Rise of the French Far-Right

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May 15, 2017

French human rights and civil liberties activist Yasser Louati discusses the long rise of the far-right, the crisis of traditional parties, the militarization of French society, and neoliberalism.

There has been an international sigh of relief at Le Pen’s defeat in the recent elections but nearly 34% of the electorate voted for her. Could you talk a bit about the relative success of Le Pen. What conditions have led to the rise of the far-right in France?

Even before Marine Le Pen engaged in what she called the de-demonization of the National Front to make it more acceptable, there had been a normalization of far-right ideas in France since the early 80s. We shouldn’t forget that the killing of blacks and Arabs in the 50s and 60s went unpunished in the midst of the repression against Algerians. So there is a tradition of scapegoating minorities and this is not even to mention what happened to the Jews in the 1940s. But in the 80s and the 90s the far-right became organized and rose from being a very marginal group to become a well-established political party.

We have seen both the left and the right adopting far-right rhetoric. It has become acceptable. We saw this, for example, in the 80s under Prime Minister Laurent Fabius who said Jean-Marie Le Pen was raising the right questions about blacks and Arabs and immigration. In the 90s we saw the fear-mongering about Muslims in the mainstream right-wing parties as the Algerian civil war was raging. In the early 2000s we saw Nicolas Sarkozy adopting almost the whole ideological lexicon of the far-right under what he called the unapologetic right, giving a Republican garb to fascist ideas and saying that we should not be afraid of defending French values, our civilization, and identity, and stopping the rise of Muslim visibility.

That’s why when you see the National Front scoring 34% in the second round of the presidential elections, there has been a mechanism that goes back to the early 80s which enabled the far-right to become a mainstream political party. We are just witnessing the culmination of a long political process.

The new president, Emmanuel Macron, launched his political party less than a year ago after he resigned as economy minister. Does a Macron presidency suggest a crisis for traditional parties in the country?

The rise of Emmanuel Macron to presidency is a clear illustration that there is a political vacuum in France. In eighteen months he went from being nobody to being the president. That’s a combination of open defiance and disgust toward the official parties and the ruling elite in France which is expressed through abstention or voting for the extreme right. There are new faces that are capable of capitalizing on that and making gains from people’s disdain toward the political elite.

We should not forget that even though he won the elections Macron did not get that many votes from people who believed in him or his platform. People voted for him to stop the National Front. People went to vote with the National Front’s knife under their throat.

 Macron has proposed business friendly economic reforms such as cutting pensions of public sector employees and cutting corporate taxes. How is it that a crisis precipitated by neoliberalism has resulted in the election of a neoliberal centrist candidate? Is this due to the weakness of the left?

 Well, the left has itself implemented neoliberal measures. This began in 1983 under President François Mitterrand who said that at this time we have to open up a little bit to the laws of the market. That never stopped. We went from dismantling the welfare state to the privatization of the public sector.

And now, we have Emmanuel Macaron whose barometer is centered on the stock market. What is good for the stock market is good for the employees, according to him. That’s why in terms of reforming the economy or the labor market, he talks a lot about providing flexibility for employers and security for employees. But obviously when employers get flexibility, their employees are locked into more precarity. They have to accept a decrease in wages and increased powers for employers.

Of course he appealed to minorities by telling them Islamophobia is evil but he’s not going to cure it with his neoliberal agenda.

Macron has also promised increasing military spending and hiring more police officers.  Are we likely to see a continuation of the state of emergency in the country?

The state of emergency has been extended four times to my knowledge. The law does not even mention whether it needs to be lifted after a change of government. It’s supposed to go on until January but we have no guarantees that it will end then.

But the militarization of the police has been going on for the decade or so. We have been continually seeing increased spending on the police force. They are being deployed to directly confront the misery of our society. Of course, this results in the killings of blacks and Arabs.

Macron did not even speak about withdrawing from the military operations France is engaged in. We are still engaged in the drone war, surveillance which has opened a new market for CCTV cameras targeting immigrants, and the list goes on. We are definitely moving toward adopting the Homeland Security model of America.

The first round of the elections also saw the leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon receive more than 7 million votes. What are the prospects for the French left in the near future?

The French left was shattered as soon as the Socialist Party started moving rightward. I don’t think you can tackle right-wing populism with left-wing populism and that’s exactly what Jean-Luc Mélenchon has adopted. That’s why many civil liberties activists don’t trust his program because he is among the people who have fueled Islamophobia. He stood against the right of Muslim women to practice their religion in public.

But Mélenchon is certainly in a position of power in the re-organizing the left. The Socialist Party is dead. It will not recover from this election. Now that the battle for the Parliamentary Elections has launched, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has the upper hand in the left. He will definitely be capable of attracting those who are disappointed in the Socialist Party.

Yasser Louati is a French human rights and civil liberties activist. His work focuses on Islamophobia, national security policies, and social justice for minorities.