For better or worse, France has had a dominating intellectual and cultural influence throughout the West for a very long time. For most of the past couple of centuries, the influence has been for the worse. Many of the Enlightenment ideas that now shape our lives in society may have arisen first in England and Scotland, but it was in French that they were conveyed to European intellectual circles, mainly by Voltaire, at a time when French was the language of those circles. Europe, of course, is the heartland of the West.
Because of the dominating influence of France, it is natural that observers of the recent resurgence of the political right in a number of European countries have begun to focus on the National Front, usually described by the media as France’s “far right anti-immigration” party, and its new leader Marine Le Pen. Here in the U.S. she made the cover of the March 14 issue of the neo-conservative magazine, The Weekly Standard, with the headline, “The Future of the European Right?”.
Le Pen was chosen to head the National Front at a convention of the party in January following the retirement of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, now 82, the party’s founder. She won the position handily with 67 percent of the convention votes, beating out Bruno Gollnisch, leader of the party’s overtly Catholic wing.
Marine Le Pen has not repudiated the National Front’s past positions on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. She hardly can. After all, they were the party’s positions when her father was leader. However, as a twice-divorced single mother of three children (she is 42), she can’t exactly champion what American conservatives call “family values”.
Actually, Le Pen’s biography seems to help her politically, especially with women voters. This brings us to the first of the two most striking features of her rise on the French political scene. France has a presidential election next year. Le Pen wants the job. When she became leader of the National Front in January she was polling at 17 percent. By the beginning of March, just two months later, several polls showed her beating both the incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy and a possible Socialist candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The most reliable of the polls had her at 23 percent and Sarkozy at 21. As for Strauss-Kahn, a former Socialist finance minister who is now president of the International Monetary Fund, you can tell Le Pen can’t wait to take him on if he finally announces his candidacy. “The policies he has implemented as head of the IMF,” she said in a recent interview, “have crushed people all over the world, causing catastrophic social consequences.”
This brings us to the second striking feature of Le Pen’s rise. Soft-pedaling the National Front’s positions on the social issues, and even on immigration, in her quest for France’s presidency, she is concentrating on economics. This is something of a departure in French rightwing politics or European rightwing politics in general. To be specific, Le Pen’s platform is anti-globalization. She says France needs to reconsider whether it wants to remain a member of the EU. As for the EU’s currency, the euro “has not demonstrated its viability in terms of stimulating growth and prosperity and reducing unemployment for the people of Europe.” She wants France to have its own money again.
Note her reference to unemployment. Le Pen built her original political base as a local councilor in working-class towns of the northern Calais region. Today she openly states that she’s looking for support from “the working class, the unemployed, young people.”
If it’s a mass movement she’s talking about, she is also identifying the chief obstacle between her and the Elysee Palace. I don’t intend for a moment to liken the National Front to past political forces in Europe, but Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany were mass movements. When they were defeated in World War II, the liberal elites that took over engineered electoral systems that make it very difficult for a movement of “the working class, the unemployed, young people” to triumph. Without going into the details of it here, Marine Le Pen and the National Front will have to overcome the system that exists in France. That is, if “reform” of the system is required, other political groups in addition to the National Front would probably have to demand it in order for the demand to become irresistible.
Le Pen could be helped by an issue that’s among those she is now soft-pedaling: immigration. That will be especially the case if current developments in North Africa produce boatloads of new Arab Muslim “refugees” heading for the south of France.
I said she’s soft-pedaling the issue. She doesn’t ignore it. On YouTube there are pictures of Muslims stopping traffic on a Paris street for Friday prayers. “Those who pray in a public thoroughfare are acting like an occupying power,” Le Pen said of the spectacle. “Occupying power” are emotive words in France due to the World War II German Occupation.
Le Pen’s comparison of France’s millions of legal and illegal Muslim immigrants to an occupying army drew much criticism, but would have drawn more if President Sarkozy himself had not declared in a speech last July: “We are suffering the consequences of fifty years of immigration, insufficiently regulated, that has led to a failure of assimilation.”
That was mild compared to what German Chancellor Angela Merkel told an audience of young Christian Democrats last December: “We lied to ourselves,” she said. “The multicultural approach has failed — utterly.”
That politicians like Sarkozy and Merkel talk as they now do is doubtless meant by them to stop voters from turning to a leader like Le Pen. It could have the opposite effect. Voters could say to themselves, “If these politicians are now talking this way, why not go for someone who has been saying it all along?”
We mustn’t end these thoughts without saying something more of Sarkozy. Le Pen describes him aptly as “governing on impulse or emotion, depending on the circumstances.” The man’s governance is mirrored in his manner. His fidgety lack of self-control was on full view when he paid a state visit to Vatican City. During the welcoming ceremonies he whipped out his Blackberry and started texting. Pope Benedict pretended not to notice.
Yes, for most of the past two centuries France has been less than what her remaining faithful Catholics would wish. Even so, she deserves better than Sarkozy. Apart from Strauss-Kahn or another Socialist, the only alternative at the moment is Marine Le Pen. Catholics might wish her personal life was more exemplary, but American ones in particular ought to remember that during the 1980s we had more serious Catholics in positions of real power in Washington than during any other period of U.S. history. They were appointed by Ronald Reagan, a divorced man.
That is not to say that what France and the West need is simply another Reagan. Far from it. After more than two centuries of living on our spiritual capital, now nearly depleted, much more is needed than any election can provide. When new capital accumulation begins, that will be when what’s right, in addition to the political right, is really on the rise.
Footnote: In local elections held on March 20, the National Front scored big. Up for grabs were places in the councils of half of France’s 2,023 cantons — the country’s smallest territorial units. The National Front won a place in 394 cantons, or one in five of all contested councils. Percentage-wise, the National Front won 15 percent of the votes, barely behind the 17 percent won by the Union for a Popular Movement, President Sarkozy’s party. However, Socialist candidates won the most votes, with 25 percent of the ballots cast. It remains, the National Front is surging.