Monday,28 May, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)
Monday,28 May, 2018
Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Europe’s French connection

Supporters of the European Union everywhere are heaving sighs of relief at the landslide election victory of Emmanuel Macron as the new French president, writes Hany Ghoraba

European Union advocates can breathe a sigh of relief at the defeat of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and the landslide victory of Emmanuel Macron at 65.8 per cent of the vote in the second round of the French presidential elections that took place on 7 May. The French values of liberty prevailed on that day, and the meteoric rise of alt-right and far-right movements received a major setback in their ambitions for political hegemony across Europe.

After the defeat of the Dutch far-right candidate Geert Wilders, the leader of the amusingly named Party of Freedom, in the country’s elections in 2017, there has come another strike to far-right ambitions in the defeat of head of the French National Front Party Marine Le Pen in the French presidential elections.

Nevertheless, the fact that Le Pen received a whopping 34.2 per cent of the vote in the elections was unprecedented for a far-right candidate in France, signifying a changing of the tides on the political scene and an alarming acceptance of far-right and alt-right political views on the mainstream level. She attained considerable gains despite her party holding no more than two seats in the 577-seat French National Assembly.

The increasing popularity of the far right in France can be measured in terms of the higher percentage of votes in 2017 for Le Pen, which at over 34.2 per cent was much higher compared to her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s presidential bid in 2002 when he received only 17.8 per cent of the vote against former president Jacques Chirac who won by a historic landslide of 82.2 per cent.

With over one third of French voters voting for Le Pen this time round, amounting to over 10.6 million French citizens, immigration problems in France were the elephant in the room in the elections and a main topic of contention between Le Pen and her opponent President-elect Macron. Le Pen was in favour of tightening the immigration process in France and even expelling many immigrants or naturalised citizens deemed unfit to bear French citizenship.

Le Pen’s severe case of xenophobia did not appeal to the majority of French citizens, however, who are known to believe in intercultural, interfaith and interracial coexistence within France and abroad. This is a practical manifestation of the French revolutionary motto of liberté, egalité, fraternité, or freedom, equality and fraternity.

Le Pen also introduced herself as the vanguard against Islamist terrorism and vowed to ban the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in France. However, her record as leader of the National Front and her controversial statements over the years have made the French public aware that her stance is not simply against the terrorists of the Muslim Brotherhood group but that she and her party paint all Muslims with the same brush. Furthermore, founder of the party Jean-Marie Le Pen is notorious for his anti-Semitic and Anti-Islamic slurs, and he has become so divisive an agent within French society that even his own daughter cannot bear to handle him.

Her attempts to distance herself from her father’s statements, for example by visiting Al-Azhar in Egypt and appearing more tolerant, have seemed contrived. They have also not erased the racist stains from the party’s record because her stance has been clear from the beginning, especially as she has followed in the footsteps of her racist father. Even the fact that she had an Egyptian-born assistant, Jean Messiha, managing her elections campaign this year was not enough to convince the majority of the population in France that she is a candidate that can represent the whole French nation with its diverse multi-ethnic constituencies.

Le Pen’s radical economic plans have also worried the majority of French citizens, wary of radical and uncalculated shifts based on imprecise statistics. After all, the current standing of France as the world’s top tourist destination is partly owed to the Schengen visa system, which provides great accessibility to the country from all across Europe and to those visiting the Old Continent on a Schengen visa.

Furthermore, the Euro currency has facilitated both European and non-European commercial dealings with France, despite the fact that some French exports may have been negatively affected due to the currency’s high value.

THREATS: Such details are usually intentionally skipped over by European ultra-nationalists who convince their deluded followers that their country can function perfectly well on its own just as soon as it gets rid of foreigners and severs commercial and political agreements with other nations.

But the truth is exactly the reverse: An immediate exit from the European Union would be catastrophic for France more even than for most other European nations. The economy of France has been formulated since 1957 on the basis of the European Economic Community (EEC), later the Common Market, which was the nucleus of today’s European Union. The painful, divisive and costly exiting of the United Kingdom from the European Union, the so-called Brexit, has discouraged French citizens from voting for an anti-EU candidate in their own country who could adopt policies that would eventually lead to an even more painful exit for France.

The Brexit has been helped by the UK’s more independent economy, based on the fact that the UK still utilises the pound sterling and not the euro, as does France. Exiting the Eurozone would necessitate shifting back to the French franc, with all the economic burdens and costs that would entail as a result. Accordingly, the plan to leave the EU has been doomed from the beginning in France, and French citizens are unwilling to gamble everything that has been achieved over past decades for a radical plan with questionable results.

The majority of the French nation believes that while it is imperative to fight back against the Muslim Brotherhood and its terrorist affiliates such as the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Qaeda while maintaining the secular nature of the French Republic, this is a fight that cannot be fought by bigoted or racist far-right candidates or neo-fascists. Such fascist groups play a huge part in Islamist propaganda and victimisation techniques that cite bigoted and racist rhetoric against Muslims and other minorities in France in order to recruit more deluded young Frenchmen and women to their ranks.

The majority of French people believe that the Islamists should be stripped of that weapon. Moreover, the pillars of freedom, equality and fraternity should be among the weapons of choice in fighting the radicalisation of French society. These pillars, along with tightening security measures, will be the keys to defeating terrorism decisively in France and elsewhere.

It is becoming more evident that EU membership, though tempting for non-EU countries, is becoming less popular within the citizens of the founding members of the Union themselves. Its immigration laws, interventionist policies and overspending, along with unpopular social and economic policies, are becoming more difficult to bear for many European citizens.

Yet, France has displayed to the rest of Europe and the world in the recent elections that despite being under extreme duress fighting terrorism and other domestic issues it has chosen liberty and unity instead of fascism, xenophobia and racism. Solving France’s problems will not be attained through electing radicals and fascists because that would be the equivalent of setting a house on fire to exterminate mice.

President-elect Macron said during his election campaign that Europe’s problems could not be fixed without fixing France’s problems, which he has been quite accurate in describing. As eighth president of the French Fifth Republic, Macron now has an uphill battle to restore the confidence of French citizens in the political system, to defeat terrorism, to kick start an economy in recession and to deal with a range of social and political issues as the successor to incumbent president Francois Hollande. The challenge is immense for the young 39-year-old who upped the ante during his election campaign as the would-be saviour of France.

Macron has five years to deliver on his promises to the French nation and even to the European Union whose sustained existence relies on the victory he has just scored. The EU may have been proven to be a disappointment to many, but it definitely trumps the costs of dismantling it at the hands of ultra-nationalists and other fascists, who, if successful, would not hesitate before pitting each other against each other in a new and unpredictable conflict.

The European Union remains the glue that keeps Europe intact until the wave of neo-fascism recedes. However, EU leaders, especially those in the European Parliament, have their work cut out for them to revise and reverse the policies that have led to its increasing unpopularity and the animosity directed towards it by its own citizens.

Europe has still to witness another crucial test that will affect its unity in the form of the German elections in September. But until then EU advocates may consider that they have dodged a bullet that was aimed at the Union’s very existence in the election of Macron as president in France.

The writer is a political analyst, writer and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and Winding Road for Democracy.

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