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Lessons of Le Pen

Article by Mark Leonard

September 15, 2006

The success of Le Pen was greeted in Britain as a seismic political event. The Times produced a four-page pull out special, normally an honour reserved for Royal Weddings and the death of former Beatles. Even the tabloid press devoted acres of space to Le Pen – complete with the obligatory photos of Hitler – and made dark predictions about the “spectre of fascism haunting Europe”. But the media uproar missed the real threat: the danger is not that Le Pen will become President of France. It is that his policies will seep into the platforms of mainstream political parties (including the UK). Claims that fascism itself is on the march are not backed by the polling figures. It is not just that Le Pen only got a couple more percentage points in 2002 than in 1997. Support for extreme parties everywhere has fluctuated over the last decade – rising in some countries and falling in others. In Switzerland, Belgian and Norway, the Hard Right has made gains. But in Austria support for Jorg Haider now seems to have peaked. In Italy the National Alliance lost a quarter of its support in last year’s general election. Even in Denmark, routinely referred to as the next country threatened by the far-right, support for Pia Kjaersgaard and her Danish People’s Party has started to decline from the 12% she won in a recent national vote.

The biggest question is whether mainstream parties can respond to this challenge, particularly on the Left. So far, they have either been cowed into silence (choosing instead to talk about their preferred topics of education and social solidarity) or forced to ape the hard-line policies of the right. The shortcomings of Jospin’s campaign have been well documented – from his desiccated oratory style to his wild changes of political direction. But what chimes with British political history is his abject failure to persuade the electorate that the Left is capable of dealing with crime and immigration. Le Pen cannily exploited Jospin’s na�e admission that he thought crime would come down in tandem with falling unemployment. His plan for a rationalized “super-ministry” to co-ordinate France’s various forces of law didn’t capture the electorate’s imagination in the way that successful political narratives must: it was too abstract and technical. Crucially, it failed to refute Le Pen’s seductive promise that the crime wave could be solved by 200 000 extra prison places. The alternative mistake is even worse – trying to outflank the extremists on their own territory. There is, after all, a thin line between drawing the sting from the Far Right and co-opting their priorities. It is the mainstream conservative party, not the fascists that is talking about repatriation in Denmark. In Austria the left is toughening up on asylum. In Britain this week Home Secretary David Blunkett spoke of the dangers of immigrants “swamping” schools, and called for them to be educated in separate classes. If a foam-flecked demagogue of the far right had advocated these policies they would have been universally condemned. Whatever the intent of the remarks, they conferred gripes about immigrants with mainstream respectability. As The Economist argued this week: “The uncomfortable truth is that there is a price to be paid for being “connected”. The apocalyptic coverage of Le Pen’s success has masked the incoherence and vulnerability of his platform. The problem is not that mainstream parties cannot come up with a more credible stance on crime and immigration – it is that their complacency and inherited ideological baggage has stopped them from connecting with the concerns of many citizens. The Left does not need to abandon its values – but it does need to start from the perspective of working class citizens who are most affected by these social problems. For decades, the British Labour Party had the same problem as Jospin with crime. Between 1979 and 1992 its instincts were far more progressive than the electorate’s. It was caricatured as being more interested in the welfare of criminals than victims – and would avoid talking about the issue at any cost. In the early nineties, following the shocking murder of a toddler by two children in Liverpool, they adopted a different approach. Tony Blair, then a rising star in the party, coined the phrase “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” dealing robustly with criminals whilst also spending more on social ills. At a stroke, the left had a tough and intelligent political message that out- maneuvered right wing calls for more retribution. The then Conservative Prime Minister, John Major’s remark: “We should condemn a little more and understand a little less” seemed bone-headed in comparison. This is the kind of message that Jospin failed to communicate.

As immigration into the EU increases, anti-system parties will continue to exploit the antagonisms that arise as immigrants arrive in culturally conservative communities. Le Pen is not the only right-winger likely to trade on notoriety and feed on the condemnation of an “out of touch political establishment”. But the left has yet to develop a convincing narrative on immigration. This has to be the big challenge of the decade. It should start with the economic imperative for immigration, the benefits that successive migrants have brought to our countries – but it must marry these to a system that enjoys public support. Politicians from the Left need to preach the economic benefits of migrants for a continent with an ageing population and severe skills shortages. This might sound like madness: presenting the xenophobic right with an open goal. But as long as extremists go unchallenged in presenting immigration as a threat rather than an opportunity, they will be to exploit the “indecision” and “weakness” of mainstream politicians. Establishing a clear framework for economic migration which is aligned to our economic needs must go hand in hand with schemes to integrate newcomers into our societies through language tuition, skills recognition and labour market policies which allow them to become contributors to the national economy. The European Left should be eclectic and radical in borrowing policy prescriptions which allow them to show that immigration is an opportunity rather than a threat. For example the Canadian “Private Sponsorship Programme” allows community groups to subsidize migrants through their first year in a country. This neutralizes complaints that refugees represent a “burden” on the state and creates a political climate in which far greater numbers can be admitted.

This isn’t just a national challenge. With immigration the nation state no longer has the power to solve the problem on its own. A hotchpotch of different regimes throughout Europe, without co-ordination between customs and police forces, increases the numbers of illegal migrants slipping into Europe. There is electoral mileage in pointing out that the prescriptions of the far-right – dismantling the European Union – would make the problem far worse. But more importantly mainstream politicians need to develop policy solutions that clearly embody the values and priorities of European citizens: a well-run migration scheme that is in line with our economic needs, and a strong framework for the integration of refugees. The collective political class is on trial on this issue.

If they get it wrong – either by failing to come up with progressive solutions or by failing to find a language which connects – we will all pay the price. The success of Le Pen is rightly seen as a triumph of anti-politics over a political system that doesn’t connect anymore. The anarchists have a slogan to express these sentiments: “it doesn’t matter if the left or right get more votes – the government will win”. The danger that Europe faces is that the anarchist slogan becomes a reality in a perverse way: it doesn’t matter who wins the elections, Le Pen’s policies will win.

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