How the Far Right Hijacked France’s Election.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 4 2012 3:33 PM

France’s Turn for the Worse

On Sunday, France will elect a new president. But Europe’s far right has already won.

Marine Le Pen.
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, seen above on April 27, 2012 the Zenith hall in Paris

Photograph by Bertrand Langlois/AFP/GettyImages.

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.

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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.

There are still gradations, of course. Le Pen openly rails against immigrants. Sarkozy obliquely rails against immigrants. Hollande doesn’t really want to rail against immigrants—just to echo widespread sentiment against immigrants enough to be elected president. Even so, it has been the far right who has set the tone of this campaign: the mainstream candidates have, in the end, been reduced to courting the favors of Le Pen’s party.

All of this matters beyond France because, historically, what happens in Paris often portends what will happen elsewhere on the continent. It’s not just that most Europeans think of the French Revolution as the cradle of modern democracy. Even in contemporary terms, the country stands at the center of Europe’s political gravity. Up until now, populists have celebrated their biggest successes in countries like the Netherlands, Italy, and Poland. But France isn’t as small as the Netherlands, as politically dysfunctional as Italy, or as new to democracy as Poland. The sad spectacle of the last several weeks is the culmination of a wider European trend of accommodating the far right—and it may suggest it’s about to get much worse.

Like in France, established political parties across the continent at first vowed to shun surging populist leaders like Jörg Haider of Austria or Geert Wilders of the Netherlands. A cordon sanitaire was to unite all democrats in their fight against the far right threat. But unity did not last long. As populist parties in these countries gained in strength, traditional coalition governments, especially those formed by center-right parties, lost their majorities. Center-right leaders realized that to gain or preserve power they would have to cooperate with the populists. As a result, in one country after another, center-right parties that had once vowed to fight the far right have come to rely on them to prop themselves up.

By now, Austria, Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands have all had governments that stood or fell by the grace of far right parties. Even leaders of countries like Britain and Germany, where populist parties have so far been unable to make any significant headway at the national level, have adopted some of their competitors’ slogans. In the last two years, for example, both Angela Merkel and David Cameron have emphasized the dangers of multiculturalism. In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, some populists have even been able to form governments of their own: The current Hungarian government, led by the deeply illiberal Viktor Orban, is only the most extreme example.

The left in each case condemned the center-right’s willingness to sacrifice principles to electoral politics. But even as they tried to claim the moral high ground, they knew that many of the populists’ followers were recruited from the ranks of their own base. The temptation for leaders of the left to echo anti-immigrant themes has steadily grown; some have succumbed to it. In Germany, for example, the most famous populist is now nominally a member of the Social Democratic Party. Thilo Sarrazin, a well-known bureaucrat, wrote a best-selling book discussing, among other insidious themes, the supposed genetic inferiority of Turkish immigrants. Thanks to a half-hearted promise not to make racist remarks in the future, he remains a party member to this day.

It is always easy to overstate the importance of the latest shock to the system. Has this election really been better news for Europe’s far right than 2002, when Marine Le Pen’s father (despite gaining fewer votes than she did two weeks ago) qualified for the second round of the presidential elections? Only time will tell. But if I am to hazard a guess, I would say that the 2002 election will be remembered as the moment when it became undeniable that many voters across Europe had come to agree with the new brand of anti-immigrant rhetoric. This year’s election, by contrast, will be remembered as the moment when Europe’s establishment decided to welcome those ideas into the political mainstream.

Yascha Mounk, founding editor of the Utopian, is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at Harvard University. You can follow him @Yascha_Mounk.