At the end of May, the Front National results in the European elections sent a shockwave across France. Here we look at the causes of this disaster, and at what can be done.
This is a guest post by John Mullen, who has been active in anticapitalist groups in France since 1986. He is a member, in the Paris region, of Ensemble, an anticapitalist current within the Front de Gauche. He also writes at John Mullen à Montreuil.
The Front National won 25% of the votes cast in France for the European elections, and a third of the MEPs sent to Brussels will be from this fascist organisation. This is the highest percentage for the far right since the Second World War: the FN headed the poll in five of the eight regions, following successes in local elections earlier this year which saw them building a strong electorate in many towns where they had previously been very weak.
In a situation where the Socialist Party president, François Hollande, is breaking all records of unpopularity for a president in office, and the leader of the main Right wing party has just had to resign on corruption charges, the rejection of mainstream politics has obviously contributed to this enormous wave of support for the Front National.
The governing Socialist Party received only 14% of the votes cast, whilst deep divisions in the mainstream right parties have stopped them from being able to play the role of visible opposition to Hollande.
The radical Left were not, either, able to transform popular anger into votes. The results for the “Left of the Left” were low: the New Anticapitalist Party dropped from 4.88% to under 1%. The Front de Gauche, a broad anti-austerity alliance including the Left Party, the Communist Party and various anticapitalist groups, did better, but its score of 6.1% was well below what might have been expected.
If the 57% abstention rate means that the numbers of fascist votes are not as high as in the 2012 presidentials, there is still plenty to be worried about. Among manual workers, 65% abstained, but 43% of those manual workers who voted, voted FN. Among low grade white collar workers, 68% abstained, and 37% of those who voted, voted fascist, as did 30% of voters under 35 years of age.
Looking across Europe, it is clear that there is nothing inevitable about the triumph of the far right. In some countries where the economic crisis is at least as fierce as in France, the far right were not able to make significant gains. Why should they be doing so well in France?
The pro-boss policies of Hollande’s Socialist government, which has been reducing union rights, giving enormous tax breaks for companies and cutting back on public services, (not replacing retirees in government employment, for example) is the main reason for the collapse of the Socialist Party vote, along with the unemployment figures, which have continued to rise in the two years since François Hollande came to office. Twenty three per cent of adults under 25 are now without a job.
In Europe, Hollande has supported the institution of stricter rules on national budget deficits, showing his priority is pushing further the austerity demanded by the rich. At home, he refused to raise the minimum wage, and concentrated on making redundancies easier for companies to carry out. A few, generally minor, social reforms 
have been swamped in the public mind by the right wing thrust of Hollande’s general policy. “The first duty” of his government, he has declared, is “to stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit”.
The discovery in 2013 that Hollande’s own budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, was hiding millions of euros in a Swiss bank account and lying about it, didn’t help Hollande’s aim to appear as a people’s president.
The “new FN”
The electoral collapse of the Socialists, division and corruption of the mainstream right and the incapacity for now of the radical Left to appear as the main opposition force, has led to this triumph for the FN. Marine Le Pen, who took over from her father as leader, has succeeded in convincing large numbers of voters that the organization has changed. Even some antifascists have been fooled: an activist said to me this week “The FN is no longer the neofascist party it used to be.”
It is true that Marine Le Pen herself is more controlled in her public image, and can generally, unlike her father, stop herself coming out with openly anti-Semitic and racist comments. To a large extent this is a matter of division of labour, since her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, continues to make vicious racist and anti-Semitic comments to reassure the Nazi hard core of the party: last month, he said that the Ebola virus could solve the “problem of overpopulation” in Africa, and earlier this month he was on television “joking” about famous French singer, Patrick Bruel, (who is Jewish) and gas ovens.
The Nazi core of the FN have not changed at all: only three years ago Marine Le Pen went to the annual ball of the organisation Olympia, a secret neo-Nazi society in Vienna, and in the recent local elections, holocaust revisionists and assorted Nazi thugs were easy to find on FN slates.
The fascists have been much helped by the mass mobilisations (“La manif pour tous”) of hard right organisations in 2013 against same-sex marriage, (one of the few progressive laws passed by this government). In the follow-up to the gay marriage laws, right wing forces were successful in mobilising a minority of parents through scare tactics, against an (imaginary) danger of the teaching of “radical gender theories” in primary schools.
