Hysteria and Panic from France


In the face of the recent hysteria over the “rise” of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a large dose of scepticism is in order. Who gains most from calls for “unity”: the electorate in any nation-state, for whom unity is a delusion so long as social divisions persist, or the politicians and their servants in the media and the academy, for whom unity is a tellingly easy and familiar posture? Who, in any case, is chiefly to blame for a situation in which, in every liberal democracy, genuine political choice has been suppressed by and for politicians who are at least as authoritarian as Le Pen is, but are better trained in public relations? Last but not least, who has most need for extreme rightwingers to be set up as the latest scapegoats for the plight of ethnic minorities, working-class communities and others excluded from the neoliberal feast?

It is the selectiveness of the mainstream commentators that is most revealing. Once again, they have almost all avoided any discussion of one essential factor: voter turnout. In Britain, for example, they like to pretend that a majority of voters chose New Labour in 1997 and again in 2001. Yet in both elections the numbers voting against Blair and Brown’s madeover Thatcherism exceeded the numbers voting in favour, and the numbers not voting at all rose to unprecedented levels, producing “landslide” victories based on the support of barely a quarter of eligible voters. Again, the shenanigans in Florida in 2000 amazed most non-Americans who noticed them, including the reporters and commentators who had mysteriously failed to notice similar shenanigans in all previous US elections. Yet the spotlighting of Jeb Bush’s little empire also drew attention away from the fact that his brother, Al Gore and Ralph Nader between them failed to persuade a majority of registered voters to take part in the electoral process.

Similarly, the sudden canonisation of Jacques Chirac helps to obscure the fact that not much has changed in France since the last presidential election, in 1995. Le Pen has not gained much additional support, and poses no more or less of a threat than he ever did. The real story of the first round–the one from which valid comparisons and conclusions can be drawn, given the unique circumstances of the second–was that Chirac lost some votes while Jospin lost many more, partly to leftist rivals, but mainly because former supporters refused to vote for him. More broadly, the insistence on ignoring turnout exaggerates the support given to all politicians. We are told, for instance, that Jacques Chirac won about 20% of the vote in the first round (as against 80% in the second). In fact, fewer than 15% of French voters positively supported him, an indication of how little appeal he really has, and of how useful the hysteria has been to him. As for Le Pen, even after decades of diligently working toward the peak performance of his absurd career, he received the support of only a little over 12% of all French voters in the first round (and barely 16% in the second).

Not content with misrepresenting the electoral statistics, mainstream commentators generally go on to misrepresent the social significance of the results. It is convenient for these servants of the elite to depict those who voted for Le Pen, in either round, as a monolithic bloc, mysteriously unlike voters for any other party in any western country. Bear in mind, however, what Le Pen actually is and what he says. In addition to remaining a fascist and a racist, while toning down his rhetoric this time round, he is the only leading French politician who did not attend any of the elite educational institutions in Paris. Further, he was frightening voters with what are now all too familiar lies, about “rising” crime, “excessive” public spending, “progressive” education and so on, years before Chirac and Jospin stole these themes from him, just as Blair and Schroder stole similarly reactionary ideas from their rivals. Le Pen is also resolutely opposed to neoliberalism, the European Union, and all that goes with them. It is not really so very mysterious that he attracts votes–some as expressions of serious commitment, but most as inchoate protests–from many who resent the elite, others who believe what the elite and its tame media tell them, and still others who are frightened about globalisation. None of this presents a plausible basis for the imminent restoration of the Vichy regime. The one episode in French politics that it does recall–at least for Le Pen himself and for Chirac, though not for the ignoramuses who pass for “experts” in the media–is the rise and fall of Poujadism, that earlier vehicle for petty-bourgeois ressentiment that gave Le Pen his start in politics before collapsing in the face of a revived Gaullism.

