Lowell Turner is a professor of International and Comparative Labor at Cornell University’s ILR School. Photo by Rachel Philipson.

Marine Le Pen, Islamophobia, and the polarization of French society

The good news from France is that Marine Le Pen has been defeated in the second and final round of this year’s presidential election. The bad news is that she garnered just over 34 percent of the vote. The National Front (Front National, FN), long seen as a xenophobic, racist, anti-democratic force on the far-right fringes of society, has been electorally “normalized.” Modern France has become politically, socially and economically polarized in ways recognizable to residents of today’s United Kingdom and United States.

In France, problems center on high unemployment, economic stagnation, massive job loss in traditional industrial districts, and perceived inequality between economic and political elites and everyone else. While the search for credible solutions continues, the targeting of scapegoats offers an easy way out for both political opportunists and suffering populations.

This is what Le Pen and the FN’s now substantial movement have to offer. For them the problem is the European Union, the euro, the loss of French sovereignty to elites in Brussels and in a globalizing economy, and above all the immigrants and refugees who are supposedly taking French jobs and social benefits.

Anti-immigrant animus has been central to the FN’s worldview since its founding in 1972 by Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Central to the venom of this perspective is a racist rejection of people of color, including immigrant populations from former French colonies in North and West Africa and elsewhere around the globe. Since many of these immigrants, with and without legal papers, are Muslims, and given recent ISIS-driven terrorist attacks, anti-immigration has sharpened into a full-blown attack on Islam and its believers, thinly veiled as an attack only on radical Islam.

In fanning the flames of Islamophobia, Le Pen and those around her are driving a deep polarization of French society. Instead of working to bring together the diverse French society that they claim to love, they play on fears and dark human instincts. Not so long ago, working class voters in French industrial districts of the north and east voted in large numbers for the French Communist Party. Although subsequently disillusioned, they were blaming neglect and job loss on capitalist owners, a logic that made sense and could even be seen as courageous: challenging the powerful who did in fact control the economic fate of many. As good jobs have disappeared in global markets, many of these voters have swung to the FN, directing their anger at powerless immigrants and refugees. It’s a coward’s game, to blame the powerless (and in many cases the victims), and there can be no excuse for the racism that nurtures Islamophobia and other attacks on dark-skinned immigrants. But it’s one thing for the powerless to attack the even more powerless. Quite another for hate-mongering political opportunists to manipulate and mobilize suffering constituencies. FN leadership is where the buck stops for today’s deepening polarization. But there is responsibility to go around.

A legitimate case can be made that the unrestrained globalization and crippling (and undemocratic) E.U. austerity policy are partly to blame for the misfortunes of many French workers. Economic liberalization has everywhere driven growing inequality and in so doing has opened the door to demagogues — in France as in Britain and the United States. Elite-led liberalization — global, European, French — has caused severe displacement and job loss, and liberalizers such as former investment banker and president-elect Emmanuel Macron have done far too little in support of those on the losing end. In this Le Pen and first-round left-wing candidate Jean Luc Mélenchon agree, as do many others on the moderate left and even moderate right.

The polarization of French society, including demagogue-driven Islamophobia and general anti-immigrant animus, won’t be overcome by attacking the FN-voting 34 percent, many of them powerless victims themselves. Any more than the polarization of U.S. society will be overcome by attacking white working class voters who turned to Trump. Macron has roundly defeated Le Pen and this is good news. He positions himself as a unifier for a diverse, open society. Can he confront Islamophobia head-on? Can he address the undercurrents — E.U. austerity and global liberalization — that empower economic elites and underpin blame-the-victim bigotry?

This election has spared France of the U.S. urgency of resistance to a xenophobic administration. But centrist Macron in victory does not on his own have the answers for deep polarization. For this a social and economic mobilization is necessary, one that both pressures a Macron government and speaks to the displaced tempted by the siren song of white nationalism. French voters have defeated Le Pen and they deserve to celebrate. Let’s hope they don’t make the mistake that Obama voters made in 2008. After a spirited, historic campaign they (we) went home to watch the good news on TV, leaving the field open for a tea party that has driven us into ever deeper polarization and finally the therapy of open resistance. FN normalization, Islamophobia and social polarization are down but not out in France. This is no time for complacency. There is opportunity for progressive countermovement on the stepping stones of a ringing defeat of the politics of reaction.


About the author: Lowell Turner is a professor of International and Comparative Labor at Cornell University’s ILR School.

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