Wednesday, April 15, 2015

New Study of FN

Alexandre Dézé and the Fondation Jean Jaurès have just published a new study of the FN which makes a number of important points. I have been asking myself lately if the intense media attention to the FN has not tended to minimize the obstacles to its further expansion and to exaggerate the threat of its imminent assumption of power. The new study tackles this point head on:

Is the FN "the first party in France." No.

Sans nier les très bons résultats électoraux du FN, l'étude observe qu'aux dernières municipales, son score n'a atteint que 4,7% des suffrages, comme en 1995; que, dans les 415 villes de plus de 10 000 habitants où il présentait des listes, le FN a recueilli un résultat légèrement inférieur en voix à celui de Marine Le Pen à l'élection présidentielle de 2012; que les conseillers municipaux "ne représentent que 0,2% de l'ensemble des conseillers municipaux en France". Par ailleurs, le FN ne dispose que de 118 conseillers régionaux sur 4108 (jusqu'aux prochaines régionales en tous les cas), de deux députés sur 577, de deux sénateurs sur 348 et se situe derrière l'UMP et le PS en nombre d'adhérents. Selon Alexandre Dézé, il se situait en novembre 2014 à 42 130 personnes (22 329 militants ayant participé à la réélection de Marine Le Pen avec un taux de participation donné à 53%).

Is it at the "gates of power"? No.

Selon le chercheur, "le FN ne bénéficie ni de l'implantation ni du réseau d'élus ni même du nombre de cadres suffisants pour prétendre à l'exercice du pouvoir au niveau national". Autre souci majeur: le parti n'est toujours pas une machine de second tour, comme les départementales l'ont encore démontré récemment. La faute à son incapacité à sceller les alliances nécessaires avec d'autres formations pour parvenir à s'imposer. Autant de freins reconnus lundi par Jean-Marie Le Pen lui-même. "Au Front national, prévient-il, un certain nombre de gens déclarent qu'ils sont aux portes du pouvoir. C'est qu'ils ne savent pas ce qu'est le pouvoir, ni où il est. Nous ne sommes pas exactement aux portes du pouvoir parce qu'on a fait quatre, cinq ou même six millions de voix. Il faut en faire plus que ça."
It is instructive to compare the FN to the PCF of old. Although there are significant differences between the electoral bases of the two parties, there is also significant overlap. There were real limits to the electoral potential of the PCF, yet its presence on the scene shaped, not to say distorted, political debate for two generations. That is the real threat of the FN today. Its themes have become the focal point of debate, to the detriment of rational political discourse.  This won't be easy to change.


Mitch Guthman said...

I think Dézé’s analysis of the obstacles to the FN’s expansion is correct in the sense that there are absolute limits to the number of Français who find its philosophy, character and history attractive. Where I think he’s gone wrong, however, is in mistaking the source of the FN’s growth and, consequently, seriously underestimating the party’s ability to attract voters in the current political climate. Unlike Dézé, I would draw a distinction between the very, very limited number of new FN voters who are drawn to the party’s message and those who have been driven into its arms by the failure to the mainstream parties to respond to voters’ concerns about a wide variety of critical issues. I would again draw on the many published anecdotes of voters who defected to the FN from mainstream parties and the reasons they themselves give for why they defected—reasons which made many of them sound like PS voters or potential PS voters who are repulsed by the FN but who nevertheless are desperate to save the social welfare state or who have concerns about immigration and the kind of society they want to live in.

In this regard, the comparison with the PCF is particularly apt. I agree that the PCF was always a fringe party that “punched above its weight” in setting the policy agenda. Whether that was a good thing or not is a question for another day. But what’s clear is that the PCF had a great deal of difficulty in “pulling” more than a very small minority of voters because its message and its appeal were limited. Consequently, it has remained a fringe party.

Until very recently, the FN suffered from an even more profound inability to expand beyond a very limited base. People were repulsed by what Art has eloquently described as “the FN Old Guard, the ex-paras, the street fighters of the extreme-right groupuscules, and the unreconstructed colons of a bygone era.” Indeed, the whiff of outright fascism that always surrounded the devotees of “travail, famille, patrie” suggests that the Front National remains incapabe of significant organic growth, basically for all the reasons given by Dézé.

