Distributed April 2002
Copyright ©2002 by Hilary Silver

Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 885 Words

Hilary Silver

French insecurity and the presidential elections

The Far Right’s first-round success in French presidential elections and a recent conservative victory in Germany are indications of rising insecurity in Europe. Given the weakness of the European Parliament, national elections serve as the main outlets for sentiments of malaise, mistrust or misery.

Jean-Marie Le Pen’s surprising strength in the first round of the French presidential elections is an indication of rising insecurity in Europe. Coinciding with a conservative victory in Germany’s depressed state of Saxon-Anhalt and reflecting long-term growth in support for the Far Right in northern and southern Europe, Le Pen’s second-place finish ahead of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was all too predictable.

The National Front has already enjoyed victories in a few French localities. While the French Far Right has recently splintered and received less than 10 percent in the 1999 European elections, Le Pen personally captured 15 percent of the vote in the 1995 presidential elections. In the 1997 parliamentary elections, the FN won 15.3 percent, a base scarcely less than the 17 percent Le Pen won on Sunday. While adding the 2.3 percent of his former deputy Bruno Mégret raises the Far Right’s total to almost 20 percent of the vote, this result fits an historical trend, even if some voters this year hid their unrespectable opinions from pollsters.

Rather than expressing a dramatic upsurge of French nationalism, racism or anti-Semitism, however despicable those are, it is the growing “Abstention Party” that magnifies the shocking outcome. More than one in four voters stayed home, up from one in five in the last presidential election and far more than the incumbent President Jacques Chirac mustered in this round. The abstentions cannot be attributed to simple complacency, indifference or the “me-too-ism” of the two main contenders’ platforms. Another 11 percent sided with extreme left candidates, not to mention those who voided their ballots, implying widespread dissatisfaction with the Republican center. A recent SOFRES poll reported general and rising pessimism about the future, with 70 percent of those contacted saying “things in France are getting worse.”

Alarmingly, the combination of a low turnout and a large protest vote reflects many of the same concerns Far Right supporters express. Those concerns boil down to a gnawing sense of insecurity. Ordinary citizens in France, like elsewhere in Europe, are experiencing a heightened sense of physical, economic, social and cultural insecurity. They confront rapid change and an uncertain future. Brussels exercises new powers. The new economy is more demanding, and newly created jobs are short-term, making it difficult to plan a life. New neighbors speak different languages and have different customs. New social conflicts are constantly erupting, as the recent attacks on synagogues in Marseille and other cities illustrate. The latest SOFRES poll found that “fighting violence and crime” topped the list of issues the French feel the government should make a priority, with unemployment ranked second. These matters worry many more people than those voting for Le Pen.

Unemployment in France has been exceptionally high for more than a decade and, while it fell somewhat to single digits in the last few years, rose again just before this election. Many workers made redundant have retired early or have withdrawn from the labor market entirely. With almost a third of the unemployed remaining idle for more than a year, employers regard them as “unemployable” and they are socially shunned and excluded. Large numbers of young adults who are shut out of the labor market delay marriage and live at home. The lucky ones prolong their educations. Some cycle through training programs back into joblessness. Others – by no means all with unemployed immigrant parents – turn to informal work and petty delinquency, provoking fear and insecurity in their neighbors.

Concerns about physical safety, terrorism and “law-and-order” combined with anxiety about European unification are the issues paramount to Le Pen voters. Xenophobia leads them to attribute their insecurities to vague “foreigners” whose solidarities and values differ from those of traditional French culture. Le Pen offers himself as the populist candidate, “a man of the people” who is “always on the side of those who suffer.” Luckily, more than four-fifths of the French have a poor opinion of the National Front, suggesting there is a cap on Le Pen’s potential support in the second round. But high abstention rates and protest voting reflect a broader resignation among the French that economic, physical and social insecurities cannot be adequately addressed through national politics.

Nor are European Union institutions sufficiently democratic and responsive to popular opinion. Only half the Europeans surveyed by Eurobarometers support their country’s membership in the EU, and less than 45 percent feel satisfied with the way EU democracy works. Public opinion throughout Europe considers the number one priority facing the EU to be fighting unemployment. While Eurostat reports that long-term unemployment has fallen from 4 percent of the labor force in 1999 to 3 percent in 2002, progress on this problem has been slow. The sluggish rate of employment growth makes it difficult to legitimize decisions like adopting the Euro.

During times of rapid social change, citizens need reassurance that their sacrifices and risk-taking will be justified in the long run. That takes leadership. Given the weakness of the European Parliament, national elections serve as the main outlets for sentiments of malaise, mistrust or misery. In Fifth Republic France, long accustomed to populist referenda, the first round of the presidential elections has become an opportunity to say “Non.” Rising insecurity is not unique to France, but its peculiar electoral system allows French voters to express a broadly felt sentiment.

Hilary Silver, associate professor of sociology and urban studies at Brown University, is currently on sabbatical as a visiting scholar at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. She is working on the unemployment problem in France and Germany.

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