And the rise of new currents of the far right, such as that organised around the Black anti-Semitic comic, Dieudonné, who has allied himself with holocaust revisionists and diverse conspiracy theorists, have allowed Marine Le Pen to speak to new audiences. There have even been small currents which originated on the secularist activist Left which have moved, via islamophobia, lock stock and barrel over to sympathy with the fascists (Riposte laïque – Secular Fightback – is one of them).
The bill which led to the passing of a law to ban the niqab face veil on the streets was originated by a Communist party Member of Parliament, André Gérin, who has recently moved to campaigning against immigration and against gay marriage.
Mainstream parties in government trying to “speak to the concerns of” the FN’s voters by attacking Muslims and Romas have in fact provided key assistance in building fascist support. Sarkozy, president from 2007 to 2012, who for a short while managed to unite the mainstream right behind his leadership, put racism at the centre of his strategy.
He tried to beat the FN at their own game: when Marine Le Pen denounced halal meat, Sarkozy declared that this question was central to French people’s preoccupations. He created a new minister for “immigration, integration and national identity” to show racist voters he had their interests in mind and established annual quotas of immigrants to be deported. Pandering to the scaremongering about 300 or 400 women in France who wear the niqab face veil, he passed a special law to ban wearing it in the streets.
This of course only encouraged Marine Le Pen, who immediately demanded that Muslim women not be allowed on public transport if their hair is covered. Meanwhile, in a speech in Dakar, Sarkozy declared that the problem with Africa was that “The African man has not managed to enter into history”.
All this immigrant and Muslim-bashing was manna to those who wanted scapegoats for the deep economic crisis, but it backfired on Sarkozy because of course, in reality, immigrant bashing does not solve economic crises and unemployment continued to rise. A section of his disappointed voters moved over to the FN.
When the Socialist party president came to office in 2012, it was for a while something of a relief for those who are on the sharp end of racism. For a few months, racist police felt they had less support in high places. But the Socialist government has also been pandering to racism, and, since islamophobia is acceptable on the Left, Muslims have been the main targets. The present Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, announced last year that “the fight against the [Muslim] headscarf is and will always remain a crucial battle for our Republic”.
During his presidential campaign, Hollande reassured racists that halal meat would not be allowed in school canteens, and that he was concerned about some swimming classes in some towns being reserved for women (these two things have been presented as signs of creeping Islamic fundamentalism!) The dismantling of Roma camps has also continued apace under the Socialists.
The Socialist government have made many concessions to reactionary ideas. They abandoned (once again) the promise to give the right to vote at local elections to immigrants from outside the European Union, and have also retreated on the legalisation of medically assisted procreation for Lesbian couples. Their retreats could only encourage supporters of the FN.
The radical Left hardly on the ball
But organisations to the left of the Socialist Party also bear their share of responsibility, for two reasons: capitulation to islamophobia, and lack of a strategy for a united fight against the fascists.
The failure of the French Left to confront islamophobia, the most influential form of racism in France today and an important base of National Front support, is notorious. The situation is slightly better than ten years ago, since most Left organisations now at least officially oppose anti-Muslim racism, even if they never mobilise against it.
Partly due to a left Republican tradition of dogmatic and emotional opposition to believers, most organisations are paralysed on the issue. Each grouping being deeply divided over stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, and some activists loudly islamophobic themselves, there is no organisation on the Left which will fight anti-Muslim racism actively, for fear of splitting their supporters. When some Muslim women were violently attacked in June 2013 in the streets of a Paris suburb, and one lost her baby as a result, the protest rally saw the Muslim community fighting alone, with a mere handful of left activists present.
The Left and revolutionary organisations responded with belated and minimalist press releases, and refused to mobilise. Figures just out show that, in 2012, 71 Muslim places of worship were attacked, several firebombed. On the left, nobody knew because nobody really cared. Muslim mothers organising protest groups after they were banned from accompanying school trips if they wore headscarves have had consistent support from no Left organisation, only from individual activists. One activist who complained “The Right hate Arabs, whereas the Left hate Muslims” was no doubt exaggerating, but one can see his point.
Not a few left activists consider religion to be the main enemy of the working class in France today; others insist that believing in equal rights for women means fighting against the fact that many Muslim women cover their hair with a headscarf. Behind these positions, there is often a stereotype of “Muslim culture” as homogeneous, unchanging, obscurantist and sexist. Yet there is no reason to believe that women are treated worse in practising Muslim families than in the non-believer families who live next door, and exactly how attacking or excluding women with headscarves is supposed to help liberate them is unclear.
