The argument of the danger of the extreme right for democracy weakens in France | International

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Across Europe, the same dilemma is facing the opponents of the rising radical right or the extreme right: how to stop them? Sanitary cordons falter. Alerts about their ideological origins (fascism or other bloodthirsty ideologies of the 20th century) or about the danger they may represent for democracy are ineffective. To do?

The discussion came a few days ago to the Council of Ministers in France. In this country, Marine Le Pen's National Rally (RN) surpassed 13 million votes in the second round of the presidential elections, in 2022, and in the legislative elections of the same year it became, with 88 deputies, the first party of the opposition in the National Assembly.

In a radio interview at the end of May, a journalist asked Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne if she believed that the RN (Jean-Marie Le Pen's former National Front) was the heir party to Philippe Pétain, leader of France who , during World War II, collaborated with Nazi Germany. Borne replied: "We must not trivialize [las] ideas [del RN]. They are the same. I continue to think that it is a dangerous ideology.” The interviewer insisted: "Heir to Pétain?" “Yes”, replied the prime minister, “heir to Pétain too”.

In the Council of Ministers a few days later, the president, Emmanuel Macron, rebuked Borne, French media revealed. "The fight against the extreme right no longer goes through moral arguments," Macron said. "We will not be able to make millions of French people who have voted for the extreme right believe that they are fascists."

It is a debate about history and there Borne, daughter of a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, is right. As the political scientist Jean-Yves Camus says, "it is exact and indisputable, and it is also documented, that in the creation of the National Front, and until quite late, there were people who were not only petainists, but also wore the German uniform during World War II. World War".

But the debate is also about electoral efficiency. "And it is true that the moral argument, which consists of saying that the RN is a Petainist party, does not work," explains Camus, a specialist in the extreme right. “If it worked, Jean-Marie Le Pen would never have made it to the second round of the 2002 presidential election after saying that the gas chambers were a detail of World War II or after talking about racial inequality. If morale alone worked, Marine Le Pen would not have improved her result between the 2017 and 2022 presidential elections.

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In the Hérault department, near the French-Spanish border, politicians have long realized that moral argument is of little use in the face of the far-right push. When Patrick Vignal, a Macronist deputy in the National Assembly for the ninth constituency of Hérault, is asked if he ever warned about the arrival of fascism or the danger to democracy while campaigning, he answers: “Never! It's counterproductive."

The Vignal constituency encompasses neighborhoods in dynamic Montpellier (a city of 270,000 inhabitants where Macron wins in the presidential elections) and surrounding towns where Le Pen triumphs. "What I want is for Le Pen's 88 deputies not to be elected next time," he explains in a Montpellier restaurant. "And I will not achieve this by saying that they are evil." “When we say 'Pétain!'” he continues, “it doesn't work and, furthermore, we make them victims”.

About 70 kilometers south of Montpellier, without leaving HĂ©rault, is BĂ©ziers, a city of 70,000 inhabitants that, for a long time, was the main showcase for the RN in France. The mayor, Robert MĂ©nard, is an independent, founder of the NGO Reporters Without Borders who later entered the orbit of the extreme right. He has never been a member of the RN, but he has his support. He flirts with macronism and criticizes Marine Le Pen for her closeness to Russia and for being a bad manager, but he boasts of having been the only elected official who, without being a member of that party, voted for her in the last presidential elections.

"It's eclecticism," says Ménard in his office at the Béziers City Hall, while showing the front page of the newspaper on the wall L'Humanite with the news of the assassination in 1914 of Jean Jaurès, founder of French socialism. "Jaurès was courage personified," he says, "and the left thinks he belongs to them."

Before MĂ©nard, neither the sanitary cordon nor the democratic alerts served. He won in 2014 and was comfortably re-elected in 2020 with 69% of the vote in the first round. A true plebiscite in favor of a mayor who embodies the limits of the cordon sanitaire and, at the same time, the will to unite the traditional right of Los Republicanos (sister party of the Spanish PP) with the extreme of Le Pen.

"Do you think that someone from Los Republicanos or from the right wing of Macronism is closer to me, or to Jean-Luc MĂ©lenchon?" MĂ©nard asks, referring to the leader of the populist left. "I speak with ministers, and I tell them: 'This is the first step, the door opens a little." What MĂ©nard wants to say is that, with him, the macronistas and the right are already talking, and that the next step will be to talk with Marine Le Pen. That is, the complete normalization of it. If, as Macron says, it is no longer convenient, or no longer useful, to remember where the RN comes from, it is easier for it to end up becoming a party like the others.

"Attacking Marine Le Pen as racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic is nonsense, because it is not," says the mayor of BĂ©ziers. "She has other flaws: an economic vision that doesn't hold up, she would like a slightly more authoritarian regime, she is anti-American to the point of adopting negative positions for France, and she doesn't know what management is." It is at these points, the mayor suggests, where her opponents should attack her: in the field of ideas and proposals.

Talking about Pétain (which in Spain would be equivalent to mentioning Francoism against the extreme right) "no longer mobilizes the left or the center-left, and in France even the liberal center," defends Guillermo Fernández-Vázquez, a professor at the University Carlos III and author of the book What to do with the extreme right. The case of the National Front (Rag Tongue). “A kind of environmental cynicism has spread,” she argues. “There is a voice of alarm that says 'be careful, these people are dangerous'. But an important part of the population, both among those who are not going to vote for them and among those who could vote for them, think: 'Well, it will be less.' And even a part says: 'There are things I don't like about these people, but they're not going to do them. On the other hand, there are others that I like, therefore, I am going to vote for them'. As if the voter put much more distance, he was much more skeptical. That is why I say that the moral alert is innocuous”.

The political scientist Jean-Yves Camus points out: "If you tell a voter in Pas-de-Calais [regiĂłn industrial del norte de Francia que es uno de los viveros de votos para el RN] that Marine Le Pen is a petainist, it is possible that she will send him to fry asparagus. She will tell you that she votes for her on pensions, wages, factory relocation or immigration. Not because of World War II."

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