Picture a powerful, developed nation, one of the world’s first democracies. The politics of this country are divided between the far-left and the far-right. These two sides loathe each other, and they don’t hesitate to hide it, hurling threats and abuse back and forth on an almost daily basis. The country we’re picturing has a liberal president – some would even say “socialist” – who replaced a much more conservative one. It’s struggling to emerge from an economic crisis, and the voters are getting extremely frustrated. Any of this sound familiar?
Welcome to France. Or, should I say, Bienvenue.
These past few weeks, we as Americans have been consumed by talk of our partisan politics, and especially of the Tea Party. You can’t open a newspaper or turn on a television without finding commentary on what Jon Stewart aptly, if crudely, labeled, “Shutstorm 2013.” We’re feeling disillusioned and disgusted, and right-wing conservatives have been taking much of the blame. At times like these, it’s important to remember – we shouldn’t assume that our politics are unique. For better or for worse, a lot of our political actions, and reactions, are surprisingly standard.
While our leaders have been clawing each other’s eyes out here at home, France has warily observed what may be the beginning of a right-wing resurgence. Meet le Front National (le FN), France’s most conservative party. It has deep roots reaching much farther to the right than anything we have here – its progenitors made up the pro-monarchy movement of the French Revolution. It was first nursed into prominence and then infamy in the 1970’s by Jean-Marie Le Pen, but today is headed by his daughter, Marine, who the New York Times calls France’s “kinder, gentler extremist.” The FN is a force for French nationalism, and it challenges France’s further integration into the European Union. Its platform is largely built on opposing immigration – in particular, the immigration of Muslims from Africa and the Middle East, who supporters see as a threat to France’s secular identity. Like our Republican party, the FN adamantly opposes illegal immigration, but, unlike Republicans, they don’t stop there. It is currently pushing an agenda that would cut down even legal immigration by a factor of 20 in the next 5 years. Not even Kris Kobach is that extreme.
Today, the FN is in the midst of a massive re-branding attempt, trying to shed what the Economist describes as its “image as a movement of ageing bigots, anti-Semites and young skinheads” in time for next May’s European Parliament elections. Marine Le Pen even threatened to sue anyone who labels her party as “extreme right” – a threat that prompted prominent newspaper Le Monde to scoff that, “of course she is extreme right.” And yet, despite some incredulity, a recent and relatively minor election has all of France wondering: Are Mademoiselle Le Pen’s efforts starting to pay off?
Last week, the small, southern city of Brignoles decisively elected an FN candidate in a special election for district counselor, soundly defeating both the liberal Socialist party and the moderate, conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). Normally, this kind of election would hardly attract attention, and yet it quickly made headlines across the country and even across the Atlantic, with The New York Times asking if it was a sign that “bigger changes are ahead.” The election poured new heart into Marine Le Pen’s exertions, and she declared that, “this vote shows that the French have a wish for change, that we bring solutions for the questions the French are asking.”
Despite Le Pen’s claims of victory, analysts are concluding that the reality is a bit more complex. The citizens of Brignoles, which has suffered growing unemployment in the wake of the Euro Crisis, turned to the FN as much out of dissatisfaction with the status quo as they did out of support for the party’s policies. Consider the fact that the FN received almost the same exact number of votes that it had in the last election (2,728), and won only when Socialist and UMP supporters didn’t bother to show up to the polls. Pascal Perrineau, director of the Center for Political Research at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, writes of the dangers of this political malaise, stating that, “there’s a rising feeling of, at best, Euro-skepticism and, at worst, Euro-phobia.” He warns that, “we’re getting closer to the European elections,” and that Brignoles showed how extreme groups “can capitalize better than others on this kind of sentiment.”
On that note, let me reintroduce you to the National Front – as France’s very own emerging Tea Party.
Consider the rise of the Tea Party here at home. In 2008, President Obama stormed the White House on a tide of anti-Bush, anti-Iraq and anti-recession sentiment – there’s a reason that his campaign chose “Change” as its slogan, favoring an emotional keyword over a concrete agenda. It worked, and the election was won. Soon, however, it became clear that “change” wasn’t arriving as quickly as promised, and the Tea Party, with it’s anti-Obama, anti-government, return-to-conservative platform, was born in the ashes of an Obama victory. Just like Bush supporters before them, Obama fans became disengaged politically even as Tea Party extremists fed on America’s disillusionment. In times of crisis, it’s starting to seem like the only consistent pattern is a guarantee that we’ll call for “change,” and flock blindly to whichever party presents itself as the farthest from the status quo.
Return to France, and we begin to see a dangerous and familiar pattern arising. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, of the UMP party, sunk into unpopularity when citizens began to feel the effects of the Euro Crisis and to question their faith in the European Union. In 2011, anger exploded into protest when he supported raising the âge de retraite (retirement age) as a necessary measure to save the economy. In 2012, the country abandoned Sarkozy, opting to elect only the second Socialist president in its history and the first in over fifteen years. It’s less than a year now since Monsieur Hollande assumed office, and it hasn’t taken long for France to start wondering why change hasn’t come. In a recent poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion, 24 percent of respondents said that they would be voting for the National Front in May’s European elections – more than will be voting for any other party. France’s disappointment in its two major parties is becoming entwined with a desire for something – for anything – different. The country is left with a real danger that its most extreme party could gain in prominence. It that happens, it could have dire consequences not only for immigrants, but for France’s role in the European Union as well.
It’s time for both of our countries to realize that all politics are reactionary. As Americans, we should start to look beyond our borders and our sense of exceptionalism. As humiliating as the Shutdown may have been, we’re hardly alone in our follies, and it’s time we picked ourselves up off of the mat. As for France, they would do well to learn from our mistakes – before they revitalize a crippling Tea Party of their own. Liberals and conservatives alike need to awake to the fact that that change for change’s sake simply is not worth having. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves bouncing endlessly back and forth, from one extreme to another, with neither side winning in the end.