The day after the first round of the regional election, with his Socialist Party losing votes and seats in a number of regions, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls went on television to affirm that “he was not there to say sorry”.
Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front (FN) won the first round with roughly 30 percent of the votes. This was their most significant nationwide victory with almost seven million votes, tripling the number of their voters from the 2010 regional elections.
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The Republicans led by Nicolas Sarkozy, preferred to maintain a low profile, attacking the centre-left for the rise of right-wing extremism with no self-reflection about their failure in the first round of the election.
After the second round on December 13, the Republicans came out as the winners. They immediately praised their voters: “Immense gratitude to all Republicans. Your brave fight carried our candidates to some very beautiful victories”.
The FN, which was considerably ahead in six regions after the first round, gained none. There is, however, a risk of presenting this defeat through the lens of a great democratic narrative: French voters mobilise to fight the heir of fascism, mainstream parties are able to share their votes if necessary, and a genuinely “republican” front is ready to protect democracy at the heart of the European continent. This narrative is misleading.
Should French citizens and the European Union be relieved by the final outcome of the election? Not really. Democracy and liberal values should not be taken for granted in an era when nationalist sentiments are back and extremism is growing.
With 50 percent of disillusioned Europeans often not voting at all, the appeal of transnational anti-EU platform is extended for years to come, along with Le Pen and her fellows easily attacking mainstream politicians for their inabilities on the global challenges.
The evident right-wing turn of the new Polish government, and the prospects of Viktor Orban leading his party again in Hungary’s 2018 elections, are not actually reassuring.
And Western Europe is not looking better. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is criticised for her refugee policy, solidarity has become an outdated word that belongs to history books, anti-EU stances have become popular, and Le Pen is likely to emulate her father, Jean-Marie, and reach the second stage of the 2017 presidential elections.
Moreover, with the 358 new seats in regional councils, FN has become the main political opposition in many localities.
It is therefore not a time for enthusiastic slogans, nor a moment for dismissing the dramatic rise of the FN and similar anti-establishment right-wing parties just because the FN has lost, thanks to a de facto and almost “artificial” alliance of other democratic forces.
We cannot guarantee this will be the case in the future. Sarkozy fundamentally seems to oppose FN, but after the elections, he is moving his party discourse further towards the right-wing on subjects like immigration and identity.
On the EU scale, these far-right parties find a common ground on the idea of protecting “national sovereignty”. This idea naturally goes along with a trend of combining the fear of the “other”, rejecting cultural diversity, opposing German-led neoliberal anti-austerity reforms, and bashing refugee-friendly approaches.
In such a context, and with 50 percent of disillusioned Europeans often not voting at all, the appeal of this transnational anti-EU platform is extended for years to come, along with Le Pen and her fellows easily attacking mainstream politicians for their inability to act on global challenges.
Expansion of far-right nationalism
Moreover, France should quickly realise that its liberal fabric is seriously in danger. Talking about the inner “strength” of French democracy is pointless. This was done in the past to deny the presence of interwar right-wing extremism and the fascist nature of the Vichy Republic during World War II. But given the fact that FN’s electoral rise is happening, there is really nothing special and exceptionally democratic in French society.
Millions of voters “approved” Le Pen’s party programme in December. Many financially “vulnerable” citizens are reassured by a movement calling “patriots” to join the Rassemblement Bleu Marine – Le Pen’s concerted effort that brought minor parties under one umbrella.
This effort pays homage to the war veterans, valorises the French “cultural exception”, promotes reindustrialisation and a strong state, and launches anti-immigrant petitions because “yesterday [it was] Calais, today [is] France”.
It is true that there is a feeling of abandonment and fear in many areas of rural France and in a number of working class districts that were once voting for the left. However, the FN has been progressing well in the cities it was targeting, which might mean that they are further increasing the number of their supporters.
Sarkozy, who thinks he is the only politician who can stop the FN, in reality believes that refugees will “ineluctably” go to France for its social benefits while it is Germany that is hosting the majority of them in the EU.
As president between 2007 and 2012, Sarkozy promoted strict immigration policies, established a ministry for immigration and national identity, expelling more than 9,000 Roma people, and probably exacerbating discrimination against many Frenchmen with immigrant roots.
What France will look like in a multiethnic and global world after an eventual FN electoral takeover, and even simply with the spreading of FN-like values, is a question with which not many seem to bother.
But it is time at the EU level to start reflecting on these ultra-nationalist seeds if they want to preserve tolerance and democracy in Europe.
Andrea Mammone is a historian at Royal Holloway, University of London. His recent book “Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy” is published by Cambridge University Press. He has written for the International Herald Tribune, The Independent, Foreign Affairs, and New Statesman.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.