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New Statesman: Jean-Marie Le Pen may have been banished. But his ideas endure

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The expulsion of the former National Front leader does not mean a shift away from his racist views.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity goes the old adage and in the ongoing saga which currently pits the Le Pen dynasty against one another, it seems that may well be true.

Of course, family feuds and internal fighting within a party are never good for business, but when your business is staying in the news, and most significantly, affirming a distance from a toxic fascist legacy, the National Front could do worse than a summer “coup” to oust the notoriously racist party co-founder,Jean-Marie Le Pen. He in turn has accused his daughter Marine – the party’s leader of ordering his “political execution”, despite her decision not to be present during the deliberations by the FN’s executive office.

The French press has been dominated by the ousting which cements an increasingly public divide within the FN between JM Le Pen’s openly far-right ideas and Marine Le Pen’s attempts to mainstream the FN, by downplaying its racist roots and focusing instead on anti-EU, anti-austerity rhetoric, and emphasising a cultural exclusivism, with wide traction on the left and the right in France. The extent to which the conception of an “Islamicisation of France”, an idea with roots on the far-right, as well as anti-immigrant discourse, have wide traction in current media and political discourse in France today, is testimony to the efficacy of her strategy. But central to this mainstreaming has been the need to resituate her father within the party’s hierarchy, while seeking not to alienate his supporters and risk dividing the party, a move which could see JM Le Pen leave with a non-negligible percentage of the party’s loyal supporters. For all the party’s appeal to a more palatable image, it still draws committed support from the fringes. And the last split within the FN, in 1999, when a disgruntled Bruno Mégret set up a parallel party, the National Republican Movement (MNR), led to the FN’s worst showing in elections since the 1980s, with less than 6 per cent of the vote. Marine Le Pen is very conscious of avoiding any such outcome.

The FN’s leader has the 2017 presidentials firmly in her sight and key to her strategy has been asserting her leadership of the party, despite the hold of her charismatic father, and navigating the delicate task of retaining his core base of support, while distancing the party from some of his more openly racist views. It is no surprise that JM Le Pen’s most vocal opponent within the party has been Florian Philippot, Marine Le Pen’s strategic director for her presidential campaign and the man in charge of the party’s communications, who described the move as “logical” despite the shock expressed by other members.

In May, JM Le Pen was suspended by the party after repeated instances in which he made racist remarks, including his description of the Nazi gas chambers asa detail of history. In an attempt at damage control, the party announced a vote on a proposal to strip Mr. Le Pen of his honorary title of party president at its upcoming congress. It was during this congress that the patriarch was dismissed from the party, although thanks to a bureaucratic loophole, he does in fact remain the party’s honorary president.

Although the move had angered JM Le Pen and many of his supporters, it means that the firebrand MP – who won 33 per cent of the votes in the region Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in the recent European elections– retains a formal association with the party, avoiding the real danger of a party split – for now.What’s more, he’s unlikely to disappear any time before 2019 given his role as an elected member of the European Parliament.

No one can say for certain to what extent the divide between Le Pen senior and his daughter is tactical or ideological. JM Le Pen’s closeness to his great niece, FN golden girl and France’s youngest MP, Marion-Maréchal Le Pen, suggests that although it is possible the appeal of his founding views have skipped a generation, there may still be far more unity within the party’s ideals than is publicly revealed and indeed, a significant stake for Marine in presenting the divide as starker than it actually is.

In response to his exclusion, Jean Marie Le Pen says he plans to question the competency of the executive office to dismiss him, as well as its partiality, while his lawyer dubbed the decision “suicide” for the party. All the commotion has dominated the French press where the infighting within the FN is often presented as a somewhat bemusing family feud.

In reality, the FN has become a staple figure on the media scene, where it has succeeded in normalising its presence and ideas thanks to a combination of astute rebranding, careful image management and an arid political scene where infighting within the right-wing UMP and utter indolence on the part of the Socialist party has left the way ripe for the mainstreaming of previously marginal oppositional voices. While Le Pen’s accession to the second round of the presidential elections in 2002, where he decisively lost against Jacques Chirac, was met with general dismay, political analysts are already predicting a strong show by the FN in the 2017 presidential elections. In a poll by the French agency Ifop in January this year, Marine Le Pen would have won the first round of the election had it been held then, with its leader gaining around30 per cent of the public vote, significantly ahead of all hypothetical challengers.

