Iris Cohen analyses the background to the the recent gains made by the far right in France in advance of today’s second round of voting.
Last Sunday, during the first round of the municipal elections in France, the far right and in particular the largest fascist party the Front National (FN) made significant gains, ranking first or a close second in a number of towns and cities across the country. The FN won in the first round in the once historically left stronghold of Hénin-Beaumont (50.26%) and will carry on to the second round in nearly 200 towns (scoring over 10%).
This is a disturbing increase both for the obvious reason that it means the far right and fascists are continuing to gain traction, but also because these local elections have a great deal of influence on the daily lives of the constituents. One only has to look at the devastating impact of a far right mayor in Orange, where poor and immigrant communities in particular have been excluded from all economic and social opportunities and frightened away from possibilities of resistance. It only took the announcement of the FN victory in Hénin-Beaumont for a FN municipal employee to dare say to a black colleague “You’re on Schindler’s list, you’re going to take the train soon” – unsurprisingly she no longer wishes to work there.
Of course the rise of the far right in France is not a new phenomenon, nor indeed is it an isolated one, with the growth of fascist organisations in a number of other European countries such as Greece and Holland. The far right has used the climate to blame immigrants for the economic crisis, and Islamophobic rhetoric in particular.
Furthermore, both major parties (the UMP and the PS) have shifted dramatically to the right. Institutional racism in France has flourished in recent years under successive governments and presidents, notably under the leadership of Sarkozy and has been sustained by president Hollande and minister of the Interior Manuel Valls. From the disgusting treatment of migrants in Calais to the violent evictions of Roma communities, from the ramping up of racist policing to legislative attacks on the rights of Muslims, this institutionalisation of racism has served to legitimise the fascist politics of the FN and other far right politicians.
The left beyond the social democratic PS has done little to counter this and at worse has supported it. With the exception of some localised and relatively small anti-fascist groups and anti-racist organisations proving organised opposition exists (sometimes with their lives in the case of Clément Mérric), the task at hand seems overwhelming when attempting to fight against the tidal wave of racism. Nonetheless mobilisations do take place, a brilliant example being the thousands of high school students who protested in October 2013 against the deportation of their fellow students and the racist government.
As unemployment continues to rise and Holland announces more austerity measures and tax cuts on businesses (despite campaigning on a platform which promised exactly the opposite), the inability of the main political parties to provide a solution to the crisis is clearly a factor in their low results in this first round of elections. Combined with a number of corruption scandals, especially concerning local politicians such as the outgoing socialist major of Hénin-Beaumont who was recently convicted of fraud, people are clearly fed up with the usual suspects. This frustration with governing parties and disenchantment with parliamentary politics has led to two notable developments: a mounting anti-system sentiment and record levels of electoral absenteeism.
Firstly, one of the more positive expressions of this anti-system attitude was demonstrated in the quite rapid evolution of the Front de Gauche, particularly in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections with thousands of mobilising in support of their candidate Jean-Luc Mélanchon. Although Mélanchon’s result was significantly lower than expected, the level of excitement and evolvement around his campaign should not be forgotten.
On the other hand, this anti-system reaction has also been channelled in much more sinister directions in the support of stand-up and far right activist Dieudonné, who was recently censured for making anti-Semitic remarks and is best known as the man behind the “quenelle”, a reverse Nazi salute which his supporters believe is a “fuck you” to the system. Member of Alain Soral’s Egalité et Réconciliation party whose slogan “Left for workers and Right for morals” along with anti-system and anti-zionist language has pulled in a number of predominantly young supporters, often from post-colonial immigrant communities. However, in reality the organisation is a fascist front, fervently homophobic, sexist and anti-Semitic.
Secondly, the high levels of absenteeism during these municipal elections, reaching 38% compared to 33% in the last municipal elections, has clearly weakened the PS and opened up the space for the far right to move ahead. The number of registered voters abstaining reached nearly 60% in working-class communities such as Saint-Denis and Montreuil. An interesting case are the poorer “quartiers nords” of Marseille which has been partially gentrified and where the FN candidate came first with 32% (across three polling stations). The FN got more votes in the traditionally right-wing area of the newer residences where the UMP lost some support and abstention has gone from 18% to 44%, while at the two other polling stations the PS vote dropped by half and the level of participation has gone from 70% to 34%.
This once again demonstrates the anger with the recently elected PS, the supposedly democratic electoral processes, and an unrepresentative and unaccountable government. For many people in France voting has more and more become a purely tactical calculation, especially for the left who is regularly put in the position of supporting right wing candidates to block the FN. Seemingly unusual alliances have been discussed left, right and centre during the last week as the parties moving forward attempt to secure a win, sadly it seems these discussions have been more fruitful in blocking far left candidates than far right ones.
Nonetheless, we can only hope the electorate who didn’t vote in the last round make use of their ‘useful vote’ as it’s known and do block the fascist yet again. In Avignon, in Fréjus, in Perpignan, in Béziers, in Beaucaire, in Tarascon and over a hundred other places if ever there was a time to vote, its today! And after that, it’s also time to start building grassroots anti-fascist and anti-racist organisations across France.