Democracy for all

  • 30/05/2002

Democracy for all The first round of the French presidential elections saw Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front gaining second place, ousting the incumbent socialist prime minister from the second round. Like a multitude of my countrypersons, I was stunned: how could a man who typifies modern fascism, anti-semitism, xenophobia and demagogy emerge as runner-up for the presidency?

For the past 20 years, a deep social and political crisis has been gathering in spite of the consolidation of the European Union (eu), and even a reduction in unemployment. In 1988, the far right party scored 15 per cent of the votes, and over 17 per cent in 2002. The most worrying aspect is the ever-increasing divide between la France d'en bas (the lowly French) and la France d'en haut (the upper layers of society).

More than a third of the industrial workers and 40 per cent of the unemployed cast their vote for the National Front, which also appeals to farmers and self-employed craftspersons. For a long time, part of the conservative bourgeoisie had been receptive to the extreme-right discourse. Le Pen now attracts many of those who have been sidelined in the post-industrial society, providing a vent for resentment against the arrogance of modern-day industrial tycoons.

A large chunk of la France d'en bas now rejects its elected representatives, the elite, the experts . The National Front has also captured the votes of people who resent immigrants, owing to economic insecurity or a fear of street violence. Many members of the underprivileged working class have abandoned the Communist Party, which could not give them better prospects, and turned to the National Front.

However, only a quarter of them really wanted Le Pen as president, because they also feel uneasy with some of his proposals. They have resorted to the National Front first and foremost to say loud and clear that the political establishment has lost touch with the people, especially the lower strata of society. Political parties don't show up actively among those people, and the gap has not been filled by grassroots organisations either.

The new Green Party has not been able to address the issue of popular discontent, and at times, despair. It has not properly understood the link between social and environmental problems, which in urban areas mean essentially degraded entry halls, staircases and immediate surroundings.

The ruling parties have heralded the eu as the answer to social problems. In fact, the eu appears as another destabilising factor, a bureaucratic power, far away and out of reach. The eu set up is not seen as a wider political forum. Members of the European parliament are largely invisible in the media, virtually unknown to ordinary citizens. The European Commission, made of high-ranking civil servants, prepares decisions by calling in various experts, and taking into account the views of influential lobbyists. When decisions, directives and standards come down from Brussels, the elected representatives of the people are just not around to explain their rationale.

European policies lack coherence. For instance, to purportedly boost efficiency, the road transport sector has been liberalised without any accompanying social framework. Consequently, within a few months, large companies like Willy Betz have developed, hiring low-paid drivers from Eastern Europe. One may ask: when will the European Commission sincerely and effectively integrate the social dimension in its policies of sustainable development? When will our elected representatives step in to promote genuine political debates, listen to the various stakeholders, and then face the consequences of their decisions, instead of being taken in tow by experts?

In these circumstances, how can we remain credible in the international fora? The rise of far right voting in Europe does not mean that one should put into reverse, and abandon the fundamental achievements of the Union. The establishment of the Euro common currency testifies that citizens readily accept changes that they consider sensible, coherent and fruitful. But there is an urgent need to redefine the political game, as also to come back to meaningful debates on the choices made by experts.

The eu is in favour of sustainable development. In practice, all too often, this is window-dressing to cover a process of unabashed liberalisation. In a fast-changing world, the eu must also listen to the message sent by the unprivileged. To counter the electoral clout of Jean-Marie Le Pen and other far-right leaders, France and Europe have to undergo a reappraisal of political life. That, in a nutshell, means more democracy at all levels. Only then will the voice of Europe be heard more distinctly to argue, when need be, with the American superpower. Only then will the eu feel strong enough to listen to appeals that come from the rest of the world instead of turning inwards, churning out xenophobic feelings.

Alain Le Sann is a teacher and social activist in France

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