The huge gains of France’s far-right National Front in the first round of regional elections have stunned the country’s ruling elites and shocked much of Europe. The party could win several regional executives in the second round, a major step forward in its march towards power at national level. The country’s mainstream parties now scramble to halt the party’s rise, but they are unlikely to succeed as they still largely fail to understand its root causes.
With close to 28% of the votes, the far-right National Front clearly won the first round of the French regional elections on 6 December, coming ahead of the mainstream right wing opposition (27%) as well as of the ruling socialist party (23%). For the second time after the May 2014 elections to the European Parliament, the National Front has topped the vote at national level. More than ever before, a party considered by some as “extreme right” or even “neo-fascist” is at the very centre of French politics. While the National Front boasts to be “France’s first political party”, the French and European political elites are struggling to come to terms with a result that casts a shadow over the country’s political prospects and future direction.
The rise of the National Front, though, was largely anticipated: most opinion polls had shown support for the party growing consistently for months, and even more sharply in the weeks preceding the vote. Many political leaders, it seems, had however convinced themselves that opinion polls were overestimating this support, or that repeated calls for French citizens to mobilise or to “think” before casting their votes would be sufficient to contain it. They were clearly deluded: the party’s success was even greater than anticipated by the pollsters.
The National Front came first in 6 of 13 regions in mainland France, winning over 40% of the vote in two of them. Thanks to a voting system that grants a “premium” of 25% of regional assembly seats to the list arriving first in the second round with at least 34% of the vote, the party headed by Marine Le Pen is now well placed to win absolute majorities in one or more regions in the second round of the poll, which will take place on 13 December. The party would then be in power for a period of five years in regions that have been enlarged and made significantly more powerful by a territorial reform passed in the summer of 2015. It would get hold of considerable powers, far more significant than the political responsibilities it has so far exerted at local level. Even more than previous polls, these regional elections could thus give the National Front a new dimension and grant it political levers that would represent a major step forward in its march towards power at national level.
As the National Front’s access to significant levers of political power ceases to be a more or less probable hypothesis to become a tangible perspective, the French ruling elites seem to have entered a state of panic, which goes far beyond the political parties and extends to the economic, media and intellectual circles that dominate and structure French public life. Following the first round, mainstream parties are scrambling to prevent the far-right movement from getting hold of a single regional government. The socialist party has already announced the withdrawal of its lists in three regions were it arrived in third place and that are most at risk of being won by Marine Le Pen’s movement. So far the right wing party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy refuses to follow suit and to join forces with the socialist enemy to defeat the National Front, but some prominent party members are expressing growing unease with this position, which could lead to lasting dissensions should Marine Le Pen’s party effectively win one or more regions.
Incomprehension and blindness
Regardless of the results of the second round, the most striking lesson from these regional elections is undoubtedly the utter failure of France’s political mainstream to halt or even contain the rise of the National Front.
Many want to see the far right party’s success in the first round of the regional elections as essentially resulting from the terrorist attacks on 13 November in Paris, which killed 130 persons and left the country traumatised. It is indeed quite possible that the shock, fear and anger caused by these atrocities allowed the party to make further gains in the weeks preceding the poll. However, the rise of the National Front was already focusing the attention well before the attacks. Many prominent politicians and analysts were already voicing concern about the party’s mounting support and possible success not only in the regional poll but also in the presidential election of 2017. A number pointed out the risk of seeing Marine Le Pen not only access the second round of the presidential election – something that seems to be already unavoidable – but actually win the presidency. Well before the November 13 tragedy, politicians on all sides already seemed to be acting as passive witnesses of the National Front’s progress, unable to outline a compelling response or to devise a strategy to contain it.
If French politicians seem to be powerless to stop the rise of Marine Le Pen’s party, it is probably because they are incapable of understanding the root causes of a phenomenon that eludes the categories of their political culture. It is actually quite telling that, even after the National Front’s new electoral breakthrough, most French politicians on the left and right remain unable to extricate themselves from the quasi pavlovian reflex of simply blaming the other camp. Many on the right continue to accuse the socialist government of causing the rise of the FN not only by failing to solve the country’s many problems, but also by willingly using the far-right movement’s advance to split and weaken the right wing opposition. Meanwhile, many on the left persist in blaming the mainstream right wing for legitimising the National Front by stealing its rhetoric and drifting ever further to the right. On both sides, most continue to indulge in the vain game of mutual invectives and recriminations – after all, this is what they have always done. Intellectual laziness and ideological conditioning seem to be preventing the French political class as a whole from grasping the real reasons why the National Front keeps rising and rising.
