Le Pen - Reflections from an Expatriate in Westminster
Laure Thomas, a researcher for Dr Evan Harris, MP, reflects on the shock Le Pen vote from the perspective of a French woman.
On an unusually fine spring day in London I enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the sun with friends; catching up on the week's events. It was Sunday the 21st of April, a day on which, across the channel, the first round of Presidential Elections in France was under way. My not being involved in voting in this first round was far from a conscious decision, but more a by-product of an increasing sense of estrangement from the French political world. This estrangement is neither accounted for by my current geographical separation from France, nor my immersion in the English political milieu, but by complacency and the assumption that President Chirac and Prime Minister Jospin making it to the second round was a fait accompli. In essence, it no longer appeared to me that availing myself of my right to vote would be useful or important. Even perennial political foes like Le Pen, who struggled to obtain the 500 signatures from elected representatives necessary to become a presidential candidate, seemed relegated to the periphery; appearing never to have recovered from the split with Megret. Imagine the surprise in store for me as I returned home, insouciante, to my weekly telephone call from my parents in Paris. The shock was tremendous. I had to sit down. My first feelings were, of course, of shame for my small part in this political disaster. Then it became clear that I would have to vote not only à droite, but for Chirac in order to humiliate the fascist on 5th May. Actually, Le Pen was beyond humiliation at this point... The irreversible damage had been done.
As a French woman living abroad, I am of course immediately concerned about what this will mean for France's international image. What will the world think of a democratic country, whose fundamental tenets are liberty, equality and fraternity, where a man like Le Pen, with his racist, machoist, social nationalistic views can make it this far and gain so much support? In England, looking back at France, I find myself in a position that lends itself readily to the drawing of comparisons between the two countries in this respect.
Although we must not be complacent about the increased support for the BNP in Oldham, Burnley and Preston, Britain is far from having anywhere near the problem of far right extremism which France has revealed. Certainly, a part of this can be explained by the electoral system. However no theory about the structure of the French system would have predicted the presence of the extreme right in the second round of a presidential race, leaving the left completely unrepresented and a prime minister with a good track record defeated. Some may also say the less thug-ish members of the far right have a place here within a larger political party. Certainly Margaret Thatcher did not make many efforts to hide her extreme right views on immigration.
However, having looked at the differences between our two nations, I would have to say the strongest weapon Britain has against the forces of fascism and racism is its enduring, constant, respected and effective institutionalised commissions and associations against these forces. The Commission for Racial Equality and the National Assembly Against Racism are two of the main groups which, on different levels and in their own ways, challenge the establishment and act as a constant reminder of the path of multiculturalism, tolerance and equality this nation must remain on. They keep the political establishment in check, are present at political conferences, organise rallies and brief MPs at every opportunity.
Three days after the first round of the élections présidentielles, David Blunkett introduced his controversial Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. Our office received countless briefings, from large civil liberties lobby groups like Liberty, to more specific groups like Bail for Immigration Detainees. I have no doubt material from these bodies has a large part to play in the opposition, even within his own backbenches, Mr Blunkett faces on some of the more draconian aspects of this Bill. Yet, he remains convinced that "new asylum laws are crucial to prevent voters being driven into the embrace of far-right politicians like France's Jean-Marie Le Pen." (Daily Mail, April 24th).
Jacques Chirac thought he would take a tough stance on crime during this election campaign to assuage voters' fears and anxieties. This simply played into Le Pen's hand, by trying to placate people he convinced them there was a problem. All Le Pen had to do was blame the immigrant population for the current insecurity and bingo.
The refugee population in Britain already finds itself increasingly on the receiving end of negative media portrayal. By 'addressing the issue' Mr Blunkett is simply furthering the belief within the population that 'bogus asylum-seekers' are here to cheat the system and cause trouble, and therefore need to be monitored and isolated, if not detained.
What cost Jospin his place in the presidential race was his disdain for this sort of lowest common denominator vote grabbing tactics. What he failed to do was to raise the debate. 'Cracking down' or 'getting tough' are not the only options to address the issue. The way to bring in anxious voters is to a) make them feel their needs are being addressed and b) show them that immigration has so much to add to our nation and that we should take great pride in our track record as a terre d'asile.
After all, as curry tops the list here for Briton's favourite foods, even in France (where food tends to be pretty good) couscous has become the nation's preferred dish!