Should the National Front be banned?

Article published on Dec. 10, 2002
community published
Article published on Dec. 10, 2002

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

The French extreme right party instils fear by its rhetoric of violence and exclusion. But should democracy be afraid of the dangers of freedom of expression?

Following the ban on the Basque nationalist party Batasuna by the Madrid authorities, the legitimacy of European extreme right movements and of their painful integration into the democratic forum has been called into question. In France, the National Front has been conspicuous for its constant and enduring electoral successes over the past two decades, the evidence of which is troubling. France is a parliamentary democracy, and the freedom of expression is engraved in her national constitution of 1789. If nearly a fifth of France's population supports the party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, one would like to believe that this is down to responsibility and liberty. However, democratic minds, which are thankfully in the majority, dream of a political debate from which this party is absent, since its leading line tends toward violence and exclusion. Thus it is easy to foresee the range of democratic issues that would be raised by questioning the legitimacy of a party which is in itself a challenge to democracy.

Should it be banned? Should it be integrated into the traditional political forum? These questions resurface from time to time. When, in March 2002, Le Pen struggled to get the support of 500 elected representatives necessary for him to be considered as a candidate for the presidency of the Republic, numerous people protested against the censuring of a movement which, as repugnant as it may be, had the support of 5 million people over a 15 year period. Must it then be accepted as a normal political force? But this tentative recognition lasted only as long as the period of exceptional circumstance, and, between the two rounds of the same presidential election, the traditional debate between the two chosen men could not take place because the presidential candidate Chirac refused: to debate with the National Front would be pointless, its rhetoric is exclusionary and futile, centred on exclusion and violence, and exploiting the public's fear and frustrations. Must it then be prohibited? This alternative cannot be ignored; it is not possible to brush aside the NF's success by putting it down to a crisis of democracy, of political values, of current day citizens' courage. The terms of the debate are rooted in the very foundations of the democratic idea and its implementation.

In a real democracy, the views of the National front would be respected.

Democracy is not straightforward, it does not exist in just one form, and it is difficult to fully comprehend. Democracy is not just a word, or those which think it is, justly, do not dare to reflect on its meaning, and err by lack of precision. Our working democracy is the result of a painful synthesis born from the blood of The Terror, then from the Commune, from between the ideals of authoritarian liberalism and direct democracy. From this has resulted our current institutional form of representative parliamentary democracy. That which affects freedom of speech and political responsibility remains imprecise, or in any case barely identified, torn between the different components of this political construction whose unity is fragile. In essence, democracy exalts freedom of speech and respect for all opinions, but it places the condition of responsibility on each member of society; in other words, in a true democracy each citizen is educated, cultured, and comprehends the dangers of extremism. Every time he speaks of politics, the true democratic citizen is listened to and respected, and there is no need to inform him of the irresponsibility of his opinions since his political education is complete. It is this that permits all opinions to be respected. This idea has presided in respect to the rhetoric of the National Front. Under its influence, one is tempted to agree to enter into talks with it, to want to prove the error of its ways but in good faith, to hope to find some degree of accuracy in its ideas... Thus one is faced with a discussion on the reform of the electoral system in legislative elections: if democracy invites all opinions to participate in the political construction of the nation's future, proportional representation must be introduced, or at least some measure of it as in Italy, and deputies marked by the tricolour flame be confronted.

