The rise of the French far-right…..
At the time of writing, the final result of the first round of the French Presidential Election has yet to be declared. However, it is quite clear that Marine Le-Pen and her Front National have done exceptionally well, winning between 18 and 20% of the vote and significantly outperforming the far-left. No doubt this result will dissected in great depth, as the recent success of George Galloway in the Bradford West by-election and the rise of UKIP to third place in recent opinion polls is here. However, a protest vote is a tricky thing to dissect and draw general lessons from; mainly because the level of awareness held by the voter about what they are voting for varies wildly (this is true of any parties vote but its a question of degree).
A classic example of this that always springs to my mind is a conversation I had at the last General Election with a taxi driver who was genuinely torn between casting his vote for UKIP or the Liberal Democrats. If our taxi driver had put his X by UKIP then conventional wisdom would say that he was discontented either with the European Union and/or current levels of immigration. However, given the fact he was torn between two parties with diametrically opposed views on both questions, I can’t really believe his disgust was that deeply felt when it came to either issue. I rather feel he was just angry and annoyed and alienated from the established political system and wanted to cast his vote most effectively to make this felt. If pushed he might have expressed concerns on both issues but you feel that this would have been the result of some external prompting rather than them being a spontaneous focus of his spleen. I tend to feel this kind of ‘blind voting’ is more common amoung voters for fringe parties simply because they get less coverage of their views than mainstream parties. So, a goodly proportion of Le Pen’s vote will have come from people who really don’t know an awful lot about what they voted for in the first place, they are simply angry and are looking for a viable vehicle to express that anger.
It looks like Le Pen won a significant chunk of the working class vote and indeed the rise of the far-right in working class communities is something of a Europe-wide phenomena. Also, invariably, the far-right outperform the far-left in these areas. This is because traditional working class communities have seen their identity pretty much destroyed by the ravages of a rapidly globalising capitalist system. It is not surprising that they feel threatened and testy towards ‘outsiders’ etc, etc. The far-left struggles to match the far-right because it tries to cohere these voters around a essentially classical ‘cloth-cap’ identity that these communities have long ago shed, while the far-right offers to cohere them around a new, national, identity and to protect these increasingly inward looking communities from ‘outsiders’. Nationalism is also a somewhat rational shelter if your looking to retreat from globalisation, which of course, is driving the world in the totally opposite direction to the one nationalism would take. However, ironically, the predisposition of working class communities to respond favorably to identity driven ideologies and politics is something inculcated in them by the left but now it is something that the right makes most political capital out of; the far- left is being eclipsed by the far-right as the natural focus of anti-establishment feeling.
The danger of Le Pen’s vote is as much in its actuality as to the way it will become a empty vessel into which everybody will pour the interpretation that best suits their political-ideological bent. If the left is going to take one thing from it however, it should perhaps be that we need to go back to the drawing board completely; re-think our politics, how we package them, what is happening in the world around us and how we engage with core communities we have clearly lost, because above anything else, the rise of the far-right is a direct product of the left’s failure to achieve its goals and change the world in the way we know it needs to be changed.