The Front National

08.12.15 Publication:

The only thing that is “shocking” about the vote in Sunday’s French regional elections for the far-right Front National is that anyone in politics or the media can claim to be “shocked” by it. The rise of Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant and nationalist party has long been the most predictable feature of French politics, even before the November 13th terrorist atrocities in Paris made it a racing certainty. What is dangerous in any claim to be “shocked” is the implication it brings of denial, complacency and lack of preparation in mainstream politics.

This is a European phenomenon and not just a French one. It has been seen in Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, the United Kingdom and, with the revival of Lega Nord, Italy, and in many other countries. Sometimes, as in Spain and Greece, the rebellion against mainstream parties has had a left-wing variant. But with nearly 25 million still unemployed in the EU, with more than a million refugees having arrived this year, and with the fear of terrorism stalking the continent, it is scarcely surprising that the phenomenon usually takes a far-right form.

Above all, the rise of the far right is a response to the appearance of helplessness, of impotence, from traditional leaders. The economic crisis has just had to be endured, stoically, amid fiscal austerity, those leaders have said. The migrant crisis has left traditional leaders looking like Keystone Kops, running frantically between selfish national solutions and a rather feeble search for a collective EU approach. Only on terrorism has there been any sort of decisive response – and in many voters’ eyes that response has come too late.

The unanswerable question now is how far this far-right surge will go. The honest answer is that it all depends on what happens from now on, in economic growth, management of immigration and terrorism. The most dangerous assumption would be the idea that these regional elections in France, with the Front National’s 28% vote share, represent the peak. It could go higher, much higher. It is even conceivable – though still not likely – that Marine Le Pen could win the French presidency in May 2017.

Moreover, the country where the next “shock” could be seen is Europe’s most important, namely Germany. There, it may not be seen directly in votes for a far-right equivalent of the Front National, though the so-far small Alternativ Fur Deutschland is looking confident. But it could be seen in a rebellion against Chancellor Angela Merkel inside her own CDU-CSU party, over her stance on immigration.

The easier question to answer is how governing political parties and their leaders, including Chancellor Merkel, should respond. So far, as Sweden’s decision to close the famous bridge connecting it with Denmark in order to deter refugees shows, they are doing so through panicky moves to borrow the anti-immigrant policies of their opponents.

A better response would be to demonstrate that traditional methods, including EU co-operation, are not after all helpless or impotent, if used with determination and strength. This applies first of all to the economy, where France and Germany should, even perhaps with support from Britain, launch a new EU-wide programme of public investment spending on infrastructure, notably a common European supergrid for electricity. It would be a good tool for dealing with climate change, since it would enable EU countries to share surplus renewable-power-generation capacity more efficiently, and it would create jobs immediately.

More resources are also the best response to the migrant crisis, where efforts to build an EU border force and proper refugee-processing centres, and to collaborate in policing the Mediterranean have been mean-spirited and under-funded. Can Europe afford it? Yes it could, with a mild economic recovery providing some improvement in fiscal revenues but also with borrowing costs for governments at their lowest level in two centuries.

The harder part is showing a convincing response to terrorism, since it is a hidden and shadowy target. There too, however, bold displays of collaboration over intelligence and policing, and of willingness to spend whatever it takes to make people feel safe, have to be part of the answer. So is a solution for Syria, but that will take more than just money.

One thing above all needs to be kept in mind. If you are afraid of Islamic State, you should be even more afraid of the spectre of President Marine Le Pen. That really would spell the end of the open, liberal Europe that has been built so painstakingly during the past 70 years.