Farage and Le Pen: the sanitised faces of extreme populism

Is Ukip going to take a lead from the French?

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The Independent Online

When even Tommy Robinson thinks it is time to cut his losses, you know the extreme right are dead-enders, more figures of comedy than fear. So, that’s OK then. British  politics gives its voters an  assortment of centrists on  a respectable spectrum from energy boss- baiting Red Ed to bedroom-taxing Tories from which to choose.

But if we look at what’s happening across the channel, complacency might seem premature. The far-right Front National pulled off a victory on Sunday that is potentially traumatic for French national politics. In a small Provencal town called Brignoles, Le Pen’s candidate in a by-election destroyed the incumbent left and then beat the conservatives in a run-off.

OK, it was only a local council by-election. But the breakthrough is a marker for a profound shift. An opinion poll last week for the first time put the FN in the lead over both the Socialists and the centre-right for local and European elections next spring. A quarter of voters say they would vote FN.

The Front’s rise means Marine Le Pen has her eye on the Elysee Palace in 2017. In the meantime, the mainstream parties will race each other to the bottom in order to articulate views they believe will woo back FN voters.

Amid unending recession and Francois Hollande’s unpopularity, the debate is already raging over immigration and specifically those migrants whom the FN are targeting in their campaign for next year’s polls: Roma gypsies. These unfortunates number about 20,000 in France: barely a blip on the radar. But they  have become the lightning rod for all kinds  of complaints from unemployment to  “insecurity”, to the perceived loss of French sovereignty. Their visibility in squalid camps has made them easy targets as “the big other”.

It is a measure of the panic over the FN on both the right and the left that Manuel Valls, the Socialist Interior Minister, could get away with saying that the Roma should be taken  to the borders and kicked out. They “have  lifestyles very different from ours,” he said. This racism, worthy of Jean-Marie Le Pen in his Fascist heyday, caused uproar. But 77 per cent of French voters thought he was right to say it, polls showed.

From January, Romanians and Bulgarians will gain full freedom to move to the UK. Whatever the actual numbers of new migrants who arrive, Britain is unlikely to be spared a similar Ukip-led attack about an invasion of benefit claimants and criminals. But could Ukip’s political fortunes also mirror the FN’s? There are enormous differences.

FN leader Marine Le Pen, like Nigel Farage, wants to pull out of the EU so that France can miraculously emerge as an economic powerhouse. Incoherently she is (unlike Ukip) also anti-globalisation and keen on nationalising “strategic” industries.

What Farage and Le Pen share is that they are the sanitised, respectable faces if not of extremism, then of extreme populism. Marine Le Pen has rebranded the party founded by her father in 1972, replacing the skinheads and  neo-Nazis that made the FN a pariah, with smooth professionals. She’s now threatening to sue anyone who calls it “extreme” right.

Both parties also appeal to a group which would have been put off by the traditional language of extremism, but comprise what Alain Delon, one-time French screen idol, now a national treasure and a newly-outed FN supporter, calls the fed-up (“ras-le-bol”). They apparently yearn for a mythical land where  solutions are simple, tax is lower yet public services better and where everything will  improve when they, and not some “tyrants” in Brussels, “control our own borders”.

It is hard to imagine Ukip’s eccentrics emulating the FN’s forecast advances. Yet having scored the promise of an EU referendum, the party has become a wild card. Ukip is given more credibility than it deserves by many on the left who hope they will split the Tory vote. And watch them being wheeled out for “balance” whenever immigration or anything to do with Europe is discussed on the BBC in coming months.

Even if the Faragists implode under the weight of their own Bongo-Bongo- land, misogynist idiocies, the dog-whistle has sounded. If Ukip’s race-tinged populism sets the tone over the next wave of EU migration, it won’t be just because it is given house-room in the political space – that’s democracy – but  because the other parties are too cowardly to challenge them effectively.

Boris Johnson warned at the weekend against demonising Romanians, having previously fretted about an new influx of “rough-sleepers” after January. I wouldn’t expect a Tory mayor to admit that the misery caused to low-income workers by obscene house prices is the fault of the welcome extended to billionaire property investors from abroad and not a few extra Big Issue sellers from Romania. But fear of Ukip has made the British left too timid to challenge the myths either. Even Ed Miliband is  promising a new immigration bill that  enshrines “secure control of our borders”.

It is in a climate where immigrant-demonising talk moves to a panicked centre-ground that it becomes acceptable for a minister to contemplate something as shameful as physically dumping families at the borders. Britain prides itself on a more enlightened attitude to migration than France. But in both places, it’s easy to say you’re no longer an extremist when  everyone else is wearing your clothes.

Twitter: @ButlerKatherine