On Sunday, May 25, French voters went to the polls to elect representatives to the European parliament, and France's far-right nationalist party, the National Front, surprised the world by coming in first place with 25 percent of the vote -- well ahead of the center-right UMP party with 21 percent or president Hollande's socialist party with just 14 percent. This is harrowing news, or as Prime Minister Valls has called it, a political "earthquake." Yet despite what you might read in the underbelly of the Internet (I'm looking at you, user-comment sections), it is not a sign that France is turning "fascist," for several reasons:
This Was a European, Not a National, Election.
Issues that dominate the National Front's platform in national elections (immigration reform, the breakdown of "law and order") tend to take a back seat in European elections, where the focus turns toward eurosceptic concerns, including abandoning the euro, reclaiming sovereignty previously granted to European institutions and reestablishing some form of borders between France and its European neighbors. As a result, we cannot assume that the people who voted for the National Front on Sunday, many of whom feel alienated from the decision-making process in Brussels, would have also opted to do so in a national election. In addition, European parliament elections have notoriously high abstention rates (for yesterday's election in France, it is estimated to be 57 percent), in large part, because people do not have a clear idea of how the institutions work. Many of the important issues facing the EU are not widely understood or easily explained, certainly in comparison to the simplicity of a eurosceptic platform; a situation that is likely to inflate the percentage of eurosceptics motivated to head to the polls.
The National Front's Ideas May Be Deeply Offensive or Dangerous, But Not Fascist.
This is an important distinction to make, or as Anne Sinclair, editor of the French version of the Huffington Post, reminded us in her editorial Monday morning, this is a time when we need to be careful not to lump everything together. James Shields pointed out in his 2007 book, The Extreme Right in France, that while the National Front embodies some aspects of fascism, including "exclusionary nationalism, anti-egalitarianism, anti-liberalism, anti-communism, among others," it lacks "features which are integral to historical fascism," including, the "rejection of democracy, the single-party state, political violence, militarism, corporatism, anti-conservatism, [and] the 'leadership cult' in a real sense." (page 310). It is true that over the years, the National Front has defended some genuinely offensive and dangerous ideas (most notably, comments from the party's former leader, Jean-Marie LePen, that the Nazi gas chambers were a "detail" of history), but it has never taken an explicit position against democracy, an important ingredient in the definition of fascism. The memory of World War II looms large in popular American representations of Europe (remember the "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" during a high-point of francophobia in the early 2000s?), and so it is understandable that "fascism" is on the tips of many tongues when looking at events in Europe, but such a limited prism can easily distort our perspective of contemporary politics.
Most if Not All the National Front's Ideas Find Echoes in the Rhetoric of the U.S. Republican Party.
Americans pointing their fingers at France today could benefit from taking a look at the National Front's platform, which focuses on drastically reducing immigration, passing laws for harsher sentencing of convicted criminals, deporting immigrants who are unemployed or who commit even minor crimes, avoiding limitations of national sovereignty by supranational institutions, and reestablishing the death penalty in France. I challenge anyone to find something in this list that would fall outside accepted discourse within the Republican party in the United States, certainly among Tea Partiers. For anyone who sees the success of the National Front as a sign that France is on the path to fascism, it might be a productive exercise to compare it to what is going on here at home.