After Paris attacks, France's National Front pursues campaign of fear: Keith Boag

Prior to last Friday, few people outside France would have paid much attention to the local elections in December. But thanks to the Paris attacks and Marine Le Pen's National Front, the vote will be a litmus test for the big questions seizing the world, Keith Boag writes.

Marine Le Pen's anti-immigration party likely to see gains in December vote

The Nov. 13 shooting rampage in Paris, which killed 130 people, is likely to increase support for the National Front party, which has long promoted an anti-immigration platform. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

I'm going out on a limb here and predicting global interest in the results of local elections in France next month.

Normally, few people outside France would pay much attention, but thanks to the attacks in Paris, as well as Marine Le Pen, the upcoming elections have become a litmus test for the big questions seizing the world.

Le Pen is the leader of the National Front, the one-time fringe party created by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a Holocaust-trivializing xenophobe who was such an embarrassment to the party that his daughter eventually gave him the boot.

The younger Le Pen has modernized the National Front and made it relevant in mainstream politics. 

But it is still her father's party in one important sense: it is still the party of fear. 

Its spot on the ballot next month will offer voters their first opportunity to say what they feel about the government's handling of the questions flowing from the Paris attacks on Nov. 13.

So far, Socialist President François Hollande has declared war on ISIS and stepped up security at home. But he's also doubled down on France's commitment to accept, over two years, 30,000 refugees displaced by the civil war in Syria.

"We have to reinforce our borders while remaining true to our values," he said on Wednesday.

Le Pen, of course, would slam the door on refugees. She would also shut down "radical mosques" in France.

She rejects the idea of the European Union and has called the treaty that guarantees passport-free travel across European borders "madness."

The politics of fear

Marine Le Pen has modernized the National Front party, which was created by her father, and made it relevant in mainstream French politics. (Reuters)

The beauty for Le Pen is that none of this sounds opportunistic. It is only what the National Front has always stood for. 

A catastrophic year such as this, which began with the murderous attack at Charlie Hebdo in January, was all the National Front needed to slide into position as the I-told-you-so party in a campaign now based on fear.

The ballot question is whether to fear the flood of refugees coming into Europe or whether, as President Franklin Roosevelt said, "the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself."   

In his book The Geopolitics of Emotion, the French political scientist Dominique Moisi reminds us that "fear is a force for survival. The rabbit that is unafraid of the hunter will not live long." That is the side taken by Le Pen and the National Front. 

But fear also reveals.

"Tell me what you are afraid of and what you are doing to transcend your fear," writes Moisi, "and I will tell you who you are."

That is where the risk lies.

It is what Hollande meant when he told France that to stay "true to our values," the country must press ahead with its promise to refugees and not abandon them.

It is what Roosevelt meant, too. 

The price of fear

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who is thought to be the mastermind of the Paris attacks, was killed in a police raid earlier this week. (Militant photo via Associated Press)

Roosevelt's famous words about "fear" became a lodestar for Americans during the Depression because they understood that he was saying the price of fear was a sacrifice of confidence.

The French, who are obviously deeply focused on this issue now, might be looking for that kind of confidence from America, but they are not hearing it.

Count on them to be acutely aware of what's happened in the U.S. this week. For starters, a flood of state governors rushed forward to demand the Obama administration cancel its plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country.

Presidential candidate Ted Cruz called for a ban on Muslim refugees. 

And Congress approved new and severe restrictions on refugees coming to America.

Le Pen, who was once a scorned outlier on immigration, can now point to a chorus of credible voices in the U.S. who speak to the same fears she wants to exploit about Islam and refugees in Europe. They're almost like endorsements.

If she felt like it, Le Pen could even refer to the American voices in a 20-minute anti-Islam/anti-immigration propaganda video that went viral in Europe this month.

It shows a string of horrifying images — masses of immigrants pouring through Europe, fistfights in the streets, Muslims promising their birthrate would turn Europe into a single Islamic state — and sound bites from reporters in American-accented English.

It was all without context, of course, but people do tend to believe what they want to believe.

Perhaps I'm overestimating the importance of December's elections here.

The fears at work in French politics are not entirely the same as those elsewhere. Marine Le Pen is not Donald Trump. 

Trump, for instance, appeals strongly to Americans' economic insecurity while Le Pen emphasizes differences in values.

But they aren't so different that it wouldn't put a twinkle in Trump's eye, and turn heads around the world, if Le Pen were to do well in December.


Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.


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