Monday, 14 December 2015

Seeing off the far right: France was just a start. And we need to stand up for the EU

What a relief to see the French Front National, which came so close to an electoral breakthrough last week, trounced again. It led the field in six of France’s twelve metropolitan regions in the first round of elections on 6 December; it was poised to win control of at least two of them. But then voters closed ranks, choosing one of the other parties even if it wasn’t the one they favoured, to keep the Front out of power.

A relief, but only for a brief reprieve. The FN took a record number of votes. Over 1 in 4 voters chose them. Its strength continues to increase, as it has over the last twenty years. 

The lesson is that we have still to find an effective argument against the far right. One that will actually attract votes, instead of simply providing a way to block one party by voting for another we like only a little less.

Seven French regions for the Centre Right
Five for the Socialists
No room for the Front National
The French picture is particularly telling: François Hollande, the current president, is a member of the Socialist Party but is straight out of the same mould as many right wing leaders – he’s an “Enarque”, a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) which trains leading civil servants. Presidents Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing were Enarques too. It seems that Nicolas Sarkozy, former and possibly future President, attended the equally prestigious “Sciences Po” political science school, though his poor English prevented him graduating. Presidents who actually graduated from the school include Georges Pompidou, François Mitterand and Jacques Chirac. So of the seven Presidents of the fifth republic, from Charles de Gaulle to François Hollande, three are Enarques, and four were at Sciences Po (Chirac straddles both). Only de Gaulle attended neither school, but then he was at Saint Cyr, the top military college, equivalent to West Point in the States or Sandhurst in Britain.

These institutions aren’t just prestigious, they’re exclusive. They train a self-serving elite distinct from the general population. It’s no wonder that there is an appetite among many for something different. If neither main party offers it, they may look for it in a toxic grouping of the far right such as the Front National.

Support for Trump in the States and UKIP in Britain reflect the same phenomenon.

It’s urgent to find an answer. Many are looking for one. Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, for instance, suggested that we should “fight with fire.” He quoted Sunder Katwala of British Future, who criticised Labour’s previous leader Ed Miliband for trying to tell people:

…that what they were really concerned about when they talked about migration was jobs, housing and wages. “He couldn’t talk about the cultural bit,” about people’s fears at the pace of change in their towns and cities. Instead he left those fears “festering in the subconscious”, waiting to be addressed by Ukip.

I’m not quite sure what this implies. Should we go along with the fears UKIP stirs up? Should we back right wing calls for tougher limits on immigration? Should we demand such limits even though we know they can only be achieved if Britain leaves the European Union?

Or isn’t that just fighting xenophobia with more xenophobia?

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and once more a Member of Parliament, gave us some more anti-EU rhetoric today. He wants the EU to limit freedom of movement.

There are three fundamental freedoms of movement guaranteed by the EU: of capital, of goods and of labour. None of them can be abandoned by a nation wishing to remain in the Union.

So far, I’ve heard no one call for limitations on the first two. They principally serve the owners of capital and producers of products.

The third directly benefits workers. In the US, anyone who finds an opportunity in another part of the country, however distant, can travel to take it up, with no need to establish new residence or employment rights.

The EU covers under half the surface area of the US. But it’s only thanks to the Union that workers within it enjoy similar rights. So giving up freedom of movement would mean losing a key right.

Nor is it the only right the EU protects. Nothing prevented UK employers imposing back-breaking hours of work on employees, until the EU’s working hours directive came into force. 

David Cameron is trying to obtain from the EU the right to deny in-work benefits for four years. The move’s aimed at immigrants, but would also affect young British workers (those with under four years of employment.) The EU has, so far, rejected that proposal.

Many British workers enjoy rights protected by the EU. On the other hand, freedom of movement also gives EU migrants the right to settle and work in Britain. Limiting those rights would accommodate the cultural resistance to change Freedland mentions. Is that supposed to be worth the price of leaving the EU? Fundamental rights to avoid cultural discomfort?


It surely makes more sense to marshal arguments against these views. Show, in fact, that the xenophobes have got it wrong. That way we really would find a way to answer the groundswell of support for the right. Which we certainly won’t do by going along with its prejudices.

The French FN, Donald Trump and British UKIP show how urgent that is.

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