Le Pen’s triumph

Wed, Oct 16, 2013, 01:00

Last Sunday’s resounding victory for Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) in a local election in the southern French commune of Brignoles has given the far-right party a powerful boost ahead of next year’s local and European elections and fuelled fears of a rise in extremism across Europe. The result follows a national poll in Le Nouvel Observateur, a weekly magazine, that put support for the FN at 24 per cent, ahead of both the governing Socialists and the opposition, centre-right UMP. Ms Le Pen has sought to shed the party’s ugly, anti-semitic image cultivated by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen and she recently threatened to sue newspapers that described the FN as “extreme right”. Despite the expulsion of some of its more extreme members and the banning of young skinheads from demonstrations, the FN remains intolerant and xenophobic, stoking resentment against immigrants and Muslims.

Ms Le Pen’s most significant ideological shift has been to abandon her father’s economic liberalism in favour of a statist protectionism that appeals to many working class voters who have lost out under globalisation. The rise of the FN owes much to Ms Le Pen’s personal appeal but it has been facilitated by the weakness of the UMP, the unpopularity of Hollande’s Socialist administration and the fracturing of the French left. The FN, which wants to renegotiate France’s relationship with the EU, could emerge next year as the biggest French party in the European elections.

Right-wing, anti-EU parties are on the march across the continent, from the United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain to Austria’s Freedom Party, Geert Wilders’ xenophobic PVV in the Netherlands and the nasty, anti-semitic Jobbik in Hungary. If mainstream politicians wish to prevent such parties from making big gains in next year’s European elections, they must move beyond the usual pieties and address the impact of EU policies on those left behind by globalisation and hardest hit by austerity.