France prepares for a divisive political year ahead
In a Mediterranean resort where many residents have roots in the Maghreb, there were only white faces among 700 people packed into a hall where Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right Front National, addressed her faithful.
That was more than five years ago. Nicolas Sarkozy was still president and while terrorism was hardly unknown, the most recent wave of atrocities to strike France had not yet begun.
A year later, Mohamed Merah, a French-Algerian criminal turned self-styled jihadist, shot dead seven people, including three Jewish children, in and around the city of Toulouse before being killed by police. Against the background of what has followed – further murderous attacks, Europe’s immigration crisis and growing western support for populism – a 2016 version of that rally in Six-Fours-les-Plages would not look much different.
There may be a small number of Muslims in Le Pen’s party. But its appeal, as preliminary skirmishes begin ahead of next spring’s presidential elections, remains firmly to “les français de souche”, those seeing themselves as pure French and feeling hostility towards immigrants.
With the constant fear of further attacks inflicting more damage on community relations, the horrors of Toulouse, Paris and Nice and the failure to stem an unmanageable flow of migrants cast dark shadows over France’s electoral process. Disaffection with the established parties, like terrorism, is not new but it has never been so pronounced.
In 2002, Ms Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, reached the second round of the presidential race at the expense of the socialist Lionel Jospin. Left-wing voters famously vowed to support a natural enemy, the centre-right Jacques Chirac, to keep the FN out. Le Pen senior was duly crushed, getting less than 18 per cent of the vote. But his daughter’s strenuous efforts to “de-demonise” her party have paid off.
The FN thrives on the unpleasant central theme that Islam presents a threat to France. The party professes to take offence at the “extreme right” tag but cheerfully identifies with other European parties suffering the same identity problem.
For all the self-cleansing, the FN shrilly deplores the so-called “Islamicisation” of France, Ms Le Pen even saying the problem is not Islam but its “visibility”. FN voters seem to have no reservations about the very phrase, “extreme droite”, that causes its leaders such pain. Bear in mind, too, that while Ms Le Pen describes the Nazi gas chambers as the “epitome of barbarity”, her father – to whom they were a mere “detail of Second World War history” – has said that give or take a few “subtleties”, she shares his opinions.
Beyond the old fascist rump, the FN draws support from many who swallow its claim to be “a party like any other”, albeit one seeking to break the mould of conventional politics.
So if decent voters are repelled by such a tribe, however massaged and dismantled, there may need to be a special alternative.
But the socialists, and the unpopular president Francois Hollande, currently seem unelectable. The conventional right offers unappealing options, including Mr Sarkozy – weakened by outstanding criminal charges of political corruption – and Alain Juppe, whose charm and dependability are undermined by his own tarnished record, a 14-month suspended sentence passed in 2004 for the abuse of public funds from which his party, though not he, profited.
If we dismiss the far left, that leaves the perpetually underachieving centrists, their disparate bands currently led by Emmanuel Macron, who accepted high office in the Hollande government only to say when he resigned last month that he wasn’t a socialist after all.
In the face of dismal mainstream opponents, the fear is that much of France will turn to Ms Le Pen. A Sarkozy or Juppe win seems the most likely result, but only just. Stand by for an outcome in which Ms Le Pen figures in the run-off with a sporting chance of becoming France’s first female president, but its most divisive in history.
Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National
Published: September 13, 2016 04:00 AM