The National Front
Marine Le Pen is much encouraged by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, seen as regaining sovereignty. Like France, the US and the UK suffer unemployment, deindustrialisation and cuts in social services, and consequent discontent. In the three countries the media are appalled. The discontented who voted for more sovereignty were dubbed ‘Deplorables’ (US) and xenophobic racists (UK), in the same way that French supporters of the National Front are beyond the pale. But the differences are greater than the similarities. There are differences in political weight and in the content of the policies.
In political weight, Trump was nominated by the Republicans, one of the two parties alternately in power; and Brexit occurred by the fortuitous event of the then prime minister deciding to call a referendum. Marine Le Pen makes a lot of noise, but she is not part of the two party system, and her access to power is blocked. Her party is short of money; banks won’t lend to her, and she has to look abroad for loans. Her party has hardly any elected representatives (2 MPs, 2 senators, 14 mayors), no expertise in government and almost no links to people with government expertise. Her second in command, Florian Philippot, a higher civil servant educated in the most prestigious establishments of France, is the exception. Generally the National Front has supporters but no powerful backers.
Its record in local government is dominated by controversy; for example they shut down the premises of the long established communist charity ‘le Secours Populaire’, cut subsidies to local associations and aggressively promoted things like nativity scenes in town halls at Christmas; controversies also include the content of school dinners, banning halal meat or offering no alternative to pork. National Front run or supported town halls are also noted for attempts to implement ‘national preference’ at the local level, e.g. give money to French families for the birth of a child, excluding foreign families unless European; the FN mayor of Frejus attempted to stop the building and then the opening of a new mosque. In Beaucaire, the FN mayor tried to force Arab shopkeepers to close in the evening during Ramadan, citing noise nuisance.
In content, the National Front stresses the role of the state to guarantee the wellbeing of entrepreneurs and workers, necessary to reindustrialise France. The state must protect the one source of prosperity and employment, the entrepreneur. It will do that by reducing taxes and regulations, by making banks lend to small firms, by punishing bad payers, by making local authorities purchase goods and services from firms established in France, by promoting ‘made in France’ goods, by putting tariffs on goods produced abroad. Life insurance companies will have to devote 2% of their funds to finance French businesses. The state will finance private research, on condition that new technology will not be sold abroad for ten years. Unless the European Union starts to allow member states to do these things, France will have to leave the Union. The Euro, being over priced, making French goods too expensive, will also have to be abandoned.
Today the Front is up in arms when the state does not step in to save French firms threatened by foreign competition; it views shareholders as unpatriotic and motivated by short term gain; they must be reined in by the state in order to promote the continuity of French industry.
The unions do not figure in the programme, because according to the FN there can be no conflict of interest between workers and employers. Defending entrepreneurs against unfair competition, against unjust regulation, against short termist finance etc is the same as defending wages and employment, according to the Front. For the FN sovereignty is also necessary in order to have an independent foreign policy, and stop being dependent on the United States. France will stop following the US in its hostility to Russia. The FN says that France will have an African policy, based on cooperation with French speaking countries in Africa.
The National Front actually seems to have a philosophy underpinning its nationalism. It is anti-individualist. Individualism is the credo of both left and right, heirs of the French Revolution and believers in the universal nature of man. All men are equal, all men are the same, wherever they come from. Men can be free from the determinism of their origins, and can therefore live anywhere, where they will be accepted as human beings. The person is first and foremost an individual.
Marine Le Pen thinks, against the Enlightened, that ‘the integrity of the human person is always tied to a national community, a language, a culture.’ Consequently she does not share the left and right imperious will to export ‘universal values’, as was done in Iraq, Libya and attempted in Syria. She does not excommunicate Russia for not being up to date on the legislation concerning homosexuals. She accepts that there is not just one way to live. Her slogan is ‘yes to multiculturalism at the level of the planet, no to multiculturalism within one country.’ This absence of cultural imperialism is one of her good points.
The National Front is working hard to make itself and its voters respectable. In the last year it held a number of ‘conventions’ or working groups on health, education, agriculture (favouring organic farming), animal welfare, old age. It invokes as intellectual models André Malraux, Victor Hugo, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jean Jaurès (all generally admired figures; Jean Jaurès is the founder of l’Humanité); the elite school Science Po has a National Front group, which adopted the name of Jean Moulin, the great Resistant envoy of De Gaulle killed by the Gestapo in 1943.
It had a sensible reaction to the presidential candidate François Fillon calling himself a ‘Gaullist and a Christian’. Marine Le Pen said that this was contrary to the principle that religion and politics should be kept separate; that it was opportunism, since Fillon had never before mentioned his religion; and that his policies were contrary to Christianity, being a brutal programme aimed at reducing social protection.
The banlieues are the housing estates round the large cities which suffer from a very high level of unemployment, lack of services such as shops and transport and a level of lawlessness such that the fire brigade must go in under police protection. The National Front says that something must be done, and that the local inhabitants are the first victims of this situation. Its programme for the banlieues is first, clean up criminals, second, remove salafist mosques and preachers, third, provide employment by favouring entrepreneurs. Spend money by lending to people who want to start a business, instead of spending money on sporting and other facilities. It is the part of the programme aimed at reducing immigration which will draw perhaps the greatest applause from supporters, but certainly the greatest condemnation from opponents.
The National Front aims at making France less attractive to immigrants. For example, children of foreigners will not have access to free schooling. This is a punitive measure designed to satisfy the resentful part of the population, but it is problematic not least because the number of children involved is very great. It is part of an attitude that says that immigrant families who are French are part of the French population (Marine Le Pen has said that Islam is compatible with the Republic) and must be treated like any other French person, but that foreigners must not. In practical terms, this is near impossible. If foreign families must pay for their children to go to school, the likely result is that they won’t be able to afford it; what will happen then? In the same way, since all public services will be subject to a number of years when they won’t be accessible until foreigners have paid contributions, many people will be deprived of health care etc.
The popular success of the National Front has another thing in common with Brexit and the election of Trump: no one knows what will happen next. At the moment the National Front is one thing in the South (nearer to Jean-Marie Le Pen, nostalgic of French Algeria) and a different thing in the North (nearer to the working class). The mayor of Henin-Beaumont in the north kept in his town hall office the bust of Jean Jaurès left there by his socialist predecessor, something you can’t imagine happening in the South.
The National Front seems to have plenty of contact with the discontent of the population, but little contact with realistic solutions. Its economic model is nostalgic; its ‘national preference’ a likely source of violence. Its slogan ‘une France apaisée’ [France at peace with itself] is a joke. Marine Le Pen said that National Front municipalities would not implement the policy of ‘national preference’ until she had gained power and changed the law. That means that she will implement laws that will make life even more difficult for people who do not have French nationality. Since they will be in the main Arab or Black, there will be endless discrimination if not violence against Arabs or Blacks, since it is not written on their faces whether they have French papers or not.
The question remains also whether supporters of Marine Le Pen discount what she says at the moment as a tactic to sound respectable, with the idea that, once she is in power, she will set an even harder line against non white French people. The question is, Why don’t we hear from the left a message of reindustrialisation and independence in foreign policy? Why do we have to hear it from a party based on racism?