Why did France's extreme right win the European elections?
As I traveled to France last weekend, there was an earthquake. I didn't feel it under my feet, but it was all over the newspapers, which declared "seisme!" on panicked front pages. This 'tremblement de terre' didn't happen below the ground but in the air - a political tremor that most definitely can be felt. In what is an enormous blow to Europe's liberal establishment, the French have just delivered an historic electoral victory to the Front National (FN), a far right political party with a long history of racism and violence. The European elections, which took place simultaneously in all 28 member states last week, were to choose 751 representatives from all of these countries to legislate in the troubled European Union.
The FN won 25% of the national vote in France, higher than any other party, almost quadrupling their 2009 vote share. Critics of the FN, who have highlighted its racism and its authoritarian streak, are concerned that France's increasingly anti-EU working class has turned nasty, that its refusal to support the noble internationalist mission of the EU is a clear sign that racism is on the rise again.
This could even be partly true, but it is far from the whole story. The rise of nationalism in France is not a moment of racist whimsy, and the establishment's refusal to properly understand the fears of struggling workers is not going to make it go away. Why did the FN win in the country that gave birth to the Enlightenment, and which has always prided itself on its liberal values?
Driving across the countryside, it was hard not to notice their presence; they had more posters plastered along the highway than all the other parties combined, and the radio chattered with frenzied discussion about what their victory could signify for the future of France and Europe. There was a sense glancing at the small farms and little medieval market towns that the means of their preservation might not be so innocent as the places themselves - but that is less to do with any change in appearance than my own mental framing of these places in the context of so much noise about rural nationalists turning mean.
It is an instinct worth taming. The less reported side of this 'earthquake' is that the much-touted 25% figure is not a quarter of the entire electorate, but only a quarter of those that voted - and that is only 43% of those who could have voted. The three establishment parties, who together won a little under half the total votes nationwide, combined with the FN's supposedly big turnout, still garnered less support altogether than the constituency of voters who chose not to vote at all.
Abstention in France this year was an enormous 57%.
The usual interpretation of voter abstention, that tired argument that people who don't vote have no right to complain and that they must therefore simply be lazy and apathetic, becomes very fragile when so many voters refuse to take part. Much like the establishment's patronising attempt to cast the FN's rise as simply a failure of the electorate's conscience, its casting of non-voting as a failure of civic duty is designed to deflect questions away from their own glaring failures as governing parties.
For one, as I recently reported in the Free Press, the extreme right has risen across the entire European Union - in which case the idea that people have suddenly and inexplicably become 'more racist', in all of these countries, all at once, seems implausible. Ditto voter abstention, which has reached crisis point all across Europe - did voter turnout drop because over a hundred million people all decided at the same time that they didn't care? The voices of anger and resentment are deafening in their silence.
The liberal centrists and moderate conservatives, with their metropolitan friends in the press, are running out of ideas. Their vision of a politically united Europe at peace with itself, distributing moderate social democracy and guaranteeing human rights, was already in question before the 2008 global financial crash.
France remembers rejecting the absurdly complicated 2,500 page European constitution proposed in a referendum in 2005 (vetoing it Europewide), before the exact same measures were implemented in the undemocratic Lisbon Treaty of 2009 - without asking voters, whose permission was apparently not needed.
The EU is also regarded by an increasing number as a Trojan horse for unwieldy banks and international corporations to make easier profits by making it harder for small businesses and trade unions to protect themselves from corporate power. The fact that the debt crisis and crippling unemployment in southern states like Greece were caused by greedy Goldman Sachs executives with the collusion of the European Central Bank is not lost on voters unable to elect Wall Street out of their lives.
I am writing this from an old village in the valleyed south-western region of Tarn-et-Garonne, an area of France where small farms, vineyards and artisan producers have formed the social and economic backbone for centuries. Just across the road from me there is a little farm that produces the kind of delicious goat cheese you can only get from a small business that has been allowed to prosper in a good regional economy, and unlike the UK or USA, good food from small producers is both affordable and ethical.
Since the 2012 presidential election, the share of the vote won by the FN in this village has nearly doubled from 9.7% to 18%. The voting interests of the agricultural labourer has been soundly split in places like this; the dogmatic free-market fundamentalism of the UMP (France's leading centre right party) is distrusted in a small business economy, while the ruling Socialist Party is regarded as a weak, watered-down non-alternative whose present obsession with 'flexibility' sounds like it could have been dictated to them directly from the financial sector.
Yet the alternative appears not to have captivated the electorate here in the countryside, or elsewhere. The vote of the Left Front, France's leading alternative leftist party, has fallen below 10% in this village since their 2012 success (around 15%), despite the austere economic climate usually being the ideal grounds for the success of such groups.
One of the main problems here for the Left Front, whose national vote share has been almost halved since 2012, is that they are still ideologically married to Europe's internationalist mission, still aiming for that pan-European social democracy that has been promised without truly delivering since 1979. The French electorate is not averse to social security or human rights - it holds them both dear, and national newspaper Liberation complained "we're acting like the British" - but the guarantee that the EU is going to promote and maintain them has worn too thin. France is tired of being told 'if only you would believe us a little bit longer', like a deadbeat dad trying lazily to buy time from an exhausted family.
The Left Front this week received stern criticism from their counterparts in Greece, Syriza, who have just come first in the European elections with a stunning 27% of the national vote - this in the face of their increasingly discredited neo-nazi opponent Golden Dawn. Syriza has managed to win so much power over the extreme right in Greece because they have cast aside the illusion that the European Union is the answer to all the problems, and Greek workers have responded warmly.
