The man who did not kill Le Pen-ism (and some lessons for the rest of us)
(This quick post is highly inspired by a column from French journalist Guy Birenbaum written in reaction to an opinion poll giving the National Front Leader ahead of all other candidates for the 2012 presidential election. I translated large bits, and added others relevant to a non-French audience.)
Nicolas Sarkozy on his favorite part of the agenda
During the 2007 French Presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy ran a campaign clearly focused on the Right. He managed to get elected by securing support from a significant portion of the National Front voters, reducing the score of its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen to his worst result since 1974.
This galvanized some authoritative local commentators to announce that Sarkozy had killed Jean-Marie Le Pen. To be precise, it galvanized them to announce that the newly elected president had killed “Le Pen-ism”, as if he had exorcised France from her extreme-right demons.
As a subtle observer and commentator of the National Press Gallery, Guy Birenbaum (@guybirenbaum) noted at the time that far from being killed, Le Pen-ism had actually gone mainstream.
In an ironical twist for the leader of the Far–Right, his defeat meant that after years of stunts and outrageous statements, his followers were now comfortable switching to a different candidate able to promote their agenda but who would have a chance of getting into office. Le Pen might have passed his use-by-date, but his ideas were alive and kicking. They had been adopted, digested, and repackaged by Sarkozy. His public interventions demonstrated a relentless attempt to rewrite history and justify colonialism or fishy collaborations during WWII in a language only National Front politicians had been using till then.
For years Sarkozy has been sending signals to those extreme voters by focusing his agenda on immigration, insecurity, and dodgy ethics. As an example, his belief in genetic pre-determinism left many speechless: “I would be inclined … to think that people are born paedophiles and it’s a problem that we can’t cure this pathology” (source: the Guardian)
Marine Le Pen
Four years later Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, is now at the helm of the National Front and just stunned observers by ranking first in an opinion poll. Her growing popularity demonstrates that whilst politicians come and go, ideas stick.
There is a lesson to be learnt beyond the French borders. The need to be vigilante with creepy ideologies, whether they are political, social or about economics.
I cannot help thinking of a few parallels here:
- In Australia, John Howard cannibalized the One Nation far-right party and sent its caricatural populist Leader Pauline Hanson into semi-retirement. However her platform promoting zero-tolerance towards asylum seekers has made serious head way into the mainstream debate.
- In Ireland, where the quasi-monopolistic republican Party (Fianna Fail) has just suffered his worst defeat in the 2011 election. However as Irish-Australian blogger @Franksting noted from a fine piece read in the Independent.ie, Fine Gael (centre-right) might now be the 1st party but “the right-wing policies (..) come clothed in party names drawn from a semi-mystical Gaelic past“. The columnist eloquently goes on: ”When Michael McDowell and his fellow rightists formed a party in the 80s, they might have called themselves the Free Market Extremists. Instead, they were the Progressive Democrats. (Everyone wants progress, everyone needs democracy. (..) A generation of politicians eagerly adopted half-baked and wholly-swallowed right-wing platitudes — chop the tax base, privatise, deregulate, unleash the rich. They sucked relentlessly on these ideological soothers, regardless of circumstance or outcome.”
- The same goes on in the US. The recent documentary “The Inside Job” has demonstrated how the ideas and agendas that led to the collapse of Wall Street in 2007 have colonized Washington. Greenspan, Bush and Paulson might be gone but Obama did not change an iota and re-hired their disciples, Timothy Geithner and Co.
This is a great irony of the public debate that it so conspicuously focuses on public personalities and their minutiae. We might find it entertaining, but we should never become blasé and forget that the stuff that really matters is how their rhetoric and ideas subliminally shape the agenda. The French might have woken up with a hangover and a feeling of shame, but they also have the clarity of an identified enemy. This is a luxury that other western countries falling back into populist patterns do not seem to have. Instead, it sounds like they are also insidiously hit by the “Le Pen is dead, long live Le Pen” syndrome.
Pauline Hanson by Australian Artist Emma Phillips