Friday, 23 May 2014

Les Urnes Attendent...Les Pouvoirs Européens Se Cachent

The big news in France - in all of the EU in fact - this weekend is the elections for the European Parliament.  As we speak, voters in the Netherlands and the UK have already gone to the polls; French voters get their turn on Sunday.

The European Parliament is not something that raises a terrible amount of interest, in normal times.  Talking with my Parisian friends and neighbours, most are not even aware of more than one or two MEPs.  The goings-on in Brussels usually do not merit much more than an occasional complaint (for the interference in local cultural issues, like school discipline), or the occasional joke (about how the people in the UK are constantly complaining about Europe).

These are not normal times, however.  Every day, the press has new commentary about the spectre of the rise of what are described as ultra-right (l’extrême droite) parties across the continent - from the Front National (FN) in France to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) across the English Channel.

As context, last month local elections were held in France, a country that resisted the most heavy-handed of the "austerity" measures seen in other European capitals, especially London.  François Hollande, the socialist president who had just been elected at the outset of the global financial crisis, vowed to tackle France's problems with larger social spending and punitive taxes on the wealthy.  Most famous among his promises was a pledge to put in place a tax of 75 per cent on incomes above one million Euros per annum (his plans were blocked by a French court which found them illegal).

Many European countries - including the UK under Tory David Cameron - have emerged from the crisis.  France continues to see massive unemployment, huge budget deficits, falling property values, and a general economic and social mal-a-l'aise. Hollande himself got caught in a series of petty, embarrassing scandals, including an affair with a second-tier actress, mocked not because of its indiscretion as much as its lack of taste and joie de vivre (Hollande sneaked in and out of his rendez-vous on a cheap, Vespa scooter).  Proposals to place fuel sur-taxes on farmers, who never were in close alignment with the globalist elites, introduced a new populist term to the press here - le ras le bol (loosely meaning, 'pissed off'), with nightly images of les bonnets rouges (rural protesters in red hats) blocking roadways with heavy farming equipment, and, oddly, an epidemic of destruction of speed cameras on rural highways.

This has left an opening for the FN to cleanse itself and re-brand as the party of the forgotten - lower middle-class labourers and rural people.  The PS were trounced in the local by-elections, with the FN taking control of several constituencies, in their best showing, perhaps in history.  Of course, the press continue to consider the FN to be 'far-right,' but much of their strongest showings have been in former leftist strongholds.  

With that context, the press in France (and if my on-line readings of the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian in the UK are indicative, l'outre Manche as well) have become increasingly and obviously afraid of how the European parliament elections will go.  

This article, in today's Le Figaro is an excellent example of the sort of coverage recently.
Ils n'ont parfois pas grand-chose à voir entre eux mais surfent sur la même vague: la crise. Souvent, ils tirent les mêmes ficelles: le rejet de l'Europe, des élites et la relance du nationalisme. Qu'ils soient issus de l'extrême droite historique ou de la nouvelle tendance nationale-populiste, les partis hostiles à l'Union européenne donnent le ton dans de nombreux pays, à l'occasion de ces élections européennes.
[They do not have much between them besides the same tidal wave: the crisis.  They often pull the same strings: rejecting the EU, elites, and the rise of nationalism.  Whether they are historical issues of the far-right or the new, nationalist/populist tendancy, the parties hostile to the EU give the same tone in a number of countries during the European parliamentary elections]
The article provides a survey of the various EU countries and their respective dissident parties.

Below is a typical billboard ad seen all over Paris, in which le Pen and the FN portray themselves as representing France against powerful, external interests; a modern-day take on Joan of Arc.   And it's working.

Typical Advert Seen Currently in the Streets of Paris

It's not known how the FN will do Sunday - as the title of indicates, the ballot boxes await.  Early indications are mixed - the Netherlands voted last night, and despite rules that all countries should wait to report until the final vote - Sunday at 23h00 in Spain - is done, exit polls have shown that the PVV of Geert Wilders has come fourth despite leading.  Whilst at the same time, the UKIP and its head, Nigel Farage, did perhaps better than expected, in an election called a "political earthquake."

The Guardian did not mince words in saying that "(e)arly results seem to indicate that the main parties' worst fears have been realised."  Worse still, the UKIP have made a strong showing in places like Birmingham, a mill town and long-time Labour stronghold.

Farage, who looks and sounds a bit like a jumped-up Michael Caine, engaged in a series of disastrous debates with Nick Clegg, the head of the Liberal Democrats, themselves currently in a coalition government with the Tories.  The plan was to try to make Farage look like a frothing lunatic, but the reality is that it made Clegg (and the establishment parties) look dangerously out of touch.  The opposite effect of what was desired.

We won't know the ultimate outcome in the European elections until Sunday, but the UKIP and FN are talking about forming some sort of coalition, as the FN and Dutch PVV have already vowed.

The FN currently are running neck-and-neck with the centre-right UM
This is causing nothing short of a panic.  For the FN to take the election would be a massive embarrassment to France, and the klaxon has been sounded

What apparently is not working is the sort of tactics seen in the US, where a similar populist rising - the so-called "Tea Party" - was painted as know-nothing racists and xenophobes.  Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the FN, was recently quoted making a comment about the ebola virus being a natural check on the growth of immigrants in France.

Unlike the Tea party, the FN are the 'real deal' in terms of hostility for foreigners.

The bottom line is that the old attacks on the FN and their like as being "extreme right" are well beyond their sell-by date.  

What remains to be seen is the impact.  For better or for worse, the EU is a reality, and France and the other large, Western European countries are better in the EU than out.  Sending an overt, anti-European message will have consequences.  Recently, the Swiss voted to implement restrictions on immigrants, even from other European countries. The Swiss are not officially in the EU, but are signatories to the Shengen agreement that relaxed or even eliminated most border restrictions amongst parties to the agreement.  

It's unclear the ultimate result of such a decision - many Swiss employers are large, multinational companies with international workforces.  Two of the giants in my industry - Roche (parent of Genentech) and Novartis - have headquarters in Basel, which sits at the border of Switzerland, Germany, and France.  These companies need to have foreign workers, as Switzerland simply does not produce enough chemists, analysts, and doctors to staff them.   

Whether Europe continues on the same trajectory, or reverses 50 years of movement to a more federal, united 'state' is very much at issue now.  

The next 48 hours will tell.

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