Farage v. Le Pen

Jeremy Harding

The European elections in France have produced an ‘earthquake’ outcome, according to the new prime minister Manuel Valls, who stepped in after the recent municipal vote gave the Parti Socialiste the drubbing it deserved. Nine weeks later here’s another humiliation, despite President Hollande’s efforts to assure the French they’re heading for terra firma. Turns out there’s no such thing: the whole continent, according to Valls, is trembling in the aftermath; he clearly thinks the epicentre was somewhere in France, perhaps the Front National headquarters in Nanterre, where Marine Le Pen and her party broke out the champagne on Sunday night. The results: 25 per cent of the vote to the Front National, and 25 MEPs; 21 per cent to the right-wing UMP and 20 MEPs; 14 per cent for the Parti Socialiste and its campaign partner the Parti Radical de Gauche, which equals 13 MEPs. Where I live – a moderate, steady-eddie electorate – the FN came in on top with 30 per cent of the vote, followed by the UMP. Well behind both came the Union de la Gauche.

Three days ago bien-pensant France was ashamed of itself; it had set a poor example to the rest of Europe. Now reason and reappraisal are preparing to talk down the damage, like an elderly couple on a sofa trying to look on the bright side. I’m eager for this plodding post-mortem – the laborious explanations, the amateur psephology and the relativising – because it’s hard to buy into the apocalyptic version. For the moment.

The main argument from the sofa goes that the voting system for the European Parliament benefits the Front National, as other elections in France do not. For a start, there’s only one round of voting; a second round in these elections would have thinned away the FN vote. Then there’s the fact that the European elections are run as a PR operation, which is also good for the Front. In 1985, Mitterrand introduced PR for elections to the French Assembly, in a gambit to weaken the opposition. The following year, Jean-Marie Le Pen saw his party take 35 seats. PR was hurriedly rescinded and in the snap legislative elections of 1988 the FN lost all but one of those seats (the remaining deputy fell out with the party, voted off-message and was expelled). There’s every reason to think that the electorate – including my neighbours – will revert to historic voting patterns in the next home-turf election. And that the abstention rate – 56.5 per cent, compared to roughly 40 in March for the municipals – will adjust down. That’s hardly a ‘¡No Pasarán!’ turn-out, but it’ll do.

Even so, things are complicated. Until now the centre right has held out against a rapprochement with the the FN. Yet opinion polls since the 1990s suggest that centre-right voters who favour campaign alliances and joint lists are on the increase, having climbed from 32 per cent a few years ago to 55 per cent in 2014. Just now the chaos and scandal in the UMP – once led by Sarkozy, now with Jean-Francois Copé as nominal head, but as of Tuesday actually acephalous – makes Hollande and his people look like the seasoned crew of a nuclear submarine. This bodes well for Marine Le Pen.

So does the Eurosceptic tendency in the UMP, egged on by its latest proponent Laurent Wauquiez – once minister of European affairs in Sarkozy’s government – who goes under the guise of a reformist even though his ideas are demolitionist: he’s called for a complete overhaul of the Union that would return it to a membership of six. He has other big thoughts that sound like Marine Le Pen’s. (So what if the FN said it first? he announced in Le Monde in April. Did that mean he couldn’t say it too? ) Even Hollande has been forced to admit that the European status quo will have to change.

Just now the Tories are showing more discipline than the UMP. But Britain doesn’t look like France as you track further right. Nigel Farage & Co have no policies that align with their stance on immigration and European integration. They are tax cutters and public sector trimmers; they want to outsource more of the NHS; they would restrict benefits and dump the Crown Prosecution Service. They take an infantile pleasure in dirt and incontinence – landfill, tobacco smoke, coal-powered energy – and they don’t want a nanny state telling them to get astride the Comfi trainer seat: an Englishman’s home is his arsehole. The proper purpose of government is to leave the ordinary bloke alone, commission grandiose toys – aircraft carriers – and seal the border. This has done for the BNP.

Like Farage, Marine Le Pen is exercised by corporate tax, but unlike him she wouldn’t cut it. Actually she’d hike it up as share values rose and lower it when profits were ploughed back into jobs and plant. She wants to close the loopholes in social security but wouldn’t withdraw the safety net; she’d create burgeoning, benefit-financed families of little French persons. She’d fight the enemy out there in the globalised economy and the free-market henchmen in Brussels who trash the lives of her compatriots with austerity policies and ‘ultra-liberal’ doctrines that enrich ‘international finance’. She is a full-on protectionist, or what’s politely called an economic nationalist, opposed to the privatisation of state assets and in favour of a labour-heavy civil service. She believes the national bank should lend to government at preferential rates and shield it from borrowing on the open markets.

She has turned her party around from the days of her father’s brief flirtation with market-liberal theology to formulate a kind of national socialist programme as coherent as Ukip’s is vague and contradictory. The only antipathies they have in common are for immigrants and European union as it stands. Neither looks like a serious programme for the future but hers has one conspicuous advantage over Ukip’s: consistency. A party that argues against the free movement of money, jobs, goods and services is well placed to make a case against freedom of movement for human beings, whether it hides its racism – as the FN tries to do – or proclaims it from the rooftops.