French Presidential candidate Marine le Pen represents the counter force to the liberal republican tradition that has solidified in France since the 1789 revolution. The counter-revolutionary forces in France have been a powerful peripheral part of French life and Le Pen’s National Front represent the latest incarnation of this tradition.
Le Pen is not trying to return France to its pre-revolutionary days with an absolute monarchy and the church returned to its position of dominance. In fact, Le Pen has made much of her parties professed support of Frances secular traditions. What she is arguing for in fact is to move France in the direction of the ethno-democracies of Eastern Europe where Le Pen has strong associations.
Mainland Europe has been beset by ethnic rivalries for generations and although these rivalries do not play out in terms of open warfare and violence, at least for the moment, they do play a great part in ideas of citizenship. Australians and French alike are comfortable with the fact that the opportunity to gain citizenship to their respective countries is not conditional on one’s ethnic identity. But in Eastern Europe and across Asia ethno homogeneity is the norm and there are all manner of obstacles designed to prevent the extension of citizenship to those who belong to another ethnic group.
France is intensely proud of its cultural achievements and unlike in Australia and the United Kingdom, there is not a similar effort to downplay them and overemphasise cultural diversity. France is more mono-cultural than other English speaking countries but it is still ethnically diverse. And that stands to reason, after all the people who have uprooted themselves and moved to France presumably like French culture and society enough to move there. There is a far lesser appetite amongst migrants to settle down in other parts of Europe because the ethnic identities there are so strong and hostile to diversity.
Opponents of the European Union, who have many valid criticisms, should be careful in letting Le Pen escape their ire. Yes, she wants to dismantle the institutions of Europe that have indeed caused much of the instability facing the people of Europe. But she represents a threat to the institutions that have made France such a unique and successful republic. The threat comes not only as a result of her own actions but also from what they provoke. French democracy is comparably quite strong but it remains a country vulnerable to explosive political events either on the streets or within the state itself.
There is a parallel danger in the United States where the institutions are being tested by a president whom the founding fathers simply did not envisage. The system of checks and balances that are supposed to prevent a slide into chaos were designed to contain someone like George Washington, not Donald Trump. Democracies are not self-sustaining they are only as good as the people who run them. It is far less certain whether the much weaker bulwarks of democracy in France will hold up in the event of a Le Pen presidency or a rejection of one.
US presidents have historically been upholders of the law and operated within its limits but the goings on at the local level make for less encouraging reading. Corrupt mayors, councilmen and governors have littered the landscape of American life since the dawn of the republic. Whether it’s Tammy Hall in New York, the Cook County political machine in Chicago, Governor Huey Long of Louisiana or the endless string of Southern Sheriffs infamous during the civil rights era the laws which should have restrained them were easily ignored. Laws are only as effective as the people who are supposed to enforce them.
Le Pen and her party emerge out of the reactionary traditions that are far more common outside of France. Whatever else the countries of eastern and central Europe are they are not places where citizenship surpasses ethnic origin. Even Germany maintained a highly restrictive citizenship law for those who did not identify as German up until recent years. These societies are not merely monocultures they are ethno democracies and Le Pen attempts to persuade French voters that France would be better off emulating Russia and Bulgaria, which would be a betrayal of French traditions.
That tradition has set France apart from the rest of Europe and has resulted in a society far more tolerant, far more liberal than probably any country in mainland Europe. The successful export of French culture, philosophy and beliefs is a testament to the French republican model as a thing to be emulated. Le Pen primarily associates with other ultra-nationalists in Europe, her party, after all, is a member of the European Parliaments most intolerant and xenophobic political coalitions. Although in point of fairness she does not openly associate with parties that could reasonably be classified as neo-Nazi such as the Alliance for Peace and Freedom.
In recent years conservatives and liberals alike have been too blasé about taking figures like Le Pen at face value and projecting on to these figures their own ideas while obscuring their darker sides. The increase in praise for Vladimir Putin’s ‘strong’ leadership amongst American conservatives is worrying. The Sweden Democrats have very sinister origins and it is not clear whether the party has completely excised its white supremacist roots and yet they are being talked about in increasingly respectable terms. The Austrian Freedom Party which cooperates closely with Le Pen’s National Front is completely ambivalent about its pro-Nazi members and origins. And yet its leader Heinz-Christian Strache has met with members of the Republican Party, the Alternative for Germany, even a Likud member of the Israeli Knesset regards Starche as a friend.
What should be most disturbing to people outside of France is the nature of Le Pen’s relationship with Vladimir Putin. Much like the Trump/Moscow connection we do not fully understand the nature of this relationship and what if any undertakings one has made to the other. But clearly, Le Pen is Putin’s candidate in the French presidential election in receipt not just of favourable coverage and campaign contributions but favourable data leaks of the sort that affected the 2016 presidential election.
The disturbing question is not if she is elected will Marine Le Pen be taking direct orders from the Kremlin turning France into a Russian satellite. That won’t happen and it’s hard to imagine her remaining in office if it appeared she was taking France down that path. And Vladimir Putin does need to reach that far to achieve his objectives. His attempts to forcibly install a protégé as leader of a foreign nation haven’t come off so well as in the case of Ukraine with Victor Yanukovych who was chased out of the country and Russia’s relationship with Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus is more fractious than it appears
Putin likely favours the advantageous and low-risk approach of encouraging the political and social breakdown of his democratic rivals by pushing forward the most radical forces within a society. There is a long list of parties operating in the democratic world today with ties to the Russian state including the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece, Ataka in Bulgaria which persecutes the countries Gipsies and Muslims and the viciously racist and anti-Semitic ‘Movement for a Better Hungary’.
By empowering these groups and serious contenders for power like Marine Le Pen Putin can push law-governed democracies into an era where politics is increasingly characterised by disorder, suspicion and maybe even outright violence. And this was likely the motivation behind Putin’s support for Trump in 2016 whose victory likely came as a shock as much as it did to everyone else. Trump is not nor was he ever considered by the Russians to be an agent of theirs, either knowingly or unknowingly, he is a disruptive force shattering the cohesion of American domestic society. When as it likely will come and Trump turns on Russia it will not represent a failure of Putin’s grand plan. Putin has been incredibly lucky for the American people to elect the person he considers to be the most beneficial to Russian national interests and no matter how hostile Trump becomes towards Russia in the future the damage has already been done.
If France elects Marine Le Pen as President of France that is a victory for Putin but if she is narrowly defeated that will also be a major victory because of the atmosphere of polarisation and hatred that it has created inside the great French Republic.
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