The rise of Marine Le Pen in France is due to the failure of mainstream political parties to confront the racism of the National Front. Instead, they tried to co-opt it.
Shame on them all. French leaders from across the political spectrum could not prevent a far-right candidate who has denied the role played by her country’s wartime Vichy government in the Nazi Holocaust from reaching the second and final round of the presidential election.
On Sunday, Marine Le Pen became only the second National Front candidate in French history to make it through to the second round — the first was her Holocaust-denying father, FN founder Jean Marie Le Pen, in 2002 — where she will face independent centrist Emmanuel Macron on May 7. Never before in the history of the French Fifth Republic have both the Socialist and the Republican candidates failed to reach the presidential run-off. This is nothing less than a political cataclysm.
So who is to blame for the rise and rise of Le Pen and the FN? The conventional wisdom says that mainstream French politicians allowed the far right to win votes by letting them monopolize the issue of immigration. The reverse is, in fact, the case: Over the past four decades, both the center-right Republicans and center-left Socialists went out of their way to try and co-opt the xenophobic rhetoric and policies of the Le Pens, which only emboldened — and normalized — both father and daughter.
Go back to September 1984, when the Socialist prime minister, Laurent Fabius, told a TV interviewer that the elder Le Pen, a card-carrying racist and neo-fascist, was posing the right questions but giving the wrong answers. A few years later, the Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, declared that France had reached a “threshold of tolerance” in terms of the impact of immigrants.
In 1991, after clashes broke out between French police and youths of Arab and North African descent, politicians from the left, right, and center fell over one another to denounce immigration and bash French Muslims. In June of that year, for example, it wasn’t the elder Le Pen who decried an “overdose” of immigrants who brought to France “three or four wives, some 20 children,” plus “noise” and “smell.” It was former center-right prime minister (and later president) Jacques Chirac. A month later, it wasn’t Le Pen who announced that the French government would charter planes to forcibly deport undocumented immigrants. It was then-Prime Minister Edith Cresson, a Socialist. Just a few months later, in September 1991, it wasn’t Le Pen who warned of an “invasion” of immigrants and called for French citizenship to be based on “the right by blood.” It was former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing.
Every time the established politicians and parties hardened their stance on immigration, or on Islam, the FN became less fringe, more mainstream. Perhaps the biggest boost to the LePenization of French politics came from Nicolas Sarkozy. As president of France between 2007 and 2012, he actively courted FN voters and helped dismantle the “Republican pact,” under which the two main parties had pledged to work together to defeat the FN at a national and local level. Remember: It was Sarkozy who launched the “Great Debate on National Identity” in 2009; who ordered the ban on the face veil, worn by only 2,000 out of the roughly 2 million adult Muslim women in France, in 2010; who absurdly declared halal meat to be the “issue which most preoccupies the French” in 2012. And it was Sarkozy who called the FN “a democratic party” and deemed its values “compatible with the Republic.”
The French left, however, also has a lot to answer for. Manuel Valls, Socialist prime minister between 2014 and 2016, defended a ban on the burkini and said the “most important thing” is not unemployment but “the identity battle, the cultural battle.” Marine Le Pen herself could not have said it better. Valls’ Socialist colleague Laurence Rossignol, France’s minister for women’s rights, compared Muslim women who choose to wear the headscarf to “American negroes who were in favor of slavery.” And the far left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came fourth on Sunday, condemned the candidacy of a headscarf-wearing female Muslim candidate in the local elections of 2010.
These are the moral depths to which French socialism has fallen.
With enemies like these, who needs friends? Should we be surprised then that Marine Le Pen has pulled off an unashamedly cynical policy of dédiabolisation (or de-demonization) in recent years, based on playing down the FN’s (unpopular) anti-Semitism while playing up its (more popular) Islamophobia? Without much resistance, she has framed the party’s hard-line stance on immigration as a liberal defense of French laicité, or secularism, against fanatical and illiberal Muslims at home and abroad.
Islamophobia long ago united French public figures from across the spectrum. “That anti-Muslim rhetoric can be used from the far left to the far right … illustrates the convergence of points of views about Muslims,” Yasser Louati, a French human rights activist, tells me. “They can disagree on everything but not Islamophobia.”
To fight the FN, he says, there has to be a recognition of the role that endemic racism and religious discrimination still plays in French society, from the boardrooms to the banlieues. A former colonial power like France, argues Louati, has “racism enshrined in its DNA.” The official statistics on rising hate crimes, like Sunday’s election result, seem to back him up.
Nevertheless, to also be fair to the French, the latest polling suggests around two out of three of them will vote against Le Pen and in favor of Macron in the run-off next month. Macron is on course to win a resounding victory — but Le Pen has made clear she is here to stay. Le Pen and her fascist friends will be back in 2022 to fight again, enthused and energized, not to mention legitimized, by achieving such success in 2017 — and by forcing both left and right to dance to their bigoted tunes.
So it’s time for a reckoning. The French elites’ strategy of trying to defeat the Le Pens by aping their rhetoric, stealing their policies, and pandering to their voters has been a political and moral failure. As Gary Younge wrote in The Guardian after Jean-Marie Le Pen’s shock victory in the first round in 2002, “Every step you make in the direction of a racist agenda does not ‘neutralize’ racists but emboldens them.”
Fifteen years on, nothing has changed. You cannot appease fascism by meeting it in the middle; you cannot beat racism by indulging or excusing it. Perhaps French politicians should re-read their national motto. Fighting for égalité and fraternité, regardless of race or religion, is the only way forward.