By Stan Persky | May 1, 2002

BERLIN–By now, everyone within range of the hand-wringing mainstream media knows that something weird happened in the first round of the French presidential elections less than a fortnight ago. What happened–at least according to the fourth and fifth estates–is that the spectre of fascism reared its ugly head and is once again haunting Europe. But the spectre of fascism story has an additional twist to it. Not to worry, it says with a Gallic shrug. There will be a happy ending in oo-la-la land. In the second and final run-off round of the French presidential elections on May 5, democracy, goodness, light and the hobbits will prevail, and the ugly reared head of bigotry will go slinking off into the darkness of Mordor, which is located somewhere in the Pyrenees Mountains, one supposes.

Given such phantasmal accounts of politics, it’s easy to understand that people might be a tad confused. They can be forgiven for thinking that the French presidential contest between the incumbent right-of-centre candidate, President Jacques Chirac, and his surprise far-rightwing challenger, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front, is a sneak preview of Lord of the Rings, Part Two.

In order to understand what’s actually going on, one first needs to know, at least roughly, how French parliamentary and presidential elections work. Here’s the simplified version: in parliamentary elections, France, like many European countries, uses a two-stage majority system, a weak variant of proportional representation. In full-scale proportional representation, such as exists in Germany, any party that obtains a minimally defined proportion of the vote–say, five per cent–gains representation in the parliament. In France, there are two rounds of voting. In the first round, you vote for whatever party you want. That establishes the frontrunners. Whichever of the two leading vote-getters in the first round who’s able to secure a majority in the second round is the one who wins the seat. It’s not strict proportionality, but it offers a better chance for "minor" parties to obtain seats than, say, the British first-past-the-post system.

In general, that’s a good thing. While the two-stage majority system may not be as effective as strict proportional representation, it means that a diversity of political viewpoints have a better chance to be represented and that nobody’s vote is merely a protest vote–as is frequently the case in first-past-the-post parliamentary elections, like the ones we have in Canada. It also means that to cobble together a majority government, it’s often the case that different parties have to form a coalition, with the party having the largest share of seats in the coalition gaining the office of prime minister and the proportionately largest share of ministries.

In countries without a monarch to serve as head of state, there’s a directly (or indirectly) elected president. While constitutional monarchs and some presidents (such as Germany’s) serve only as ceremonial figureheads, in France there’s a division of powers between the president and the parliamentary government. Because any party can put up a presidential candidate, that complicates the election, since it’s unlikely that any single candidate will secure a majority. The French, like some other European states, solve that problem by again having a two-stage presidential election. Whichever two candidates receive the largest number of votes in the first free-for-all round make it into the second-round run-off, and whoever secures a majority in the second round wins the presidency. Got all that?

In recent French history, this hasn’t been much of a problem. The two front-runners at the end of the first round voting have regularly been the candidates of a non-extreme left of centre party and a non-extreme right of centre party. That’s what was supposed to happen, if everything ran to form, in the 2002 French presidential election: the incumbent, Chirac, would represent the traditional right, and the country’s prime minister, Lionel Jospin, candidate of the Socialist Party, would represent the traditional left. Jospin was thought to have a good chance of unseating Chirac in the run-off round.

But the first round didn’t run according to form. Not at all. Instead, a record number of candidates skewed the vote more than normally, a record low turn-out of voters added to the distortion, and a protest-vote strategy on the part of many left wing voters completed the debacle. Rather than the mainstream left and right candidates securing the usual 60-65 per cent of the vote, Chirac and Jospin, between them, tallied a mere 35 per cent of the ballots, with the remaining two-thirds of the voters opting for one of a dozen or more other contenders. In the end, Chirac led the pack with 20 per cent, while Jospin got 16 per cent, weak showings by any account, reflecting public disaffection for the traditional mainstream parties.

The surprise was the 70-something-year-old Le Pen, a perennial also-ran in these rituals, who can usually count on 10-15 per cent support in the presidential contest, but who was thought to be just about to shuffle off the political stage along with his increasingly fractious National Front movement. This time around, he received 17 per cent, more or less his normal vote, once the "distortions" have been factored in. That wasn’t unexpected. The surprise was that Le Pen’s usual vote was good enough for second place, which vaulted him into the final round of the election, and left Jospin with little alternative other than to tender his resignation from politics, which he immediately did.

At which point, bring on the journalistic and academic hand-wringers, who have been crowding op-ed pages and television screens ever since. So, here are the questions: 1) Is the spectre of fascism now haunting Europe? 2) What happened in the French election? 3) Is the expected re-election of Chirac cause for a democratic sigh of relief?

