The Lesson of Le Pen
While the world's attention was momentarily diverted to the actions of Russia's erratic leader, a political earthquake happened at the other end of Europe on Monday. France has just narrowly averted having a President Le Pen.
After departmental council elections, in which Le Pen's far right, anti-immigrant National Front had made significant gains, centre-right parties began to unravel. Many individuals in Gaulist and centrist parties broke with their parties' policy and began to make deals with the National Front for control of local councils. The prize that Le Pen himself sought, however, has been denied to him.
Le Pen had hoped to win nomination of as president of the regional council in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, France's third biggest region. To do this, Le Pen needed the support of conservatives, to whom he offered National Front support in five other regions in exchange. The conservative council members took the weekend to decide the matter and the country waited nervously for Monday morning to see if Le Pen would be catapulted to this exalted position, from which he would have an excellent platform to run for the presidency of all of France.
In what to many observers is a surprise move, the conservatives of the regional council in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur decided to spurn the far right and instead helped to elect the socialist candidate as president of the region. Disaster for France and for Europe was only narrowly averted this time, but with the right now in disarray and the National Front on the rise, who can say what will happen next time?
Le Pen and his racist lot gain votes of disgruntled French citizens who see Paris politicians spending more time dreaming about the future of EU integration rather than dealing squarely with problems at home. With mass unemployment, especially youth unemployment, continuing to plague France, these perceptions gain currency. It is certain that, though he may have lost this battle, Europe has not heard the last of Le Pen by any means.
Like the British protesters outside the recent Ecofin meeting in York who protested EMU, many people in France are fed up with Brussels. Monetary union, convergence criteria and legal harmonisation cannot seem very important to a young man who has been unemployed for a few years. In the absence of solutions from the moderate politicians, people naturally turn to the simple solutions of the radicals.
The European project is simply moving too fast for some, and the elites' haste in Brussels is repeatedly the extremists' gain back home. The moderate politicians should not assume that everyone is concerned with the big issues and not about their own backyard. In fact, again and again, people seemed to be inclined in exactly the opposite direction.
The moderate politicians need to slow down and listen to their dis-satisfied constituents before proceeding with monumental plans. They need to deal with issues at home directly and sensibly, and they need to understand the citizens' frustration that causes them to vote for radical solutions. If they don't offer realistic solutions that the public can relate to, then all their dreaming will come to nothing. People will come to believe that only the radicals are concerned with their daily problems, and they will turn to the simplistic solutions offered by the extremists.
There's a lesson in there for the Czech Republic, in case you hadn't noticed. NATO membership won't mean much to people who have seen their leaders ignore the crises in schools and hospitals. EU membership will mean little to people who have seen their region hit by severe unemployment that the central government seems to pay little attention to. Politicians need to keep monumental projects in perspective and deal with today's real problems as seen through the eyes of the citizens. If the current elites don't offer solutions to these problems, some extremists will.