The results of the French election have highlighted the banalisation and normalisation of far-right discourses in Europe, writes the University of Auckland’s Nicolas Pirsoul
As predicted by the polls, the leader of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen, was defeated in the 2017 French presidential election by centrist Emmanuel Macron, leader of the newly created movement En Marche!. Macron received 65 percent of the votes. His victory is decisive but the results also highlight the troublesome fact that 35 percent of French voters decided to vote for a racist, anti-Europe political leader.
Le Pen’s loss in France follows the defeat of Geert Wilders, another far-right populist leader, in the Dutch elections two months ago and seems to confirm that the wave of populism which led to the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump will not sweep the European continent. Yet, while the worst has been avoided, the 2017 French election results should force political leaders and citizens to reconsider some aspects the political and social reality informing European politics.
First, the campaign and results of the French election have highlighted the banalisation and normalisation of far-right discourses in Europe. Fifteen years ago, Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine’s father) also reached the second round of the presidential elections but he received less than 20% of the votes. At the time, the National Front’s image was attached to neo-Nazi and skinheads imagery and publicly declaring support for the National Front was frowned upon. Today, the National Front is increasingly considered as a normal political party with an acceptable political programme. The National Front’s racist ideology is now disguised under the “controlled immigration” and “fight against terror” slogans but the content remains the same. The banalisation of Islamophobic and anti-immigrant discourses in the mainstream media represents a challenge for Europe and threatens multicultural cohabitation and citizenship on the continent.
Second, the 2017 French elections underlined a generalised popular discontent with political elites, their socio-economic programmes and, more fundamentally, the current democratic system as a whole. This popular discontent was illustrated by the relative success of anti-system Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of far-left political movement La France Insoumise (rebellious France) who won 19 percent of the votes in the first round of the election. This popular discontent was further evidenced by the low voter turnout (the level of abstention is estimated to reach 25-26 percent) and the high percentage (around 12 percent) of spoiled ballots in the second round. These elements represent the visible aspect of French discontent with their political representatives which was evident from pre-election opinion polls and interviews on the street. Many people expressed their anger against self-serving politicians and a system which fails to genuinely take their views and interest into account.
While Macron’s victory is a relief for anyone who supports democratic and pluralistic values, his success, nonetheless, also represents a victory for the political and economic status quo. Macron studied at the prestigious École nationale d’administration (ENA) and is representative of the political elite with strong ties to the banking sector. His political programme does not offer any noticeable alternative to the socio-economic and political ideas of his predecessors despite his claims to go beyond the right and left divide.
Because of a generalised sense of frustration amongst the population, it will be imperative for the future French government to take popular discontent into account and to use the next five years to profoundly reshape French politics. The French masses have shown that they feel alienated from their political representatives and increasing the participatory dimension of democracy could be a first step toward reconnecting people and the political institutions of the French Republic.
If this doesn’t happen populist leaders will most likely keep on hijacking people’s discontent until they finally reach their goal and seize power. Indeed, it is highly plausible that five extra years of socio-economic stagnation under Macron would boost Marine Le Pen’s popularity as she is now the leader of the French opposition. It is clear Le Pen is aware of this and will seize any opportunity to intensify discontent as she knows her best chance to become president is in 2022.