Strange times in French politics

With youth unemployment running at 24 per cent, it is unsurprising that people are being attracted to fringe ideologies which offer simplistic solutions.

With youth unemployment running at 24 per cent, it is unsurprising that people are being attracted to fringe ideologies which offer simplistic solutions

Fascism arrives as your friend,” suggested the children’s author Michael Rosen.

“It will restore your honour, make you feel proud, protect your house, give you a job, clean up the neighbourhood, remind you of how great you once were, clear out the venal and the corrupt, remove anything you feel is unlike you…”

All this sounds attractive right now for the French, who are mired in a political and economic crisis. The Front National sits near the top of the polls, and the prospect of an extreme-right president in France is seriously being discussed.

A recent edition of L’Express was entitled “President in 2017? Why the worst is possible”, over a picture of a stern Marine Le Pen. The governing Socialist Party is deeply unpopular and the opposition right wing UMP divided.

But the reason for the success of the FN goes deeper than the current mainstream political malaise.

France is notoriously pessimistic about the effects of globalisation. An Ipsos-Mori study this year found that only seven per cent of French people think their youth will have a better life than their parent’s generation, the lowest score in the 20 countries studied.

Youth unemployment is running at 24 per cent, and it is unsurprising given this economic backdrop that people are being attracted to fringe ideologies which offer simplistic solutions. A poll last August showed that 27 per cent of French youth between 18 and 24 had a positive attitude towards ISIS, compared to four per cent and three per cent in the UK and Germany respectively.

Another big news story in France for the past few months has been an environmental movement called the zadistes, which has set up camp in a rural area of the south west to prevent the construction of the Sivens Dam, a project to help local farmers.

These environmentalists live in an alternative community where they live as a collective adopting fake names, giving strict rules to the media and thinking of themselves as outside of ‘the system’. After one of them was killed in a confrontation with police, there have been angry protests in towns and cities denouncing the dam and police violence.

The Front National offers a rejection of the mainstream at the polls, giving people a chance to vote against the ‘UMPS’ (an amalgamation of the abbreviations of the two main parties). The FN proposes an insular France. It is anti-EU, anti-immigration and anti-Americanisation.

It warns of the ‘Islamification’ of France. The FN has cultivated links with Putin’s regime, culminating in a recent loan, as the party claims French banks will not provide help.

Despite continued stigma of the FN, the fundamental and worrying shift is that Marine Le Pen appears not to suffer from the same toxicity as her father and former president of the party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, did.

Marine is a skilled media performer, and her projected image as an outsider to the media and political elite is a strength in this post-crash age. Yet in one year she has appeared on television and radio morning programmes more than any other politician.

The French presidential election is split into two rounds, with the top two from the first round going into the second round. Even though the election is two and a half years away, pessimistic commentators predict Le Pen will make the second round, probably at the expense of the left.

This is what her father achieved in 2002. But in the second round, where he faced Jacques Chirac, he lost with about a quarter of the number of votes Chirac received. Such was the revulsion at the prospect of Le Pen as president that even those on the left who disliked Chirac held their nose and voted for him.

The worry is that 15 years on, in the 2017 election, French voters might not see his daughter as any worse than the rest of the unpopular ruling class. If she faces a divisive right-wing politician (or the left) in the second round it is thought she could well win.

As such, there have even been calls on the left to vote for Alain Juppé, a veteran right-wing politician. This is in spite of the fact that he was once convicted of mishandling money and became the most unpopular prime minister ever in the nineties.

His ideology is hardly very different to Sarkozy’s but his style is more appeasing, and those on the left who are resigned to defeat think he is their best chance of avoiding a nightmare Sarko-Le Pen runoff.

Jasper Cox is a student at Durham University. You can read his blog here

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