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Indeed, a growing number of workers are now “migrating” from the left to the far right — a trend reaching into other social groups that never before would have considered voting for the Front National. This is, by far, the most important aspect to Sunday’s vote. Under Marine Le Pen, the Front National made a concerted effort to run as many candidates as possible in local elections. After the first round, FN candidates seemed poised to win not just a dozen or more city halls, but also threatened to take major cities like Perpignan and Avignon. After the votes from the second round were tallied, the FN failed to win these cities, but nevertheless won eleven mid-sized cities and towns, including Fréjus and Béziers. The American media insist on finding a silver lining to this cloud, noting that the FN won little more than 5% of the national vote. What this ignores is that the FN had candidates in just 600 cities and towns — a statistical drop in the bucket of the 32,000 communes that voted last week. Several more drops, and the bucket might well burst.
Ever since she replaced the founder, her father Jean-Marie le Pen, as the party’s leader, Marine le Pen has worked assiduously to “de-demonize” the FN. In her effort to create a kinder and gentler movement, she purged its ranks of neo-Nazis and skinheads, all the while emphasizing the FN’s republican values. Moreover, she has spoken repeatedly about her desire to “turn the page” from the anti-Semitism and negationism that mark her father’s worldview, acknowledging the unspeakable reality of the Holocaust.
Nevertheless, the more things change, the more they remain the same. In effect, the FN has replaced the Jew with the Arab Muslim as the “other” who threatens France’s moral and social fabric. In Marine le Pen’s discourse, Muslims praying on Parisian sidewalks are transformed into an “occupation,” and the comparatively low rate of immigration in France translates into a nation “saturated” with Arab Muslims. She has called for “zero” immigration and for France’s withdrawal from the European Union, which she fingers as one of the causes of “uncontrolled” immigration. Regardless of the ill that inflicts France, ranging from rising crime to rising unemployment, the agent in le Pen’s worldview is the immigrant.
Though economists and sociologists lambaste such claims, they have significantly tilted French political discourse toward the right. Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to coopt the language of the FN during the 2012 presidential campaign, proposing that naturalized citizens — ie., North African immigrants — who break the law be stripped of their citizenship. Since becoming the party’s leader, Copé has upped the ideological ante, asserting that the children of illegal immigrants born on French soil should not automatically become French citizens.
The fear of many on the left is that their own leaders will be tempted to play the same game. On Monday, Hollande named Manuel Valls as his new prime minister. As Hollande’s minister of the interior, Valls had unsettled many Socialists with his hard-nosed immigration policies, most notably in regard to the Roma population, whose camps were dismantled and residents expelled from France. Yet Valls popularity, which extends well beyond the Socialists, reflects France’s changing political landscape. The next several months will reveal if it will change beyond recognition.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and the author of “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning” (Harvard University, 2013).