Syriza's charismatic leader Alex Tsipras, touted as the next Greek president, criticized France's Left Front this week, saying "the Left Front needs to figure out its issues with social democracy" and argued that as long as they keep making promises people regard as empty, they will continue to coast along electorally.
This is compounded by the fact that the Green Party has snapped up many working and middle class votes in rural France, more or less because their agricultural policy is simply better than the Left Front's comparatively lofty attitude. The Greens can count on the help of famed environmentalist and alter-globalisation campaigner José Bové, whose anti-GMO stance and popular criticism of the globalised food market has struck a chord with farmers terrified of the impending Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
The TTIP is a free trade deal between the EU and the USA that would force these small farmers to compete with behemoths like Monsanto. Many European workers fear that it will do to Europe what NAFTA did to Mexico in the nineties, using the rubric of free trade to smash labor rights, social security and legal sovereignty. Under the deal, American corporations will be allowed to drag small European businesses before unaccountable offshore courts; and its point of delivery would be the European Parliament, who will vote on the treaty within the next 18 months. Moderate social democrat parties all across Europe have failed to argue against the TTIP, which to many signifies that they would rather hand power to Wall Street than protect their own voters.
While the Greens are stating an environmental case against the TTIP and the Left Front have pledged to vote against it unequivocally, the FN are the only ones who are offering to kick out both the trade deal and the EU with the same boot. The Front National's agricultural policies offer the most comprehensive protection from this and other institutional arrangements for the unrestricted movement of goods and capital, promising a good living wage for traditional food producers and the right not to have to compete with bigger, nastier companies in distant countries.
The FN's general attitude towards globalisation taps into fears that a greedy, constantly downsizing global market will swallow up these small business on which not just individual fortunes but the entire French way of life depends. During their early years in the 1980s, when the party was founded by violent anti-Semites, their economic policies were far more deregulatory, marching in tune to Reagan and Thatcher - how much of their current success is dependent not just on the unpleasant climate of nationalism, but on their stances against USA and EU corporate imperialism?
Europe's fascist parties, however, are only using these economic policies as a disguise for their racist and authoritarian intentions. The FN's recent victories in France's municipal elections handed the party control of townships for the first time since the nineties, of which those with good memories recall that the party swept through public libraries under their control and discarded or destroyed books by leftist - and occasionally Jewish - authors. The FN has always contained anti-Semites but its historical message of anti-Arab and anti-Islam sentiments has become more fashionable in recent years - many Europeans today would nod vigorously to slander about Muslims that they would reject with outrage if the same were said about Jews.
For this, the establishment bears far more responsibility than it pretends. Even as the far right cashes in on myths and distorted facts about Islamic extremism and Eastern European gangs, the oligarch-controlled media helps to push these falsehoods in the first place with sensationalist and anecdotal stories about minority groups, sometimes just making them up entirely.
France's political leaders of both main parties, meanwhile, have done plenty to encourage suspicion and fear amongst voters. Despite having no evidence of causing wrongdoing, the niqab (face veil) was banned in public places by the previous government under President Nicolas Sarkozy, who also founded the Ministry of National Identity. Riots in ethnic minority neighbourhoods in 2004 are widely regarded to have been caused by authoritarian domestic policies of surveillance and police brutality when Sarkozy was the Interior Minister.
Meanwhile the incumbent President Francois Hollande recently appointed as his Prime Minister the hawkish Manuel Valls, who has said of Roma gypsies that they "do not belong in France", and during his mayoralty in the city of Evry is recorded as having turned to a friend and said "it's a shame there aren't enough white faces here". Valls and friends are happy to encourage the climate of racism and suspicion from which the FN now thrives, while the elite circles he mixes in push more and more votes to the extreme right by dismissing their voters as, simply, racists who don't know what's good for them.
This is not to say that a vote for the FN is a sensible choice. A vote for authoritarians and racists is as utterly misguided as it ever was, and giving legitimacy to a party like that is a mistake that we Europeans should have learned from in the thirties. The prediction by some political analysts in France that the FN will have a president in the Elysee Palace by 2022 is profoundly worrying.
But as long as the establishment - and indeed the left - refuses to address its deep structural problems, that there is a deficit of democracy and that their slavish subservience to corporate capital and a dream of Europe that simply isn't working so much as hurting the 500 million citizens of Europe, more people will be driven to support such parties. The Front National, as a party, is racist. The growing number of people who vote for them, however, are not - they are scared, and they have bad information. The majority who have abstained, meanwhile, are votes to be won, but nobody seems to want to talk about them, or the fact that many of them have the same fears as FN voters.
Here is the real news: there are good people out there, and they are still in the majority, and they are just waiting for someone to ask them what they want. The FN doesn't want to protect that goat farmer from having to compete with Polish goods because it is ethical or because it protects the producer; it wants to do so simply because the other product is not French. It's not impossible to stick up for these farmers without appealing to the guaranteed future bloodbath that is nationalism, and their skepticism towards the EU is based on a smarter intuition than the establishment likes to pretend.
When faced with the prospect of a patronizing establishment that does nothing but offer more power to American bullies, it becomes patently clear that the last awful decision is between either authoritarian nationalists, or no vote at all. Europe's spineless and evasive leaders need to offer some economic hope, and soon, before something terrible happens. Can we not make the trains run on time without another Mussolini?