An ultra-liberal laments:
Two weeks ago, in the first round of the presidential elections, nearly one in five French voters opted for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extremist Front National party. Marine, who replaced her father, Jean-Marie, as party leader a little over a year ago, has donned a cloak of respectability, severing the organization’s ties to the most flagrant neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic groups. But the core of her appeal remains unchanged: It consists of hatred of Muslim immigrants, along with everyone else she considers alien to the French nation. Her tactic of giving racism a pretty veneer has clearly worked well. In her first run for president, she already gained a greater share of the vote than her father ever managed to muster.
Perhaps worse is the degree to which establishment politicians have imitated Le Pen’s words. In March, Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign spent the better part of two weeks talking about the danger unmarked halal meat allegedly posed to unsuspecting Parisians. After the horrific attacks in Toulouse, Sarkozy briefly dialed down his rhetoric. But since Le Pen’s strong showing in the first round of voting, he has sounded shriller than ever.
In the last several days, Sarkozy has repeatedly spoken of his country’s Christian roots, lamented that there are too many foreigners in France, and called Islam a threat to the nation’s values. An official campaign video released last week plays with people’s xenophobic fears, the camera zooming in on scores of African migrants landing on a European beach as Sarkozy promises to slash immigration. Nobody was taken by surprise, then, when Sarkozy concluded Wednesday night’s nationally televised presidential debate against Hollande with a direct appeal to Le Pen’s followers.
What was more surprising about the debate was the extent to which even Hollande tried to appeal to the far right. When Sarkozy contended that tensions between France’s ethnic groups are to be explained by the presence of “Islam in France,” Hollande vowed to uphold a ban on women wearing the burqa in public. When Sarkozy raised the issue of halal meat, Hollande vowed that France’s school cafeterias would not serve a single piece of halal meat during his presidency. Trying to outdo his rival, Hollande went out of his way to emphasize that, unlike Sarkozy, he had favored a ban on French schoolgirls wearing the veil as early as 2003.
All of this matters beyond France because, historically, what happens in Paris often portends what will happen elsewhere on the continent.
Like in France, established political parties across the continent at first vowed to shun surging populist leaders like Jörg Haider of Austria or Geert Wilders of the Netherlands. A cordon sanitaire was to unite all democrats in their fight against the far right threat. But unity did not last long. As populist parties in these countries gained in strength, traditional coalition governments, especially those formed by center-right parties, lost their majorities. Center-right leaders realized that to gain or preserve power they would have to cooperate with the populists. As a result, in one country after another, center-right parties that had once vowed to fight the far right have come to rely on them to prop themselves up.