A strange week on the French right

At the start of this tragic week for the French nation, when four people were gunned down outside a Jewish school complex in Toulouse, the hardening of rhetoric on the French right in this election year seemed completely at odds with public sentiment. As news of the murders in the south-west filtered across France, candidates on the right from the present incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy to the far right challenger Marine Le Pen were quick to condemn right-wing extremism. That was, of course, when the killer was thought to be an ex-soldier with neo-Nazi sympathies who had been expelled from the army for his political views.

The condemnation of the killings was unsurprising, given widespread horror at the atrocity. What was more intriguing, however, was the sudden shift by the right-wing towards a focus on French Republican values, traditionally the ideological terrain of the left. Indeed, the principal left-wing candidates François Hollande (of the centre-left Parti Socialiste) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (of the far-left Front de Gauche–a coalition of Marxist parties) have made Republican values, with their emphasis on inclusion and tolerance, a central part of their campaigns. Marine Le Pen, too, drew on Republican values in her manifesto, published long before the events of this week, in which she asserts the need to ‘impose Republican secularism’. Her take on secularism is, of course, different from that of the left. Le Pen wants to go further than Sarkozy in banning religious symbolism in public buildings by extending this ban to public transport. She also wants to cut off all public funding to religious bodies.

At the start of this month, though, Le Pen reacted to Sarkozy’s entry into the election fray by hardening her stance on immigration. In response to a TV documentary that claimed that all abattoirs in the Paris region were producing Halal meat, Le Pen condemned the practice, saying that these meat producers had ‘succumbed to the rules of the minority.’ This prompted Sarkozy’s closest allies in his UMP party (Union for a Presidential Majority) to take to the media themselves, calling for all Halal and Kosher meat to be labelled in future. Sarkozy’s Anglophile Prime Minister, François Fillon, even called Kosher and Halal ‘outdated’, much to the dismay of French Jewish and Islamic groups.

This hard stance on the practices of minority groups is nothing new for Sarkozy and the UMP. In the 2007 elections, Sarkozy capitalised on his tough record as Minister for the Interior by promising caps on immigration and a crackdown on youth disturbances in the banlieues (the suburbs of the biggest French cities, notably Paris, Marseilles and Lyons). He pointed most notably to his comments on young second and third generation immigrants involved in the 2005 riots in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, in which he described the rioters as ‘la racaille’ (loosely translated as ‘scum’). Playing on this tough image and applying anti-immigration rhetoric, Sarkozy appealed directly to the traditional electorate of Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie.

It was a tactic that worked. Le Pen senior received just 10.4% of the vote in the first-round of 2007, compared with his shock success in the 2002 elections in which he gained 16.9% of the vote and qualified for the second round run-off. Sarkozy also attracted a significant proportion of blue-collar workers in the second round in 2007 (some 54% of blue-collar voters went for Sarkozy ahead of his Socialist opponent Segolène Royal). Not only did Sarkozy draw support from voters who would typically vote for the far right, but he also maintained that support through to the second round.

Sarkozy’s involvement in the Halal and Kosher meat debacle simply reflects, therefore, his long-term strategy of appealing to voters on the extreme right in his election campaigns. This was a gamble that appeared to have backfired at the start of this week with the attack on the Toulouse school. The right was publicly criticised by figures on the left, in particular Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who urged candidates to ‘choose their words and their quotations more carefully.’ François Hollande, whose party’s programme calls for anonymous CVs to prevent discrimination against ethnic minorities, and whose own manifesto promises to ensure all religions may be freely practised, spoke of the problems of ‘words that influence.’

Had the man behind the Toulouse murders been sympathetic to the extreme-right, the election campaign would have shifted tack. The speed with which both Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen condemned the killings suggested that they immediately considered a softening of their rhetoric towards immigration and religious practices. The subsequent development of events in Toulouse has reignited the debate over Islamic fundamentalism and immigration in France.

The success of the Front National, and both Le Pen generations, has been down in part to the mass immigration of North Africans following the Algerian War. French settlers (the pieds-noirs) who fled Algeria and arrived in France often with no contacts and few material goods were a ready market for the Front National. Le Pen senior, and the FN itself, have always achieved their best results in the area with the greatest population of repatriated pieds-noirs, notably the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.  Resentment over the influx of North African immigrants in France has never really dissipated for this section of the French electorate and their children.

Mohammed Merah, the man behind the Toulouse shootings, was a Muslim Algerian–a fact which Marine Le Pen has been quick to emphasise. She hopes to maintain support amongst the pieds-noirs and blue-collar voters who are equally opposed to immigration, and on Wednesday stated that France should fight against ‘these fundamentalist political and religious groups that are killing our children.’ Her campaign is now likely to become more vociferous as the date of the first round of elections–22nd April–approaches.

As for Sarkozy, he is perhaps now less likely to be drawn into a dog-fight with Le Pen over immigration than before the events of this week. While his attitude towards the Halal and Kosher affair replicated his tactics of 2007, the shootings have almost certainly shifted the focus of his campaign towards his experience as President. Throughout the events in Toulouse, he has appeared as the defender of the rights of religious groups to practise in France, talking to both the Jewish and Islamic communities. He has also been highly involved in the operation on the ground and his speeches to the nation have been reminiscent of France’s strongest president of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle. Sarkozy has, in short, shifted from a critic of religious dietary practices to a defender of France’s diverse communities. He is most likely, I think, to emphasise his role in managing the situation than to repeat his critique of immigration from 2007. By contrast, Hollande has had little real influence over the resolution of the situation and he is likely to lose out on the left to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who immediately condemned the hard-right rhetoric of the Sarkozy and Le Pen campaigns.

Le Pen will almost certainly aim to capitalise on the burgeoning debate over the security services’ handling of Merah prior to the shootings. She will, no doubt, aim to build on her condemnation of religious practices in her manifesto and over the Halal-Kosher meat affair, appealing directly to disaffected blue-collar workers across the nation. While it is unlikely that she will overtake Hollande as the candidate most likely to challenge Sarkozy in the second round run-off, she will certainly hope to improve on her initially meagre predicted share of the vote (at around 13%).

In this strangest of weeks for the French right, it is, however, Sarkozy who has emerged the strongest. While earlier in the week his initial shift further to the right might have been discredited with the attacks on North and Sub-Saharan African soldiers and Jewish civilians, the subsequent turn of events has allowed him to play the role of the strong, Republican leader. In a week that began with scenes reminiscent of France’s anti-Semitic past–notably the mass round-up of Jews under the Vichy regime–Sarkozy has shifted firmly from a position bordering on the far right to firmly centre-right ground. Regardless of the war of words over Merah’s surveillance that will take place in the next few days, Sarkozy has, in short, reaffirmed his position as President of the Republic. Hollande and Sarkozy’s challengers on the left will now be keen to shift the debate away from immigration and towards other matters–not least unemployment.

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Posted on March 24, 2012, in Comment, Foreign Affairs and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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