The exclusion of Jean-Marie Le Pen is a fortuitous opportunity for the party to distance itself once again, very publicly, from its xenophobic tendencies, ahead of a presidential campaign Marine believes she has a real chance at winning. But whether Le Pen’s marginalisation reflects a shift away from the founder’s racist views among the party more broadly remains to be seen, with various FN MPs coming out in shows of support for the patriarch. To quote the MP Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, “Le Pen may have been excluded from the FN. Now to banish his ideas.”

You can read the original piece here, on the New Statesman website.

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Written by Myriam Francois

August 22, 2015 at 22:23

Sky news: Commenting from Paris on French elections

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Live commentary from Paris for Sky News on the first round of the French legislative elections, Sunday 9th of June 2012

Written by Myriam Francois

June 21, 2012 at 12:46

France Legislative Elections: A Left turn for Europe?

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This piece is featured in the New Statesman here and on the Huffington Post blog, here

Yesterday saw a record low level of participation (48.31%) in France’s legislative elections as 6500 candidates campaigned for 577 seats. People headed to the booths to choose between an average of ten candidates, including a number of smaller fringe parties such as the Pirate party and the Blank vote party, which reflect the broader European tendency towards a balkanisation of politics.

Despite tepid public interest in the elections, their outcome could have a significant impact on the government and its ability to undertake its agenda, which includes raising taxes on the wealthiest, tougher measures to regulate the finance sector, the creation of 60,000 new jobs in education over the next 5 years, reducing the deficit to 3% by 2017 and outlining a new Franco-German treaty. The high level of abstention increased the number of ‘three ways’ in the second round on June 17, whereby three candidates reach the second round, and which traditionally sees the formation of alliances to achieve a majority, a situation in which smaller parties can become King-markers. Such an outcome is likely to favour Hollande’s Socialist party (PS) which already has a national alliance with the Ecology party and a less formal agreement with the Far-Left.

The party which wins the presidential elections traditionally achieves a majority in the national assembly, a result which could see the Left dominate all the major government institutions and consolidate Hollande’s power. Whether the PS will have to be drawn into a coalition with the anti-capitalist Far-Left in order to achieve that majority will determine its ability to manoeuvre subsequently and could further complicate negotiations with European partners on the already thorny issue of austerity, just as Spain has conceded a bailout. Leader of the Leftist Front, Melenchon, who wants a ‘citizen revolution’, has previously expressed his desire to weaken the Right in France in order to create a precedent for Leftist policies in Europe, starting with Greece, which will vote straight after France and Germany, set to vote in October. Such a prospect has Layla and Florian, a young Parisian couple and Melenchon supporters, enthused. They claim the Leftist Front offers a way out of this “corrupt and unjust capitalist system” and reflects the only real alternative: “We don’t need three cars or big houses – the current system means the middle class and the elite get richer whilst the poor get left behind – we need a revolution.” But their conviction the Far-Left can resolve France or even Europe’s problems, is far from unanimous. An elderly couple queuing at the polling office tell me they’re concerned there could be a ‘return’ of the communists, as occurred under the government of Leon Blum in 1936, which they recall was marked by “near constant strikes.” After casting a vote for the UMP, they praise Le Pen’s views on immigration, but say their memory of the war and “the fratricide which occurred” means they would not contemplate voting for an anti-EU party.