What has changed, and what I think Dézé overlooks, is that the overwhelming neoliberal consensus of the mainstream parties has created a “Sophie’s choice” for French voters who are apprehensive about the future of the social welfare state and frightened by economic stagnation. I actually agree with Dézé that MLP has a very limited political appeal because most voters continue to see her basically as a wolf that has put on sheep’s clothing. But I don’t think that’s a limitation because I don’t believe that MLP’s personal appeal is what’s driving the FN’s expansion.

I don’t think that people are so much voting for Le Pen as they trying to overcome their revulsion in a desperate and rather ironic gamble to save the France that the policies of the center-left have built. If none of the other plausible candidates or parties except Le Pen will defend the social welfare state or consider Keynesian economics, what should the people do when faced with a binary choice between Le Pen, who they believe to be insincere in her support of these things, and those politicians who are now adamantly opposed to them?

I believe that had the PS retained its traditional stance as a party of the center-left and followed through on Hollande’s campaign platform, the FN would not be experiencing such rapid growth and MLP would have no chance of making the second round in 2017.

Mitch Guthman said...

N.B., to anticipate Brent’s objections to what I just wrote:

Ask yourself why the left in France has been ineffectual in its advocacy of Keynesian economics and outright silent in defense of its past achievements? I would argue that it’s because the “frondeurs,” the Verts and even the PCF are in a state of limbo: unwilling to risk a break with the PS, yet powerless to restore it as a party of the center-left. I think if you look back at, for example, the recent party conference at La Rochelle or the debate between Mélenchon and Pierre Laurent that was previously discussed here, it’s clear that the fact that the PS is lead by a man who has so thoroughly embraced Tony Blair’s “third way” creates a “Sophie’s choice” for the French left.

How have they reacted? The “frondeurs” put on a happy face at La Rochelle and promptly folded like a cheap suit. The PCF and the Verts have similarly vacillated. Mélenchon seems to be returning from his self-imposed exile, at least to the extent of giving speeches and going on the television, but he, too, appears to be severely hampered by the fact that, as I say, the entire leadership of an ostensibly liberal, center-left party have become fervent adherents of the “third way” cult. But if he can’t break completely with Hollande, then he’s really just talking to hear himself talk.

What I think Mélenchon and the others need to do is finally take a stand and make their move. Win, lose or draw, it’s time for a new manifesto that proposes a “socialism of the possible” for France. And even if they can’t dislodge Hollande and Valls, they will at least be taking the necessary first steps in bringing about the resurrection of the PS as a party of the center-left.

brent said...

Did I hear my name?

Well then, let me offer a slightly different slant on Mitch's analysis (with the caveat that I don't feel all that much in touch at the moment):

First, Mélenchon has already 'made his move,' by ridiculing Hollande mercilessly in 2012 and repeatedly since--a complete break with the PS ('Solferiniens' he calls them, not socialists) on grounds both ideological and intensely personal.

Second, Mélenchon has clearly issued his 'manifesto,' 2 of them in fact: one is the 'Eco-socialist manifesto' that lives on his website and offers a set of principles, including opposition to 'productivist' growth, support for rapid sustainable energy conversion, a radically green program (Art graciously allowed me to guest-post about this some months ago). JLM has visibly built a closer alliance with Duflot and the left-leaning Greens, as with Autain, while maintaining a strained relationship with the PCF, which does not share this eco-socialist tendency.

JLM's second 'manifesto' or initiative is for constitutional reform, a '6th Republic' with far less presidential power, more popular democracy (referendums, local conseils), and a more proportional Assembly.

His emphasis on the 6th Republic initiative suggests a longer-term horizon: the radical Left doesn't seem fated to attract more than 10% or so of voters anytime soon, and has no interest whatsoever in allying with a center-right PS. This offers no consolation for 2017--but what does?

FrédéricLN said...

Thank you Art for the link and quotations. "C'est qu'ils ne savent pas ce qu'est le pouvoir, ni où il est." The very first time I find I sentence by Jean-Marie Le Pen really cute.

