Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The battle for the May Day voter

The first of May is always a big deal in France. This year it’s taken on an even more politically charged tone, with groups of far-left and far-right demonstrators possibly coming into conflict during the course of today. But it might be hard today to differentiate between the two groups based on their rhetoric alone.

May Day, originally a pagan spring festival, became an international workers day in the late 19th century. Ironically this Socialist holiday is unknown in the United States, despite the fact that it actually commemorates the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. An American ‘Labor Day’ was instead set in September so that it wouldn’t coincide with international workers demonstrations. The day has long since lost any association with workers rights in the US.

But in continental Europe, the 1st of May is still a public workers holiday during which labour unions and activists demonstrate in the streets. It is also known for anti-capitalist violence, particularly in Southern Europe.

In recent years, the increasingly mainstream far right in Europe has challenged the idea that May Day is the sole domain of the left. The National Front party in France has begun to stage May day marches to the Place de l’Opera in Paris. There they hold a rally in front of a statue of Joan of Arc, who they have adopted as a symbol. This year, following the record 18% showing of National Front leader Marine Le Pen in last Sunday’s first round of presidential elections, it is predicted that they will garner the largest turnout ever.

This could possibly put them into conflict with the traditional labour union marches that take place on May Day, as well as the rallies of far left leaders such as presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who polled at 11% in the first round.

Similar rhetoric 

But whether it’s a rally of the Left Party or the National Front, much of the language being used sounds awfully similar. Both of them blame ‘Brussels’ for France’s problems and say the European project is a conspiracy to exploit the French worker.

Le Pen has been keen to present herself as a champion of the common man and a defender of workers rights. She rails against the “aristocrats” in Paris and the “elites” in Brussels, and says both President Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande represent the interests of the rich and powerful. Globalisation and Europeanisation, she tells the French, is to blame for the problems they face.

Her language, which seems to borrow a large rhetorical template from the far left, is part of an effort to rebrand the party from the toxic reputation it accrued under her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. Gone is the openly racist language of her father. Le Pen the younger now disavows racism and says she only wants to protect the ethnic French from the incursion of Muslim immigrants and pan-Europeanisation. "You want to feel at home in your own country," has become her main rallying cry. It is part of a larger trend of far-right parties in Europe rebranding themselves to make them more palatable to more people.

Meanwhile the hard left Melenchon, who presents himself as the inheritor of the French revolutionary tradition, uses much of the same kind of language in his rallies. He also blames globalisation and the EU push for laissez-faire economics and austerity for causing harm to the ordinary French worker.

It’s no wonder then that a significant portion (some estimates say half) of the people who voted for the National Front in the first round will vote for the centre-left Socialist Party in the second round. That a far right supporter would within two weeks switch his allegiance to the centre-left might seem perplexing. But in truth so much of the National Front vote was an anti-establishment vote intended as a rebuke to Sarkozy for not doing enough to ‘protecting the French way of life’.

Hollande is unlikely to satisfy their desires in this area either. But it would seem that the devil they don’t know is better than the one that they do. Hollande, who actually has little experience in elected governing positions, is a blank template onto which they can project their wishes and desires – no matter how vague and ethereal those desires are.

Sarko’s last stand 

But of course the key difference is that Melenchon is backing the mainstream centre-left candidate Francois Hollande, while Le Pen is refusing to back the centre-right Sarkozy. It is because of this fact that Sarkozy will almost certainly lose in the final round of voting this weekend. Even though he has adopted much of the language of the far right, they feel betrayed by him because he hasn’t reversed the tide of immigration or changed France into an all-white Christian stronghold overnight.

Of course much of what they are demanding is impossible. So any incumbent would be unlikely to have satisfied their demands. But that hasn’t stopped Sarko from trying in these desperate last days. He is planning a rally at the Trocadero today, which has infuriated labour unions who say it will interfere with their workers’ marches. It didn’t help sooth their anger when, according to the BBC, he said his rally will showcase “real work”.

No doubt at today’s rally it will be hard to ifferentiate Sarko’s language from that of Le Pen or Melenchon. In recent days he’s attacked the EU for "weakening the concept of the nation". He has promised that he will not “let France be diluted by globalisation” and asserted that “Europe has given in too much to free trade and deregulation". His recent speeches have also been almost maniacally obsessed with the French border.

Meanwhile Hollande has stuck with his greatest asset in this campaign – his perceived stability and level-headedness. He has not changed his rhetoric to court either the far right or the far left. But in this age of increasing populism, can Mr Hollande stay immune from the shrieking all around him for much longer?

The unsettling success of the National Front in the French election has been unsettling for governments across Europe. How will they react to it? Will they adopt their rhetoric as Sarkozy has chosen to do, or will they shift tack and devise a new solution to the crisis that can restore people’s faith in government?

All eyes will be on Hollande after this Sunday, should he win, to see whether he intends to lead a new ‘Socialist way’ out of the crisis as an alternative to Angela Merkel’s austerity push. With the recent collapse of centre-right governments in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Romania, he may soon have more Socialist governments to join his cause. But will this be enough to stem the rise of Europe’s far right?

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