The elections have highlighted tensions with the UMP, which suffered significant losses, over its ideological outlook and strategy . The traditional UMP alliance with Centre right parties has been negatively affected by the poor showing of Francois Bayrou’s ModDem party, as well as by the rise of the Far-Right, which has drained some of its electorate. Since the departure of Sarkozy, the party has been embroiled in a power struggle between Party leader hopefuls and the public squabbling has served the interests of the National Front, which seeks to position itself as the ‘New Right’. Despite some pressure from its base to form UMP-FN alliances to keep the PS at bay, the UMP has so far resisted such a move, with Alain Juppé warning of the dangers of an alliance with a party which seeks to weaken the Right, in order to subsume it. But MP for the Gironde and representative of the UMP’s right wing, Jean-Paul Garraud, has called on the party to move beyond an ‘ideological blockage’ for pragmatic reasons and unite with the FN, a strategy which though officially denounced, may end up being reflected on the ground. The pressure on the UMP to concede is even more accute, in light of the thirty two ‘three ways’ in which the FN remains present for the second round.

A UMP-FN alliance, though grounded in electoral concerns, also reflects Marine Le Pen’s success in transforming the image of her father’s party, distancing herself from his racist and anti-semitic rants through a focus on anti-EU rhetoric and economic protectionism, coated in xenophobia. The FN which achieved almost 18% in the Presidential elections, has traditionally failed to gain seats in the National Assembly, a fact that reflects both an element of protest vote in its score at the Presidential election and the higher levels of abstention in local elections, which disproportionately affects smaller parties. Yesterday, it achieved 13.77% of the votes, a three fold increase on its 2007 showing in the legislatives elections then, through considerably lower than its score in May’s election. In the second round, the FN may achieve between 0-5 MPs, under the banner of the “Marine blue gathering”, a symbolic gain which reflects the growth of the Far-right in Europe and which would undoubtedly negatively impact France’s Muslim citizens.

While it looks likely Hollande will get his socialist majority parliament, the chorus of anti-austerity voices from both the Far-Left and the Far-right, which may be rewarded with a parliamentary presence, will complicate his ability to act against the significant challenges faced, including 10% unemployment, sluggish growth, a lack of competitiveness and a massive deficit. Despite the lack of enthusiasm for them, these elections will have a decisive impact on France’s policies and given its place in Europe, on the very nature of European policy.

Sky News: Live commentary on the French elections

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A snippet of my commentary on the first round of the French Presidential elections on Sunday, on Sky News.

Written by Myriam Francois

April 25, 2012 at 09:50

France is Turning ‘Bleu Marine’: the Existential Crisis of the French Right

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This piece is published over at the Huffington post, here

France is turning “bleu-Marine”, a play on words which refers to the National Front (FN)’s strong ‎showing in the first round of the French Presidential elections. 18% of the vote is the strongest ‎polling yet for Marine Le Pen’s party, out-doing even her father’s 16.9% in the 2002 elections, ‎where he made it to the second round. The success of the National Front was in stark contrast to ‎the poor showing of France’s Right. Sarkozy has the dubious privilege of being the Fifth Republic’s ‎most unpopular president, with a 64% disapproval rating, and the first incumbent not to take the ‎lead in the first round. But these sobering findings clearly hadn’t dented the President’s self-belief on sunday as he delivered a “victory” speech, in which he claimed his supporters had ‘proven the ‎polls wrong’ – despite the rather accurate predictions that he’d lose out to Holland in the first ‎round, with around 26% of the vote. Which he did. ‎

His hope now will be to galvanise the Far-right and Centrist votes to compete with the Leftist block, ‎totalling 41%, which gives the socialist candidate, Francois Hollande a solid basis on which to achieve the winning 54%, predicted by ‎an IPSOS poll in the second round.‎

As Sarkozy seeks to salvage the situation in the run up to May 6th, his Sunday speech offered a ‎glimpse of things to come as he focused on key National Front issues of immigration, border ‎controls and national identity. In recent years, the UMP has been split by its veer to the right under ‎the direction of Sarkozy’s adviser, Patrick Buisson, considered the architect of the UMP’s “LePen-‎isation”. Many blame the strategy for alienating traditional right-wing voters and changing the very ‎nature of the neo-Gaulliste party. Others see Le Pen’s success as a vindication and evidence of the ‎need to move further on this terrain. The fact Sarkozy can count on 60% of Le Pen’s votes in the ‎second round, poses some existential questions about the very nature of the Right in France.‎