Obviously, many interrelated factors may help explain the rise of the French far right, or the fact that it seems to be increasingly unstoppable. Any attempt at identifying and analysing the causes can only be reductionist. However, it is possible to identify at least three fundamental developments, whose conjunction and convergence probably plays a major role in boosting the National Front.
The accumulation of tensions within French society
The first of these trends, the most obvious, is the accumulation of tensions within French society, which are now reaching a critical level and tend to crystallize around the question of Islam.
The French have earned the distinction of becoming the most pessimistic of all peoples in the Western world. According to TNS-Sofres, a pollster, the share of French people who think that “things are getting worse” approaches 80% and has never dropped below 50% during the last 15 years, whilst the share of those who think that “things are improving” is less than 10% and never reached 30% in the last 15 years. This deep and persistent pessimism has a multitude of causes, starting with the socially deleterious and destabilizing effects of a mass unemployment that successive governments have been unable to reduce for over thirty years. It is also caused by the perceived downgrading of the country on the international and European stage, which itself results from its continuous economic weakening. This pessimism, however, is probably mostly due to the fact that French society has become over the past decades what some have called a “society of mistrust”, i.e. an overly cautious and rigid society where most do not trust their fellow citizens nor the institutions, where many mostly attempt to extract whatever benefit they can from a political, economic and social system that is becoming increasingly costly and dysfunctional, and where incivility is becoming increasingly widespread.
During the same period, France has undergone a profound diversification of the ethnic and cultural make up of its population, resulting from a massive migration influx from its former colonies and from the persistence of a greater demographic dynamism amongst newcomers and their offspring. The country’s political system, over-centralized and ankylosed, and its economic system, statist and corporatist, have however been unable to integrate these new components of society, who have instead been largely maintained or relegated to the margins – the margins of cities, of professional opportunities or of political and societal responsibilities. A form of “counter-society” has gradually developed as a result on parts of the French territory, leading to what Prime Minister Manuel Valls called a “geographic, social, and ethnic apartheid.” Numerous urban areas have gradually escaped the control of the state, providing fertile ground for the development of criminality and religious extremism.
In these conditions, the rapid and massive diversification of the ethnic and cultural make-up of the French population has progressively contributed to make French society increasingly “disharmonious” and “incohesive”. Rightly or wrongly, a growing part of the electorate tends to associate this increasingly unhappy diversification with the spreading of mistrust in the country, or even with a fundamental alteration of the nature of French society. This explains why, in recent years, social and civil tensions have tended to crystallize on identity issues, and in particular on the rise of Islam, the most spectacular and the most problematic aspect of the country’s population diversification.
An “ideology of Islamization” has gradually developed, nurtured by the growing demographic weight of Muslims in France, but also and more significantly by the increasingly demonstrative visibility of Islam and its growing power of attraction in a society that for decades had tended to become largely “areligious” or even “aspiritual”. For a growing number of French people, most political, economic and social issues are increasingly being relegated to a second place behind a phenomenon of Islamization that they perceive as being validated by empirical facts. This ideology feeds a widespread suspicion towards the country’s large Muslim community, which has been largely reinforced by the terrorist attacks of January and November 2015. This ideology develops and progresses autonomously from the National Front, but it nevertheless benefits the party and feeds its electoral progress.
The decay of the French political system
The second converging development is the decay of the French political system, which has become totally unable to produce solutions to the country’s many ills and problems. It would be easy to only blame these persisting problems on the incompetence and mistakes of the various political leaders who have ruled the country over the last decades. Many still do, and continue to believe that a new and more capable political leadership could find solutions to the many problems that right and left have been unable to address for so long.
Yet, the “French disease” probably results far less from the country’s electoral choices, however poor they may have been, than from the failure of its political system, which has been in a state of permanent and latent crisis for decades. Designed to establish a strong and effective political power, the Fifth Republic has paradoxically led to render it impotent. By setting up a presidential function that is both institutionally omnipotent and politically irresponsible, the constitution inherited from Charles de Gaulle has led to the opposite of what it was supposed to provide, namely the effectiveness of public policy. By making all political power proceed from a president elected by direct universal suffrage, it has also transformed the presidential election, the only one that really matters, into a genuine competition in demagoguery that obsesses politicians as much as it falsifies the options made available to voters and deeply divides the nation. This “presidential poison” has spread throughout the country’s political and social body, feeding the disenchantment and resentment or even the latent violence that characterises the French society and often surprises foreign observers.
