By Tom Baxter
This has been an interesting time to be in France, as quite a few Atlantans seem to have been last week.
The results of the European parliamentary elections stirred no more notice over here than Kim and Kanye’s Paris-Florence wedding pageant did over there. This “earthquake,” as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls described it, nevertheless has serious implications for the United States.
It’s tempting to say that if Marine Le Pen, who took her party to its first-ever national victory, were magically transformed into an American politician, she’d be the chair of the Republican Party in six months and its presidential standard-bearer by early next year. That’s only a comparison of raw political skill, however, and a great distortion of the similarities and differences between the GOP and Le Pen’s National Front.
Mainstream Republicans more closely resemble the UMP, former Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right party, than the one led for most of its 42-year existence by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, who flared briefly into the headlines before this election when he commented that the Ebola virus could solve France’s immigration problem.
His daughter has transformed the party into a more muted version of its older self, capturing the most votes — 24 percent — in the May elections for representatives to the parliament of the European Union, which it despises and wants to bring to an end. What disturbs opponents of the party most about the results is the success it enjoyed among younger and working class voters, impatient with the continent’s slow economic recovery.
The victory in France was matched by the performance of the UK Independence Party and other so-called “Eurosceptic” parties across the continent which share a common mistrust in the Union and opposition to immigration, but little else.
For Americans whose understanding of Europe is shaped by World War II, it may seem strange that the former Axis powers, Germany and Italy, proved the least fertile ground for the far right. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble called the results in France a victory “not for a right-wing party but for a fascist party.”
In the effort to moderate her party’s image, Le Pen has gone to court in the attempt to prevent critics from using that adjective, but the distinction is very important for Americans to understand.
This is not a far-right party that has any taste for austerity in government spending. It has fed on growing impatience with Socialist President Francois Hollande’s ability to reduce unemployment and disgust over a scandal involving campaign spending in Sarkozy’s failed reelection attempt.
Nor does National Front foreign policy much resemble the views of American conservatives. Le Pen said this week that she admires Vladimir Putin as much as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, because he stands up for the interests of his country. She has also said she sees nothing wrong with Iran’s nuclear program.
Ironically, given the party’s reputation for antisemitism, alarm over the murder of four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels on the eve of the weekend elections may have driven voters to the National Front, which has raised alarms about imported Islamic terrorism. The man arrested for the murders is a French citizen who reportedly was converted to jihadism in prison there, and spent time as a combatant in Syria.
In an effort to distance herself from her father, who once declared the Holocaust to be “a mere detail of history” Le Pen has declared herself to be a friend of Israel and called the Holocaust “the ultimate act of barbarism.” But her election is unlikely to curb the growing unease of French Jews with the direction their country is taking.
Le Pen was pictured on the front of one French magazine last week pensively puffing on one of those e-cigarettes (which have caught on much more over there than here), as if she were pondering her next move. That is likely to be a challenge for the French presidency in 2017.
“The French people have said that this Europe is over,” National Front vice president Florian Philippot said after the vote. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melanchon was no less emphatic, declaring that the continent is “rolling into the abyss.” Far-right opponents of the European Union still comprise a minority in its parliament, but the foothold they have gained in this election still amounts to “a shock of global proportion,” in the words of former Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal.
The EU was created after World War II, partly on the idea of making Europe more like the United States, with open borders and common economic structures among the member nations. If it gains ground across the Atlantic, it will be interesting to see whether any far-right groups emerge in the United States with similar ideas about disunification, a taboo subject here since roughly 1865.