Yesterday’s first round of France’s Regional Elections 2015 was unexpected and unprecedented: a third party whose power was gravely underestimated, managed to gain nearly a third of national vote, winning six of thirteen races. Marine La Pen, the daughter of the party’s founder Jean-Marie La Pen, won an astonishing 40.65% of the vote in her home region of Calais-Picardie, normally a stronghold of the French Socialist Party of Francois Hollande. Further south, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen has taken 40.55% of the vote in Provence-Alpes-Cote Azur, a largely conservative stronghold of former President Nicolaus Sarkozy’s Les Republicains party. Everywhere in France, the establishment parties on both the left and right are in retreat, as the rising National Front (FN) is challenging the legitimacy of the European Union, France’s support of Syrian refugees, and whether or not the government can keep people safe in the face of sustained terrorist attacks by ISIS.
The FN’s rise to political maturity is a watershed event as instability in the Middle East and the weakness of the European Union is threatening a political backlash against the forces of globalization. Marine La Pen is becoming a self-styled “Opposition Leader” to the EU, and the policies of Hollande, specifically his acceptance of refugees. I also parallels the rise of Donald Trump, who has spread a similar anti-immigrant message throughout the Republican base, and contributing to the extreme polarization taking place in the United States. The FN is rewriting the rules of how politics is played in Europe, giving a playbook to other parties ont he extreme right in Germany, Hungary, and the United Kingdom, and even endorsing those of Mr. Trump. The backlash in these countries, all part of the broader Atlantic Community, is threatening unity while allowing the spectre of ISIS to dominate, intimidate, and influence the democratic process from afar. .
Dites non à la démocratie!
Marie Le Pen’s victory is also a rejection of the democratic values that have been the building blocks, not only of the European Union, but the Atlantic Community after the Second World War. In an opinion piece written to Le Monde by Cécile Alduy of Stanford University, this is “Not the tolerant France, endorsing [the values of] liberty, equality and fraternity, but the France that justifies fears, and allows xenophobia and authoritarianism to assume.” Much like Donald Trump’s wave of popular support for causes such as banning travel to the US by Muslims until the Islamic State is destroyed, Le Pen has called for the removal of refugees in France and railed against EU immigration as a security threat.
The National Front has come a long way from its roots as a primarily anti-semitic party whose base consisted of an anti-democratic, nationalist, and anti-free trade supporters. The party however had little traction in French politics, dominated by the conservative Les Republicains (formerly the Union for a Popular Movement or UMP) and the Socialist Party. When the European Union was formed in 1993, the party opposed it, as it forced France to give up part of its sovereignty, and open up its borders to immigration. The party has risen to prominence in the early 21st century as the European sovereign debt crisis and economic slowdown continued, creating economic turmoil at home. Much like the American Tea Party, the National Front has blamed such woes on the inaction of the establishment, whose goal is to maintain the status quo against the will of popular opinion. This campaign calls for new leadership in Europe that dismisses Germany’s European leadership and restores a Gaullist, anti-unity spirit to the French community.
Worse yet, the FN has a vanguard of young voters, supporters, and leaders that are carrying the way towards victory and the chance of political power in regional government. Like the Tea Party, they have a strong group of youth voters who are determined to protect culture they feel is under attack. The youthful image of the party has been vindicated by the clear first round victory of Marion Marechal-Le Pen, the niece of Marine Le Pen and candidate in the Provence-Alps-Cote D’Azur region. She replaces her grandfather, Jean-Marie, the founder of the party, and symbolically demonstrating how in tune the Front is with the current atmosphere of French politics. While the second round is not till December 13th, the political stakes are higher for the establishment that needs support for the fight against ISIS.
A Beautifully Executed Propaganda Ploy
The challenge French and the US policymakers and citizens face is a daunting double-edged sword. Much like Vietnam and Algeria, there is now a strong movement in the country to change course, but it is veering ever so closely towards war. By looking at the words of both Le Pen and Trump, their nationalist and aggressive rhetoric is driving partisanship to a level damaging to both countries, and to the prospects of unity against ISIS. But more importantly, it demonstrates the effectiveness of ISIS’ propaganda and terror machine that has captured the undivided attention of the major powers throughout the world. The lack of courage from political elites on both sides of the Atlantic to stand up effectively to either has weakened the legitimacy of our governments, and stoking our enemies abroad.
Both Trump and Le Pen represent a strong face to another, potentially more dangerous outcome if the extreme right were to take power in 2016 and 2017 respectively: a strong willingness to use force abroad against ISIS. According to the New York Times author Rukmini Callimachi, ISIS is goading the west to intervene against them, on the basis of religious prophesies of the end-time. Le Pen would be likely to go to war, because the politics of her party require an expectation of strength, translated into policy against immigrants, integration, and, by default, restore French leadership in Europe. The final result will only be to bring both countries into a quagmire reminiscent of the killing fields in Vietnam and mountains of Algeria.