What the fascists want to do now
The election results are a major boost for the FN. The organisation has not yet, however, been able to build a party organisation on the scale of its electoral success, and this will be its priority now. Its annual First of May demonstrations gather thousands, not tens or hundreds of thousands. Mass meetings are infrequent. Local meetings, where the FN could attract voters and recruit them, are almost never advertised.
A recently elected FN town councillor in the North of France complained he couldn’t give out leaflets in the marketplace because of generalised local hostility. The FN had difficulty recruiting candidates for the local election slates in March 2014, and had to encourage nervous sympathisers to stand using their middle name or their maiden name so they would be less easy for neighbours to recognise. In some small towns, half the FN slate was made up of people who were not aware that they were standing, like the two ninety year old parents of a FN activist who were signed up without their knowledge!
The leadership of the FN hopes to use their now massive access to the media, the millions of euros of public funding which their electoral results entitle them to, and their control of a few town halls, to rebuild a powerful movement on the ground. They have been making considerable progress, and have recruited a number of young cadre, skilled organisers and polemicists.
They put forward the classic fascist mix of hatred for foreigners and Jews alongside anti-boss rhetoric and “passionate” anti-EU nationalism. Their vice president was on the TV this week explaining that mass immigration was an arm of the big capitalists trying to keep wages down and FN leaflets recently spoke of “reindustrialising the country” and “fighting austerity”.
The FN and fellow-travellers now control 14 local councils in small and medium-sized towns across France. This gives the FN the chance to demonstrate what its policies mean in practice. Their newly elected mayors have been making sure the party stays on the front page. In the few weeks since local elections, one decreed that children of unemployed parents must go home at lunchtime and may not use the school canteen; another cancelled a commemoration of the abolition of slavery.
FN mayors have declared that there will be no public money for organisations which they judge “communitarian” (read “Muslim or Arab”). In Mantes-la-Ville, after twenty years without a suitable prayer room, local Muslim organisations had signed an agreement to buy a building from the Socialist-run council: the newly arrived FN mayor says he will not respect the contract. In Béziers the new mayor wants to ban demonstrations against bullfighting, and in Hénin-Beaumont, the FN mayor has banned the Human Rights League from using council-owned rooms. All the FN mayors are cutting back drastically on municipal social aid services which help the poorest sections of the population.
It is important to remember that the supporters of the FN have few interests in common: it is a cross-class alliance welded together by neuroses about invasion and about being a “strong nation again”. This is why, even today, the FN absolutely needs street demonstrations and public activities to bring together its supporters and give them a feeling of unity, and to attract new activists. Stopping them doing this is crucial.
The FN needs streetfighters. There have been a number of physical attacks by fascists; one of them, almost exactly a year ago, involved a fascist thug killing a young antifascist, Clément Méric. Last January in the Centre of France a small group of fascists attacked a benefit concert in support of undocumented migrants.
In April in the South West, a group of Moroccans was attacked by fascists with baseball bats, and in a couple of towns, such as Lille, a large industrial city in the North, far right vigilante groups have been formed, which have managed to attract dozens of new recruits. In the centre of Lille an “Identity centre” is to be opened next year by these groups. For the moment, actions of this sort are carried out by small groups of neo-Nazis, immediately disowned by the Front National leadership. But the FN wants and needs to build an army of thugs.
What strategy against the FN?
There is a clear need for a vigorous and dynamic antifascist fightback, yet groups on the Left are not making this a priority. The front page headline of the NPA newspaper just after the elections was “Against the government and the FN” with a cartoon showing the Socialist Prime Minister and the FN leader as two faces of the same coin. The communiqué of Ensemble, the most anticapitalist wing of the Front de Gauche, spoke only of the need for a Left alternative and not of a specifically antifascist movement. The much larger but far more institutionalised Communist Party was the same, calling, for their part, for a “popular front of the 21st century”.
There is a general lack of understanding that the rise of the FN represents not only an increase in popularity for racist, authoritarian and traditionalist ideas, but also the attempt by a Nazi core to build a mass movement of ideologues and streetfighters, an attempt which requires an urgent united response. The antifascist demonstrations in thirty or so towns at the beginning of June, called for the first anniversary of the murder by fascist thugs of Clément Méric, may have been the chance to start building a movement, but although they mobilized several thousand people (not nearly enough), no serious left organisation made a priority of building for them.
