By Ultan Gannon
The media has being widely reporting a rise of far right, anti-immigration, Eurosceptic and outright Neo-Fascist parties across Europe since the start of the Great Recession. Last year the focus was on France, a country more usually known for its strong unions, shorter working hours, socialist governments, 60s Situationationist student riots and Nazi resistance movements than its far-right hate groups. Since the 2015 EU elections, the National Front has been making headlines, taking nearly 25% of the vote and almost a third of France’s European seats. A shocking success for a party founded with leaders ranging from Nazi collaborators to actual SS members. Headed by their new leader, Marine Le Penn, with the same name brand recognition as her father, the former leader, but with less of the scandalous associations and a softer, denazified for PR purposes veneer image. The National Front have been able to hide their skinhead roots, partly by suing anyone who suggests that they are far right, despite a list of racist comments longer than the Maginot line, and capitalise on the economic uncertainty of the era by channeling the general anger at the global financial crisis towards the easy target of immigrant communities, especially North African Muslims.
Most recently in the regional elections, twenty six year old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, granddaughter of noted Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen, gained the best results of any National Front candidate. The strikingly Aryan looks of this young woman have clearly contributed to what some are calling the “Marion Phenomenon,” and will likely insure her ascension to the top of the party which is increasingly looking like a family-run business. But in typical family squabble fashion, the party is also fractured by infighting and could be set on course for self-destruction. Marine’s attempts at modernising the party by making it more moderate, even going as far as to call Donald Trump too extreme, have been jeopardized by her niece Marion’s move closer to her grandfather’s Nazi past.
La petite Le Pen is a conservative, practicing Catholic who has played a leading role in anti-gay marriage rallies and calling for an end to funding for family planning, which she accuses of “peddling abortion as something that’s run-of-the-mill”. She has insisted that France is “not a land of Islam” and that Muslims can only be French if they follow Christian “customs and a lifestyle” despite her own decidedly unchristian plans to scrap development aid. She repeatedly talks of “true French” identity and how she is of “Francaise de souche“ native French stock. To some in her party she even appears like some sort of “Joan of Arc figure, the chosen one”. The one hallmark of Nazism that this “Joan of Dark” does not appear to have inherited from her grandfather is his passion for outspoken anti-Semitism. Though she claimed to have “deeply disagreed” with his repeated reference to the Holocaust as “a detail of history” she has also refused to support his exclusion from the party for such remark.
While this rapid rise of the far right in France might seem shocking at first, when we look beyond the headlines we find that it is not all as dramatic as it first appears. The turnouts for the 2014 European elections were less than than half , with similar figures in France. So the shocking statistic that a quarter of French voters sent representatives to the EU parliament from a party whose former leader has faced charges from his own country, and discipline from his own party for repeatedly denying the Holocaust is overstated. Instead, the reality is the slightly less worrying statistic that it is just over ten percent of France that supports this party, though up to a third may support its ideas. With that in mind, both of the new Le Pen’s successes have been somewhat overstated. Despite having the highest vote of any National Front candidate, at 45%, Marion still came second place. Second place in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the region her conspiracy-spouting grandfather had held since she was three years old. Her aunt Marine came second best out of the party she now heads with 42.5% in the region Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, home of the famous Calais refugee center. Both were running in an election just a month after the Paris attacks with the country still in a state of emergency!
The question is why has there been this increase in support for parties like the National Front, and other extremist groups in France at this time. The global Great Recession plays a part, but seeing as there has not been a uniformly sized swing to the right internationally, there must be reasons that are specific to France that puts them on the forefront of this far right shift in Europe.
Like many European countries with a colonial history, France experienced increased immigration from her former colonies after World War 2, especially North Africa, including the descendents of the ethnically French people living there, or Pieds-Noirs. The legacy of empire continues to influence integration with the new immigrants making up a large proportion the population of les banlieues, low income suburbs with chronic high unemployment and crime rates. These inequities are not purely economic, not simply a product of poverty that affects white and non-white French citizens alike. Research has shown that they are the result of both racial and religious discrimination. When three identical resumes were sent to employers, two with a Senegalese surname, Diouf, one with a Muslim first name, Khadija, another with a Christian name and a third with a non-religious French name, the Senegalese Muslim name, Khadija Diouf, received two and a half times fewer responses. This research reflects reality, with university graduates of North African descent having an unemployment rate over five times as high as the average.