Attempts at institutional reforms, in particular the reduction of the presidential mandate from seven to five years, have so far only resulted in accentuating the presidentialist drift of the regime, the institutional primacy of the head of state becoming, in practice, an omnipotence. The “republican monarchy” of the Fifth Republic has degenerated into what philosopher Jean-François Revel called an “ineffective absolutism”, in which the president reigns as a monarch over a state that is meant to be strong but that is increasingly unable to address the major substantive issues of society.
In a recent essay on the transformation of contemporary democracies, historian Pierre Rosanvallon analysed how the phenomenon of “presidentialisation”, characterised by the concentration of power in the hands of the executive, tends to result in a system of “mal-government”, in which government action does not conform to clearly established rules of transparency, accountability, responsibility or responsiveness to citizens needs. This “mal-government”, he says, inevitably leads to the atrophy of democracy and feeds the disenchantment and anger of citizens.
Acknowledging the severe crisis of the country’s political system, the French parliament set up earlier this year a working group aimed at exploring ways for a possible institutional reform. The group’s report, published in early October, is entitled “Redo Democracy” as if taking stock of the fact that democracy has, in France, been “undone”. It formulates a series of proposals to “restore the link between citizens and their representatives”, and in particular to reform the role and responsibility of the country’s president. It suggests getting back to a seven-year presidential term, non-renewable, and refocusing the president’s action on the country’s long-term challenges. It does not question, however, what constitutes the real cause of the presidentialist drift of the regime, namely the election by universal suffrage of a head of state granted with extraordinarily broad powers while remaining, in the words of the report “largely irresponsible” politically and institutionally. It probably doesn’t matter so much, anyway, as the report’s proposals are already largely forgotten. Following the terrorist attacks of November 13, a constitutional reform of a very different kind is now in preparation, which will significantly strengthen the powers of the executive for security purposes. “Redo democracy” will therefore wait, even if the urgency of reforming the institutions before a “democratic accident” occurs – i.e. the access to power of the National Front – is increasingly widely acknowledged. Indeed, no one more than Marine Le Pen’s party benefits from the “mal-government” that the regime of the French Fifth Republic, more than any other in the Western world, has come to embody.
The disintegration of the international political and economic order
The third converging development to consider is the disintegration of the current international political and economic order, which undermines the economic, political and social structures of Western societies and the principles on which international relations have been based since the end of World War II. These structures and principles are founded on the notion that universal “progress”, rooted in scientific advancement and technological innovation, will make it possible to indefinitely improve the lives of men and their political order, and to eradicate the tragic constants of human history – poverty, conflict, violence, war and oppression. In the economic order, this notion is embodied in the belief in the possibility of endless “growth”, based on human ingenuity and capable of bringing abundance and prosperity to the four corners of the earth. In the political order, this notion is embodied in the establishment of a “world order” characterized by the existence of increasingly integrated international cooperation structures, and by the “benevolent” leadership of a dominant power with an imperial vocation, the United States of America. This “progressivist” world order culminated with the process of “globalization” that followed the collapse of the communist bloc, and that was supposed to bring peace, capitalism and liberal democracy to all peoples of the world.
It is this world order that is now in the gradually unravelling under the weight of its own contradictions. Economic growth is now being curtailed by the biophysical constraints of a finite world and the constantly increasing costs of its own side effects, including environmental. The movement of globalization, which has consisted in a redistribution of productive capacity much more than in the creation of new wealth, has now reached its limits and seems to be hitting a wall or even going into reverse as global trade flows slow down and tend to fragment. The debt-based economic system that had gradually been established in Western countries under the guise of a transition to a “service economy” imploded in 2008-2009 and is only being maintained on life support by the massive injections of liquidity made by the world’s major central banks, as well as by the blowing of massive and compounding asset bubbles in developed as well as emerging economies. These injections and bubbles have so far prevented a brutal deflation of the financial assets that underpin the entire global financial and economic system, but the ability of central bankers to contain this deflationary spiral is dwindling as time passes and as genuine economic growth continues to be lacking. Technological progress continues, of course, or even accelerates, but seemingly more and more in pursuit of applications that only generate marginal improvements in real productive capacity, and in ways that tend to exacerbate income and wealth inequality.
On the international scene, the former American “hyperpower” is gradually losing the capacity to maintain the world order that was prevailing only a few years ago. Increasingly assertive regional powers are challenging U.S. supremacy on several fronts. Liberal democracy has failed to spread to several parts of the world, in particular where Western powers have tried to impose it by force. In the Middle East and the Arab world, the chaos engendered by ill-conceived Western interventions only benefits Islamist extremists who spread terror. Combined with increasing resource scarcity, the depletion of soil and water reserves, increasing food insecurity, the deterioration of ecosystems and rapid population growth, wars and conflicts are displacing an increasing number of people, a lot of whom try to make their way to Europe. The influx of refugees in recent months is probably a foretaste of the migratory movements that can be expected in the coming years and decades, which will be further amplified by the effects of climate change.
