Ah, those were the days! It’s almost with nostalgia that we now remember the year 2000, when the European Union imposed sanctions against Austria after right-wing populists became part of its government.
Back then, France was one of the driving forces behind those sanctions. But now, the far-right has become the strongest political force in France itself after regional elections on Sunday, which saw the anti-immigrant, euro-skeptic National Front party surge ahead of the country’s more traditionally centerist parties in the wake of last month’s brutal terrorist attacks in Paris.
So what do we do now? We can no longer turn our backs in disinterest or disgust. For too long, the political and economic elites in both France and Germany did not take the National Front phenomenon seriously. This criminal impartiality is no longer sustainable. Instead, we must look closely at France and try to understand what is happening to our friends.
Other far-right entities in Europe – such as Jörg Haider’s xenophobic Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), or Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders and the nationalist True Finns party – are all political folklore compared to the threat of France’s National Front. How is it possible that in 2017, a founding member of the European Union, one of the anchoring nations of the euro and Germany’s closest ally could come under the control of a group that doesn’t even define itself as a democratic party, but as a “national movement”?
Sound familiar? Well, it isn’t a coincidence. The ideological source from which the party draws its rhetoric originates in the anti-democratic movements of the 1920s and 30s. Have the French gone completely mad in turning these democracy-destroying throwbacks into the country’s strongest party?
The party's rise can be reversed if we explain to voters that its program amounts to economic suicide.
Not mad, but frustrated. Many are disappointed by the country’s political system and its parties, which quarrel over the best seats in Paris instead of fighting for the country’s economic recovery. The vast majority of French are more mature than their political class. They know where France stands economically, and they have a clear sense of the changes that are necessary.
But the parties are not delivering. President François Hollande has introduced a few reforms, which would have been sufficient to stabilize the country in normal times. But not in an era when France is Europe’s leader in destroying jobs and losing market share, and also has one of the highest corporate tax rates in Europe. French financial newspaper Les Echos sarcastically dubbed the country’s cumulative underperformance “the French Grand Slam.” Mr. Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy excelled in this discipline.
The more enlightened French voters are also as sick of the parties’ scandals as they are of their ideologies, which remain stuck somewhere between the 1960s and 1980s. They aren’t voting for the National Front, but they are also no longer voting for the Socialists or Mr. Sarkozy’s center-right party, the Republicans. Both parties are eroding. Although nine out of 10 French people approve of Mr. Hollande’s tough reaction and warlike rhetoric after the terrorist attacks of November 13, this has not improved the desolate standing of his Socialist Party.
Blue-collar workers, low-level office workers, tradesmen and many farmers are especially susceptible to the promises of Marine Le Pen’s National Front. According to the party’s president, all the French need to do is return to pre-globalization conditions to achieve full employment, security and the unshaken identity of what former President Charles de Gaulle called a “white country.”
No other country in Europe is so much at odds with globalization. France and Germany are drifting far apart in this respect. A few Germans are critical of the trend toward a global business environment, but the overwhelming majority perceives it as a success of “Made in Germany.” However, a large number of French people – on the left and the right – perceive globalization as not only a humiliation for France, but the cause of unemployment and erosion of their traditional ties. Ms. Le Pen’s propagandist claims that corrupt elites have sold the “healthy people” to the powers of globalization are falling on fertile ground.
Still, the party’s rise can be reversed if we explain to voters that its program amounts to economic suicide. After all, this is the most important reason why more disappointed Republicans and Socialists aren’t voting for Ms. Le Pen out of protest: They see that it can’t go well.
But the question is whether enough politicians have the will to fight the extreme right anymore. Right now it seems more important to Mr. Sarkozy to break the Socialists than to defeat the National Front in runoff elections. He is opposed to cooperation among democrats. And their weakness is Marine Le Pen’s strength.
Thomas Hanke is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Paris. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org