Greene: Le Pen lost; here’s what that means

After Trump’s election and Brexit last year, right-wing populism seemed to be on the rise worldwide, and this month all eyes were on France as the National Front’s candidate Marine Le Pen made it into the second and final round of the nation’s presidential election. In the end, Le Pen lost, providing relief for liberals worried about the success of the European Union and a blow to those of us hoping to see the French take back their sovereignty.

The loss was not surprising. What is shocking was that Le Pen got 34 percent of the vote — despite coming from a party known for racist rhetoric, xenophobia and holocaust denial.

“[National Front] is created to be an extreme statement, not a governing party,” said Craig Parsons, a UO political science professor and European politics expert. “Everyone in the more mainstream political space in France has committed pretty publicly to never aligning, never touching, never dealing with the National Front.”

So how did an untouchable party get so close to the presidency?

First, Le Pen moved the party into the mainstream by distancing herself from her right-wing radical father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front in 1972. She also took on more mainstream concerns, such as job security and social benefits. By the end of the campaign, Le Pen coined herself the “Protector of the French.”

Le Pen built her campaign on two major issues transforming the social, economic and physical landscape of France: the European Union and immigration.

The EU has been opening borders to enable a free flow of goods, services, capital and people since the early 1950s. At first, it started the noble quest with only six countries.

“The ambition of the European project was to create this free-flowing, cosmopolitan, everybody-get-along-with-everybody-else space,” Parsons said. “[The EU] is great for higher-educated, cosmopolitan people. Europe is your playground; you move around; you learn all sorts of languages; it’s all fabulous stuff. [But] it’s — at the very least — not as good for poorer and less-educated people, and depending on how you analyze it, it might actually be bad.”

The negative effects of the EU for poorer European citizens were engorged when Eastern Europe was reluctantly let in the club.

“The EU was always going to be sort of a hard-sell, and it’s actually really amazing that it’s gone as far as it has, but it began to run into real problems … The biggest thing was letting in Eastern Europe,” Parsons explained.

It was never about Eastern Europe being bad, but Eastern Europeans have very different traditions from the rest of Europe, and the expansion now has the EU bordering several nasty war zones. The countries also are poorer, which makes them prime real estate for businesses that can afford to move production. Sound familiar? This is the same story as globalization taking jobs away from America and giving them to Mexico, except the EU is facilitating — even encouraging — the move.

This expansion has also opened the door for a refugee crisis — the nail in the EU’s coffin. Many politicians in Europe refused to take on refugees. This forced fewer, smaller areas to bare the weight of the crisis, resulting in more dangerous conditions and extreme culture clashes. As European citizens watch Germany, which accepted an unprecedented number of refugees and saw crime rise, it isn’t surprising countries like France are afraid of the EU’s open border policy.

Immigrants also compete for jobs with unskilled workers. The competition isn’t severe, but in a country like France, where jobs are limited by a high payroll tax and firing regulations, employers are already outsourcing jobs and relying on automation.

“What France desperately needs is some radical change to the way it regulates its economy,” Parsons said.

Perhaps leaving the EU would be the shock to the system France needs to force itself into making some real changes.

Parsons also thinks the media has exaggerated the refugee crisis. Most refugees just want to settle down and work hard as productive citizens in safe areas.

On the other hand, you can’t wish the world into a perfect place.

“Bringing in a whole ton of people from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan — places that have had really awful fights — is going to have an effect on security and [create] a culture clash,” Parsons said.

Parsons also points out that these European countries are already inundated with immigrants, some of whom haven’t been received very well and then, because of poor treatment, get radicalized. Their radicalization just creates more distrust and anxiety from Europeans. This perpetuates a cycle of seemingly justifiable abuse on both ends.

So, perhaps politicians like Le Pen are sensationalizing the issue, but there is also some real validity to these concerns, especially with a situation like the EU in which the borders across countries are not just unregulated but practically nonexistent.

Immigration isn’t the only reason a country might want to leave the EU either.

What was once 28 separate countries, each with its own regulations and traditions, is now akin to the United States of Europe — often with even less freedom given to the countries that states have.

This takes quite a bit of sovereignty away from France and its fellow countries and puts an awful lot of power in the hands of this super government that most citizens don’t quite understand. It’s still run by elected representatives, of course, but these Parliament members are elected based on individual countries concerns, with little thought on how they will work within the EU.

Most people say that if a radical like Le Pen was elected and took France out of the EU, Europe would collapse financially, and the rest of the world would be, as Parsons puts it, on a “permanently downward trajectory.” Especially with someone like Le Pen, who didn’t seem to have much of a plan for a post-EU France.

The EU won’t be falling apart at Le Pen’s hand, and it might not be happening this year or in this decade, but its situation is precarious at best. As more sovereignty is lost and refugees are imposed, European citizens are going to be looking closely at Britain, which was brave enough to take the first leap. In the short term, Brexit has caused a mess, but once Britain inevitably rebounds, other countries will see this as a sign of hope, eventually making the choice to leave the EU more and more appealing.

Perhaps instead of forcing a weak glue, the EU should consider itself a short-run but beautiful experiment and start planning a more graceful exit — one that keeps its more positive progress and lessens the effect its collapse will have on the world.

Alternatively, if the powers-that-be really feel the EU is best for the world, then they should take steps towards appeasing the little people. Meet the opposition half way. Then the French won’t feel the need to vote for the National Front, and we don’t have to risk another Brexit.

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Patience Greene

Patience Greene