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Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Rise of Extremism in France?

Some of you may already be aware that the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, is not very popular here. To compare, his approval ratings are currently what George W. Bush's were at his lowest point (hovering around 30%) (Wall Street Journal). In the regional elections held just two weeks ago, his party, UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), received the majority of votes in only one out of 22 regions in France. This is bad news for a man who is in power for at least another two years.

Though the numbers look grim for Sarkozy, a perhaps even more disturbing trend arose from the mid term elections- that some extreme political parties that many thought dormant actually fared well in March's elections.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, President of the National Front, an extreme right party, received 21% of the vote a couple of weeks ago in the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur region in the south of France. Among some of his public comments, he has been noted to say that the concentration camps and gas chambers were just small "details" of World War II, that former president Jacques Chirac was on the payroll of numerous Jewish organizations, and that the French soccer team has too many non-white players, which is not an accurate representation of French society. His daughter, Marine Le Pen, garnered 18.3% of the vote in the north in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region in the same elections. Though not yet as controversial as her father, she is the president of the organization Generations Le Pen, whose goal is to promote the teachings of her father to the youth of France.

In Languedoc-Roussillon in the southwest, Georges Frêche won the majority with more than 54% of the vote in his region. He was a member of the Socialist Party until he was booted out in 2007. He is also known for his inflammatory comments regarding the French soccer team, in addition to other statements like this one below, taken from his recent book:

"What I know is that progressively the Socialist Party [Parti Socialiste or PS] has erected itself into a vehicle for universal values: anti-bigot, anti-alcoholic, anti-smoking, anti-racist, pro-homosexual, pro-black, pro-white, pro-yellow, pro-red, pro-Jewish, pro-Muslim, pro-orthodox, pro-Japanese, pro-garden gnome, anti-pitbull, anti-unhappiness, anti-anger, anti-vulgar..."

These statistics and voting results are quite alarming. Does this mean that the French are becoming racist, bigoted, and/or anti-Semetic?

Probably not. Here's why:

First, there was a very low voter turnout, at least by French standards. According to the Economist, 49% of voters completely abstained. A voter turnout this small is usually rare in France, where by comparison, this would be an abnormally high voter turnout for a midterm election in the United States. The reason that many chose not to vote is resulting from the fact that many young voters don't know what each candidate represents, so they just don't bother to show up to the polls. The second and perhaps more prevalent reason would be that as young people don't really see much change from election to election, they just don't even care to waste their time and effort to vote for someone else that probably won't change anything in their daily lives.

Second, the regions which were won by the Le Pen family are regions that have higher proportions of geriatrics. Traditionally, voter turnout in the 55 and older age bracket is significantly higher than any other age group. Provence, being warmer year round than most of France, filled with beautiful farmland and sprawling beaches is a natural location for the aged to retire. Contrastingly, the Northern reaches of France have been hit hard by the poor economy and many have lost their jobs as many factories and mines have ceased their production. Younger people are having to leave the region in order to find work. Many of the retired population, who have spent their whole lives there, are more reluctant to leave their homes and as they usually aren't looking for work, they usually don't need to leave their region.

Both of these regions have been subject to a large amount of immigration, both illegal and legal. Many North Africans enter France through its Southern ports in the Provence area. On the other side of France, many immigrants used to come to work the mines in the North and many have stayed. The Pas-de-Calais area is also a popular residence for many immigrants who are trying to cross the English Channel into the United Kingdom. As problems with crime and the economy have hit these regions in recent years, it seems that the elderly population places much of the blame on the immigrants, many of which have arrived only in the last 50 years.

Frêche's case can be explained that he seems to pride himself as a country boy who doesn't care what the elitists in Paris think about him and his ways. From those that I have spoken with from the south of France, including Languedoc, there seems to be a distrust and aversion to anything Parisian, and I won't lie, I definitely agree that they have some valid points. Frêche usually apologizes after he makes an inflammatory speech, so at least he occasionally realizes he goes too far.

In sum, people should not be worried that France is going to become an extremist or fascist state. One thing that can be can be considered a conclusion from the recent election is that people don't like their President and barring a major turnaround, will be ready to vote for someone else come 2012.

(All of my voting statistics for this entry were obtained from the Economist)

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