Indeed, the argument for a broadly based, mass antifascist movement has not yet generally been won. The FN’s success has led to a vigorous debate on the radical Left, and widespread confusion is apparent. Many are underestimating the importance of Le Pen’s victory, pointing out that the fascists got 4.7 million votes, far fewer than the 6.4 million at the presidential elections two years back (when voter turnout was 78%). Underestimation is a disastrous mistake. Opinion polls show clearly that if everyone had voted in the European elections, the FN percentage would have been similar to what it was: put briefly, millions of FN sympathisers stayed at home, too.
Of course, the rise of Facebook has given much more space than they deserve to cynical ex-activists who like to criticise all political actions, but even taking that into account it is worrying to see how many left activists are falling into very old mistakes. It is common to hear even good activists saying “It’s no use fighting against the FN, we need to fight directly against capitalism”. This tactic was that of some antifascist organisations from the 1980s and 1990s in France, who were formed directly to fight against the FN and its ideas, but in fact worked in such a way that no one who was not a committed anticapitalist could possibly have taken part, and the movements remained small.
But the young people’s demonstrations these last few weeks have shown in embryonic form, an important fact : there are far more people opposed to the ideas of the FN than there are people who believe capitalism can be overthrown any time soon. There is an urgent need to mobilise these people and stop the FN rebuilding its organisation.
A worrying number of left activists are also tempted by sectarianism. One of the first anti-FN demonstrations in Paris in early June was called by a students’ union, UNEF, which is close to the governing PS. Many refused to support the demonstration for this reason, arguing that the pro-boss policies of the PS government were the cause of the rise of the FN, and so that they could not ally with such organisations.
This policy is disastrous: firstly it treats the members of a socialist-run students union as a mechanical block, rather than as young people who hate fascism and of whom some could learn in united antifascist activity about the role of the PS. Secondly, the fascists are a mortal enemy not just to revolutionaries, but also to reformists and trade unionists who don’t believe that the overthrow of capitalism is possible. Unity on this issue is both possible and necessary.
Ironically, one of the most effective antifascist initiatives in recent French history was launched by a wing of the Socialist Party! The Manifeste contre le Front national, launched in the 1990s followed the simple strategy of organising broadly based counter demonstrations every time the FN appeared in public. The 1997 FN conference in Strasbourg saw a large counter rally. The Manifeste also wanted to make it impossible for the FN to get support from mainstream right politicians, by organising propaganda and counter demonstrations against those right-wingers who were allying themselves with the fascists. This movement helped to raise the temperature of debate within the FN between the go-it-alone Nazis and those who wanted a broader alliance. The result was a spectacular split in the FN which it took them fifteen years to recover from.
The lack of a clear model
One reason it is so difficult to get consensus in favour of a dynamic and pedagogical popular antifascist movement is because of the past of antifascism in France. The main organizations of the last thirty years had serious defects which did not allow an effective mass strategy. People involved in these organisations were active and determined where millions of other people were not, so there is no question of dismissing their work in a spirit of destructive criticism. But we must learn lessons, since it is clear that we were not successful in massively weakening the FN.
SOS Racisme managed in the 1980s to popularize anti-racism for the millions with their famous badge “Hands off my mate!” and huge anti-racist music concerts. But the organization has kept the campaign on a moral, not a political level, was always careful not to go against Socialist Party policies, and did not want to confront the FN with counterdemonstrations to fascist activities.
They have often been successful taking night clubs and other places to court after having “tested” racist entry policies by sending young Whites then young Blacks to the same night club. Today, SOS’s couple of dozen committees across France are often funded by government and work on measuring discrimination, legal advice for victims and lobbying parliament for more anti-discrimination laws. On the negative side, the organisation has sometimes run reactionary campaigns “against extremism and communitarianism”, in which the rise of visible Islam in France was treated as an enemy. In any case, a moral and legalistic campaign cannot stop the fascists from building a movement. Close fascist sympathisers are generally impervious to moral humanitarian arguments.
Another strategy is illustrated by the history of Ras l’Front, (“Fed Up of the FN”) an antifascist organisation established in 1990, which developed dynamic local groups in over a hundred towns, of which a few are still active today. For a long time the organisation was based around a (rather long) monthly paper filled with analyses of fascism and capitalism around the world. So Ras l’Front could never be a broad alliance – if you weren’t anticapitalist, you couldn’t feel at home in the campaign, and people close to the Socialist Party were definitely not welcome.