This theoretical model seems tempting, but one must resolve oneself to reality. The National Front is not like other political parties. When proportional representation allowed it to have thirty-five members in the National Assembly, from 1986 to 1988, the extreme right parliamentary group positioned itself in systematically provocative and futile opposition, punctuated by ridiculous verbal and gestural violence. Since 1984, its ten deputies in the European Parliament have provided a spectacle of the same order. Rather than exclusion by the traditional parties, it is the extremist party that has excluded itself from the traditional political forum by refusing to conduct itself in a justified and responsible manner over the major problems thrown up by time, or by its neurotic and categorical refusal of everything that is not raised by an authoritarian blind belief in an unrealistic France. In this case, why leave this unproductive party to serve and develop? Why not ban it? One remembers the uproar that followed the acceptation by the president of the Rhone-Alps region, Charles Millon, of the votes of the elected Frontists which allowed his re-election. The president of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, condemned his actions and denounced the "racist and xenophobic" party. Charles Millon responded by proposing an alternative: either the National Front is clearly a racist and xenophobic party and so it must be banned just as the law states for such organisations, or it is not banned and he retains his political position as he obtained the necessary votes. In addition to the irresponsibility of a leader who fears losing his place, it is possible to see the difficulty of giving a response.

In the kingdom of uncertainty, the NF is king

The response to a ban is evidently difficult, especially if the party proposing it would seize the place acquired by the extreme right party over the last 20 years. It was said that its popularity owed much to the Machiavellianism of Francois Mitterand who would have liked to create a body using the votes of the classic right without having to agree with it. Perhaps. It was also said that it was evidence of the decline of the politician and his integrity, of the lack of direction in a disintegrating society. Maybe this is also true. But if forced to be realistic and precise, one must point out that the National Front plays the role of a party that, although irresponsible, obtains the votes of those with a fixed opinion. The party was founded in 1972 by nostalgic people of all sorts, some who glorified the OAS, some the West, others even exalting Louis XVI. It was, and remains, an incoherent party without a clear political programme in which the leaders were ex-paratroopers or from old universities lacking revolutionary spirit. However, the distinction must be made between its leaders and those who vote for them.

Contrary to what one hears, support for the Front has been consistent since 1988, that is to say that the extreme right has gained between five and six million votes in every presidential election. Most of these have been for Jean-Marie Le Pen, the remainder for other candidates such as Philippe Villiers in 1995 or Bruno Megret in 2002. During its fifteen years The National Front has known how to exploit big changes in a society in which the political parties in power have only managed to offer hope in the form of consumer power to the people. The time of ideologies brought certainty to the electorate; its passing twenty years ago was accompanied by not only a crisis in the workers movement (the socialist party having tended towards an uncertain social liberalism), but also the questioning of the post-war social compromise brought about by the dismantling of the public system done in the name of neo-liberalism. All of this meant that the working classes (or at least a third of them) voted for the National Front in protest at this instability to which the right had resigned itself and to which the left no longer responded. Relegated to the suburbs which, venerated in 1960, had become deprived areas by 1990, the poorer classes saw their work change dramatically, their jobs become insecure in the name of flexibility, the wage relationship become individualised, and inequalities worsen. It was easy to exploit the fear and anguish of misery by making people believe in a collective salvation, that of nationality, of "being French". This was made all the more easy as the extremist party profited from the neo-liberal resignation of the socialist party to proclaim its nationalistic opposition to the very concept and definition of stateless liberalism.

It is thus that the National Front exploited people's fears and began to believe in them itself. It must continue to create fear: it was thought that the party's support would last no longer than its founder, but the recent emergence of his daughter Marine indicates that the party could find a new lease of life, a rejuvenated image, and this is a new reason to combat it. Banning it has already proven difficult. Batasuna was banned in Spain, but this party had broken the Social Contract in an obvious manner by not condemning the attacks of ETA which killed civilians every month. When a party, by its public irresponsibility, makes itself an accomplice to such mortal violence, it violates the contract that links it to the citizen. It is possible to say the same thing about the National Front. Evidently, it is a party that tends towards violence, irresponsibility, exclusion, and intolerance. It clearly has no political programme or plan, just anguish to exploit and chances for power to seize. But it has functioned as an antiestablishment outlet which underlines the disappointment and the pain of insecurity. One does not ban a party for this. For this, the solution is to combat it, to modernise, to get closer to the working classes who have left us for it, and to start to rebuild hope and united plans.