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Middle East Eye: The ‘Republican March’: A nationalist rally with sinister undertones

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The concept of national unity is an appealing one to our politicians – let us rally around a visionary leader – and in the case of Francois Hollande, around one of the most unpopular presidents in French history at a time of huge national division over everything from economic policy to gay marriage.

In his speech during the “Republican march” on Sunday 11 January, Hollande stated: “Clarissa, Frank, Ahmed  – died so we could live free,” in reference to the three police officers gunned down in the Charlie Hebdo attack.

The image of diversity – black, white, Arab – united under the republic encapsulates the French ideal, all differences subsumed under the national banner, erased in the unity of principles and values. Ahmed, the Muslim police officer, Hollande told the crowds, died defending the principle of laïcité, a central principle of the French Republic and an incarnation of which has been used to advance ever more restrictions against Muslims in contemporary France.

Moments of real national unity are incredibly rare and in many cases, quite sinister. Because despite the rhetoric, national unity can provide a glorified cover to the stifling of differences of opinion and the opportunity to impose a singular narrative, the nationalist narrative of “who we are” which can only be contested at the risk of being expelled from the national body and in so doing, of becoming the suspect “other”. Sunday’s march gathered people for various reasons – among them to remember the dead, to oppose terrorism and to support freedom of expression.

Vigils to remember the dear are typically solemn affairsthe strength of emotion is consistently aimed at those who lost their lives in tragic circumstances. Vigils aren’t about us, they’re about them. And that’s why, watching the largest ever public rally in French history, it was clear to me that this was no vigil. This wasn’t so much about “them”, the victims of political violence, but about “us” and about what we, the French stand for.

What we stand for, we were told, was opposing terrorism. But this begs the question of who exactly supports it? Or perhaps more to the point, who is perceived as supporting it? After all, protests are generally the purview of a minority which feels its voice isn’t being heard, of the besieged who must take a stand against the status quo. But when the protest becomes the status quo, surely the question shifts to whom exactly is being targeted by the message.

Some may claim the banners were directed at the terrorists – presumably not the dead ones – but the international networks to which they claimed allegiance. Are terrorists thought to be responsive to public protests? Or perhaps the message targeted elsewhere. If the target wasn’t the terrorists, is it the perception of an enemy much closer to home – the implied enemy within?

Many juxtaposed “opposing terrorism” with “supporting free speech” – but with Charlie Hebdo taken to symbolise free speech in the context of the march, this particular publication, which deliberately produced incendiary and at times racist images targeting Muslims, has come not only to define free speech in France, but it has been incorporated through this march into the definition of national values.

In becoming the heroic voice of French freedom of expression, its previously contested maligning of Muslims and minorities has been reimagined as the quintessential expression of French identity.

To realise just how problematic this is, it is worth considering that this alleged beacon of anti-racism was publishing demonising images of Muslims in a country in which, just last month, a popular TV presenter was sacked for saying Muslims “should be deported to prevent civil war”; where France’s best-loved novelist Michel Houlebecq’s most recent bestseller was described by one journalist as “when the ideas of the far-right made a grand return to serious French literature”.

For a leftwing magazine, it seemed oddly blind to the struggle of the Muslim working classes, siding with a near societal consensus that their presence represents an inherent problem within European societies. In a 2013 poll, 74 percent of the French admitted they perceive Islam as incompatible with French society.

Recast in this sense, a nationalist rally of this magnitude which has as one of its central themes a perception of free speech embodied by a magazine which sought to denigrate an already much maligned minority within a broader climate of hostility and discrimination should perhaps raise some concerns. To speak of national unity at a time when France has rarely been so divided could only occur in the face of a perceived, existential external enemy – a common threat behind which all citizens must unite.

Ethnic minorities and Muslims in particular experience acute levels of discrimination at every level, from education, to housing, to employment. In France, a Christian citizen is two-and-a-half times more likely to get called for a job interview than an equally qualified Muslim candidate. Verbal and physical abuse of Muslims was up 47 percent last year.

This march was in fact part of the construction of the national self in contrast to the demonised Muslim “other”, expanded from the ahistorical, evil terrorist, to the broader Muslim threat, of which the terrorists are the mere violent tip of the proverbial iceberg. So much so that Muslims present at the march often felt the need to clarify their position within this potentially exclusionary lens – holding up placards to protest their innocence and respond to the presumption of guilt which assumed from their Muslim-ness a potential sympathy for murder.

This is the same republic which was constructed historically against the colonies from whence many young Muslims originate and which continues to this day, to largely exclude them not only from centres of power, but also from the sort of social mobility which might provide a stake in the constantly evolving national identity. Historically, the republic’s civility was built off the back of the presumed barbarism of its colonies, its sense of self constructed in opposition to the “unenlightened” Muslims which France conceived of as its civilising burden.

