Anxious in Europe

Print edition : May 25, 2002

Although the French handed down a massive defeat to Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election, the rise of the extreme Right in general has shocked many western European nations.

THE emergence of Jean-Marie Le Pen to be the run-off contender in the second round of the French presidential election both shocked and shamed France, and the shock and shame have only slightly been reduced with the eventual heavy defeat of Le Pen in the deciding second round of voting.

The presidency in France was set up by and in the interests of the first President of the Fifth Republic, General Charles de Gaulle. The presidential vote allows any number of candidates in a first round, with only the two front-runners in that ballot going forward to the decisive round. In theory and past practice this gives the minor political parties, the Left and the Right, a chance to gauge their level of support and to use their first round support as a bargaining chip to influence the policies of the final round contenders.

However, this system also encourages small parties and rogue candidates, and Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant, nationalistic "Front National", was certainly aided by the fracturing of the vote on the traditional Left and Right.

More important, though, was the chronic weariness of the electorate for the mainstream centre-Right and centre-Left candidates, the incumbent Gaullist President, Jacques Chirac and the incumbent Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. France's Gaullist constitution allows the President considerable power. He is no mere figurehead, and owing to the time overlaps between elections, "cohabitation" - a socialist Prime Minister and a Gaullist President, or vice versa - has been the hallmark of recent decades in France. Indeed, until the Le Pen shock, many French political pundits have sung the praises of such a pragmatic checks and balances arrangement.

However, in the allegedly post-ideological world, such "cohabitation" has left many voters feeling that their votes are worthless, especially when the major parties have basically the same platforms and this against a background of shifting uncertainty in France. The pre-eminence of France in the European Union (E.U.) is not as certain as it was, mainly because the potential expansion of the E.U. eastwards threatens to shift the balance of power not only geographically but also politically towards a united Germany.

Unemployment is rising in France and its social unease is best witnessed in the problems of the suburbs - "banlieus" in French. The term "banlieus" for the French does not conjure up the cosy, middle class suburbia of the Anglo-Saxon world, but the name itself (banlieu means literally "place of banishment") implies outcasts. Suburbs in France can mean sterile tower blocks, few civic amenities, large foreign populations (mainly North African Muslims) and the alienation of the poor indigenous working class, many of whom have made a straight electoral swop from voting Left, Communist or Socialist, to voting extreme Right. It is this threatening sense of loss of identity that Le Pen has tapped into consistently over the years, crudely but effectively equating the jobless figures that the crime rates with the number of immigrants. Now the malaise at the centre of French politics seems to have opened the door just that fraction further to allow Le Pen to make his breakthrough.

THE figures for the first round were quite startling and revealing. On a record low turnout of 71.6 per cent, Chirac received 19.88 per cent - a staggering indictment for any incumbent President to a large extent caused by the distrust of a man mired in bribery and corruption scandals. Le Pen got 16.86 per cent, just pipping the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin who got 16.16 per cent. The narrowness of Le Pen's advantage over Jospin pales into insignificance in the light of the symbolic disaster of the sitting Prime Minister being dropped to third place. Nor can the Socialists' defeat be put down to Jospin's character. Although perceived as an uninspiring person, Jospin is worthy and respected. The fault lies in the strong sense that modern politicians in western Europe are mere technocrats, managers and not leaders.

The elevation of Le Pen certainly stung the conscience of the many apathetic electors who had stayed at home for the first ballot. On the Left, there was a great sense of having underestimated the threat from the far Right, which had led many to vote for the far Left or abstain.

Massive demonstrations were held against Le Pen in the intervening two weeks between the first and second ballot, with the Left rallying to the somewhat desperate but realistic slogan - "better a crook (Chirac) than a Fascist (Le Pen)".

The collective sigh of relief that was heard when the second round result of 82 per cent for Chirac and just under 18 per cent for Le Pen, echoed not only within the country but throughout western Europe. What happens in the parliamentary elections due later this year will be absolutely decisive for the next decade in France and Europe. There is a real danger that when not faced with the imperative of defeating Le Pen, the Left could continue to fracture.

Moreover, the rise of the extreme Right is not confined to France. In Britain, the extreme Right British National Party (BNP) won three seats in the local elections in the northern town of Burnley, which was a scene of race riots last summer.

There is widespread anxiety in European nation-states centered around identity and this is linked with the integration of "Europe". Nebulous appeals to unite as "Europeans" do not find resonance in disinherited and disinterested pockets of urban decay where the nationalistic appeal is still vibrant. When French and British voters were asked why they voted far Right, many disavowed racist views but said that they regarded the far Right as at least acknowledging that there was a problem and expressed respect for politicians who actually speak their mind. The essentially apolitical managers of the political process in western Europe are unprepared for this re-emergence of raw politics and a dangerous vacuum is emerging.

Michael Hindley was a Labour Party member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

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