Banning the French National Front: when democracy hides its face

Article published on Dec. 2, 2002
community published
Article published on Dec. 2, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

What if the debate on banning the French National Front is only hiding a deeper crisis, that of a society that has run out of political courage?

This is a debate that springs up regularly. The debate on banning the French National Front (Front National - FN) has most recently started up again following the FN presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen making it through to the second round of voting on 21 April 2002. But for 10 years, at every election, the FN's share of the vote has increased. The intellectuals go on a bit about how worried they are, then fall quiet again. As many of April's anti-Le Pe protestors are now saying, an FN victory was impossible The debate on the FN is prisoner to this double alternative, this swinging back and forth between panic and forget. It is actually easy to prove that Le Pen's party, full of contradictions, appears badly equipped to win an election. But the unease hidden behind the success of the FN is less freely admitted. This feeling will surely survive the party itself. Therefore, the real debate is less focussed on whether or not to ban the FN, than on examining the context that saw its birth.


Intrinsic contradictions

Established in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen on the ruins of many different extreme-right movements, the FN brings together ex-Waffen SS as well as royalist Action Française partisans, Vichyists, Poujadists, members of the OAS, the New Order, anarchist-trade unionists... This ideological mix-up was recreated at the militant level: nice bourgeois rubbed shoulders with the unemployed of labourers let down by the left. This is the heterogeneity of a movement that borrows many elements from fascism: antisemitism; the authority of the State over the individual; ethnocentricity; racism; Nationalism; collective identification with a national destiny; limiting individual and collective freedoms; hierarchical structure. In recruitment as in rhetoric, the FN places itself firmly in the camp of the disillusioned: those let down by traditional political parties, by "corruption", enemies of democracy they band together to denounce a representative democracy they see as a decadent regime. The paradox is that it is precisely this democracy that allows Le Pen to freely express his anti-democratic ideas. So, does letting Le Pen speak freely endanger democracy? Or does banning the FN mean that democracy forget its most fundamentaly prinicple, the freedom speech, and contradict itself?

The ghost of censorship: the tree that hides the forest

The debate on banning the FN is a false one for several reasons. Firstly, the FN draws most of its unity from the populist charisma of Le Pen. Since he is beginning to get old, it is highly likely that the party crumble of its own accord after he leaves. Then, the FN vote has often served over the last elections as a protest vote against the ruling parties. This protest vote has self-imposed limits: many of those who vote FN have no desire to Le Pen president. Finally, France has already coped with similar movements in its history, indeed more violent that the FN, without the need for banning them. The FN in itself is not a treat that could justify a measure so radical. But gassing on to infinity about whether or not to ban the FN permits the elusion of the context that has made the FN dangerous.

The FN developed in a degraded economic, social and political environment. Its success is clearly linked to the rise in unemployment. Added to this are the problems in the 'banlieues' (suburbs - closest British example is a council estate (tr.)), surrounded by a hypocrisy which borders on irresponsibility. The phenomenon is thus boiled down to a purely urban one whilst what is really at stake is the integration of differences in a Republic built on an ideal of national unity. But the FN has clearly also profited from the crisis of confidence which has befallen the political class, discredited by "business", unable to resolve the problems of employment and security.

Weak coalitions and the overarching Europe

Institutional and European integration problems must also be evoked. The French Constitution is written in such a way that in the case of a coalition government, the president and the prime minister prevent each other from carrying out the policies for which they were elected. Combined with this is narrower room for manoeuvre in the budget as a result of the Stability Pact. This gives economic and social policy which is dead centre, neither left nor right, that lets down both sides. Add to this insufficient information on the daily consequences of the EU. Here again the same taboo as seen with the problem of the 'banlieue': we prefer not to talk about it, for fear of noticing that the voter is not as progressive and open-minded as we would like. And let us add that the haze surrounding Europe is very useful for justifying decisions that politicians do not want to take responsibility for.

This is why the banning of the FN appears in many ways to be a false question. This is an advantage: avoiding a debate on the problems that really anger and that constitute a viable base for FN populism. With every presidential election a new burst of anguish that we are quick to forget. All in all, a French democracy that is far less under threat from the FN than it is by its own lack of political courage.