10 January 2017 - 04:00 PM
Could the French Left Play Spoiler to Far Right Ascension?
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In the race for the coming presidential elections in France, radical and anti-establishment parties are in a better position to win the popular vote, but with an advantage for the anti-immigrant far-right party.

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen

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With the traditional Socialist Party in power for the past five years, and more generally the crisis of European social democracy, experts saw the conditions for the emergence of a new, more radical, leftist movement.

However, in France, the discontent over the government's neoliberal labor reform, over budget cuts, which crystallized into the Nuit Debout movement, failed to spark a similar movement as the Indignados-Podemos movement in Spain.

The Socialist Party, or PS, will be holding its primaries at the end of January, but whoever will be running for the presidency at the end April will start with a heavy handicap: defending five years of contested policies. Local elections in March 2016 had devastating results for the PS and even party leaders have evoked the possibility of a “total extinction” of the party in the near future.

Under the shadow of the terrible “April 21” that in 2002 set the precedent for far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen and center-right candidate Jacques Chirac winning the presidential first round — excluding the traditional Socialist Party for the first time in history, the French left is struggling to reorganize and offer an alternative proposal for the country.

Fifteen years later, the far-right National Front, founded in 1975, did a better job in transforming from an anti-establishment party into a potentially governmental party. First, historical leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, infamous for his openly racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments, left the party's presidency to his daughter, Marine Le Pen. She worked hard to modernize the party into a respectable structure, even publicly condemning her father's words, and turning his old-fashioned racism into a more subtle discourse of secularism: she argues that Islam is not compatible with French Republican values.

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Such discourse has actually permeated the whole French political class, from the far right to the far left, hence the recurrent controversies over the Muslim veil that allegedly undermines Western traditional respect for women.

Although the far right is clearly winning the cultural battle in France, boosted by the recent terror attacks, several obstacles stand in the way of Marine Le Pen taking power. First, the voting system favors a two-system party, meaning Le Pen will not likely win the run-off vote even if she wins the first round.

Second, the center-right candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy's former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, follows a similar strategy as Sarkozy successfully implemented to win the far-right vote in the 2007 elections against Jean-Marie Le Pen. Sarkozy coopted most of the far-right anti-immigrant, tough security stance, appealing to the far-right electorate. Moreover, Fillon's political program seems to have moved even further toward social conservatism, to a point that some political experts have suggested that his candidacy may force Le Pen to make her program more progressive if she wants to maintain a difference.

A notable difference also lies in the economic program, with a clearly neoliberal, pro-European Union agenda for Fillon, while Le Pen supports state intervention and even a French Brexit. But according to the latest polls, the French electorate fears the consequences of the end of the Euro and supports the National Front mostly for its program around immigration and security.

Could the French radical left represent one more obstacle for the racist party in April, despite an apparent favorable global trend — the victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. and the Brexit in the U.K.?

Scoring over 11 percent in the 2012 presidential elections, the Left Front coalition raised hopes in its first electoral race after its foundation in 2008 by Jean-Luc Melenchon, a former Socialist leader who disagreed with the Socialist Party's neoliberal, pro-European agenda.

Although the coalition failed to build a credible alternative to the hegemonic Socialist Party during Francois Hollande's presidency, Melenchon has created a buzz with his recently created YouTube channel over the past few months.

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Its ability to challenge the right and far-right dominance still remains uncertain, as Melenchon is defending a risky anti-European and state-interventionist economic program — the main difference with Le Pen being that the “banks” should be the “enemy,” not the “immigrants.”

But in France, unlike the U.K., distrust of European institutions is not as strong, and the fear of abandoning the Euro currency plays a major difference.

Melenchon also failed to provide a different discourse on Islam and win back the vote of generations of immigrants living in marginalized urban areas, or “banlieues.” In the banlieues, abstention is higher than ever, while a growing proportion is even considering the far-right candidate, disgusted by decades of French left indifference to their issues.

But the rise of the far right in France and the failure of the left to respond with a concrete alternative has been the symptom in Europe of an issue that goes beyond the current economic crisis: the discourse on immigration and Islam has shaped the debates over national and cultural identity, while traditional parties have failed to properly represent their electorates.

In Germany and the Netherlands, where presidential elections are also taking place this year, similar right-wing rhetoric has challenged the traditional parties, with Chancellor Angela Merkel, candidate for re-election, toughening her approach on immigration, in hopes of keeping her electorate.

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