Actions Speak Louder Than Words: How Did France Skip the Populist Vote?

When I initially began preparing this blog post, my knowledge of French politics was admittedly narrow. I knew Hollande was out (and all I knew of him was his scandalous affair), and I knew the pressure was on to see if France would follow in the UK’s footsteps of taking a step away from the European Union and a step towards nationalism. Marine Le Pen is the headline of this election. Her party, The National Front (“Le Front National”), won only 18% of the votes when her father had led them into a presidential election in 2002, but when the first round of voting came to an end, she stood firmly in second place.

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Le Pen and her party are infamous for the legacy of her father’s far-right policy positions, based around xenophobia, and anti-Semitic statements. The difference between Marine and Jean-Marie Le Pen? Well, to state the obvious, it creates an innate difference when the new leader of a male dominant right-wing party is a woman. Marine had to adapt. Part of that process involved kicking her dad to the curb (who later denounced his daughter for presidency). Fighting for the votes of the right and centre-right, Le Pen brought an anti-immigration message, but still managed to appear as a strong woman, defining herself as a ‘quasi-feminist’. She also made her feelings for global events clear, celebrating the vote for Brexit and the triumph of Trump.

But low and behold, her populist, France-first stance failed, and the new face of the centre-left, Emmanuel Macron, took home the victory. With the undeniable momentum she built over such a short period that not only penetrated France, but the world, how was it that the title of President was not written in her future? What happened in France is a clear and strong statement that while the stirrings of populist views are creating a wave the world over, the voice of an inclusive, globalised world, still stands firm. And it’s not going to cower down.

An article in the Washington Post, explains that while rises in immigration and the threat of terrorism have rocked the country in recent years along with a high unemployment rate, there are two distinctive reasons why the far-right was not viewed as the answer to France’s problems: the country’s history and a lower level of inequality. The article goes on to explain how the far-right Vichy government during the rule of Nazi-Germany, which led to the deportation of French Jews to camps, created a synonymous view of the far right as anti-democracy. Beyond that, while the UK and the US underwent economic reform and privatisation in the 1980s to stimulate economic growth, France held on to its public welfare style of governance, the legacy of which instils greater trust in the left.

But is it really just about historical legacy? Perhaps these legacies combined with a Eurocentric ideology and a new younger generation of voters who have grown up in a globalised world have created a new kind of voice. Perhaps they see beyond fear tactics and have grasped the underlying fact: Islamophobia and increased nationalism will not solve domestic issues. Embracing our rapidly shifting world is the only way forward, and as we are seeing in turbulent times for both British and American politics, shifting the other way can backlash.

I recently attended a talk by the UN Secretary General, António Guterres in London. While he largely spoke of today’s biggest challenges such as security and conflict and climate change, he was faced with several audience questions of the future of the younger generation and the shift towards populism. His answer was simple: the only way that we can fight the uprising of nationalism is by fostering inclusive societies.

Perhaps France understood this message a little sooner than the rest of us.

 

A BBC article on the history and political positions of Marine Le Pen: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-38321401

An overview of the UN Secretary General’s speech in London:
http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=56726#.WSG1TRPyvBI

Feature Image: Lorie Shaull, Celebrations at the Louvre, May 2017 ©CreativeCommons