WASHINGTON – The triumph at the polls for French regional elections of the right-wing National Front led by Marine Le Pen is to be taken very, very seriously. This is not just a knee-jerk reaction to the Paris shootings perpetrated by a small group of Islamic terrorists. This victory of the far right is an indication of a profound spiritual and moral crisis within France, a country that until yesterday was considered a true democracy, and a pillar of the EU.
The National Front
The National Front is now poised to get control over many French regions. Right now, based on the recent vote, it is the largest party in France, even though by a small margin. The Socialist Party is badly beaten, and almost dead. The “respectable” conservative party, the Republicans, is running second.
This electoral contest is not over yet. It is possible that in the second round an improbable coalition of Socialists and Republicans may be able to stop the National Front wave.
Xenophobia and nationalism
Still, what we have now is that a very large segment of the French society voted for an openly xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti Europe, and anti-Euro party.
Look, there is no depth to any of this. But there is a lot of emotional intensity. This is right-wing populism, with tinges of a regression to uncivilized barbarism. But this is unfortunately the way in which a despondent and frustrated French society is giving political expression to its despair.
The solution to all this
The citizens look at French economic decline, and at what they perceive as societal deterioration created by millions of mostly Muslim immigrants who cannot be assimilated. In fact, some of them turn out to be terrorists.
It is a bad mix. Economic decline, diminishing opportunities, mediocre leadership, and the perception that “the enemy within” will destroy us. Hence the popularity of an openly xenophobic, nationalist force that promises to fix all this –quickly and with harsh methods, if needed.
Civilized people will say that this is impossible. This madness cannot last. Common sense will have to prevail. The National Front will disappear soon, as it should. Well, the fact is that as France became weaker, the National Front got stronger. The politics of despair work for those who promise “solutions”, however unrealistic they may be.
Impact on Europe
Whatever the implications for France, from a European perspective this political development spells disaster. If you go back a few years broadly speaking there was some, although usually tepid, support for increased European integration.
But now, with a decidedly anti-EU political force in a strong position in France, one of the key EU pillars, forget about any plans of further integration. Nothing important can happen within the EU without strong French support. All far-reaching initiatives are based on a prior agreement between France and Germany. The anti-EU National Front is now strong enough to make this agreement virtually impossible.
And bear in mind that the rise of the French National Front is not an isolated phenomenon. Indeed, if we review what is happening across Europe, we get an alarming picture.
Anti-EU sentiments on the rise
In Hungary there is Viktor Orban, a would be dictator who talks about the need for an illiberal democracy. In Italy you have the Lega Nord, a nationalist, northern secessionist party now led by Matteo Salvini, and “5 Stelle”, a large anti-system party, led by Beppe Grillo. In Finland there are nationalists and xenophobes. In Denmark there is a growing anti-EU sentiment. In Greece you have the ultra right Golden Dawn party. In Poland the nationalists of the Law and Justice Party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski just won the elections. Add to all this perennially undecided Great Britain that at some point will have to vote on whether to continue its membership in the EU or not.
And there is more. New parties on the left, like Syriza in Greece, led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, and Podemos in Spain, while promoting a totally different political agenda, are certainly not pro-EU. Finally, consider the centrifugal impulses created by the strong support for independence in Catalonia and in Scotland, and “Europe” begins to look like a real political mess.
No real support for further EU integration
What does all this mean? It means that the ideological and moral glue that kept Europe together, weak as it was, has gotten a lot weaker in the past couple of years.
The economic crisis, the EU-imposed austerity on profligate states, high unemployment, lower standards of living, the endless stream of refugees from Africa, and now Syria, coupled with more Islamic terrorism, created a sense of existential threat.
Hence the popularity of anti-system political forces that promise strong measures to fix all this, quickly. Whatever their vacuous agendas, these now stronger parties on the right and on the left share an anti-EU bias.
Shaky EU foundations
Sure enough, there are strong, established, shared economic interests that keep Europe together. There is a large free trade area, a common currency, and a lot more. Yes, but “Europe” as a believable political entity does not exist.
At best, it is a “Supercharged Regional Chamber of Commerce”. This entity is held together by a myriad of agreements and binding rules. But these agreements are not understood or appreciated by the average European.
And now you have the emergence of powerful centrifugal forces that do not believe in the value of free trade and a common currency. They dream of rebuilding their own nations and protecting their economies. From their perspective, Europe is in fact a menace.
Yes, these are silly ideas. Regressing into protectionism in this era of globalization makes no sense. But it does not matter. These “political platforms”, such as they are, now have millions of believers.
A weaker Europe
So, is it over for the Brussels technocrats, and all the EU supra national institutions? No, it is not over. But forget about any new momentum leading to further European integration. Above all, forget about all dreams of any process that will lead to a strong and assertive United Federal Europe. This will probably never happen.
May be Marine Le Pen and her opposite numbers across Europe are not strong enough to destroy all that has been created since 1957.
But they seem strong enough to make whatever Europe there is even weaker, and even more ineffective.