Beyond France, similarly incoherent and ephemeral electoral bases have already propelled extreme rightwingers into coalition governments in Portugal, Norway, Italy and Austria, while similarly exploited anxieties have already infected governments in Britain, Germany and Spain as well. All these governments are applying policies, on immigration, welfare, education and many other matters, that would have been rejected as extreme rightwing fantasies until relatively recently. We have already reached the point where that perennial bandwagon-jumper Anthony Giddens can exploit the Le Pen hysteria to demand–in The Guardian, not the Daily Mail–that New Labour becomes “tough on immingration”, apparently unaware, or unconcerned, that most nonwhite people living in Britain today are not immigrants, and that only racists still imagine they are. With the guru of the third way indulging in such careless rhetoric, who can blame the far right for imagining that their cause is gaining respectability.

How interesting, then, that, in response to what is probably the last campaign of an ageing fascist, who has never been in government, so many commentators have sought to convey the utterly false impression that there are Nazis on the march in full uniform the length and breadth of France–regardless of the fact that large numbers of these sad people are too old to march very far, too fat to fit into tunics and too confused to form up in lines. How interesting, too, that these commentators have failed to convey any impression of what it is like to be (for example) young, black and poor in any of the “advanced” liberal democracies today, at the mercy, not only of sporadic criminal attacks by individual racists, but of sustained and perfectly legal attacks by racist institutions. Again, who stands to gain most from attempts to frighten people into trusting the elite once more, regardless of that elite’s hypocrisy, corruption and cynicism?

The fact is that, in France as elsewhere, elections, even when they are as hyped up as the Chirac/Le Pen contest was, can do little to alter the consistent process of intellectual and moral degeneration that has characterised mainstream politics across the West for the past three decades. Democracy as such is not under threat from fascists–though ethnic minorities certainly are. The greatest threat to the limited and distorted forms of democracy that characterise the West comes, as ever, from corporate power, which has no need to cultivate fascists as long as it can find, and finance, mainstream politicians, journalists and academics willing to do its bidding. As for what happens when any of these groups attempts to defy corporate power, the name of Salvador Allende may yet ring some bells.

So much for the 12-16% of French voters who, probably to their own bemusement, attracted so much international attention. What then of the other 84-88%? On the one hand, only a few among the mainstream commentators pontificating about the first round even deigned to notice that, while a little over 26% chose either Chirac or Jospin, 33.9% plumped for candidates other than Chirac, Jospin or Le Pen. The performance of the three Trotskyist candidates, and the continuing death throes of the Parti Communiste, did attract the attention of a few self-consciously “leftist” journalists, but only as an excuse to write nonsense about the “self-indulgent” splintering of the French left–as if Stalinists and Trotskyists ought to unite, either with each other or with Jospin, and as if doing so would have made any significant difference. However much respect one may have for the clarity and intransigence of some of the left sects in France, who put the truly self-indulgent infantilism and academicism of most British “Marxists” to shame, it is absurd to pretend that their electoral record says anything more than that they still form an isolated and ineffective minority. Blaming such vilified and marginalised groups for the stupidities of the system that has kept them isolated is just one more example of the mauvaise foi of so many “social democrats”, who still yearn for the kudos of appearing to be radical while enjoying the rewards of being sycophantic.

On the other hand, 28% of French voters abstained in the first round, and 20% abstained in the second, despite the blizzard of emotional blackmail against them. Thus, in France as in every other western country, the largest single political grouping–again, the extraordinary and unrepeatable second round aside–now comprises those who do not vote, or vote as seldom as possible. True, this grouping is at least as heterogeneous and unstable as the support bases of the political parties, and there have always been people who simply cannot be persuaded to take any interest in politics. Yet the sheer size of this minority, unprecedented outside the United States, cannot be glibly explained away. Some of these nonvoters, at least, are not apathetic at all, but extremely angry. They have grasped the fact that there is no significant difference between the main parties any more, so that voting for any of them is generally (albeit not always) a waste of time.

