Defending democracy – against the voters
The reaction to Jean-Marie Le Pen's success in the French elections is deeply anti-democratic.
How could this happen?
The success of the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the French presidential elections has been greeted with panic and disbelief. In France, crowds took to the streets to protest, and the front pages of left-wing French newspapers Libération and l’Humanité bore the single word ‘NON’.
Across Europe, politicians of all political stripes have rejected the vote. Neil Kinnock, EC vice-president and a former UK Labour leader, said that he was ‘astounded and horrified’ at the result – and UK Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith also expressed his dismay.
For some, the view is that France temporarily lost its head. The French people are urged to do the right thing in the next round – to come out and defend democratic values. UK prime minister Tony Blair’s official spokesman said that ‘we trust the French people to reject extremism of any kind’. Spanish foreign minister Josep Piqué said, ‘in the second round the French people will have a clear opportunity to affirm the democratic values that characterise the Fifth Republic’ – adding that he had every confidence they would do so.
‘Defend democracy, vote for Chirac’: the irony is obvious. The point about a democracy is that people can vote for who they like; it was French people who voted for Le Pen, not aliens from outer space. The French people have spoken; politicians’ response is to tell them to do better next time.
Gaullist president Jacques Chirac has displayed a similar contempt for democracy in his refusal to debate Le Pen. He has cast his fellow second-round candidate as beyond the pale – and the TV debate provisionally expected on Monday night is unlikely to take place. Chirac ‘does not want this debate’, said his campaign spokeswoman Roselyne Bachelot – while the UK Independent noted that such a debate would give Le Pen ‘an invaluable national platform to spread his ideas’ (though it would be hard to have an election without candidates having a national platform for their ideas) (1). There is a kind of not-in-front-of-the-children mentality: the electorate is so easily swayed that it needs to be protected from Le Pen’s polemics.
Some have suggested that the problem was the French electoral system itself, which allowed too many candidates to stand, so fragmenting the left-wing vote. It seems that democratic choice itself is being recast as a threat to democracy. If only people didn’t have so many candidates to choose from, they would have had to vote for dull Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin.
But while Le Pen’s success cannot be put down to some kind of temporary madness, it is not a history-defining moment either. ‘The return of fascism’, shouted the frontpage of the UK Daily Express. Others have warned that the far right is again sweeping across Europe. French protesters cried ‘Mussolini 1922. Hitler 1933. Le Pen never’.
However reactionary and distasteful Le Pen is, this is not a return to the 1930s. The vote for Le Pen was more putting two fingers up to the French political elite than it was a vote for fascism. Sixteen percent for Le Pen no more indicates the rise of fascism than the 10 percent polled by the various far-left candidates indicates the forward march of Trotskyism. As Le Pen himself said, his progress into the second round represented ‘first and foremost [the French people’s] rejection of those who have governed them so inefficiently’ (2). Le Pen constantly plays upon the corruption and betrayal of an out-of-touch political elite – ‘France has a national fracture between the legal nation, represented by a pseudo-elite embodied by Chirac, and the real country’, he said on 22 April 2002 (3).
And the issues that Le Pen has made his own – anti-immigration, anti-crime – are hardly outside the boundaries of mainstream politics. Chirac also fought his campaign around these issues – and let us not forget that New Labour won in Britain in 1997 talking about being ‘tough on crime’. From the tone of the outraged reaction, anybody would think that the rest of Europe supported open borders and reducing prison sentences (if only…).
But even within these terms, Le Pen’s victory was hardly an earthquake. More people rejected the political elite by staying away from the ballot altogether (28.40 percent of voters), than they did putting their cross for Le Pen (16.86 percent of ballots cast) (4). All in all, he got about the same number of votes as he did in the last election.
With the local elections coming up, the question on UK politicians’ lips is: could it happen here? Could the British National Party (BNP) repeat Le Pen’s success? UK home secretary David Blunkett has already called on parties to unite against the BNP – ‘the real battle must be against the far right and against racism, not between ourselves’, he wrote in early April 2002 (5). Oldham Labour MP Phil Woolas has urged people to vote ‘Conservative, Liberal Democrat or whoever’ instead of the BNP (6). British political leaders are today holding emergency talks on how to prevent right-wing extremists from trying to emulate the success of Le Pen.
But if it is fanciful to compare Le Pen to Hitler, it is just as fanciful to compare him to the BNP. Le Pen has a constituency – he gained 15 percent of the presidential vote in 1995 and 14.39 percent in 1988 (7); the extreme right in the UK gained only 0.2 percent of the total vote in 2001 (8). The weak and vacillating BNP leader Nick Griffin is no comparison to Le Pen, with his long history on the extreme right. The BNP won 16.4 percent in Oldham West in the 2001 general election, but this success may be as much down to the fuss the media whipped up about the party as it was to the BNP’s attraction for voters.
When the UK political elite looks at Le Pen’s success, it sees a reflection of its own isolation. It realises that it hasn’t got a clue what is going on in the minds of voters and who could support Le Pen or the BNP – and has no way of connecting with them. This is why the fiery populism of Le Pen seems more threatening than it actually is. Tony Blair was reported in the UK Independent as drawing the lesson that political institutions had to reconnect with voters (9).
UK politicians are also trying to make political capital out of the French affair, dreaming that the threat of the BNP might inject a sense of urgency into the dull non-contest that is the upcoming local elections. With the record low turnout of the 2001 general election very much in mind, and predictions of the lowest-ever local poll, the aim is to get the voters out. No doubt we can expect lectures about how French voters feel guilty for not using their precious vote to defend democracy against fascism, and how we should learn from their experience.
This ‘unite against the BNP’ line represents a displacement of the problems of politics, rather than their solution. Not only will none of the main parties debate the BNP, but now, so keen are they to stave off fascism, they are also refusing to debate each other. This clamping down on political debate undermines democracy – with voters being asked to plump for one (any one) of the main parties, just because they are not the BNP. Making the three main parties look more similar than they do already is the last thing British politics needs.
And voters will still regard politicians with distrust and cynicism – as was shown by a sticker on the forehead of a French anti-National Front protester. ‘Fraud rather than hate, Chirac rather than Le Pen’ (10). Now there’s a healthy political contest for you.
The myth of the far right, by Brendan O’Neill
Who’s afraid of the far right?, by Mick Hume
Continental drift, by James Heartfield
Too late, the French left have a cause, by James Heartfield
Where are Le Pen friends now?, by Dominic Standish
(1) France is urged: Just say Non, Independent, 23 April 2002
(2) Le Pen vote shocks France, Guardian 22 April 2002
(3) ‘Tremors rock France after Le Pen’s earthquake’, The Times (London), 23 April 2002
(4) See the French election results
(5) The far right is the enemy, Guardian, 11 April 2002
(6) Oldham MP: Vote anything but BNP, BBC News, 18 April 2002
(7) See the French election results 1965-2002
(8) Going to extremes, Guardian, 29 June 2001
(9) ‘Blair: We have to reconnect with voters’, Independent, 23 April 3002
(10) The Times (London), 23 April 2002
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