The 2022 French Presidential election was controversial for a variety of reasons, the largest being the fact that a far-right populist managed to reach the final stages. Marie Le Pen and her political party have long-lasting ties to xenophobic, anti-semitic, and racist ideologies. While Emmanuel Macron has faced robust opposition from the French populace for being the “president of the rich”, most French politicians knocked out in the primaries called for their supporters to vote for Macron in order to ensure the loss of Le Pen. Marie Le Pen’s popularity is high due to the rise of far-right and anti-immigrant sentiment across France and the rest of Europe. Why are far-right populists gaining popularity across the globe? What factors are motivating constituents to vote along far-right lines? These factors vary from state to state, but in the case of France, anger regarding the effects of globalization and anti-Muslim sentiment seems to be two of the largest motivating factors.
A look into French History
French democracy has produced systems of oppression and violence before. Following the French revolution, the French political systems slipped into illiberal democracy and then dictatorship under Napoleon Bonaparte. The illiberal democracy that emerged following the French Revolution put an estimated 20 to 40 thousand people to death for “counter-revolutionary efforts”. However, following the collapse of Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire, a violent uprising referred to as the “Paris Commune” led to the transition to the Third Republic, France’s third attempt at democracy. This third effort was the best yet, supplemented by social, economic, and cultural reforms. These reforms created the true “French identity”, and consolidated French nationhood and democracy. While the Third Republic fell during WWII, but following the end of the conflict democracy returned, and has remained since.
Far-right ideals have been increasing in popularity
Extremists have been making attempts to normalize autocratic-friendly nationalistic messaging throughout Europe, and Le Pen’s political success is confirmation of that fact. Many news outlets have been acknowledging the loss of Le Pen as a win for the far-right, considering the proportion of votes she was able to win over Macron (41%). Her ideas to distance France from Germany, the European Union, and NATO are in line with other isolationist movements across Europe (i.e. Brexit). So why have European political attitudes shifted towards nationalism and isolationism? When Le Pen faced Macron in the 2017 French presidential election, she only garnered 34% of the vote, and when her debatably even more radical father was in the running, he only managed to get 18% of the vote. While Le Pen lost this election, the support for her far-right and borderline fascist ideas is increasing.
What do the experts think?
Jean-Yves Camus, a French journalists and political analyst, says that a portion of the French population “believe in the war against Islam, and view the Muslim community as the enemy within.” Evidently, anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise within France, and far-right politicians have been capitalizing on this hate and utilizing the French Muslim community as a scapegoat for economic and social issues. Some of Le Pen’s main platforms include the French re-establishing full sovereignty from the European Union, limiting or ending immigration, and the fact that Islam is not compatible with the French Republic. French political scientist Vincent Martignty has pointed towards the “double polarization” phenomenon gripping the French constituency, with many French citizens viewing both Macron and Le Pen as polarizing figures. When he burst upon the political scene, Macron was perceived as a symbol of hope, a young man who could bring an end to the whims of older politicians and needed social change. However, his campaign has been an amalgamation of successes and failures, and while he presented himself as neither a left or right candidate, it has become clear that he is center-right. His center-right oriented policy has left much of the French working class wishing for more. So, Le Pen has capitalized on the working class’ woes, by presenting herself as the champion of those “left behind” by globalization, who have seen their competitiveness in the global labor market decrease as the world has become more globalized
Anxiety regarding immigrant integration has also been shown to increase support for far-right political actors. This is certainly true in the case of France, where anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment have been on the rise the past few years. A terror attack that took place in Nice in 2016 increased anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment across France, resulting in an unstable social life for France’s Muslim immigrants. Shortly following the attack Le Pen said that “Islamism has hit again”, and stated that “it is possible to assimilate individuals, but not an entire people, who bring with them their culture and religion.” However, in areas with high concentrations of immigrants, anti-immigrant sentiment is lower. In Ile-de France, the region with the highest concentration of immigrants, has the lowest rates of anti-immigrant sentiment as of 2017. In FrancheComte, where the proportion of foreign-born individuals is lower than average across France, anti-immigrant sentiment is highest. These statistics provide evidence for contact theory, which purports that contact between two groups can promote tolerance and acceptance under certain conditions.
How Should France Combat Far-Right Politics?
Considering the aforementioned factors that encourage support for far-right political parties, the French government needs to combat income inequality and discontent regarding immigration. Considering the evidence supporting contact theory, distributing immigrants more evenly across the state may lead to anti-immigrant attitudes being lessened. However, placing immigrants in an area where anti-immigrant sentiment is high could lead to friction or even worse, violence. In regards to income inequality, Macron needs to make a concentrated effort to appease the working class so that they aren’t forced into the arms of far-right politicians such as Le Pen. In short, the French government should construct policy geared towards supporting the working class, and make efforts to reduce anti-immigrant sentiment across France.
