’s presidency. With Sarkozy’s backing, Besson managed to perfectly combine the ridiculous and the reactionary when he launched a series of town hall meetings across France to discuss and define French national identity. The national identity ‘debate’ turned into a nefarious conduit for racism and Islamophobia and was even criticised by UMP politicians. But Sarkozy expressed ‘very strong support’ for Besson and criticised his detractors. In 2010, the then Interior Minister and Sarkozy’s friend and ally, Brice Hortefeux was fined for making racist comments about a young UMP activist of Algerian origin. In a video clip which was circulated on the internet a woman is heard to say of the activist: ‘He is one of us … he is our little Arab’, to which Hortefeux apparently responds, ‘We always need one. It’s when there are lots of them that there are problems.’
Joker of the pack
Sarkozy played the French national identity card (he created the chillingly named and short-lived Ministry of Immigration and National Identity), the anti-multiculturalism card, the Christian values card, the anti-immigration card, the anti-right-to-vote-for-immigrants card – the whole ‘Lepenist’ pack. But in the end, Sarkozy looked like a joker and the FN won hands-down. When Marine Le Pen spoke of the ‘Islamisation de la France’; Sarkozy, rather than combatting such fear-mongering, jumped on the bandwagon and vowed to defend France’s secularism; he demonised the Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan and claimed that 700 French mosques had expressed support for Francois Hollande. ‘The Socialist Party supports the right to vote for foreigners,’ Sarkozy warned, in a bid to win over those who voted for Marine Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election. But he omitted to remind the French public that in 2005 he was personally in favour of giving foreigners the right to vote in municipal elections. Attempting to explain his inconsistency on the question, Sarkozy claimed there was a now ’un risque communautaire’, an allusion to the French aversion to multiculturalism and distinct ethnic minority communities which it views as a threat to national unity.
It soon became clear that Sarkozy’s strategy was backfiring. The skilful Marine Le Pen gained almost 20 per cent of the vote in the first round of the elections. And in the run-off, Sarkozy was beaten by Francois Hollande. The former president’s legacy is that he brought ‘Lepenism’ into the mainstream and contributed towards what has become known as the ‘la normalisation’ of the FN.
The French Left are still clinking their champagne glasses, but it is the FN that may, in the long run, be the true winners of this election. Their game plan is simple: let Hollande beat Sarkozy, let the UMP quarrel and splinter, let the crisis bring down Hollande and then prepare for power. The idea would have sounded far-fetched in a different époque, but this is post 9/11, economically depressed 2012 when even Greece’s extreme Right Golden Dawn party is able to attract seven per cent of the vote and openly Islamophobic political parties such as Geert Wilders’ Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV), are on the rise throughout Europe.
Thanks to Sarkozy, Marine Le Pen’s plans to take power one day appear to be alarmingly realistic.