This so-called anti-establishment magazine which provided the pictorial illustrations of some of the bilious representations of Muslims, has since had its funding guaranteed by the French state, simultaneously undermining its journalistic independence, anarchic credentials and stamping its discriminatory output with a state certification.

I have previously argued that the targeting of Charlie Hebdo seems to have been a strategic decision by al-Qaeda, because it was known for selecting symbolically significant targets, in this case, which had previously polarised French society. Targeting Charlie Hebdo would allow them to appear to be acting in the name of all aggrieved Muslims, despite the fact even those troubled by the images have been vocal in their condemnation of the use of violence as a response. Sadly, the perception that they were indeed acting on behalf of broader sentiment appears to be prevalent.

In the wake of the attack, former prime minister Alain Juppe, while affirming the right of Muslims to live in security, called on Muslims to “assume their responsibilities” by affirming the values of the republic, while also calling on them to advocate gender equality. Unless you assume the attack was in any way connected to the broader Muslim community – and to a perceived conflict between republican and Muslims values, the call appears somewhat misplaced. I’m going to suggest it is misplaced either way.

French author Yann Moix went on, declaring that from hence forth “we will only call Muslim those who marched with us,” suggesting the republican march served a broader political ideal of not only narrowing the space for dissent, – ironically – but it also cemented a sense of Muslims as suspect citizens whose allegiance was to be proven, not accepted as given. Evidence of this new climate was immediate, as Rokhaya Diallo, a French Muslim broadcaster was reduced to tears on live radio, as a prominent writer badgered her to distance herself from the actions of the terrorists, a call she felt placed her and all Muslims on “the bench of the accused”.

Even if the objective of this horrific attack had been freedom of speech, the global response which has included widespread reprinting of the images in question, as well as the continued publication of Charlie Hebdo, suggests free speech has thankfully not been dented by the terrorists. It is, however, under threat from the immediate passing of ever more intrusive surveillance laws, the state of exceptionalism serving to justify ever more restrictions even before the banners extolling freedom of expression have been put away, and the massive police and military presence which only presages greater freedom for those who haven’t consistently been the victims of their abuses.

The republican march meant many things to many different people. But it has unquestionably been instrumentalised to further a sense of the republic inherently at odds with Islam and as requiring of its Muslim citizens to caveat their presence within it.

Sunday’s rally was a reminder that there is nothing quite so unifying in French politics as anti-Muslim prejudice.

– See more at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/republican-march-nationalist-rally-sinister-undertones-1121786289#sthash.svTCsAm0.dpuf

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Written by Myriam Francois

January 26, 2015 at 10:29

New Statesman: Is the Charlie Hebdo attack really a struggle over European values?

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There is growing realisation that perhaps the tragic attack at the Charlie Hebdooffices on Wednesday was not actually about the cartoons themselves. Instead,Charlie Hebdo represented a strategic target as part of a broader tactic of polarisation.

Information is gradually trickling out that suggests that at least one of the gunmen involved, Cherif Kouachi, had long-standing terrorist links to Iraq as a middle man funnelling funds to extremists and as an aspiring fighter himself. His record of terrorist activity dates back to 2005 – at least one year prior to the Danish cartoons controversy. This suggests that while the cartoons were certainly a motivating factor, they cannot be labelled the impetus for Kouachi’s motivations. He may, as it turns out, fit into the increasingly familiar pattern of a disaffected European Muslim youth, with little religious inclination aside from an interest in a politico-religious narrative of vengeance against the “west”.

What’s more, although it’s not impossible, it seems unlikely that Kouachi waited several years to undertake his revenge on Charlie Hebdo following their publication of offensive images – the last major scandal dates back to 2012 when the magazine published a series of cartoons in the aftermath of the protests over “The Innocence of Muslims” Youtube video.  Rather, it is increasingly probable that Kouachi may, as the Journal of Long War Studiessuggests, have received the military training abroad he seemed to aspire to. He may have pledged allegiance to a terrorist group, perhaps al-Qaeda, perhaps Islamic State (formerly Isis). The former has a long history of selecting targets to cause maximum chaos, both structurally, but also symbolically – think of the enduring power of the 9/11 attacks. There, the target was not random. Al-Qaeda purposefully selected the tallest buildings in America’s most iconic city, a financial centre, and a symbol of American prosperity. Similarly, the London Underground was selected on 7/7 for maximum disruption of the city. Perhaps what these men were actually targeting here was a symbol, a European flashpoint which they were aware could reignite heated debates over the place of Muslims in Europe. In so doing, they could deepen already profound rifts in French society and establish an atmosphere ripe for the recruitment of alienated youths, struggling to find their place in a society ever more hostile to their presence.

