The normalisation of far-right rhetoric is plunging French politics into a democratic crisis

·4-min read
Far-right leader Marine le Pen, right, and local candidate Thierry Mariani, left, campaign in Six-Fours-les-Plages, southern France (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Far-right leader Marine le Pen, right, and local candidate Thierry Mariani, left, campaign in Six-Fours-les-Plages, southern France (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur is one of the most important Mediterranean administrative regions and it played an interesting role in France’s regional elections. It is the only place where the Rassemblement National, the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen, was ahead after the first ballot on 20 June.

Regional elections cannot be used to build general theories on western democracy, but there is something we can learn – especially regarding the vote for the far-right and the poor turnout.

Local elections are usually influenced by local issues, but they can be used to sanction national parties. Less than 35 per cent of French people voted on Sunday 27 June – which is a failure of the political system. Communities must have a stronger voice, otherwise they can be radicalised or feel marginalised. Considering local dynamics can help in understanding popular fears.

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur is an ethnically diverse region, being an immigration hub with many citizens originally from the Mediterranean area, including Italy, Portugal, Spain and North Africa. It has also become one of the major far-right centres in France.

This tradition of right-wing voting stems, in part, from the presence of former colonial settlers, mostly from Algeria. This boosts the appeal of anti-immigration nationalist parties, which are carrying some strength here even if they decline elsewhere.

A couple of decades ago, Le Pen’s nationalist movement held some city councils, which became incubators for xenophobic policies. In sum, identity politics has been able to flourish in the area, and there is no sign it will disappear any time soon.

Something similar happened in the department of Pas-de-Calais where Le Pen was elected councillor on Sunday. This is a place marked by unemployment, with high numbers of migrants willing to cross the English Channel. In the second round of the 2017 presidential elections, this was one of the departments in which she received a majority.

Overall, the ultra-right vote is not a novelty in France. In 1983, Le Pen’s father was elected “conseiller d’arrondissement”. He branded the populist, xenophobic, slogan “Paris to the Parisians”. Since then, the Front National (now rebranded Rassemblement National) has managed to maintain considerable electoral results.

Even if the far-right rhetoric on security, values, tradition or immigration is being used by mainstream parties across the globe, France represents an interesting example. The right was culturally and politically active in the interwar years. Some scholars suggest that many fascist ideas, later borrowed or developed by Mussolini, were originally born in France. From the 1980s, Jean-Marie Le Pen became for decades the most important leader of the European far-right milieu enjoying a growing popularity.

Yet, even in a far-right stronghold such as Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, traditional politics is in crisis. Rather than casting a protest vote supporting one of the extremist or populist movements, citizens decided to abstain from casting their ballots.

As in Britain, conservatives have taken notice of this xenophobic and demagogic right, and adapted their policies accordingly. The centre-right Les Républicains radicalised some of their policies, while President Macron’s centrist party, La République En Marche, has hardened its position on Islam and French identity. This creates points of similarity with far-right world views, while legitimising their manifesto.

Rassemblement National’s candidate in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Thierry Mariani, is a former centre-right moderate politician who held a senior position in government. In 2019, he became a far-right member of the European Parliament. In 2018, when he was still a member of Les Républicains, he envisaged a coalition with the far-right. “The Front National has evolved... An agreement or a rapprochement [is] possible,” Mariani claimed.

What is worrying is how this normalisation and legitimisation of the far-right is happening regionally, nationally and internationally. There are many perils in normalising non-democratic or extremist tendencies, not least in the storming of the Capitol in the US. The global history of right-wing extremism tells us how, in the interwar years, conservatives similarly “legitimised” ultra-nationalism.

This is part of the crisis of western democracy and political parties. In France, this was reflected by the high abstention from the vote on 20 June.

Overall, the winner is the centre-right Les Républicains, who gained almost a third of the vote. Even though this is only a regional ballot, they can then challenge Macron in the election of France’s next president in 10 months.

In other words, the loser today is essentially French democracy. This year, 66 per cent of people did not cast their ballot, with an extremely low turnout among the youth and the working class. This highlights problematic levels of apathy, even among sympathisers of the Rassemblement National, and scepticism about the intrinsic value of voting.

Disillusionment with party politics is growing. This has been aggravated by Covid, but increasing inequalities are playing a role. Politics should be inclusive and offer solutions. People need visions, while parties have to be active in local communities.

Le Pen is not winning the 2022 presidential elections, but before reflecting on the votes for the far right, we should reflect on how to involve more citizens in democracy and politics.

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