These inequalities are ironically at least in part the product of France’s republican policy on citizenship which strives to treat all as equal, and all as simply French. A law from 1872 prohibits the state collecting census statistics on the racial or religious background of its citizens. Due to this law’s egalitarian intentions, many statistics on racism are not as easily available in France as they would be in other multicultural countries. A similar strive for universality of French citizenship underlies the laïcité laws on a strict secular separation of church and state, which gave rise to the hugely controversial ban on all religious symbolism, including the hijab, in schools. These issues highlight the tension France is finding integrating its Enlightenment era aspirations for liberte, egalite, fraternite, crafted in a relatively monocultural time divided mostly by the social classes of the ancien régime, with its modern multicultural make up.
While this cycle of discrimination and lower employment levels despite education and higher crime rates in les banlieues is typical of the poverty trap in most western nations, it alone does not explain why France has seen such a rise in far right activity recently. To understand this we must look at how these factors and others, including modern mass communication, interact to give rise to this shift. Undoubtedly there has been an notable, though exaggerated, increase in the radical right across Europe recently, but the French situation is somewhat different. While the comparable rise of UKIP in the UK, who also took first place in the last EU elections, was mostly from older and more rural voters, often from areas with little to no non-white British populations, the rise of the National Front has been due to increased support from young voters with its base moving away from urban centers.
This, at first, seems to suggest a serious demographic shift underway in France that could see the likes of the Le Pen becoming an increasing political force in the future, compared to the aging former Tory voting population underpinning UKIP support. But like with their EU election victories, when we look beyond the headlines we see that all is not as it first appears. When comparing the National Front’s rise in the 2014 EU and French municipal elections to the race for the 2012 Presidential, they remained at third place, with less than half polling support of the second runner, in a time of global economic crisis. While some polls for the next Presidential election have them considerably ahead of their rivals, this is when the current President’s approval ratings are at an all time low and, like in recessionary times, former fringe parties poll well.
So can France’s right turn be written off as a statistical anomaly? Just the media over hyping a protest vote, or the work of well-organised but unrepresentative rightwing radicals in less important elections that will not manifest into anything significant? Not entirely. The rise in the far right is real, though overestimated. While the far right’s history in France stretches back to the late 1800s and the Dreyfus affair its modern incarnation is influenced by the use of modern communication like the internet. France has strict laws against Holocaust denial, but the web and social media are by their nature nearly impossible to police. Whereas in the 80s, racist skinhead gangs and their advisories were run largely on a street level, nowadays they a global network of propaganda and personal ties to organise protests and even orchestrate attacks. The internet age has seen a Cambrian explosion in the news ecosystem, with many different species fitting into different political niches. Sites like Stormfront and countless others are an epicenter for race hate and conspiracy theories. For many on the far-right these sites have the credibility of the New York Times, while the Times the credibility of a fringe website. The aforementioned stories and statistics will be widely circulated on these sites but rarely, if ever, questioned or debunked. When combined with modern search engine’s algorithms that show news content based on previously clicked sites, so one only sees content that suits their preferences, this creates a powerful online echo chamber.
The story of online radicalisation is well known when applied to Islamist extremism, but has rarely been aimed at far-right radicalism. While the more typical answers of economic recession and alienation from mainstream society may still play a part in the modern world, it is important to keep in mind that they are not the entire picture. In another twisted irony, the same sort of online recruiting that has helped fuel the type of terrorist attacks which the National Front has been capitalising on are also helping to expand the Neo-Nazi underground that they themselves are linked to.
Although the traditional media has over estimated their numbers, the rise of Europe’s far right is real. Their support base is growing, bizarrely even among minority groups such as French-Muslims and Paris’s gay community, paradoxically each attracted by the party’s anti-gay marriage and anti-Islam stances respectively. Its core appeal seems to be to a breed of ultra- nationalism long thought dormant since the end of the Second World War. While many of France’s Nazi collaborators were executed or fled in the infamous ratlines, others like the many of the founders of the National Front survived. The full list of name of those that conspired to murder millions and betrayed their countrymen is only recently beginning to come to light. The lineages of those that conspired and collaborated with the Nazi invasion may have found new means to communicate their hidden pasts online, and new groups to focus their hatred toward in the modern world. While her ancestors were once tarred and feathered for their mere association with such politics, Marine has found favour with millions. This disturbing trend, though overestimated by traditional media in a search for sensationalist headlines due to the pressing need of financial bottom lines, shows an all too real legacy with all of European politics; the scars of the war continue to influence the entire continent’s political landscape. In times of plenty, these fault-lines remain hidden, but with sudden economic shifts their contours come back into sharp focus. We can only hope that the battle lines of the modern war against far right extremism remain mostly online and in the ballot box and that the trajectory from economic crisis to Europe’s lurch to towards rightwing nationalism does not complete the same dark path it did in the last century.
Ultan Gannon studies Political Science and Philosophy in his fourth year as an undergraduate student at University College Dublin.