Claude Guéant and France’s continuing slide to the far right under Nicolas Sarkozy

“All civilisations, all practices, all cultures, in light of our republican principles, are not equal.” – Claude Guéant, French Interior Minister, 4 January 2012

Coming from a fervent defender of tolerance, openness, women’s rights, gay rights and the like, there’s nothing wrong with the statement that certain cultural values found in Western society are superior to intolerant views held elsewhere. It’s something I’d certainly agree with – while I’m no Huntingtonite neocon, I’m certainly not a believer in cultural relativism, and do think that European society has it right on most of the key cultural issues that concern people’s daily lives.

Coming from Claude Guéant, however, such a statement is nothing but dogwhistle politics, designed to attract xenophobic support from the far right for the extremely shaky reelection bid of incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

It’s not the first example of Guéant’s attempts to play on the hatred of foreigners – and especially Muslims – that festers in the hearts of so many French citizens. Guéant is an expert in such divisive politics – and Nicolas Sarkozy’s right hand man when it comes to law and order, immigration and a whole host of other topics, not to mention his main emissary to the far right electorate.

It was Guéant who said in May 2011 that “Contrary to popular myth, it is untrue that we need the talents and skills that immigrants possess.” It was he, also, who said that same year that France only wanted “nice” immigrants. But above all, he brought in strict new rules on work permits for young foreign graduates – the famous “Guéant circular” about which I’ve written a couple posts – that made it near impossible for non-European students to stay in France after graduation.

As Françoise Fressoz of Le Monde pointed out on her blog today, a new IFOP-Journal du Dimanche poll showed incumbent right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and left-wing challenger François Hollande neck-and-neck at 33% in a hypothetical election where far right candidate Marine Le Pen fails to qualify for the presidential ballot (not at all impossible). What this has reaffirmed for the French right is that the solution to its problems is to continue to appeal to the xenophobes on the right in the hopes of mobilising and galvanising its electorate and beating extremely low expectations in the April/May presidential election.

This is why, says Fressoz:

Guéant has attacked the left for ‘not participating in the vote on banning the wearing of full veils’ and in recounting a left-wing politician’s ‘assurances that ‘street prayers do not bother anyone’…

The offensive is clearly directed against Islam. It has a dual objective: flirting with Le Pen’s electorate while Marine Le Pen is weakened by her uncertain quest to qualify for the ballot [in France, 500 signatures from local elected officials are required to qualify for the presidential election] and destabilising the Socialist Party whose leader, François Hollande, took up the theme of the “Republic” at his 22 January speech at Le Bourget… in Claude Guéant’s eyes, socialists do not know how to defend secularism.

And, says Fressoz, it will only worsen in the coming weeks and months as the presidential race identifies. But more than mere electoral politics, the French centre right has been eclipsed by a more strident, less politically correct ‘new right’ – echoing both Thatcher and Berlusconi, Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP no longer cares about political niceties and consensus politics. It’s learnt from its European neighbours that appeals to people’s worst instincts generally pay in politics. That’s why it’d be so nice to see Sarkozy, Guéant and all those around them suffer defeat in May of this year. Cowardly politics that fuels hatred and resentment is the last thing that France needs right now.

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2002 all over again? Marine Le Pen leads in new French presidential election poll

On the 21st of April 2002, French voters had the shock of their lives when far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the French National Front (FN), beat incumbent socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to qualify for the second round of that year’s presidential election. Though he was resoundingly beaten by centre-right President Jacques Chirac in the run-off, it was the best result ever for a hard right candidate.

French voters thought that the Le Pen threat was on the wane when the FN leader only came in 4th at the 2007 presidential election, behind Nicolas Sarkozy (the right-wing leader who went on to win the election and become president), Ségolène Royal (the socialist candidate) and François Bayrou (a centrist). However, with a change of leadership at the top of the far-right party, Marine Le Pen (who is perceived as being marginally more moderate than her father Jean-Marie) took the reins of the FN, and has seemingly brought the party even closer to power than it was in 2002, as a Harris Interactive poll for Le Parisien set to appear tomorrow shows:

Marine Le Pen (FN) would be in first place in the first round of the presidential election if it were held today, with 23% of the vote, ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy and Martine Aubry [leader of the French Socialist Party and Mayor of Lille], who are tied at 21%, according to a Harris Interactive poll for Le Parisien which will be released on Sunday…

This is the first time in any presidential election poll that the leader of the Front national qualified for the second round. For several weeks now, commentators on the right and on the left are suggesting that France could be headed for a repeat of the 21st of April, 2002, where Lionel Jospin was eliminated in the first round, leaving Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen to face off in the second.