Why France? After all, the Danes initiated the cartoon controversy. In recent years, France has seen increasing restrictions on religious freedom, denounced by Amnesty International and other bodies monitoring human rights. From the ban on headscarves in schools to face veils in public spaces, alongside countless controversies over everything from prayer rooms to halal food, the cycle of media ire directed at Muslims has become near-incessant. This has not gone unnoticed by extremists, who have used these issues in their output to proclaim France as a land of inequity where Muslims can never truly be at home. They have even used these events in propaganda videos to argue for Muslim emigration to Isis-run territory. We know that France has one of the highest numbers of foreign fighters recruited, which suggests some of this rhetoric is resonating.

Secondly, why Charlie Hebdo? The magazine was, of course, the French focal point of several controversies surrounding incendiary depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. As a consequence of its choice to print images that many other publications considered pointlessly offensive, it was eulogised by anti-Muslim hate-mongers who used the issue to assert a fundamental clash between “Islam and the west”, understood in the sort of monolithic terms which refused to recognise western Muslims or westerns who objected toCharlie Hebdo on grounds of prejudice, not religion. Although these earlier controversies were polarising, there was middle ground for both Muslims who either didn’t object or refused to care about what they saw as an attention-seeking publication and various mainstream voices, including a former Charlie Hebdo employee, Olivier Cyran, who denounced the magazine for aggravating an already toxic atmosphere for French Muslims.

By targeting Charlie Hebdo, the nuance of this discussion has been lost entirely and the attackers have succeeded in their attempt at polarisation. The #JeSuisCharlie and #IamCharlie Twitter hashtags, which required uncritical support of the magazine in lieu of sympathy with the murdered, only entrenched this schism. It is, of course, entirely possibly to have little sympathy with a publication which often crossed the line into racism, while having total empathy and solidarity with the individuals murdered. For many Muslims, these hashtags were an alienating challenge posited as “you’re either with us, or with the terrorists”. Some responded with their own, alternative hastags to underline the desire for solidarity with the dead and their disgust with the actions of the gunmen. Writer and activist Dyab Abou Jahjah initiated#JeSuisAhmed with:

For him, like for many Muslims and critics of Charlie Hebdo, a key principle was to avoid falling into precisely the sorts of binaries it seems this attack was designed to create.

Various outlets have made much of the fact Charlie Hebdo mocked “fanatics” – yes, they did, they mocked the sacred symbols of many groups, but those of Muslims on a particularly frequent basis and in a distinctly racialised tone. Not that this should ever warrant a violent response, but the eulogising of the magazine for some sort of mastery of European satirical tradition is a white wash of its chequered history as well as a capitulation to a simplistic narrative of “you’re either with the racist satirists or you’re with the terrorists”. That narrative serves only the extremes on both sides who want to perpetuate the notion that Muslims have no place in Europe – they now appear to be working to the same end to “make life harder for Muslims” (to quote one British neo-con writer), with al-Qaeda sympathisers and far-right stirrers converging to create the kind of schisms which would validate their narrative.

If these men turn out to be adepts of the cult that is Isis – the last tweet onCharlie Hebdo’s account was a cartoon of the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – then rather than usurping the tragedy as a means to berate Muslims for the alleged incompatibility of their faith with “European mores”, much more has to be done to ensure this greater alienation (the same variety which breeds identification with counter-cultural groups) isn’t deepened. We must ensure slogans of solidarity become more than just narrow and questionable support for the targeted publication and instead provide resistance to all those voices which seek to divide France, to entrench camps and harden the already worrying divides. Mosques and Muslims in France have already begun to experience a violent backlash, including a grenade attack, and it really is time to counter the hate behind these murders by rallying together behind a common solidarity – a solidarity rooted in the acceptance of difference, in respect for others, and a commitment to defeating those hell-bent on destroying the common fabric of our society.

Written by Myriam Francois

January 9, 2015 at 10:23

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New Statesman: Where has the French Left gone?

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You can read the full article on the NS site here

Can a Socialist government committed to austerity measures still be called Socialist? This is one of the questions facing the French Left following President Francois Hollande’s recent decision to disband the government to expel voices critical of his new economic direction. The dissolution – the second in six months – has been described as a purge of dissident voices, with the replacement of, among others, the now former economic minister Arnaud Montebourg, an avowedly anti-austerity figure who takes a Krugman-esque line, by business-friendly former Rothschild banker Emmanuel Macron, who controversially questioned France’s sacrosanct 35 hour working week. Montebourg recently publicly blamed Hollande for choking the economy with spending cuts and has become the symbol for a movement of Leftist rebels, “les Frondeurs”, who argue that France should not be “aligning itself with the obsessions of the German right“.

