Are 18% of French People Racist?

The Economist, April 24, 2012

Some readers have been asking why Marine Le Pen did so well in the first round of voting on Sunday. Is it really because 18% of French people are anti-immigrant xenophobes, with a particular line in Islamophobia?

There is no doubt that, at times during this campaign, Ms Le Pen has sounded a note dangerously close to that of her father and predecessor as leader of the National Front, Jean-Marie. This was particularly true after Mohamed Merah shot dead seven people in and around Toulouse, after which she bellowed: “How many Mohamed Merahs in the boats, the aeroplanes, that arrive each day in France?”

But, in general, Ms Le Pen’s success over the past year or so has been to shift the party away from her father’s crude and nasty emphasis on immigration and anti-Semitism (with shades of neo-Nazism), towards more subtle concerns with what she calls “Islamification.” She objects not to mosque-building, but to allowing Muslim prayers to take over the streets or to the spread of Salafism in France. She has called for immigration to be controlled, not stopped altogether.

At the same time, she has developed other themes in order to broaden her appeal. One pet favourite is the domination of “internationalist” thinking. Ms Le Pen is against open borders, open markets, open trade, and the euro. Such policies appeal in particular to industrial workers in large chunks of northern and eastern France who have been battered by job losses. Many come from families that traditionally voted Communist.


Break down Sunday’s voting geographically, and you find some striking results. Ms Le Pen came top in Hénin-Beaumont, with 35%, ahead of both François Hollande on 27% and Mr Sarkozy on 16%. She now plans to run for a parliamentary seat there in June’s election, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she wins her first National Assembly seat.

All this to say that it is too simplistic to see Ms Le Pen’s score as a mere manifestation of French racism. Nor is it simply a protest against the system. People like her, and are not afraid to say so, in a way that few were about her father. Her electoral success reflects, rather, a mix of disappointment with Mr Sarkozy, despair at the level of joblessness, bewilderment in the face of globalisation, frustration at the impotence of Europe, and disillusion with the political class.


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