In June 2016 the world was convinced that Britain would remain in the EU and that Hillary Clinton would be the next US President. The pre-Brexit world also probably thought the idea of Marine le Pen winning the 2017 French election a ludicrous idea.
In the past year, the pro-globalisation European centrists have yet to see a political vote go their way. Populist politics and fear-mongering rhetoric have become the norm and experts are now the enemy of the people. The past year has seen the emergence of what some have called a “post-truth era” where facts are no longer of consequence and voters are motivated by fear and prejudice. We are yet to see whether this shall be the case in France.
Alongside the threat of terrorism, the past decade has been a time in which free speech in the West has come into question. Marine le Pen has marketed herself as a pillar of free speech, patriotism, and secularity. When she spoke at the Oxford Union in Hilary 2015 she said she admired the institution for its “open debate and freedom of expression”. Something tells me that Marine le Pen’s campaign is not quite what Evelyn Beatrice Hall had in mind when she said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, (it’s a commonly misunderstood ‘alternative fact’ that Voltaire was the one who said this).
As we draw ever closer to the French election, it is becoming yet more evident that politics in France are turning the same way as they have in Britain and America. The Macron, Fillon, le Pen trio bears a noticeable resemblance to the Sanders, Clinton, Trump line-up in America in early 2016. Macron, a 39-year-old ex-member of France’s Socialist Party who launched his campaign as part of the movement En Marche ! in November, is the young people’s choice.
Fillon, on the other hand, represents to some extent the ‘old France’, of Catholicism and so-called “family values”. A key policy of his, for example, is retracting the same-sex marriage bill passed in May 2013. Similarly, Marine le Pen has promised a referendum on same-sex marriage. Indeed, it was she who led the manif pour tous (protest for all) movement, the counter-campaign to marriage pour tous (marriage for all) prior to the introduction of same-sex marriage.
Le Pen and Fillon also stand united on the supposed ‘trivialisation’ of abortion. Macron, therefore, is the only socialist option of any kind, given that Hollande’s presidency has left the Socialist Party in tatters. And yet, if we assume that he will go the way that Bernie Sanders did at the Democrat Primaries, the choice is realistically right versus ultra far-right.
So why the sudden shift from relatively left-wing government to right-wing extremism? Although there are many factors that influence voters, the past five years have made it clear: the fear of terrorism. France has made the most terror-related arrests, and, after the UK, it has been subject to the second most attempted attacks of all EU countries. France, along with Belgium, has become a target for ISIS attacks since the countries’ decision to ban the burka (full face veil) and niqab (veil with eyes uncovered) in public. France initiated this ban on the basis of the country’s policy of laicité (secularity) that prohibits the wearing of any religious garment or sign in public.
In theory, the wearing of crucifix necklaces is to be dealt with as severely as the wearing of a kippa or hijab is, but this is rarely the case. One does not hear of Catholics being refused entry to banks or having their necklaces ripped from their necks in public. This is, however, a reality for Muslim women who wish to wear the hijab.
France’s secularism is a constant source of bewilderment for its EU neighbours. The country’s Catholics are said to make up to 88 per cent of the population, though this is dropping fast as young people are increasingly coming out as non-religious and defying their religious parents. Fillon’s popularity, therefore, could be seen as a political backlash against this atheism. The campaigns of Fillon and Le Pen could easily have taken the “make France great again” or “Vote X, take control” slogans, if they hadn’t already been taken by other white scare-mongering right- wingers in the Western world.
Marine le Pen’s campaign has had a resurgence in the midst of the widespread fear surrounding the terror attacks. Six years ago, under leader Jean-Marie le Pen, the National Front was a minority party made up of racists and extremists: a taint on French politics. But Marine is so much more than simply a daughter carrying on her father’s long-lost political dream. Now, the party has rebranded itself as the party of the ‘French people’. The people are the same, their marketing has simply got better. Since 2014, the National Front has been France’s largest party and in the 2015 local elections the party won more than 1,500 councillors and 12 cities. Every day it seems that her Presidency is becoming an evermore likely reality.
And so what are the implications for the EU? Now that Britain has voted—its public and its politicians—to trigger Article 50, there is a chance that other European countries will want to follow suit. Who knew Britain was a trend-setter? Greece has already voted to leave the EU, except the government refused. Indeed, the case could be argued that it does not make sense for Greece, whose economy has been failing since 4 B.C., to remain part of the same currency as Germany. France, however, is more concerned with bureaucracy and immigration.
The future for France, no matter what the outcome of the election, looks bleak for the likes of European centrists. If Macron wins, le Pen supporters will potentially rise up in protest against an ‘unfair’ voting system. If Fillon wins, France’s non-religious minorities are in trouble, and in the case where le Pen becomes President, who knows what lies in store.
It is uncertain how the French will vote, and much depends on the weeks leading up to the election. Back in the day of Louis XIV, the more scandalous a leader, the higher his popularity rating, although leaders were not exactly elected back then. And there’s a case to be made that the French of today think similarly; famously, in 2014, President Hollande’s a air with actress Valerie Trierweiler improved his popularity. This could go in Macron’s favour, given his marriage to his former French teacher, a woman 20 years his senior. Fillon looks to be the ‘safe’ option, at least for the Jewish and Muslim citizens of France. But if a terrorist attack takes place within a week of the election, there is almost no stopping le Pen.