By Iman Amrani
25 April 2017
In her victory speech last night, Marine Le Pen described the results of the first round of the French elections as “historic”. In many ways she’s right. The traditional parties suffered severe blows with neither the socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, who received a humiliating 6.3% of the national vote, nor the republican one, François Fillon, even making it through to the second round.
But it’s not just the collapse of the traditional parties that has made this election like no other. The ongoing state of emergency and the continuation of extremist attacks in France have dominated the campaign, and the one on the Champs Élysées last Thursday made many ask whether Le Pen was going to be able to win more votes in the presidential election. In the local elections that took place the week after the Bataclan attacks in 2015 the popularity of Le Pen’s Front National spiked, as she capitalised on the fear that followed the most deadly act of terrorism in France for decades.
Back then Le Pen’s response to the attacks was to demand that France claw back control of its borders “for good”, in defiance of the European Union. She said that “Islamic extremism must be crushed”, and that there needed to be a crackdown on “hate preachers”. Just like François Hollande, and many others, her policies to tackle terrorism in France are almost always linked to security, rarely touching on the idea of prevention. The focus, for Le Pen, has been on either immigration or mosques, and she has pressed hardest on these issues in the wake of every attack that has happened in Europe over the past few years.
Yet this ignores the fact that the vast majority of the attacks carried out in France have been by French-born citizens, not immigrants, who in most cases have been radicalised in French prisons, not in mosques. Does Le Pen have an answer for this?
On Friday, the final campaign day before the election, she called for the immediate expulsion of foreigners on the “Fiche-S” list of those linked to Islamism. It was another tough, security-based response to the question of terrorism that doesn’t actually deal with the issues that lead to individuals making their way on to the list in the first place. The effectiveness of this response seems even more questionable given that the 39-year-old French suspect, Karim Cheurfi, was not on the Fiche-S list. He’d been questioned by police, but never been put on the watch list. Details like this don’t seem to matter during the French election.
Le Pen’s campaign is fuelled by emotion rather than evidence-based policies – sound familiar? Fear and anxiety around the questions of security and identity have left other candidates paralysed, and unable to take control of the debate, which has allowed Le Pen ownership over an issue to which she has no real answer.
She used her last hours on the campaign to call once again for dual-national terror suspects to have their French citizenship stripped from them. Emmanuel Macron has responded by saying that this would be an act of “demagoguery”. In further statements he announced, like Fillon, that as president he would have 10,000 more police and gendarmes on the streets of France over the next five years, and set up a task force against Islamic State.
Macron did tweet about prevention, saying that vigorous action would be taken to combat Islamic radicalisation, including on the internet, but he has given little insight into what that action may involve. In effect, he’s let Le Pen lead on one of the most important issues of the election, leaving his own strategy to exist largely as a response to hers.
The truth is that neither of the remaining candidates has a coherent plan for dealing with the very real issue of fundamentalism in France. That is both shocking and inexcusable. We have seen more than enough attacks in Europe to be able to identify patterns, commonalities, and recurring issues. So why haven’t any of the candidates attempted to grapple with them?
Of course, the question of security is an important one, but it’s not the solution to a problem that runs much deeper. In the UK, for example, we have suffered far fewer attacks than France. I do not believe that can simply be credited to our security services. I think the UK has a more successful approach to integration generally, which has in part prevented as many people from being radicalised as we have seen in France.
While we have our own social issues here that particularly affect minority communities, we have nothing like the same isolation and exclusion that is experienced by young people in the suburbs in France. Ukip’s newly announced “integration” policy has been met with the scorn it deserves. Racial discrimination, police brutality and a fixation on what Muslims choose to eat or wear all contribute to a sense that France is struggling to deal with the consequences of her colonial past.
Debates around religion and identity are far more extreme in France, and the relationship with the former colonies has also been a sore spot during this election. Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, was a lieutenant during the Algerian war of independence and was accused of torturing Algerians. Marine Le Pen herself has made no attempt to smooth relations with Algerians during her campaign, instead saying in a recent interview that “colonisation gave a lot”. Macron at least took a step in the right direction when he described colonisation as a “crime against humanity”, after a two-day trip to Algeria as part of his campaign. But all this shows is that France has a lot of work to do to come to terms with its past if it is to have a better future.
If the French presidential candidates really want to tackle the issue of home-grown radicalisation, they should focus on preventative measures and coherent plans for integration. Macron certainly has a better idea of what that means, but if he wins it will take a lot of work to make France match up with the inclusive, diverse image that he has painted around his campaign.
One thing is for sure, no matter who wins the election, without a real, coherent plan to deal with these key issues, France will remain at risk of further attacks.