Author: Andrew Karns, Johns Hopkins University
For the first time in its history, the National Front party (FN) in France earned a plurality of votes in a nationwide election in May, an astonishing development that left many voters and politicians with more than just a bad feeling in their stomachs. The FN, since its establishment in 1972, has represented the far-right spectrum of French politics that has attempted to revive, in part, an antiquated form of nationalism in Europe. For example, the FN expresses this nationalism through its fierce stance against immigration and its support of a closed, state-managed economy. With a negligible number of elected deputies and mayors in previous years, the FN has been continually relegated to the fringes of French politics. Parties like the FN and its extreme left counterpart, The Leftist Front (FG), have even been given the moniker of “protest parties,” meaning that one only votes for these groups to express discontent with the current ruling government—a very clever way for French voters to tell their government that they can be, in fact, more absurd than these fringe groups. However, in the European Union’s May elections this year the FN soared into a vote of 24%, decisively outpacing both the Union for a Popular Movement (20%) and the Socialist Party (13%), France’s primary right and left-wing blocs, respectively. In just one election the FN jumped from having three elected representatives in the European Parliament to seizing 23 out of the 73 available seats granted to France by the European Union. Ideology aside, its sudden burst into the political scene represents a confluence of troubling factors in France and is the manifestation of a deeper malady affecting majority of the European Union.
It would be important to note that the elections in May were for the European Parliament and not the National Assembly in France, where it still merely holds 2 seats of 577. How much European elections actually matter in a national context forms part of a complex debate with no easy answer. Regardless, there are strong reasons to believe that this sudden surge in far-right politics cannot be trivialized in French national politics.
One of the strongest legs of the FN party’s platform is its staunch opposition to the European Union; the FN consistently advocates for a French departure from the economic and political union that currently includes the majority of states in Europe. Marine Le Pen, the charismatic party leader, has called for a plan to leave the monetary union under the Euro and to reestablish the franc. In recent months, this formerly absurd notion has begun to seem reasonable in some corners of France. Voters are beginning to show a real concern for the future of the Euro. Ever since the Euro crisis of 2008, The European Central Bank’s scramble to bail out the national banks of smaller countries, who had seriously mismanaged their fiscal policies, left a bad taste in the mouth of the wealthier EU members who had to foot the bill. A stubbornly low growth rate over the past few months has exasperated the issue and has left many wondering if the source of economic trouble is in the system itself.
This concern resurged in the midst of a series of scandals that have forced French President François Hollande to reshuffle his cabinet and evoked scrutiny from other European leaders. In August, the then-Minister of the Economy, Arnaud Montebourg, openly criticized his own government, claiming that austerity was not a path that Hollande should resort to in order to ease debt and unemployment. Education Minister Benoît Hamon, however, delivered the message much more pointedly when he publicly agreed: “Under the pressure of the German right,” he declared, “we are imposing policies of austerity which throughout Europe translate to a growth in unemployment and a rollback in social safety nets, and not to a reduction in debt.” Following the outcry from European leaders, both ministers were sacked and replaced. The scandal nearly caused the prime minister’s government in the Assembly to collapse. To make matters worse, President Hollande failed this month to lower France’s debt-to-GDP to below the EU-mandated limit of 3%, claiming that the 2015 budget intends to lower the ratio only to 4.3%. Fending off the reproach of German chancellor Angela Merkel and other Euopean leaders, Hollande claimed that drastic reductions would effectively shock its domestic economy.
It ought to be no surprise then that French voters would elect so many anti-European candidates to the heart of the European government itself. A breakup of the European economic union has always been considered unthinkable because of the disastrous effects it would have on the global economy; its market-destabilizing effects would be felt everywhere. Much of the Euro’s market credibility draws from the fact that it is not a convenience currency that can simply be abandoned when times turn bad. Now, it appears that many are growing serious about leaving the Union. During the Euro crisis, Cyprus, a tiny island nation in the EU, obtained more favorable bailout conditions after its government blatantly threatened to leave the Eurozone. The United Kingdom has, like France, elected an unprecedented number of anti-EU delegates (from the UK Independence Party) in the May election. The FN has this past month made public a concrete plan for paying back France’s public debts in francs. These developments have dragged the debate over the impossible breakup of the Eurozone into the domain of political reality.
The European Union cannot take for granted the stability it enjoys from being a supposedly indivisible economic union. The challenges of the past few years have revealed the Union’s weakest points, notably the Central Bank’s inability to sufficiently reign in the terrible fiscal policies of some of its member states. Such policies eventually weigh down the entire union. However, as recent elections show, the dilemma is that a bigger and more authoritative Central Bank may not be the answer. The issue of anti-Europeanism begins to escape the traditional left-right divide. As the FN’s traditional “protest votes” are lining up more tangibly with popular Euroskepticism, it is receiving more support than before. The EU must realize that it desperately needs not only reform, but also a reevaluation of its vision for the future. Given the choice of structural reforms that would balance monetary authority with respect of national fiscal sovereignty or monetary and political devolution, a controlled structural change would be less destructive to the European economy than a forced departure by a dissatisfied member state, especially one as large and influential as France.
“Of course we need Europe,” declared Montebourg during a debate in 2013. “[But] we need a central bank that can lead a monetary policy above other central banks… Today, what does the European Central Bank impose on us? A pitiful budget and a stupid monetary policy.” Voting for fringe parties in France used to be an act of protest rather than a wholehearted agreement with the extreme policies that the policies embrace. Now, the FN seems to be the alternative to a government that feels very distant but whose problems are closely felt. That so many economic issues would be eventually bundled into political disputes is unsurprising. The Euro was and is, after all, a political project rather than an economic one, and must now therefore be defended as such.