The answer to the first and most important question is No, the spectre of fascism is not haunting Europe–at least, no more so than it has been in the last couple of decades. In the headline-sized alarms about Le Pen’s second-place finish in the initial round of French voting, what’s been forgotten is that far-right candidates in a bevvy of European countries–France, Italy, Austria, and Belgium, to name a few–have been getting anywhere between a tenth to a quarter of the vote for years now. What tends to be lost in all the fuss is that 75-90 per cent of the European electorate is not voting for extreme right wing parties. And that’s as true for France as it is for–just to broaden the geographic scope for a moment–Canada, where a far rightwing party secured a quarter of the vote in the last federal election.

There’s a subsidiary question lurking here: just exactly what do we mean today by "fascism"? It’s a word that tends to get tossed around loosely when we get politically nervous. The answer is, We don’t quite know. The politics of the extreme rightwing parties that are called fascist or neo-fascist tend to be a brew of conservative social policies–in Europe, it’s anti-immigrant and anti-European Union; in North America, it’s anti-feminist and anti-gay–and unbridled capitalist economic policies.

The difference between traditional conservatives and the electoral extreme right seems to be a matter of etiquette as much as anything else. Austria’s Jorg Haider or France’s Le Pen are vulgar enough to say the foreigners should go back to where they came from, whereas Bavarian conservatives in Germany are polite enough to call for "responsible" immigration policies. As for unregulated globalised capitalism and the privatisation of the state, it’s not clear that any political tendency, left or right, has a monopoly on such enthusiasms.

The economic policies of conservatives and those to their right tend to converge on policies advocating anti-taxation; the privatisation of the welfare state; a free hand for capitalism, especially in the monetary and labour markets; a protectionist policy for native-born workers, but "flexibility" for business in controlling work; and a suspicion of supra-national political entities like the European Union. Matters have been further complicated in recent years by left of centre social democrats embracing free market policies, although in general there’s still a distinction to be observed between social democrats and conservatives on the question of the degree to which the capitalist market ought to be regulated.

Second, what happened in the French election? Well, if it isn’t a dramatic story about the spectre of fascism, it’s going to be a rather mundane tale of numbers. Three things happened: a) low voter turnout, b) faulty polling, c) and the egotism of the protest vote, especially on the left. The voters who stayed home, persuaded by accounts of a "lacklustre" campaign and the political "bankruptcy" of the mainstream parties, were people who usually vote for those mainstream parties. The people who didn’t stay home were the extreme right and left. As a result, the vote of both Chirac and Jospin, but especially the latter, were reduced, and the vote of Le Pen was arithmetically increased. That is, there wasn’t a sudden surge of voters into the ranks of the right. Faulty polling, which, right up to the eve of election, claimed that Chirac and Jospin were running well ahead of Le Pen, encouraged voters to believe that everything was going according to form, and there was no pressing reason to go out and vote.

Finally, there was the strategy of a significant number of leftists to register their protest against Jospin for not being "socialist enough" by voting for further left candidates. Candidates to the left of Jospin sucked up 12 per cent of the vote, a sizeable chunk in a very fragmented contest, and more than enough to seal Jospin’s political fate. What’s ironic about the outcome for those on the left is that not only do they now have no one to vote for in the presidential election, but they eliminated the one candidate who was widely seen as something like a genuine socialist and clearly to the left of most of Europe’s social democrats.

In Germany, for example, where a Social Democratic-Green Party coalition government, headed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, is facing an uphill battle for re-election this autumn, you frequently hear people left of centre disspiritedly say that it simply doesn’t matter who wins the election. They see little difference between Schroder and his rightwing opponent, Christian Democratic chancellor candidate Edmund Stoiber. But that was hardly the case with Jospin. That the lefter-than-thou vote strategy has proven to be thuddingly stupid goes almost without saying.

Finally, what about Chirac’s impending massive victory? The very people who didn’t vote for Jospin but who have been in the streets of Paris demonstrating against Le Pen and the spectre of fascism may derive some self-satisfaction from their protests. And the media may heave a sigh of official relief when they report on May 5 that three-quarters of the French electorate voted against Le Pen’s National Front-style neo-fascism. In the end, however, what France gets is a conservative president for the next seven years. Oo-la-la.

In attempting to debunk the spectre-of-fascism version of the meaning of the French election, I’m not at all denying the Europe-wide conservative drift. Recent elections in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and various Scandanavian countries have seen conservative regimes replace social democratic ones. It’s also true that mainstream conservative policies are not especially far from those advocated by parties described as radical right, extreme, or neo-fascist. What is really at issue, moreso today than a decade ago, are two questions. First, will the capitalist market be regulated by society, or will it be permitted anarcho-libertarian free rein? That’s really what is at stake in all the debate that comes under the rubric of "globalisation." Second, will there be government (i.e., a "welfare state"), or will government also be turned into free market business, pure and simple? In terms of globalisation, the question becomes, will there be regional and international government, or merely a global oligopoly of corporations? The answers to those questions will have to be more articulate than a charming, "Oo-la-la."

May 1, 2002 1928 w.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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