Marine Le Pen has set out to give the FN a make-0ver – but it is, of course, merely a cosmetic change leaving the party’s core values intact. While her father was known as much for denying the Holocaust and diatribes against abortion (which is overwhelmingly popular and a fringe political issue in France, unlike the United States) as he was for his opposition to immigration and his country’s membership of the EU, Le Pen junior focuses on Islam and law and order, copying from the playbook of parties that have had success elsewhere in Europe, such as Geert Wilders‘s Party for Freedom in Holland and Umberto Bossi‘s Lega Nord in Italy. At the same time, thanks to her political base in economically depressed Northern France, she has an ability to relate with working families worried about globalisation and economic liberalism that her father lacked because of his extreme reputation.

Quoting Joseph Stiglitz and David Cameron, Le Pen plays on fears of modernity, free trade and immigration that mainstream politicians have been all-too-willing to talk about themselves, pandering to the far right to win votes. But Marine Le Pen can speak about such subjects with more credibility thanks to her far right background, while appealing to enough moderates to make a serious impact on the French political landscape. While the 2012 election is more than a year away, the new FN leader is seemingly making waves on both the right and the left by both pointing out Nicolas Sarkozy’s failures to live up to his promises to curb immigration and improve security, and playing the left’s game too with a protectionist, anti-big-business line that will speak to workers’ concerns about jobs disappearing overseas while French bankers and businessmen remain as rich as ever.

Marine Le Pen is a major threat to both sides of the political spectrum – and, with several candidacies on the left and the centre-right, one of the two mainstream presidential hopefuls (Sarkozy and his socialist opponent, who will probably be either Aubry or current IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn) could well come up short and find him- or herself excluded from the second round of the 2012 election. And while a Le Pen candidacy would never win a majority of votes in France (or, at least, I would hope not), French voters would once again be confronted with a choice between an unpopular mainstream candidate and an extreme protest candidate, which would not be good for democracy in the long run. Voters are best served when they are able to choose between two competing, coherent visions for the future of their country, rather than simply having to pick between moderation and anger.

Egypt, Mubarak and the protests

I’ve been quiet thus far about the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and the rest of the Middle East – mainly because it’s not my area of expertise, and other people have far more intelligent things to say about the subject than I ever possibly could. But I realise that it’d be disrespectful of me not to express some kind of hope in the grassroots popular movements in the Arab world given the events of the past few days. Whatever one thinks of the leaders currently in power in North Africa and the Arab Peninsula, the mere idea that the Middle East could express a yearning for democracy and accountability without waving AK-47s and advocating for Muslim theocracy is in itself heartening. Arabs young and old have proven that they can’t be so easily stereotyped.

What Tunisia has shown is that a long-standing, entrenched régime still has to watch its back, and that no leader or dictator is completely safe from his people. That’s the way it should be. Whether the topping of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is the first in a series of popular uprisings and democratic revolutions, or merely the high point of this ongoing series of events, is not for me to judge. But let’s take Hosni Mubarak, the fourth and current president of Egypt, in power since 1981. Mubarak is the target of the current protests in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez (the BBC News website is the best place for coverage), for the very legitimate reason that he’s a corrupt dictator who’s contributed to a decades-long economic stagnation and aided the ruling élites in stealing and pillaging the riches of their nation.

While the rejoicing at Ben Ali’s ousting in Tunisia was almost universal, many have suggested that Mubarak must be helped and protected as an ally and a bulwark against extremism and islamism (Vice-President Joe Biden being one of them) – and that the alternative would be to hand the country over to the Muslim Brotherhood, who would turn what was one of the few friends of Israel in the region into a military threat for the Jewish state. It’s certainly a viable argument, and may well be true.

I’ve met a few Egyptians in my time, though not enough to make generalisations. My impression is that they’re too hedonistic and live-and-let-live to allow an Iranian-style theocracy to take over, and that they’re more likely to turn to someone like pro-democracy campaigner and former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei. But beyond what might or might not happen, Mubarak has held onto power for too long, and the prospect of his son Gamal taking over after his retirement or death is an insult to the Egyptian people. The current régime needs to, at the very least, remove restrictions and pressure on the opposition (and free speech) and move towards truly free elections. And if the end result is an anti-American government that worries Israel, depressing as that idea might be, the people will at least have spoken.