Sunday, January 15, 2012

The French Ron Paul?



Both the US and France will be having presidential elections later in 2012. The structure and dynamics of politics in the two countries are dramatically different in a lot of important ways, and it would be foolish to look for any close analogies. Nevertheless, I feel moved to share some speculative musings—no more than that—about a more approximate possible analogy. My musings were provoked by reading a string of troubling reports about the resurgence of the far-right National Front in France under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, daughter of the FN's founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. For example:
Sarkozy Just Ahead of Le Pen in French Presidency Election Poll

Jan. 13 (Bloomberg) — French President Nicolas Sarkozy is just two percentage points ahead of anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen less than four months before the presidential election, an Ifop poll for Paris Match showed.

In the first round, to be held April 22, Socialist candidate Francois Hollande would finish first with 27 percent, followed by Sarkozy with 23.5 percent and National Front candidate Le Pen on 21.5 percent, the poll published today showed today. [Etc. ....]
Obviously, I don't intend to suggest any simple equivalence between Ron Paul and the Le Pens. In many respects, they represent two different varieties of reactionary politics. In the ideological spectrum of the American right, a figure like Pat Buchanan probably corresponds more precisely to the Le Pens, father & daughter, than Ron Paul.* The National Front, for example, is as far away from free-market-fundamentalism as one could imagine. It's true that both Paul and Le Pen are obsessed with protecting national sovereignty against real and imagined threats from multinational institutions, but for Ron Paul that's consistent with being a doctrinaire free-trader, whereas the National Front shares the distrust of free-trade "neo-liberalism" that runs across the whole French political spectrum. It's also true that Ron Paul has a record of appealing to racist and xenophobic sentiments (and his positions on immigration still paint a picture of the "Balkanization of America" caused by an uncontrolled flood of illegal immigrants, he supports a constitutional amendment to abolish birthright citizenship, and so on). But Paul's supporters and apologists are correct when they point out that these themes have not been prominent in his current campaign.

In both cases, however, we're talking about right-wing political tendencies that appeal to widespread beliefs and concerns in public opinion, but which until recently were considered too un-respectable and politically beyond-the-pale to be taken seriously ... and which are now riding a wave of anti-establishment feeling into political respectability.

As a candidate for the Republican nomination, Ron Paul seems to be stuck with a ceiling of somewhere around 20% support, only slightly higher in some states and somewhat lower in most others. But Paul's supporters are, on average, both younger and more fired up with enthusiasm than the supporters of the other Republican candidates (and they include a lot of people registered as Independents and even Democrats, not just registered Republicans). Furthermore, too many people who should know better have lost sight of the fact that he's a dangerous crackpot and are treating Paul and his candidacy with remarkably uncritical indulgence. If Ron Paul manages to keep his campaign active through the rest of the Republican nomination fight, which seems plausible, it may be hard for the Republican establishment to avoid making some accommodations with him and his constituency down the line. And I can't help being struck by the fact that Ron Paul has a smoother-but-equally-far-out son in the Senate, Rand Paul, who could conceivably wind up playing the role of Marine Le Pen.

(Of course, there are other far-right tendencies in the Republican Party that I also find quite scary, and I don't want to give the impression that I'm discounting those, but they can be left for another discussion.)

As for the Le Pens ... In 2002 the Narional Front's founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, got slightly under 17% of the vote in the first round of the Presidential elections. The field was so fragmented by multiple candidacies that, to everyone's shock, Le Pen knocked the Socialist Party's candidate out of second place and went into the seond & final round of voting. But Le Pen was overwhelmingly repudiated by the electorate, who rallied around the incombent Jacques Chirac and gave him a crushing victory. (As one slogan memorably put it: "Vote for the crook, not the fascist.") Le Pen's share of the vote in the head-to-head stage of the election didn't quite reach 18%.

On the other hand, Marine Le Pen's figures have already reached over 21% in a much less crowded field. If she can maintain that level of support and expand it even slightly, she and her party could well break into respectability. It has been argued that in the period after 2002 the mainstream right has already shifted some of its positions to accommodate parts of the National Front's message and to co-opt parts of its constituency—but that has been true, at most, only unevenly and up to a point. If the cosmetic make-over of the National Front under Marine Le Pen succeeds in making the party politically respectable, that process could well be be reinforced.

Or these speculations could turn out to be entirely off-base, both for the US and for France. I hope so. Stay tuned ....

—Jeff Weintraub

* Although the contrast between the styles of reactionary politics represented by Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul is real and significant, perhaps one shouldn't overstate the gap between them, either. As my correspondent Robert Beckhusen reminds me, Ron Paul supported Buchanan in Buchanan's 1992 bid for the Republican nomination; and although Buchanan can't formally endorse a candidate this year because of his job with MSNBC, in practice he has come about as close to endorsing Ron Paul as he can get without saying so explicitly.