On May 25, citizens across the European Union voted on who will lead the Bloc for the next five years. Results led to historical wins for far-right parties in Britain, France, Austria and Denmark. Now, Eurosceptics are poised to hold almost 30 per cent of the 751 seats when the Parliament convenes in June.
The most surprising results were reported from France. In what has been dubbed an “earthquake”, the Front National won 25 per cent of votes with an anti-European Union, anti-immigration and anti-globalisation platform. Marine Le Pen and her party will receive 24 of France’s 74 seats in the European Parliament. This marks the first time that an extreme right-wing political party has won a French national election. While early opinion polls indicated the impending victory, political pundits balked at the likelihood of such an outcome.
Rise of the European far-right
The results of this election have strayed from the traditional French attitude towards the European Union. Historically, France has been staunchly pro-Europe. Jean Monnet, a French diplomat, is considered one of the founding fathers of the Union. Subsequent governments have repeatedly supported further integration and expansion, including conservative presidents such as Nicolas Sarkozy.
Marine Le Pen envisions destroying the EU from within by collaborating with other Eurosceptic leaders. Her biggest ally, Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom from the Netherlands, won only three seats in the election, leaving the Front National without crucial support. Le Pen has twice proposed forming a bloc to Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, who won the British vote on May 25; he has rejected both offers.
Le Pen’s closest allies may emerge from the Freedom Party of Austria or the Danish People’s Party. Her only other alternative is Greece’s Golden Dawn, regularly described as a neo-Nazi organisation. Such cooperation could tarnish the carefully constructed image of the Front National as a populist party, void of the overt racism promoted by parties such as Golden Dawn.
As one of the most powerful countries in the European Union, the results of the French elections have a strong influence on the decisions made in Brussels. It is yet to be seen what kind of policy will be ushered in under a new era of extreme right politics in the European Union other than an attempt to dismantle a project that took over 70 years to build.
The shift to the far-right won’t necessarily bring about drastic changes to the European government. Centre-right and left-wing parties still form a majority in the Parliament and the emergence of Eurosceptic parties may instead unite more moderate parties to ensure the survival of the Union.
Migrants as scapegoats
Instead, such victories have important consequences on future elections, especially at the national level. In France, if EU election results are repeated, these gains could pave the way for a Front National win in 2017. Once considered unthinkable, it is a now a possibility, if voting follows the same pattern.
The success of the Front National provides a startling glimpse of the current political climate in France. It reveals how widespread anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments actually are among French people and the extent to which immigrants have become convenient scapegoats for all the woes of French society.
The Front National is clear that migrants are not welcome on French soil. If elected to the French presidency, they promise to abolish family reunification, including for the spouses and children of French citizens. They would eliminate dual nationality with any country outside of the European Union, forcing people to choose between two supposedly conflicting identities.
Other proposals argue to revoke “freedom of movement”, the legal guarantee that EU citizens have the right of abode in another Member State, and one of the most fundamental rights established by the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union. France would withdraw from the Schengen Agreement, which abolished border controls between signatory states. They would also require businesses to give priority to French job applicants, contrary to European Union regulation. Such regulation is a clear effort to remove Roma and Eastern European migrants, who are viewed as “undesirable” by a portion of French society.
Non-European migrants would suffer most under the proposed hard-line policies. A zero-tolerance policy for illegal migration would be established and mass regularisations would be abolished. Development aid, particularly to African countries, would be tied to repatriation of nationals. Even the number of refugees admitted to France would be restricted.
Pathways to legal immigration would also be drastically cut. Le Pen asserts that France should cut migration to one-twentieth of current rates, from an annual average of 200,000 visas issued, to only 10,000 within five years. Although France is struggling with a crisis, there would be no special provision for professional migrants, contrary to the findings of studies that prove the benefits of immigration, especially on the economy.
Fight to define French identity
The struggle to define French national identity lies at the heart of the Front National’s platform. Marine Le Pen and her followers have an out-dated vision of who is French. Many modern-day citizens of Arab or African origin are descendants of migrants who arrived after France lost Algeria, once considered as French as the Cote d’Azur or Normandy, and the rest of their vast colonial possessions. Even if the Front National won the election in 2017, sizable Arab and African minorities would remain because they are just as French as Marine Le Pen.
The victory of the Front National sets a dangerous precedent for the future of immigration politics in France. As one of the last European countries open to migration, France may become a hostile place for migrants from the European Union and beyond. Furthermore, it jeopardises the legal status of thousands of immigrants who call France home and are on the road to naturalisation. Most importantly, if French citizens, and their European counterparts, do nothing to combat the rising tide of far-right extremism, it raises the alarm of the eventual destruction of supposedly fundamental French values of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Kait Bolongaro is a journalist, photographer and a Masters student in Journalism and Political Science. Her research interests include politics, environmental issues, migration and education.–Aljazeera