A man who spent his whole life "à la fenêtre du pouvoir", watching outside in, as a "franc-tireur" and even more a "cabochard".

He may feel uncomfortable with the ease with which his daughter and her colleagues crawled into the system and play with its rules.

Mitch Guthman said...

@ brent,

As the leader of what I see as basically the left wing of the PS, Mélenchon’s voice was instrumental in pushing the party’s center of gravity in a leftward direction during the first round of the 2012 election. As an important component of the largest or second largest political party, the FdG’s voters must be courted by the PS leadership because their support is always necessary in the second round of elections at all levels. So, If Hollande had moved too far right during the first round, there was always the risk that Mélenchon would attract the disaffected base of the PS to FdG, which would have been disastrous for the PS. That's what gave Mélenchon power.

It’s equally clear that because the FdG can't possibly hope to expand to replace the PS (because it suffers from the impediments to growth discussed by Art), Mélenchon will be forever trapped in his current role as a quixotic gadfly unless the PS is saved. The PS and its allies on the left must find a way to oust Hollande and stop the bleeding. That must be the only priority.

To elaborate slightly on this point: Mélenchon’s ability to influence the policy debates hinges entirely on the existence of a vibrant, powerful Parti socialiste that can be dragged kicking and screaming to the left because if the base stays home or the lists don’t merge, a loss in the second round of most elections is a foregone conclusion. But, at the same time, the merging of the lists with the smaller parties must be seen as essential to the electoral prospects of the PS. If the PS becomes too small, too weak and too unacceptable to the left, then there will be no purpose in wooing those parties---something that can only benefit the FN or the UMP, which will then be the dominant parties in French politics.

So in my view, unless all the relevant constituencies can find a way to return the PS to some semblance of its former glory or else form a new coalition out of the Verts and the disaffected base of the PS that can quickly become the dominant party of the center-left, Mélenchon is doomed to be an irrelevancy. And so are the Verts and the disaffected militants of the PS who do nothing but grumble. Regaining control of the PS or forming as new coalition with a center-left orientation to replace the PS is the only hope for the left.

And let’s be honest: The result of each election under Hollande’s leadership has been worse than the one before. Each move further to the right has triggered despondency and defections from the party’s base without making even the slightest inroads on the turf already occupied by the MoDem and the UMP.

Yet in their insanity, the leadership of the PS believes each loss to require another yet shift to the right in a vain attempt to attract the support of people who will never for the PS under any circumstances, even as its shell-shocked, demoralized base flees in droves. It is clear that Hollande is hell-bent on some kind of suicide mission to transform the PS into a tiny center-right party that promotes supply side economics and stands in good with the Troika and rest of the Davos gang and he's perfectly happy to take the party down with him.

The time to get rid of Hollande and his crowd is right now. The PS is in a death spiral and there's no time to lose. Stopping the hemorrhaging can’t wait until after 2017. There may well be nothing left of the PS worth saving by that time.

Mitch Guthman said...

@ Frédéric,

Your analysis may be correct. The obvious answer might indeed be the correct one. Perhaps what we’re witnessing is the drama of a struggle for dynastic power in the increasing dysfunctional and chaotic Le Pen family. Perhaps the crotchety old devil really is jealous of his daughter and is looking, subconsciously or otherwise, to sabotage her in her moment of glory.

But that old man is a really sneaky devil. It wouldn’t surprise me if this were all very carefully choreographed to advance the FN’s prospects in 2017. On the one hand, the “break” with her father surely advances Marine’s “de-demonizing” campaign by further distancing her from “the FN Old Guard, the ex-paras, the street fighters of the extreme-right groupuscules, and the unreconstructed colons of a bygone era.”

Yet by seeming to pass the torch to the up and coming Marion, Jean-Marie keeps those “Old Guard” elements invested in the future of the FN by assuring them that their time will indeed come if they just remain in the shadows awhile longer. The best of both worlds? Qui sait?

Alexandra Marshall said...

