As you may have heard, the European Elections were today (where many European countries elect which people in their country will go on to represent them in the EU parliament) and in France, the far-right Front National party took at least 25% of the vote.
The FN is today headed by Marine Le Pen. Previously, it was headed by her father, Jean-Marine Le Pen, a man known for not hiding his Nazi sympathies. Given that many in the US have little idea of what's really going on in Europe, I wanted to explain what this might mean.
First, I need to give some context to this so you understand where I'm coming from and why I might be remotely qualified to have a voice on this issue.
I was born in Texas and spent most of my life living in the US. However, I've lived in Europe (the UK, the Netherlands and now France) since 2006. My wife is French, has a Master's Degree in French private law and used to work as a political advisor. We've discussed politics quite a bit and it's been an eye-opener. Our political views are mostly aligned, but given that she has a political background, she tends to be focused on what we can do and I tend to be more focused on what we should do. It makes dinner conversation interesting.
I've written here before about French politics and frankly (no pun intended), they're completely unknown in the US. In fact, much of Europe doesn't understand the politics of other countries, so the US is not alone in this regard.
The Front National (FN), at its core, enjoys support from between 10 to 20% of the French public. But why? For many outsiders, the FN is viewed as little more than a neo-Nazi front. How could the French, who suffered so greatly at the hands of the Nazis during WWII have any sympathy for Nazis? The truth is, they don't. Well, not much.
Think about the Tea Party. While they're often vilified in the US and abroad as being a bunch of racist right-wingers, the truth is far more nuanced than that. Many Tea Party members are not racist at all, but they are passionate about an ideal of keeping America (the US) American. They don't want socialism, they want to adhere to traditional values, and many of them firmly believe that the US is, and should be, a Christian nation.
We know that most of those terms are rather fuzzy and all but the most hard-core anti-Tea Partiers would agree that painting all of them with the same brush is unfair. Not all of them are a bunch of stupid, knuckle-dragging, racists.
No matter how deluded they may be, the same is true for the French National Front.
I have a friend in the UK whom I will call "Bill". Bill's a very nice guy. He's very much not a racist, doesn't give a damn if you're gay, doesn't care what religion you follow, and generally follows a "live and let live" philosophy. That's why I was shocked when he told me that he has a lot of sympathy for the very racist, homophobic, far-right British National Party. When my wife (who, unlike me, is black), asked him about this, he replied very succinctly: he's British, proud to be British, and wants to keep Britain British. He's not anti-immigrant, but he very much wants immigrants to assimilate into British culture. Why move to a country whose culture you reject?
I've pointed out to him that the British Empire did this for centuries all over the planet and now other countries are returning the favor with less bloodshed, but to no avail. How far back must we bear the sins of our fathers, he asks?
It doesn't matter if you agree with this point of view. In fact, it doesn't matter if you can't even accept the fact that this is a compelling argument for some. What matters is reality: many people accept this point of view and if we refuse to face this reality we're hardly better than their refusal to face the reality that the world is become more intertwined and cultures are going to change whether they like it or not.
And that brings us back to the Front National in France.
When Marine Le Pen took the helm of the FN, she immediately took steps to shed the party's neo-Nazi image (currently she is its honorary chairman and no longer the president of the party). Instead of banning immigration, she wants to reduce it. She's rejected many of her father's denials of Nazi war crimes. In fact, some French Jews are supporting her because she's seen as trying to remove the anti-semitic label of her party.
Of course, she's also swapped the NF anti-semitic credentials for fashionable anti-Muslim rhetoric. She's likened Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation, but if you watch Le Pen's Al Jazeera interview, she strikes a tone that many in the US would probably not be uncomfortable with. That is, until about the nine minute mark when she stumbles over the issue of her suggesting banning Muslim and Jewish headwear in public. She recovers a few minutes later by claiming that her party was the only one that defended the French Muslim Harkis and follows up with criticism of a France-Qatar economic alliance by claiming that Qatar has financed radical Islamist groups and this is a claim that isn't easy to reject. She also defends her demand that Halal meat be labeled as such by pointing out that we'd be be horrified at the thought of covertly selling pork to Muslims, or consecrated bread. Again, it's a message that many people could understand, if not agree with.
Make no mistake about it: Marine Le Pen is dangerous and her attempts to sound more moderate are a strong threat to France. She exposes this in the Al Jazeera interview I linked to when she said "the Roma have their own nation and let them stay there." But it's hard to deny that many people are being swayed by her message. Were it not for the baggage of her neo-Nazi father, her party might have garnered even more votes (that being said, they might have garnered fewer by not having the notoriety to gain access to the press).
Moving along, in Europe, there's a strong feeling amongst many that the EU isn't serving the needs of the European people. Many people are feeling like they're taking orders from Brussels (but I'd challenge them to name any) and are instead reacting to growing economic dissatisfaction. France's unemployment rate is over 10% and almost 1 in 4 people under the age of 25 is unemployed. France's current president's most notable accomplishment is, well, nothing, though to his credit, he signed into a law a bill to legalize gay marriage. Even gay marriage supporters, however, would be hard-pressed to say how this will help the French economy.
In reality, the FN's stunning result in the European elections isn't a sign of bigotry in France; it's an expression of people who are upset that their country is suffering and they want to lash out. The FN has no real program to deal with the economy, with unemployment, or the general air of pessimism that seems to exist in France, but they've identified two targets: the rest of Europe and radical Muslims and as any student of history knows, this moves people and they don't have to be explicitly racist for this to happen.
I've spoken to a number of people who nonetheless support far-right movements in Europe today. Many are definitely racists whackjobs, but many are simply ordinary people who are afraid of economic hardship or who want to preserve their country's culture. Just writing these groups off as extremist isn't going to help anyone and the only reason they haven't had more of a foothold in the US is the Republican and Democrat's lock on politics.
Despite the horror of the FN's win in the French European elections, I'm hopeful for a positive outcome: perhaps the mainstream groups will start realizing that they need to be more inclusive and not just working for the benefit of their own country. If Europe doesn't change, the promise of the EU may become a curse, but if enough of these neo-Nazi groups start gaining seats, maybe, just maybe, those who hold the reins of power will start looking around and see how they're failing Europe.