Montebourg’s replacement is a confirmation that the government’s direction on economic matters would not be open to question. The dissolution comes after two previous reshuffles, the previous of which saw the appointment of Manuel Valls as Prime Minister in March, a move which was widely seen as an attempt to resituate the PS in the political centre, given Valls’ commitment to cutting public spending and reaching out to the business sector. The new cabinet reflects Hollande’s commitment to Valls’ vision and willingness to sacrifice the left of his party, for whom a central sticking point has been diverging visions on how to revive France’s flailing economy, with Hollande’s camp advocating cutting, against those who favour more borrowing.

The dissolution reflects the increasing pressure on Hollande to turn around a dire economic outlook. Despite two years in power, the government has failed to reverse growing unemployment and growth this year has been downgraded to 0.5 per cent. Hollande’s shifting strategy now involves integrating voices more conciliatory towards his centrist line, best exemplified by his new chief of staff, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, a former minister under center-right former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

President Hollande began his presidency with the strongest mandate for any left-wing government for 30 years, including a Socialist majority in the National Assembly. But his political wavering combined with personal scandals and his decision to dissolve the government three times, have left the public sceptical as to his abilities at a time where public confidence is at an all-time low. Polls indicate public approval ratings of just 17 per cent, and Hollande is now the bearer of the unenviable title of most unpopular president since polling records began. Whereas his Socialist predecessors all left their mark in the form of a significant social reforms (income support under Mitterrand, the 35 hour working week under Jospin, etc), it remains unclear what social contribution will mark Hollande’s legacy.

The same president who rode the anti-austerity wave to power and terrified the City with comments like “the finance sector is my enemy“ has been seen to be increasingly toeing the German line. Despite his promise to get tough with the finance sector, the appointment of a former Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist as new economic adviser says otherwise and the recent reshuffle has been seen as the replacement of Left-wing socialists with finance sector aficionados. For many within the party, this represents a betrayal of the very mandate Hollande had been elected to carry out.

Over the last week at the Socialist summer convention in La Rochelle, Prime Minister Valls has sought to portray himself as the purveyor of “Leftist realism” in the face of those accusing him and the government of kowtowing to austerity measures, repeating that the government “doesn’t practise austerity“ despite plans for further public spending cuts and tax breaks for businesses. But the balancing act which sees Hollande simultaneously try to appease the EU call for budget restraint while maintaining the support of the left wing of his party, has inevitably left him looking weak and ineffective. Even among Socialists, only 58 per cent have confidence in the government’s plan.

And despite a strong mandate, the Socialists have been unable to truly implement policies which reflect Leftist principles, instead, they’ve been restricted in that implementation by EU directives and arguably forced to rethink the very nature of Leftist economic policy. If Leftist politics is about rhetoric and not substance, given that the substance is decided elsewhere, the result can only ultimately be disillusionment with mainstream politics. This leaves “Flanby”, as President Hollande has been nicknamed, looking very wobbly, but it also plays into the nationalistic rhetoric of the FN, which rails against EU intrusions. Ultimately, a divided and incoherent Left leaves the way open for Marine Le Pen to target those workers traditionally more likely to lean Left. This is all the more worrying when one considers that a recent poll put her at the top of the next presidential race, and in light of the erosion of support for the radical Left party, where the charismatic Jean-Luc Mélenchon has recently stepped down.

The dilemma was succinctly summarised by Montebourg in an interview with Le Monde, in which he stated: “If we align ourselves with the most extreme orthodoxy of the German right, this will mean French people’s votes have no legitimacy and alternatives do not count.” The danger of further disillusionment with the main parties is the inevitable outcome.

For the French Left, there seems to be two competing visions. Either support a re-vamping of the Socialist party to fit the limitations of the EU framework and in so doing, ultimately alienate a core, ideologically motivated grassroots or call, as some of the radical Left have, for the setting of national objectives in defiance of the limitations imposed by Brussels (possibly as part of a movement for a Sixth Republic, as advocated by Radical Leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon). The third – and possibly more likely – option involves infighting within the Socialist party, which will likely paralyse the government. Could the narrow room for manoeuvre for political parties as imposed by the EU ultimately undermine national politics to the extent of buttressing radical parties? The rise of the Front National could be one indication of this. It remains to be seen whether the Left will succeed in offering a competing vision to Le Pen’s increasing monopoly of that protest vote. What is more certain is that the infighting within the main parties on both Left and Right could mean politics will increasingly be played out on the margins.

Written by Myriam Francois

September 22, 2014 at 10:55

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

Sky news Press Preview: Sunday 6th of May 2012

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Nigel Farage, UKIP Leader and MEP, and I doing the press preview on Sunday 6th May 2012, 9h30pm, discussing the French and Greek elections which headline the papers.

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Written by Myriam Francois

May 6, 2012 at 17:23

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.‎