There were riots in France last week following a string of municipal elections. Evidently they were won by the wrong party. At least from the rioters’ perspective.
As is not uncommon in Europe, the French hold local level elections separate from their presidential and parliamentary ones, which allows races for mayor and city council to turn into a sort of mid-term referendum on the popularity of the national government. Since President Hollande, much besieged by economic malaise, petty scandal, party infighting, and romantic woe, is currently estimated to be France’s single most unpopular president in the entire history of the Republic, the March 30 vote was, as they say, “a critical test.”
And he flunked.
Hollande’s Socialist Party was dealt it’s worst-ever defeat, capturing only 349 of the country’s 921 cities, losing some that had been under Socialist rule since before the First World War. Of the remaining 572, the conservative party of ex-presidents Sarkozy and Chirac won most, but what’s made international headlines was the unprecedentedly strong showing of the National Front, a far-right party whose popularity has long served as a kind of ominous bellwether for Europe’s long-feared fascist relapse.
Led by Marine Le Pen, the charismatic, populist daughter of the party’s previous (and much — outside France, at least — reviled) boss, Jean-Marie, the NF elected 11 mayors and nearly a thousand city councillors. Though not terribly impressive on a strictly numeric level (no NF mayor will run a city with a population larger than 150,000, and 11 out of 921 is barely 1%), it nevertheless marked the once-fringe party’s biggest mainstream political breakthrough to date. Though France has seen NF mayors before, their elections have often been short-lived outliers within the stability of the traditional French two-party system — never a multi-city sweep, even if only a mild one.
Perhaps the best American way to think about this would be if a couple dozen Libertarians won several dozens seats in a couple state legislatures this November. Perhaps not enormously consequential for the actual governance of the country, but an ominous early crack in the permanence of the established political order just the same.
Talking of libertarians, I’ve noticed some like to draw analogies between the resilience of the National Front in France (and other far-right, no-longer-quite-so-fringe parties elsewhere in Europe) with the rise of the Tea Party in the States. Usually such comparisons are part of some armchair analysis of how tough economic times foster political radicalism and whatnot, and while that may be true, it’s worth understanding that not all far-right radicals are created equal.
European nations tend to jealously guard their cultural sovereignty. This is understandable; the great European wars of the 19th and 20th centuries were largely fought over nationhood and self-determination, the idea that common peoples deserve independent states to give shape and dignity to their shared identity, guarded by sturdy borders that outsiders have no right to infringe. It’s a right that was hard-won.
I always remember this powerfully nationalistic documentary I saw when I was in Luxembourg — Heim ins Reich — that looked at the Nazi conquest of that small but fiercely patriotic country. There was this striking scene where some Third Reich bigshot — I think it might have even been Dr. Goebbles — was standing on the balcony of the Luxembourganian Grand Duke’s palace shortly after the capital had been seized, delivering this almost cartoonishly condescending speech.
Isn’t it great that you people have been liberated from your tiny, stupid country, he said (in as many words). In time, you naive morons will learn to lose your dumb made-up identity and embrace the far superior nationalism of the all-powerful German Reich!
Modern-day Europeans are obviously not under any sort of comparable oppression, but some would nevertheless sympathize with those Luxembourgers just the same.
The swift rise of the European Union has led to the creation of an embryonic pan-continental super-state, complete with activist courts, a powerful regulatory bureaucracy, and executive branch-style councils where independent heads of government form joint policy like cabinet ministers running a common nation. The abolishment of border controls has led to unprecedented waves of inter-European migration, particularly from residents of the EU’s newest member states, the ex-Soviet republics of eastern Europe, into the established democracies of the west. And then there’s the matter of immigration from outside the continent altogether — nearly two million a year according to the European Commission.
In most cases, these tremendous social changes have been justified on the basis that there was something profoundly wrong with the way Europe used to work, something wrong with the hard-fought victories of the 19th and 20th centuries. The old continent was too closed, too parochial, and certainly too ethnocentric; only the creation of post-national governance structures designed to weaken local ones, and force the embrace of a more ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse population could correct these historic flaws. Europeans, the thinking went, should start thinking of themselves as just that, Europeans — if not citizens of the world — and embrace new egalitarian, transnational identities, institutions, and policies designed to cleanse them of those chauvinistic, competitive, and paranoid instincts that inspired the imperialism, pogroms, and genocides of the past. Which, lest we forget, were a big part of Europe’s 19th and 20th century, too.
Yet this drive to eliminate judgmentalism, led by the political elite of all mainstream European political parties, is of course profoundly judgemental unto itself, and the sort of top-down consensus Europe’s nouveau populist far-right is now so eager to rally against. Groups like the National Front draw on the unease many citizens feel navigating this brave new world of things you can no longer say, prides you can no longer feel, and stuff you can no longer like, and exploit reactive desires to reassert traditional elements of identity — particularly language, religion, and race — at the center of what “it means to be French” (or Dutch or Norwegian or whatever).
Such patriotic movements invariably transcend traditional notions of capitalism and socialism, which is what makes Tea Party analogies so imprecise. Many European far-rightists are actually perfectly cool with a big government welfare state — socialist-style programs like universal healthcare being respected as policies designed to protect the health and happiness of the volk; the problem is when they’re driven to the brink of bankruptcy by giant waves of freeloading outsiders. Big business, likewise, is often far more villain than hero; a force that’s seeking to blur cultural distinctions with globalist consumerism — not to mention provide governments with an economic case for the mass import of third-world labourers.
It’s interesting to note that Anti-Americanism tends to motivate a lot of this movement too, as far-right Europeans increasingly view America as the originator and champion of the post-modern, ultra-capitalist, immigrant-centric, post-national nation-state value system they’re so eager to avoid. During the Crimea crisis, for instance, it was noted that many of Europe far-right leaders — including Ms. LePen — were far more likely to sympathize with President Putin’s chauvinistic aspiration’s for pan-Russian unity than the American defense of Ukrainian sovereignty over its diverse territories. Which only makes sense if you think about it.
The end result, in either case, is a Europe with an alienated, ultradefensive minority population determined to spread the feeling. Not just among fellow conservatives, traditionalists, reactionaries — and yes, out-and-out racists, xenophobes, and fascists, too — but those they’ve declared their enemies: immigrants, non-Christians, “cultural Marxists,” white liberal “traitors,” and anyone else on the postmodern left. But the left is prepared to respond in kind; as these existential questions begin to loom larger in the continent’s political discourse, European progressives are fast building passionate, well-organized networks of “anti-fascists” and “anti-racists” whose allegiance to the New Europe is every bit as militant and uncompromising as the neo-right’s is to the old.
Thus the riots.
One suspects more are coming.