On Sunday, by almost every indication, François Hollande, who has been leading in the polls for months, will defeat Nicolas Sarkozy and become France’s next president. Hollande’s Socialist Party, which hasn’t ousted an incumbent president in over three decades, has every reason to celebrate. But the true winner of this election isn’t France’s left; it’s Europe’s far right.
The reason is simple. In this election, France’s establishment has embraced Islamophobic ideas to an unprecedented degree. Right-wing populism, once a fringe phenomenon, has been conquering the bastions of Europe’s political mainstream with frightening speed; even so, most observers failed to predict the extent to which anti-immigrant themes would shape this campaign. It’s difficult to know whether Europe’s populists are approaching the zenith of their power or will continue their steady rise. But one thing is certain: At no point in Europe’s postwar history has the far right’s influence been as pervasive as it is now.
Two weeks ago, in the first round of the presidential elections, nearly one in five French voters opted for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extremist Front National party. Marine, who replaced her father, Jean-Marie, as party leader a little over a year ago, has donned a cloak of respectability, severing the organization’s ties to the most flagrant neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic groups. But the core of her appeal remains unchanged: It consists of hatred of Muslim immigrants, along with everyone else she considers alien to the French nation. Her tactic of giving racism a pretty veneer has clearly worked well. In her first run for president, she already gained a greater share of the vote than her father ever managed to muster.
Perhaps worse is the degree to which establishment politicians have imitated Le Pen’s words. In March, Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign spent the better part of two weeks talking about the danger unmarked halal meat allegedly posed to unsuspecting Parisians. After the horrific attacks in Toulouse, Sarkozy briefly dialed down his rhetoric. But since Le Pen’s strong showing in the first round of voting, he has sounded shriller than ever.
In the last several days, Sarkozy has repeatedly spoken of his country’s Christian roots, lamented that there are too many foreigners in France, and called Islam a threat to the nation’s values. An official campaign video released last week plays with people’s xenophobic fears, the camera zooming in on scores of African migrants landing on a European beach as Sarkozy promises to slash immigration. Nobody was taken by surprise, then, when Sarkozy concluded Wednesday night’s nationally televised presidential debate against Hollande with a direct appeal to Le Pen’s followers.
What was more surprising about the debate was the extent to which even Hollande tried to appeal to the far right. When Sarkozy contended that tensions between France’s ethnic groups are to be explained by the presence of “Islam in France,” Hollande vowed to uphold a ban on women wearing the burqa in public. When Sarkozy raised the issue of halal meat, Hollande vowed that France’s school cafeterias would not serve a single piece of halal meat during his presidency. Trying to outdo his rival, Hollande went out of his way to emphasize that, unlike Sarkozy, he had favored a ban on French schoolgirls wearing the veil as early as 2003.