This unravelling of the global political and economic order, which is accelerating, is gradually undermining the established international cooperation structures as well as the economic, political and social systems of Western countries. The European Union, which is the institutional embodiment of the “progressivist” optimism and voluntarism of the post-World War II period, is slowly disintegrating as a result of the contradictions of its economic and monetary union, and also now under the weight of the mounting migratory pressure. The productive capacity of many countries is getting atrophied, making the welfare systems that characterise the European social model increasingly unaffordable. Most countries cover the shortfall and maintain a semblance of normalcy by piling up ever more public debt, which is already reaching unprecedented levels in times of peace. Tensions and conflicts that were thought to have been confined to the history books are reappearing between European societies and in their midst. A growing sense of anxiety is spreading among voters, as well as resentment against an economic and political system that they believe is failing them. This is pushing an increasing number of them towards “populist” political movements that promise a rupture with this existing system or sometimes a return to a preceding state of affairs considered as more satisfactory or at least more reassuring. These movements’ narratives need not be coherent, credible or even sane, as long as they resonate with voters’ resentment or anger. This trend manifests itself in different ways in various European countries – but also in the U.S. with the Donald Trump phenomenon. In France, it mainly benefits the party of Marine Le Pen.
Towards a “democratic accident”
The convergence of these three developments – the accumulation of tensions within French society, the decay of the French political system, and the effects of the unravelling of the international political and economic order – probably explains why the National Front continues to rise, and why this rise appears to be increasingly unstoppable. While politicians from right and left mostly continue to blame the other side for being responsible for Mrs Le Pen’s success, the forces that are now underpinning the rise of her party are much more substantive, almost tectonic forces on which politicians’ invectives have no impact. So much so that the National Front now seems to be progressing almost mechanically, regardless of the numerous shortcomings or incoherencies of the party’s platform, of its internal feuds and divisions, of the intellectual mediocrity of most of its personnel, or even of the suspicions that may arise over its financing. So much so that everything and everyone is now suspected and sometimes accused of “playing into the hands of the National Front.” It is almost as if it was now “reality” itself, whatever it may be, that was serving the party’s interests. Hence the impression that the rise of the National Front has become an infernal machine that has escaped anyone’s control and that nobody knows how to stop.
Whatever the end results of the regional elections may be, whether the National Front grabs one or more regional governments or not, the underlying movements that are carrying Marine Le Pen’s party towards power will not disappear. It is even likely that they will tend to become more powerful in the months and years ahead, for example if new terrorist attacks occur and further strain relations between communities, if the socialist government keeps on failing to reduce unemployment, if the global economy plunges back into recession or if migratory pressure continues to build up at the European borders. Many developments whose probability is far from being negligible.
Once considered as resulting from outright racism and intolerance – or from anger or confusion at best – the vote for the National Front is increasingly becoming a vote of conscious support for a clean break. A clean break with an established order of things that many consider as inadequate and dysfunctional, and a break with a political and social operating model that a growing number view as detrimental to their interests or aspirations. French politicians of both right and left have been unable to understand and anticipate these movements, let alone to stop or reverse them, and are now condemned to follow the National Front on its own ground. The right wing party of Mr Sarkozy has been doing it for some time already, without much success, and it is now the socialist government of president Hollande which, following the terrorist attacks of November 13, is being forced to pursue an ever-tougher security agenda.
The state of emergency, introduced for a period of three months, is already giving rise to multiple excesses. Many observers point out the growing risk of a drift towards arbitrary or discriminatory security measures, especially as the government now intends to “entrench” the state of emergency in the French constitution and to strengthen its legal regime. The French authorities also informed the Council of Europe of their decision to derogate from certain provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, a development that would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago. And a number of proposals so far advocated by the National Front, such as stripping French-born bi-nationals convicted of terrorism-related offences of the French citizenship, are now becoming official policy.
Shortly before the tragic events of 13 November, an opinion poll indicated that a large and growing share of the French people would be willing to accept an “authoritarian” political regime to implement necessary reforms, even if that would mean alleviating democratic control mechanisms. It is becoming ever more plausible that this is what the French will end up getting, whether the National Front accesses to power in Paris or not. One way or another, France is probably headed towards a “democratic accident”.