Ras l’Front got involved in many struggles of illegal immigrants which were important but were bound to contribute to making RLF a special sort of far left group rather than a broad campaign to stop the FN. It could not reach out to young people who hate fascism but do not feel concerned by the development of in-depth analysis of capitalism, or by selling a newspaper in the markets on Sunday morning. Some of the remaining RLF groups today suffer less from this weakness and will hopefully be part of the dynamic for a broad movement.
Small group fightbacks
The last strategy which has been attempted is the small group fightback. Anarchist-oriented groups under the network name “Sections carrément anti-Le Pen” (the acronym SCALP meaning to indicate popular revenge against fascists) intervened against the FN in a number of towns in the 1980s and 1990s, (though a few daughter groupings still exist today). Founded in Toulouse in 1984, the movement was young, dynamic and developed widespread sympathy around alternative rock in particular. But their concentration on small scale actions, often secret and sometime violent meant of course that they could not involve wider sections of the working class, and tended to be reserved for young men. They were and are also very much reserved for anticapitalists.
All in all then, there is no model to point to in recent French history for a mass popular antifascist movement which aims at explaining why they’re dangerous fascists and stopping them building their organisation, while not demanding from members a wider commitment to anticapitalism.
The fightback today
The radical left leader who has been the most vocal against the fascists has been the Left Party firebrand, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. A sincere antiracist, he certainly has his faults (he supported banning the headscarf in schools and tends to see “France’s international role” in a positive light), but at least he took the fight directly to Marine Le Pen, standing against her in the legislative elections in 2012, under the slogan “The enemy is the banker, not the immigrant.”
In June 2014, there have been a series of local demonstrations against the Front National, including initiatives in towns where the FN has recently gained control of the town council. Some trade unions seem to be taking the lead more than the political organizations. On the 26th of June, the CGT and others are calling for a day of strikes and demonstrations against the FN. A few days later there is a national coordinating week-end which we are hoping will relaunch an antifascist movement. And there are a number of other excellent initiatives: speaking tours, cheap books to reply to Le Pen’s ideas, etc.
We must never forget that for the FN, elections are a means to an end, which is the building of a powerful fascist movement to control the streets. The FN can be beaten, but a new movement will be required. This will have to combine mass campaigns to patiently explain the nature of the FN, and intervention to make it ever harder for the fascists to hold the meetings and demonstrations which they vitally need.
There are several major dangers in the few years ahead – the first is the building of fascist streetfighting groups, the second is the pushing to the right by the National Front of the whole political spectrum, leading to more reinforcement of hard right ideas, and the accompanying wave of violence against immigrants , Muslims, gays and people of colour. The third is that, in the run-up to the 2017 presidential elections, the deeply divided mainstream right will split into two, with a large section seeking alliances with the fascists. This would be a further major breakthrough for Marine Le Pen.
The Front National is still weak enough on the ground to be stopped in its tracks. If it is not stopped, it will constitute a huge potential weapon for the capitalists when the crisis gets much deeper. In different Left organisations there are groups of activists who are working to make this project of a strong and broad antifascist movement happen. The stakes are very high.
–– John Mullen
Thanks to Colin Falconer.
Background reading online
I decided not to give detailed references for each assertion, but my analysis was assisted by:
- Hassan Berber, “Antifascisme, les erreurs des années 1980” in Socialisme par en bas N° 2, 1997 (French)
- John Mullen, “Sarkozy’s defeat is our victory, but there are bigger battles to come” in Frontline, May 2012
- Jim Wolfreys, “France after Sarkozy, confronting the politics of despair” in International Socialism, issue 135, June 2012
 There was one major reform – gay marriage, and some smaller reforms : an end to minimum prison sentences imposed by law, a new law on workplace sexual harassment, a little more legal protection for housing tenants. That’s about all.
 On the positive side, the minority in the Front de Gauche who make a priority of fighting islamophobia have organized a collective which has been able to co-organize meetings and other events.
 Unfortunately, in the wake of this split antifascist campaigning declined and a sense of complacency set in which was only temporarily reversed by the shock of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s qualification for the second round of the 2002 presidential election.
 Indeed, in France, many left-wing activists continue to equate islam – or at least political islam – with fascism. This is a dangerous argument which confuses and disarms the antiracist movement.
 The seat was eventually – though narrowly – won by the Socialist Party candidate