A child’s guide to Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen and why they scare me

Out of Europe: Both Nigel and Marine had good weeks. But are their parties the stuff of nightmare, or will they fade in an economic dawn?

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Daddy, which one scares you most, Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen?

Neither is obviously scary. That is the most scary thing about them. In different ways, they represent a scary new kind of reasonable extremism. 

But Daddy, which one scares the political establishment most: Ukip in Britain or the National Front in France?

They have both had a wonderful week. Nigel Farage won the first European Union debate with Nick Clegg, according to the polls. Marine Le Pen’s National Front had its best local election results in France last Sunday.

Her father’s anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-European, anti-American party has been successfully “relooké” by Marine. (Relooker means “to renovate cosmetically”.) She could win six town halls in the second round today.

Are they so different?

Yes. Ukip and the NF both want to destroy the European Union. Both oppose immigration. Both believe that the nation is the only legitimate expression of the democratic will of the people. Both are admirers of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In other ways, they are very different. Farage’s Ukip believes that Britain is so strong that we would thrive in the 21st-century world of global markets if we threw off the ball and chain of the legally enforceable single European market. Le Pen’s NF believes France is too weak to compete within the EU or in global markets. It wants  a protective wall around France.

Are there other differences?

Yes. Under her dad, Jean-Marie, the NF began as a Poujadiste party – a party of the small man; anti-state; anti-tax; anti-elite. (Pierre Poujade was a small businessman who led a political revolt against “les elites” in the 1950s.)

Under Marine, the NF has moved, in a sense, to the left. It is still against the “elites” but believes in massive state intervention to prop up, or rebuild, French industry. It believes in generous social programmes for poorer people (immigrants excluded; white skin preferred).

Under Farage, Ukip is a classic Poujadiste party. It is anti-Whitehall as well as anti-Brussels. Religious fanaticism excluded, it bears some resemblance to the Tea Party faction in the US. It is a chummy Home Counties version: a kind of G&T party.

Do Le Pen and Farage know one another? Do they get on?

They are both MEPs and meet in Strasbourg, in an institution they both detest. Marine gushes about Nigel. She calls him “charming” and “remarkable”.

Nigel distances himself from Marine. He rejected her overtures to create a single nationalist campaign for the European elections this May.

Why?

Nigel disapproves of a single European anything. He also says that the NF remains, at its core, a racist party. On that point at least, he is right.

But Daddy, you are still avoiding the question. Which is the more scary?

We live in scary times. And complicated times. All the more scary for being so complicated.

Voters have lost faith in traditional politics and democratic institutions. They feel that the real power has been stolen by the markets, embezzled by the banks, captured by Brussels or the International Monetary Fund. The traditional parties have been enfeebled in Britain and France – and elsewhere – by financial scandals. The left, especially in France, finds it difficult to construct a convincing narrative of what socialism or social democracy mean in the 21st century.

Enter, stage right, a plausible man and woman. They offer bracing solutions to our complicated problems. Britain can stand alone as it did in 1940. France can create an economic Maginot Line – a proper one, all around the country – which will keep out foreigners and foreign competition. There are reasons to be scared. But there are also reasons not to be too scared.

What are the reasons not to be scared of Farage?   

In his debate with Nick Clegg last week, Farage played the last bloke in the golf-club bar beautifully. At the end the mask slipped. He said that the EU had “blood on its hands” in Ukraine. This is not, I suspect, a view that is widely shared in Britain. Fargage the pragmatist is usually careful to hide his anti-European fanaticism. It was a telling lapse.

Nigel still “won” the debate. It is easier to make a simplistic case for a notional future outside the EU than a (necessarily) laborious case for the muddled and frustrating present within it. As the “real” EU debate begins, the real pragmatists – the critically pro-European pragmatists – will start to make their voices heard. One hopes. In any case, Farage has no plans to run Britain any time soon. Le Pen has very clear ambitions to be France’s first woman leader since Joan of Arc.

And what are the reasons not to be scared of Le Pen?

She, unlike Farage, is not a one-person band. She has assembled a Praetorian Guard of young, intelligent, plausible, male lieutenants. Two or three of them at least will capture control of town halls today. Then her problems will begin.

Throughout the municipal campaign, the real NF kept poking its head through the camouflage. Low-profile candidates posted racist or anti-Semitic remarks on Facebook pages. One turned out to be dead. The last time that the NF ran town halls, in the 1990s, it turned out to be a disaster for the towns and for the NF. On the other hand, these young men are cleverer than the flaky NF mayors of the 1990s. They will take over towns devastated by corruption and incompetence. Even limited success could be a powerful springboard for a Le Pen’s assault on national power in 2017 or 2024.   

But should we be scared? Yes or No.

Yes. Imagine a future in which the EU has collapsed. France is run, behind closed doors, by an aggressive nationalist. So, possibly, are other European countries, even Germany. We already have a far-right leader in Europe. Look at the problems that he is causing. His name is Vladimir Putin.

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