Donald Trump’s rise to political prominence has surprised and unsettled many Americans. But the United States is not alone in seeing an upsurge in far right political figures who espouse a toxic mix bigotry and authoritarianism. Farah Belaggoune (pictured below) documents the rise of the far right in France as part of The Indypendent's Echoes of Trump series.
In the spring of 2002, progressive French voters like myself were confronted with an awful choice in the final round of that year’s presidential election.
The incumbent, Jacques Chirac, was a slippery career politician who had been a prominent figure in France for 30 years. He supported conservative economic policies and would play on voter hostility toward immigrants when it suited his purpose. His opponent was Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder and leader of the far-right Front National (National Front) and a notorious racist and Holocaust minimizer.
The candidate of the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party) had unexpectedly come in third in the first round, leaving those of us on the left with nowhere to go. Since having a far rightist come to power would be unacceptable, leftists were urged to cast a vote utile, a "useful vote", despite our misgivings. So we rallied in support of Chirac. One popular slogan was “vote with a clothespin on your nose.”
Does this sound familiar?
When Election Day came, the French people voted overwhelmingly against Le Pen, re-electing Chirac with 82% of the vote. The National Front had been overwhelmingly repudiated and once again relegated to the fringes of public life. Or so we thought.
Fourteen years later, the National Front is in a stronger position than ever. The roots of how this came about go back to the 1980s, when the Socialists saw the birth of the National Front as an opportunity to drain the votes of the traditional right and keep it out of power. This worked for a while, but then the worm got into the fruit.
Over the past 30 years, the extreme right has managed to hijack the French political discourse on issues like immigration, government spending, social issues, high taxes, national security, and the decline of France’s sovereignty in a globalized world. Instead of building a proper response to the National Front or just ignoring it, the Socialists and the traditional conservatives decided to follow its sheet music and allow the LePenization of minds to deepen. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, before he was defeated for re-election by Socialist François Hollande in 2012, offered a somewhat milder version of the extreme right’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. He is now running again, with the same strategy. His idea is now that to be considered French, one’s ancestors must be Gauls. On the contrary, Marine Le Pen’s new slogan is “a pacified France,” putting a veil on FN’s racist origins. France’s political system is upside down.
Both sides failed to comprehend that in a context of brutal economic insecurity, people were desperate for a shelter. Many found it in the National Front’s moral universe, with its simplistic appeal to old and idealized values wrapped in “law and order” populist rhetoric.
To many French, far-right activists were the only ones who even pretended to be concerned about improving peoples' lives before going on to secure a comfortable seat in office. They knew the population and its fears. They gave people a sense of belonging and didn’t deny their difficulties. Many of the discontented are seeking something new, observing that their living conditions keep getting worse while the two major parties—the Socialists and Sarkozy’s Républicains (Republicans, changed in 2015 from the Union for a Movement of the People)—alternate in power without changing anything.
Both major parties have been blinkered by their never-ending race to the next local or national election. All that has mattered to them was the short-term strategy for garnering more votes. They were unwilling to take the time to analyze the deeper reasons for the National Front’s growing success.
The more politicians and journalists comment on and take on the Front’s issues and grievances, the more legitimized those ideas become. Voting for “lesser evils” that are always ready to abandon their principles and move further to the right only makes the situation worse.
On November 8, don’t waste your energy on the lesser-evil smokescreen. Step back and see the whole picture. It is not too late to stop the Trumpization of American minds and media. Your salvation might come from your left, which appears to be on the upsurge, unlike ours in France. Continue organizing and mobilizing for the kind of world you want, and you just may get it.
Farah Belaggoune is a Paris-based educator and Fulbright Scholar who is studying the U.S. Left and independent media.
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