Predictably, the politicians and their friends in the media blame such voters for being irresponsible. The local elections in England evoked the same pious drivel here as in France: we have a duty to take part in the electoral process because “people died for the right to vote”. Certainly, many of those who died in protests against poverty, oppression or exploitation believed that voting might be an instrument for beginning to address such issues, but to pretend that the best of them saw voting as inherently virtuous in all circumstances is an insult to their memory. They would have understood that nobody has a “duty” to take part in a cynical farce just because it happens to share some superficial features with what was once a serious and worthwhile activity. In societies where the “centre-left” is further to the right than the governments of Heath and Giscard d’Estaing were 30 years ago, even mildly progressive people, let alone real socialists, should be praised, not blamed, for withholding their support from Blair, Schroder, Jospin and the other Bodysnatchers, who have proved to be better at entryism than Militant or its continental counterparts ever were. In societies where social democrats, liberals and conservatives all claim to oppose racism–while vilifying “asylum-seekers” (refugees), turning a blind eye to racist propaganda and violence, and creating the conditions in which extreme rightwing groups can grow–the deepdyed racist minority are at least displaying more honesty and consistency than their rulers by turning to such groups or, again, giving up on conventional politics entirely. Finally, in societies where potential first-time voters are not as tribal as their elders once were, and rightly find all the efforts of mainstream politicians to put “clear water”, of any colour, between themselves and their rivals totally unconvincing, they cannot be blamed for not troubling themselves about the bland, interchangeable nonentities who occupy centre stage, while the really interesting and important deals and decisions are made in the wings.

It is not the voters but the politicians, and their friends in the media and the academy, who have changed for the worse. They are the ones who should be ashamed about the transformation of elections from ideological confrontations into meaningless spectacles, if only they were capable of feeling such a self-reflective emotion. In Britain alone, even as the hysteria over Le Pen was still getting going, the government was pushing its Immigration and Asylum Bill through Parliament, the Institute of Directors was welcoming the war criminal Henry Kissinger as an honoured guest, and David Blunkett was reviving the Thatcherite language of “swamping”. When “centre-left” politicians are eager to seek the support of racists–rather than, as the admirable Bob Marshall-Andrews did in 2001, forthrightly telling racists that their votes are not wanted–is it any wonder that more and more voters turn away in disgust?

Hostility to mainstream politics is all the more likely to grow as the public relations game that has taken the place of political conflict carries on and on. Thirty years ago, voting Socialist or Gaullist in France, Social Democrat or Christian Democrat in Germany, Labour or Tory in Britain–or even Democat or Republican in the United States, the country that first adopted the euphemism “public relations” to disguise propaganda–could bring about real changes in policy, and thus in people’s everyday lives. Today, however, Aneurin Bevan would be prevented from getting a nomination even for a seat on the local council, if need be by sending AEEU officials in to swing the vote (which, by the way, refers to yet another story that Blair’s friends in the media have all but completely buried). Meanwhile, the extreme right has learned how to hide its true agenda, and to talk in terms that mirror the feelings of confusion and loss that a small group of mainly elderly, white and petty-bourgeois voters–les vieux schnocks–undoubtedly harbour. But who taught the fascists how to make themselves over?

Politics has been reduced to little more than the marketing of differently packaged brands of the very same product, so that the only practical choices available within the system are between neoliberalism-plus-authoritarianism administered by Blair, Chirac, Schroder or Bush, and neoliberalism-plus-authoritarianism administered by their rivals. With the left rendered ineffective, all too often by its own grave blunders as much as by the elite, the mainstream parties need a new scapegoat to blame for the social disintegration that is the direct consequence of their policies. Le Pen, the BNP and their analogues in other countries thus end up rendering a service to the very system that they despise–which goes to prove how stupid, ignorant and vain they truly are, since that system has happily compromised with fascism in the past, and is doing so again whenever and wherever it seems necessary.

Nevertheless, amid the constant bombardment of elite propaganda, and the sporadic scattering of fascist propaganda–each increasingly overlapping with and borrowing from the other–more and more of the “consumers” refuse to accept any of the brands on offer. This, too, is a direct consequence of the neoliberal hegemony. Compared to the stifling of democracy by the elites of the West and their willing accomplices in the media and the academy, the threat posed by the Front National, or any other fascist group, is really not very great.

James Masterson writes for BICEPS, the fortnigtly publication of The British Institute of Contemporary Economic and Political Studies. He can be reached at: biceps@btinternet.com