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Myth and Malice
Published on Monday, May 6, 2002 in the Guardian of London
Myth and Malice
Le Pen Taps Into the Growing Crisis of Identity in European Politics. How Will the EU Respond?
by Madeleine Bunting
 

Kiss goodbye to those comforting illusions that Jean-Marie Le Pen's success in the first round of the French presidential elections was the result of a protest vote, leftwing fragmentation or misleading polls. It was none of these: it was what we most feared, the growth of the far right - Le Pen has increased his vote by a million since 1995. Even after two weeks of mass mobilization against the threat to French democracy, his support held remarkably steady.

Take no comfort from the fact that Le Pen is as far from the Elysée as ever. That was never the issue. Well aware that he had no chance of winning the French presidency, he has spent the past two weeks preparing to work electoral defeat to his political advantage. He complained of the media's "diabolization" of him, and suggested that massive vote-rigging on the part of Chirac's supporters would cheat him of the presidency. The picture he painted was of how he, as little David pitted against Goliath, had all the odds stacked against him; the "system" would ensure his defeat. For a political movement that feeds on the disempowerment among its voters, Le Pen's own disempowerment provides the perfect symbolic spectacle.

The scramble to understand what happened in the first round of presidential elections was singularly difficult. Le Pen's voters disappeared into the woodwork. They didn't turn up to the rallies in the numbers expected, few owned up to journalists scouring the heartlands of Alsace and Provence, and even fewer were willing to expand on why they voted the way they did. Disturbingly, something close to one in five of the French electorate is possibly ashamed (but unapologetic) this morning of their vote; the politics of shame will only exacerbate voter alienation.

The sketchy details that emerged of the typical Le Pen voter in the first round was that he was more often male (20% of men voted for Le Pen compared with 14% of women), older (he scored 22% among voters aged 50-64), unemployed (he scored 38% among the unemployed), or earning less than £1,000 a month (25%). Three-quarters said street crime was their greatest concern. But none of these statistics explains why a prosperous Alsatian town such as Schirmeck, profiled in this paper, polled 25.7% for Le Pen in the first round. The town is wealthy and does not have a large immigrant population, nor much crime or unemployment. One Schirmeck resident insisted he wasn't racist but wanted "to send a message to Paris that we're fed up".

This is politics at its most emotional, irrational and inarticulate - and, to a large swath of the liberal establishment across Europe, at its most incomprehensible. Nicholas Fraser in his book, The Voice of Modern Hatred, describes how a team of French researchers fed a sample of Le Pen's speeches into a computer and found that they were "not dependent on rationality or on the analysis of facts in a Cartesian manner". Why did they need a computer when even the most cursory knowledge of Le Pen's career and thinking exposes a rambling confusion of myth and malice?

Le Pen's success throws into doubt the fervently held belief across liberal democratic Europe that not only are human beings essentially rationalist, they are also materialist. An Italian government minister recently remarked that the stability of postwar Europe has been due to the substitution of ideology by consumerism. But by voting for Le Pen's ludicrous economic policies (pull out of Europe, return of the franc), a significant minority are indicating that they are prepared to vote against their own economic interests and put first an ideology as vague as "La France". Le Pen is continually forecasting France's imminent demise - although quite how this chunk of land disappears into the Atlantic is unclear.

This is the kind of emotional, almost mystical politics (Le Pen talks of how he understands the "soul" of France) which liberalism has always been at a loss to deal with. It mistakes symptoms for causes, taking literally the electorate's preoccupation with street crime rather than seeing the French complaint of "insecurity" as covering a far broader remit which ranges from jobs to a sense of belonging. Underpinning insecurity is the anxiety driven by the accumulation of quotidian detail well below the political radar screen, in which the familiar and distinctive disappear: the butcher forced out by a supermarket, the small business swallowed up by its larger competitor, the house next door bought by metropolitan weekenders. The insecure reject both liberalism's triumphant (and often coercive) rhetoric of there being no alternative to the onward rush of enriching globalization and the race between winners and losers.

The free market's promise of cheaper prices, more choice and rising wages (even if they materialize) can't provide a sense of identity - that comfort of place and status, of knowing who you are, knowing others know who you are and knowing who they are - which provides those who lack the will or talent to compete in capitalism's race with a sense of purpose and potency. Insecurity is the shadowside of globalization, which hybridizes cultures and centralizes power, creating a winners' global metropolitan culture, and brutally marginalizes those who have no appetite for the relentless pace of change.

The latter are told they are losers, and the rage follows, targeted almost indiscriminately, on Jews, immigrants, freemasons - anyone who can be construed as the cause of your own disempowerment. Robert Steinhauser's massacre of 16 people in Erfurt high school after his expulsion (and perhaps not coincidentally the day after his sick father's employer, Siemens, announced job cuts) is another expression of rage against impotence and the humiliation of being categorized as a loser.

The sexual overtones of potency are entirely relevant; for this is a dilemma that is particularly affecting men. Note the repeated Le Pen references to the "virility" of the nation as well as of individuals, plus the emphasis on family values. The massacres that seem to have become a periodic feature of western democracies are all carried out by men - Zug in Switzerland last September, Nanterre in France in March.

This gives an entirely new meaning to identity politics. While the first wave was about seeking rights on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation, this new identity politics will prove much harder to accommodate. How can governments wedded to free-market globalization reduce its corrosive impact on the social fabric of personal and local identity? It was a question Patricia Hewitt, at last year's Labour party conference, at least had the courage to ask, if not answer.

Liberalism is of little help here, blinded by its preoccupation with the individual. Identity, by definition, is socially created: what identity do I have unless you recognize it? It is the failure of free-market capitalism to generate any collective identity - except the spurious substitute of consuming brands - that provides Le Pen with so many of his foot soldiers.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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