I think the PS's problem is also very serious on the level of image and branding, as much as on the level of platform. As much as disaffected nouveau-frontistes might be leaving for more protectionist shoes, they also hate the PS (with damn good reason) for essentially being a party of the privileged status quo.

If the PS doesn't also do a thorough house cleaning (right, I know, dream on) and implement more reforms for transparency and less gold-tipped spending and privilege, it's very hard not to tar them with the tous pourris brush. (Not that the Le Pen mafia is a picture of ethics and sunshine.)

FrédéricLN said...

@ Mitch Guthman: Yes, I agree with your conclusion: "by seeming to pass the torch to the up and coming Marion, Jean-Marie keeps those “Old Guard” elements invested in the future of the FN by assuring them that their time will indeed come if they just remain in the shadows awhile longer. The best of both worlds?"

I think Mr Le Pen tolerates the more catch-all and "langue de bois" approach of his daughter because he has no alternative, but GUD-like people are those he really trusts politically.

Cincinna said...

Marine Le Pen is in NY and despite the occasional tsk tsk-ing, is being fawned over by the mainstream i.e. left wing media. She was recently named to TIME Magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
I would never underestimate her appeal to low information voters and journalists.
Celebrity has become an end in itself; free publicity like this for such an odious cause is troubling.

David said...

One think I know for sure, is my neighbors, 5 of them, who have been staunch supporters of Sarkozy have switched to the FN. Not only that but friends down in Narbonne are switching to FN from PS. I think Mitch's comments perfectly capture what's going on.

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Alexandra Marshall said...

Well, if there are any Le Penologists still checking this thread, this seems to be the coup de grace for the old man. If Marine doesn't spin this into gold then she's the most over-hyped no-talent to seize the headlines.

I look forward to the bloodbath.

Mitch Guthman said...

Alexandra Marshall,

That's a real bombshell!

I think the question that the Le Penologists are puzzling over is what game is being played and who are the players. Is there a real contest for the leadership of the party or is Jean-Marie Le Pen a willing participant his daughter’s de-demonization effort and these supposed conflicts are just playacting so that she can broaden the party appeal by pretending to distance herself from “the FN Old Guard, the ex-paras, the street fighters of the extreme-right groupuscules, and the unreconstructed colons of a bygone era”.

On the other hand, this is a fascinating story with some interesting implications, not the least of which is what was the source of the money in that account. There’s been lots of talking in the media lately about the FN receiving financial support from Putin and the Russian oligarchs/mafiosi. I had some difficulty understanding this, and perhaps it’s explained in the MediaPart article, but since it would appear that an FN stooge technically holds the account as nominee, I wonder how they know which Le Pen is the true owner. Also, gold? Does JMLP watch Glenn Beck or what?

In a way, this isn’t very surprising. After all, he lives in a castle that was a gift from a supporter and I have always assumed that the party bears most of the expenses of its upkeep, rather like Playboy Magazine has always paid for Hugh Hefner’s mansions. My impression is that Le Pen’s approach to the FN as a family business is the closest thing France has to an American televangelist; I think he basically looks at the party’s coffers as his personal piggybank.

It seems to me that if the source of the funds (gold) in the account was just the old devil skimming a bit off the top, that’s probably the end of him regardless of whether his break with his daughter is real or pretend. It makes him too great an embarrassment to keep as a token to the old guard. But if the source of the money is Russia, that’s a huge scandal that could very easily, totally destroy MLP’s chances of ever being president

Alexandra Marshall said...

@Mitch Guthman, yes to everything you've said, plus I'd add that there is an especially queasy feeling to be had when we're talking about old guard fascists and gold in Switzerland. I mean could it get any more classic?

The conspiracy theories are tempting, especially with such a mafia-like clan in question. My first thought was that it was someone in Marine's camp who leaked this to put the last nail in Jean-Marie's coffin. But the next few days will reveal what's really going on, I think. Either we'll see a slick couple of statements from Marine with some mediagenic sanctioning of the old man, or we'll see a backwoods clan not actually ready for prime time tripping all over themselves on the way to yet another implosion. Of course my wish is for the latter but my instinct tells me it's a little of both.