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Ann Hollis Sanders
Thank you for your insight on this topic, Wais. I wasn’t knowledgeable on this subject and so I found it very intriguing. One of the parts that I found the most interesting was the anti-immigrant sentiment in the French far-right ideology that is like the United States’ far-right ideology. Since populism is typically the middle-class majority, the ordinary people, rising up to take vengeance on the elites, I find it interesting to think about how this places out in French presidential elections. These populist leaders are placing most of the blame on immigrants, especially those from Muslim countries, that have come into France and Europe as a whole. This is fascinating, because these immigrants are not the majority, privileged group of people which is the way that populism is typically set up. This is where I believe paranoia comes into play. When a politician is able to pin one group against another for their personal benefit, they are enacting paranoia. Sometimes paranoia can be prevented by the civilian, but other times the civilian is a victim of paranoia, not realizing what they are believing to be true. In this case, Le Pen is sticking unnecessary fear into the French people that these immigrants and Muslim people are out to harm the French and “cut them in line”. It is interesting to see how paranoia and populism can interact to form polarization within the state. This is most definitely a tactic that Le Pen is using to gain fame, as well a tactic that other far-right leaders are using across the globe.
Wais, thank you for the insight on this topic. As a student of French, I have always found French politics interesting as it closely resembles many issues within American politics. One of the biggest things about their democracy that I find interesting is the principle of separation between church and state. The French pride themselves on this immensely: marriage is divided between the legal contract and a religious ceremony (because it is not implied that marriage takes place in a church) and religious symbols cannot be worn in any public building, including schools. I do wish the United States had a better practice of separating church and state, but even the French’s theory has some flaws. While the purpose is to eliminate religious affiliation from government, there is obviously some favoritism that has slipped through. It is much easier to get away with wearing a cross necklace rather than a hijab, and wearing a hijab to school is necessary for certain Muslim women. Therefore, in this instance, the separation of church and state is rather oppressive as opposed to liberating, as the State is enforcing a policy that does not adhere to religious freedom. Obviously, this also adds to the anti-Islamic sentiment that you described in your post. In a world of globalization, it is easy for populist leaders such as Le Pen to use scapegoating for political gain. I agree Macron is also not the best option (he raised the retirement age a couple of years ago which really pissed people off), but at least he’s not Le Pen. There have been debates about allowing certain religious wear that is deemed necessary by the religion as more and more news stories come out about discrimination in schools. While I agree separation of church and state is crucial, there needs to be discernment and education about certain groups that allows them to thrive while still protecting them under the secular principle.
The rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in France, and across Europe, is certainly a major concern. Especially when considering the potential impacts of climate change. Climate change has already and is projected to significantly increase the number of refugees in the world. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees an annual average 21.5 million people have been displaced by weather related events since 2008. While they are not necessarily refugees, this is a great point of concern. Think tanks have projected that by 2050, over a billion people could be displaced globally due to climate change. With anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise, this becomes an even bigger issue because these people will need a place to go. In both academia and government, we should focus on figuring out the best strategies to combat this wave of far right extremism and find ways to lower anti-immigrant sentiment so that if we fail to make progress on the climate crisis, we will be able to deal with the even larger refugee crisis that could be on our hands by 2050. On the point of contact theory and the Ile-de region, I was reminded of a study from a few years ago that looked at Islamophobia in Liverpool, England. The study found that since Mohamed Salah joined Liverpool F.C., hate crimes decreased by 19% and anti-Muslim comments online decreased by 50%. Trying to find a solution to combat these far right politics in France, and other European nations that are experiencing a rise in far right extremism, should absolutely include discussions of contact theory. Additionally something that you and I have personally discussed that I feel that I have to mention is how disgusting it is that many French people will celebrate their 2018 World Cup winning team that had Muslim players such as Pogba or Kante, and then will turn around and discriminate against Muslims the very next day.
Thanks for your input on this topic! As someone who has studied in France and has followed their politics for the past couple of years, this is a topic that is very intriguing to me. As Ashley said, it does resemble American politics and history in some ways, but I think it is important to understand how the two cultures/political environments are distinctly their own. One is the way the concept of the separation of church and state is understood. Although since the 1950s, this line in the American context has been blurred, the American understanding is that the government should not interfere with the church and vise-versa, meaning that the government should not advocate for one over the other, but individuals are free to practice (or not practice) openly. In theory, a person’s religious affiliation in no way relates to their status as a citizen. On the other hand, the French understanding is more so that individuals should suppress outward expressions of their religion for the sake of “French identity” which is how they have arrived at the current rhetoric revolving around how Islam and Frenchness are incompatible, when that is not the case in the US. It is also true that christianity does not face this stigma to the same extent. The hijab in France is seen as a form of separatism that weakens republican ideals. This culture in combination with the media coverage of recent terrorist attacks has contributed to the rise of far-right populism in France. In my opinion, the French understanding of the separation of church and state adds more to the treatment of Muslims as second-class citizens (often called second-generation regardless of their family’s history in the country.) Therefore, I think that there should be a shift in the conversation that dismantles the notion that being French and being Muslim are mutually exclusive.