How apt that faute de mieux – «for want of anything better» – should be a French expression. A great many commentators are currently working themselves into a nervous ecstasy about the success of what they wrongly term «the far Right» in yesterday’s municipal elections across the Channel. Although the Front National fell short of expectations, the raw data are none the less striking: from 60 elected councillors in 2008, the party now has more than 12,000. So are we on the verge of one of those authoritarian spasms that the French seem to go through from time to time, a revival of Boulangism, of the Action française, of Vichy?
No. What we are seeing is a Gallic shrug on a shuddering scale: a cynical, bitter, grumpy and yet faintly bored rejection of the entire political class. François Hollande’s unpopularity breaks every record: three quarters of French voters dislike their president. But the opposition UMP, still implicated in the corruption and immobilism of the Sarzozy years, is almost equally loathed. It registered a slight recovery simply by virtue of not being the Socialist Party. Yet again, most French people voted against X rather than for Y.
Can you blame them? Unemployment is over three million and there is no prospect of an economic recovery. Only 40 per cent of French people are in work of any kind, as against 60 per cent of Swiss. More days are lost through industrial action than in any other EU state: 27 days per thousand people per year, as opposed to 3.4 days in Germany. The French state last ran a surplus in 1974. The money has run out.
Anywhere else, people would eventually give a free-market candidate a go; but no such option exists in France. Mr Hollande was elected promising more social rights, higher spending and a top rate tax of 75 per cent – which, as with the exile of the Huguenots three-and-a-half centuries ago, has had the happy effect of driving many of the most enterprising French citizens to our shores.
It is important to understand that Marine Le Pen positioned herself to the Left of the UMP and, at least on economics, arguably to the Left of the Socialists. She railed against capitalism and globalisation, called for higher expenditure, and supported state-run energy, healthcare, education, transport and financial services. Where her father used to complain about welfare scroungers, she wants a more generous range of entitlements. Where he used to describe his party as being of the Right, she recently told Le Monde that it was «neither Right nor Left, but founded on the opposition of the current political class, on the defence of the nation, on the rejection of ultra-capitalism and of Europe».
This last point is perhaps her most valuable differentiator. The other parties had all made idiotic claims about the single currency boosting economic growth. When the euro crisis came, the Front National, along with the Trotskyists, stood vindicated, having argued all along that monetary union would be a racket, hurting working people to the benefit of bankers and bureaucrats.
A certain kind of British commentator gets a kick out of predicting – and, indeed, genuinely perceiving – fascist revivals all over the place. The success of the FN holds an especially thrilling horror for these pundits because they often spend their holidays in places where the party has done well: the small towns of the Camargue, the Gard and Rousillon. (Full disclosure of my own metro-effete leanings: it’s a part of France where I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time, and which I love dearly).
I won’t bother to explain, yet again, why it is wrong to call corporatist, protectionist parties like the FN «Right-wing». Suffice it to say that France has not turned to fascism. It hasn’t particularly turned to anything. It has simply given up on its political class. Having heard their leaders warn, over and over again, against the FN, many French people plainly decided that voting for that party was the surest way to register their contempt for the old parties. Sadly, the underlying problems that caused their disenchantment in the first place are no closer to being addressed.
Opprinnelig i The Telegraph den 31. mars 2014.