The Death of the Conservative Right

images (2)Since the impressively well-organised demonstrations against equal marriage in Paris November and January last, there has been a worrying radicalisation of the anti-equal marriage movement. Around the opponents of this one issue have has developed a heteroclite range of different right-wing extremist groups who are using the issue both to recruit members and to conduct a wider political attack against the new socialist administration.

The development of these movements has been facilitated by the reticence of those on the right to criticise their behaviour. Both the UMP and the National Front have used these new extremist organisations as their frontline in an aggressive new form of opposition to Francois Hollande and his government. How has an impeccably democratic country come to have an opposition which relies on quasi-paramilitary forces in order to advance its criticisms of the government today?

The National Front returns to type

It’s no surprise that an organisation that has its roots in the fat fascist political thinking and mythology, the Front National, should re-radicalise when young hotheads whipped up by talk of political crisis, democratic deficits and a tyrannical new socialist regime. Marine Le Pen’s attempts over the past five years, since she took the presidency of the FN  from her father, to normalise both the policies and the membership of the funds have seemingly come to nought. Many in the party’s ranks believe that the flirtation with normal politics in the 2012 Presidential campaign, where Le Pen focused on economic policies which were largely derided as ill-conceived and incoherent, was a failure.  Those extremely violent forces, where racism, antisemitism, islamophobia and homophobia all meet in a crucible of hatred and fascist ideology, had been marginalised from the key process of political and policy making decisions.

However those forces never went away. The fact that Le Pen is unable to control and influence them in the same way as her father means that they are all the more dangerous. Le Pen was criticised in her own party (and implicitly by her father) for refusing to officially participate in the Manif pour Tous. This decision was largely the brainchild of her number two, Florian Philippot, a new broom in the party, who allegedly benefits from a huge amount of influence over Marine Le Pen. Philippot is distrusted by most of the old guard of the party and believe that he is trying to moderate the party membership to make it more electable in a way that compromises with their core beliefs. The increasingly public radicalisation of members of the FN, present through their links to various organisations such as the GUD, Civitas or the Printemps Francais, which takes its name from the Arab world’s democratic protests and revolutions, indicates that Philippot’s mission appears to be failing. Whilst the media have been active in pointing out the links between the moderate guard of the party, such as Le Pen’s own niece, Marion Marechal Le Pen, the Socialist party and the UMP would be wise to draw their own conclusions and highlight those differences in preparation for a campaigns next year In local elections, where the FN traditionally does well.

Where have all the conservatives gone?

Perhaps more shocking, and more dangerous to the political debate as a whole, is the rapprochement between these extremist forces and the moderate conservative opposition, the UMP. Ever since Nicolas Sarkozy’s failed reelection campaign, which focused on moving his party to the right, under the guise of his influential social affairs advisor Patrick Buisson, the UMP has been suffering an identity crisis. Some of the party, such as the up-and-coming Laurent Wauquiez, who we have met before focusing on economic and political matters, or the other figures of the left of the UMP, such as the new guard led by Bruno Le Maire and NKM, have sought to steer the party closer to its origins, a moderate conservative organisation with a large liberal (read centrist) contingent. This includes old party grandees such as Alan Juppe and Jean-Pierre Raffarin). They have been quite clear about their dismay in what they see as a dangerous flirtation with extremist right forces.

However the party is now led by Jean-Francois Cope, a divisive figure who is much more comfortable with a strong right wing discourse. He appears to be continuing the Sarkozy-Buisson policy of flirting with the far right of his own party and beyond (his statements about electoral ties with the national front have always been categorical – he rules out any alliance – but he has failed to consistently sanction any of his party members that transgress this rule).  His use of identity politics, referring to alleged acts of anti-French assaults by Muslims, as well as his strident statements about the threats that equal marriage could bring different society, however betray his apparent closeness with the far right. Whilst he had attempted to play a more centrist role in the UMP leadership election, Cope’s rival for the top job, former prime minister François Fillon, has since recanted and tacked back towards Cope’s position on the far right of the party. In particular he has explained his opposition to equal marriage by talking about the danger that same-sex couples bear to their children, and argued that he feels is reasonable for the state to unmarry couples if the right were to win power again in 2017.

This competition between Cope and Fillon has succeeded in radicalising the whole of the right, whilst the centrists members of the UMP have largely retreated from the debate.  Equal marriage has been the catalyst of this, however on a range of other political issues, including the issue over political transparency, the whole environment has become much more fevered.

Arming the bigots

Increased acceptance of the voicing of radical views has led to a predictable rise in reports to charities of homophobic attacks over the past six months. A corresponding rise in attacks against immigrants, Muslims or Jews could be next.

The ability for the left to counter this radicalisation is somewhat limited. The talent of the UMP had always been to channel the broad right wing majority which arguably exists in France in order to deradicalise its more dangerous fringes.  That system has now broken down, with the wilfull participation of Cope and Fillon in a competition to out-radicalise Le Pen to reinforce their own short term political positions. This wholly irresponsible behaviour on the part of two former government ministers is now having real consequences for ordinarily people. Given the uncertainty which still reigns over the UMP’s leadership after the disastrous leadership election, this situation is unlikely to change. The government this weekend announced an accelerated second reading for the equal marriage Bill, which will now return to the National Assembly this week, rather than the beginning of the month of May. The Bill has sailed through the Senate, with the Parliamentary opposition now been limited to a Cope’s chief lieutenants, around Christian Jacob. The bill will be passed. The government remains determined, as do an increasingly large number of MPs on the left and the centre.

Running out of steam?

Whether or not this radical political atmosphere will also pass when the bill becomes law, remains to be seen. The issues over medically assisted pregnancy, where there is broad left-wing support to enable lesbian couples to become pregnant in the same way that sterile heterosexual couples can, might keep alive the radical right, but it is inherently more technical and clinical and therefore lacks the simplicity that extreme right wing movements crave. No other social issue appears to be on the table to reignite the debate once equal marriage becomes law. However there is an increasing fear that the extremist movements will continue to protest and continue to provoke violence even when equal marriage becomes law.

Those protests may garner fewer protesters, but they could turn increasingly violent, like this weekend’s protests in Nantes.  If Cope and Fillon feel that it could be to their advantage to play to this particular crowd, they may become a semi permanent fixture in French politics, and with them the conservative centrist element of the UMP will remain marginalised. Only the UMP can control the extreme right. And, for now, it refuses to do so.

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