A regional breakdown of the vote showed Le Pen achieved high scores in the industrial North Est, ‎where she often came second, behind the Left for whom the North is not traditional terrain and ‎where Sarkozy had scored highly in 2007. The North Est and France’s industrial regions were those ‎worst hit by the economic crisis in 2008-2009, with a significant increase in unemployment. Today ‎jobless claims are at a twelve year high across France. In addition, France has lost competitiveness. ‎Its exports have lagged behind those of its major trading partners in the past decade, labour costs ‎have grown and whilst the economy is sluggish, workers are faced with reduced purchasing power. ‎This squeeze on the working class under the UMP’s rule means many are looking elsewhere. The ‎breakdown of votes shows Sarkozy lost many seats in central France, the 6th largest industrial ‎region, where the Far Left made significant advances and 29% of Blue-collar workers now vote Le ‎Pen.‎

But the Far-Right has also benefited from Sarkozy’s tactical inclusion of Far-right themes into the ‎mainstream political discourse. Many of Sarkozy’s election pledges seemingly acknowledged the ‎problematisation of issues raised by the FN, including the halal meat saga and the proposed rethink ‎of the passport-free Schengen zone. This strategy assumed the incorporation of such issues into ‎the UMP’s agenda, could garner more votes away from the NF, but appears instead to have ‎legitimised Le Pen’s discourse and ensured the perennity of her party on the French political ‎scene. What’s more, Sarkozy’s perceived failure to address these issues, alongside his ‎acknowledgement of their importance, has bolstered the FN’s agenda.‎

Marine Len Pen’s speech on Sunday suggests she now views her party as the ‘true’ Right, in the ‎face of a weak and discredited UMP. What is certain is that her historic success in this first round ‎has shifted the political terrain in France and conveyed a degree of respectability she has worked ‎hard to foster. Since taking over from her father, Marine has morphed the party’s image, seeking ‎to distance it from its racist reputation and consolidating its platform through a solidly anti-EU ‎focus, broadening its appeal. The message of curbing immigration and combating a European elite ‎by taking France out of the Eurozone, is designed to protect an allegedly threatened French ‎identity. ‎

Alongside proposals to protect small businesses and ban supermarkets in towns of under 30 000 ‎people, she speaks to a France suspicious of globalisation and of the EU’s austerity plans, in a ‎country where only 31% of people agree that a free market economy is the best system. It is ‎amongst the squeezed working and middle classes, who feel that Europe is failing to protect them ‎against global competition, that her message of protectionism, both social and economic, has ‎found an audience. ‎

Last year, academics warned of the “France of the invisibles” where almost 40% of the electorate ‎in rural and suburban areas, as well as in towns hit by deindustrialisation, feel abandoned by the ‎democratic process and unrepresented in their concerns. The consequence is the emergence of a ‎more radical political vote, towards the Far-Left but more so towards the Far Right whose ‎combination of a focus on social and identity issues has broad appeal. Worryingly, this is no longer ‎perceived to be a protest vote, but a vote of adherence to the FN’s agenda. 64% of FN voters state ‎their support for Marine le Pen as a candidate, and only 36% describe theirs as a “protest vote”. ‎Amongst FN voters, immigration polls as the highest concern (62 %), followed by insecurity (44 %) ‎and purchasing power (43 %) and Le Pen has successfully taped into this combination of social and ‎economic conservativism.

While Hollande may be elected France’s first Socialist president in 17 ‎years, it was under another socialist, Francois Mitterand that the National Front first made ‎headways in response to austerity measures in the 1980s. In 2012, their presence is far more ‎entrenched and they’ll be facing a candidate whom only 25 % of voters believe can improve the ‎situations in France. If he fails, an emboldened Far-right is waiting in the wings.‎

Sky News interview, Mohamed Merah Shooting, March 2012

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An interview with Adam Boulton on Sky News on the political fall-out of the Mohamed Merah shooting and its implications for diversity in France.

Written by Myriam Francois

March 22, 2012 at 21:12

Myriam Francois Cerrah – France shootings, BBC World, News, March 2012

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An interview I did on BBC World about the Toulouse and Montauban shootings in March 2012

Written by Myriam Francois

March 20, 2012 at 16:32