France: No Panic

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Nothing else in France looks like the 1930s, so why should fascism? There really is a fascist movement in France, although it avoids torch-lit marches and jackboots. It has even stopped the Holocaust denial (mostly).
This movement used to be called the National Front, and its founders included Frenchmen who had fought for the Nazis as volunteers in Waffen-SS military units. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party leader for four decades, was a former paratrooper who allegedly tortured Arab prisoners during Algeria’s independence war in the 1950s.
When his daughter Marine Le Pen took over in 2011 she started ‘detoxifying’ the party to make it electable. Like most makeovers, however, it was mainly cosmetic.
‘National Front’ sounded too 1930s, so six years ago she changed its name to National Rally (Rassemblement Nationale — RN), which evokes cheerful, positive things like togetherness and brotherhood.
It has worked, more or less. The RN used to get 10% or 15% of the vote in national elections, but it went to 34% in last month’s elections for the European Parliament. Cue international media hysteria! France is going fascist!
How hysterical? Well, here’s an example, from a normally reputable media source that would probably prefer to remain nameless.
“The French President’s gamble has backfired spectacularly. Emmanuel Macron thought he could stop the far right’s surge in popularity by calling a snap election. It was an act of gross hubris, based on a historical miscalculation.”
“Instead, the far right are on the verge of taking power in France – in what would be the country’s first far-right government since the Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis.”
Thus spake the editor of a leading London newspaper, and hundreds of other journalists and pundits all over the world agreed with him. It is utter twaddle which deliberately ignores the facts because “The Nazis are coming!” makes for a more exciting story.
The National Rally is an exceptionally nasty organization. It now wears a smiling mask to attract naive new members who are nursing a grievance, but it also constantly blows on a big dog whistle to reassure its stalwart core voters that it still hates Muslims, Jews, immigrants and foreigners in general.
However, the National Rally is not “on the verge of taking power in France.” It got 34% of the French votes in the elections to the European Parliament last month, but the European Parliament doesn’t matter much and there was no election due in France until 2027. So why did Macron call an election to France’s National Assembly three years early?
How could he have been so stupid? Didn’t he realise that everybody was likely to vote the same way again in the national election in France only three weeks later? Sure enough, they did exactly that. The RN got one-third of the votes again. Macron is an arrogant idiot, etc.
No, he just knows how to count. He can even handle fractions and percentages. You need half the seats in the National Assembly to form a government, not one-third of them. It’s called an absolute majority: 50% plus one.
And since in the French voting system the number of votes you get corresponds pretty closely to the number of seats you win, one-third of the votes means you are nowhere near being able to form a government.
But what if the National Rally made a coalition with some other party? Good question, but no other major party will enter into a coalition with the fascists (or neo-fascists, if you prefer.)
There is always a second round in French elections in electoral districts where no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes in the first round (which is most of them). If the RN is leading in many districts at that point, all the other candidates except the one best-placed to beat the fascists will drop out of the second round in each district.
This is a well-established voting strategy called the ‘republican front’. It was originally designed to keep the Communists out of power in the 1950s and ‘60s, but it still works today to keep neo-fascists out of power.
That’s what happened in France last Monday and Tuesday, and it means that the National Rally cannot get far beyond one-third of the seats.
Macron is arrogant, but he is not stupid. He was assuming that all the non-fascist parties would come together again (as they have) and freeze the RN out in the second round of voting this Sunday (as they will). Then the other parties will cobble together some sort of coalition in the National Assembly, and Macron will remain president until 2027.
There is a worrisome drift towards the extreme right in the big Western democracies, but the only one at risk of going over the edge this year is the United States.