Marine Le Pen, president of the National Front, France’s third-largest political party
Over the past several years, far-right parties and the anti-Europe and anti-immigrant sentiments they espouse have gained serious ground on the European political scene. While hardly surprising, given the increased tension in recent years between the various nationalistic cultures of the continent and growing trend towards Europeanization vis-à-vis the European Union, this conservative backlash is nonetheless troubling. Begun in the 1950’s with the formation of the European Community—the EU’s predecessor—integration in Europe achieved its zenith in 1993 when the EU was officially formed. Particularly since the 2007 signing of the Treaty of Lisbon—a document which has become the EU’s de facto constitution—however, countries have become worried that the signing away of certain sovereign governing powers as proscribed in the treaty will lead to a weakened national identity. While this worry has been present in a number of countries over the past several decades, only recently have far-right parties been able to ride the coattails of this sentiment to political success. Nowhere in Europe is this situation more acute than in France.
France, like other Western European countries, was largely formed around a homogenous population. With Europeanization and massive increases in immigrant populations in recent years, this homogenous construct has been challenged. In 2011, former President Nicolas Sarkozy put in place a measure to ban the wearing of the burka in public spaces in France. Despite hiding behind arguments that the ban was for the public good, and even going so far as to say it was for the good of Muslim women wearing the veil themselves, it is pretty easy to see how this policy was born out of more nationalistic reasons, if not outright Islamophobia.
The argument over the intersection of religious freedom and the concept of ‘French-ness’ has reared its head once again in recent months. In March, the mayor of a small city in eastern France banned the previously accepted practice of allowing Jewish and Muslim students in the town’s schools to be served separate meals on days when pork was being served in school lunches. This new policy sparked uproar across France, and began once again the nation-wide debate on the degree to which ‘secularism’ plays a role in and is inherent to French culture and society.
Sarkozy, the current leader of the center-right party ‘Union for Popular Movement’, weighed in on the issue saying, “If you want your children to observe dietary habits based on religion, then you should choose private religious education.” Without even considering whether parents can afford the high costs of private religious schools, this argument is inherently full of bias. Anyone seeking out a pharmacy in France on a Sunday, for instance, will find that they are most likely closed, out of tradition and in observance of the Christian Sabbath. This is likewise true of Christian holidays, a fact accepted freely in French society. Of course this is born out of the long history of influence of the Roman Catholic Church in France, but it is incredibly unfair to then stress the secular nature of the French Republic, when many social norms and practices are not secular at all.
The fact of the matter is that these examples of conservative backlash are indicative of a larger trend of a growing fear of a loss of ‘French-ness’ as population demographics shift. And they are also indicative of a larger rightward shift in political sentiment in France, exhibited in elections last month in which the country’s largest far-right party—‘le Front National’—garnered 25% of the vote in the first-round of voting, trailing Sarkozy’s party by only 4%.
The National Front was founded by the notorious Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972, and is today lead by his daughter Marine Le Pen. Since its founding, the party has drawn its support from a mix of Neo-Nazis, Traditionalist Catholics and those who reminisced of Vichy-France. Despite softening its tone in recent years in order to appeal to a wider audience, it remains an indisputably nationalistic, anti-Europe, anti-Immigrant, extreme-right, populist party. Marine Le Pen even recently promised, if she were to be elected president, to push for a referendum to leave the European Union.
Though this conservative backlash really should not be surprising, it is troubling all the same. The success of an international governing body like the European Union is dependent on the commitment of its member states. It cannot sustain itself if its members begin to question its very existence. France is not the only country in Europe with a growing far-right or nationalistic sentiment, but it is a pivotal country all the same.
The European Union was formed after World War II to ensure peace on the continent, especially between France and Germany. The possibility of France leaving the EU is not something that can be taken lightly. And more generally still, far-right sentiment, bordering on anti-‘other’, should not be taken lightly for it will constrain the progress of France in the twenty-first century.
With change, inevitably there are those who embrace it and those who do not. Members of the latter group are often part of a conservative backlash, those who want to conserve the ‘old’ way or at the very least slow down the process of change. In the end, conservative backlash should not shock us, but we must learn how to deal with and prevent it from inhibiting genuine progress.