The World This Week: Le Pen and Trump Rise Up
A global climate deal in Paris raises hopes even as the far-right gains influence in France and the US by preying on prejudice and targeting minorities.
La grande nation is no longer that grand. In the previous century, it refused to see the writing on the wall and withdraw from its colonies with good grace. French rule of both Vietnam and Algeria ended in a disgraceful and bloody denouement. More than eight years ago, Paul Montfort, then a student at the famous Sciences Po, remarked that “revolution is the only way the French do change. The French carry on without changing until things go so bad that they blow up.” The victory of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front implies the time for radical change has finally come.
In 2007, this author pointed out the many challenges facing France—from low growth and high unemployment to red tape and rote learning. Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the few French politicians who did not graduate from École National d’Administration (ENA), had just been elected president. ENA is a highly selective school whose alumni have dominated business and politics in France for much of the last five decades. Jacques Chirac and François Hollande, Sarkozy’s predecessor and successor, are both énarques, the word used to refer to graduates of ENA. Sarkozy promised “rupture” with the past and, despite his misgivings, this author mistakenly thought Sarkozy might turn out to be Tsar Nicolas and inaugurate some long-overdue reforms.
Sarkozy turned out to be President Bling-Bling and his flashy lifestyle eventually disgusted French voters. He turned out to be intellectually vacuous, full of hot air and failed to follow through on any of his promises. In disgust, the French voted for Hollande who has been an unmitigated disaster in office. The pudgy Hollande has been dull and insipid, but he has matched Sarkozy in his amorous scandals. More importantly, Hollande has been a spectacularly incompetent president. Le Pen is right to claim that French voters have rejected “the old political class” that is far too incestuous and lacks vitality. She is bang on the money to say that France’s political elite of énarques is crumbling.
Le Pen has won a third of the vote and six of France’s 13 regions. Under her leadership, her party has become more palatable to voters than during the era of Jean-Marie Le Pen, her famously anti-Semitic father. Instead of Jews, Muslims are the new whipping boys for her party. She innocently claims that France can no longer take in more Muslim immigrants. The global refugee crisis and the Paris attacks have proved gift horses for a party that has gleefully yoked them to a triumphant chariot.
Riding alongside the older Le Pen is her niece, the blonde and beautiful 26-year-old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who became France’s youngest member of parliament in modern political history at the ripe old age of 22. Clearly, French democracy is in rude health: The incestuous political elite face an insurgent xenophobic family.
For far too long, French racism and the incompetence of its political elite have trapped its minorities in ghastly banlieues. Ten years ago, disaffected youth in these banlieues rioted in 274 towns, torching 9,000 cars and destroying over €200 million of property after two young men died. Sarkozy famously called these young men “scum” and went on the win the presidential election. Ten years later, “nothing’s changed” and the banlieues remain in crisis. Actually, one thing has changed. Impetuous Sarkozy has given way to the ideological Le Pen clan whose intolerance is reminiscent of Catherine de Medici. Minorities can note with some trepidation that France’s Medici era was defined by the 1572 Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, when Catholic mobs slaughtered Huguenots throughout the country.
American politics seems to be rivaling the French in its lurch to the right. Donald Trump, a flashy billionaire presidential candidate, has called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” drawing gasps of disbelief across the country. When talking about Mexicans, Trump has declared that “they are rapists.” Even Le Pen claims that Trump has gone too far. For this author, the brash billionaire is a clownish buffoon. Ted Cruz of machine gun bacon fame is the more insidious and dangerous candidate.
Yet it is clear that Trump is tapping into a large section of the Republican base. He continues to lead the polls for the Grand Old Party (GOP). Jeb Bush has called Trump’s plan “unhinged,” Chris Christie said it was “a ridiculous position” and Marco Rubio termed it “outlandish.” Apart from these three Republican candidates, no one else criticized Trump unambiguously. The most shocking response came from Carly Fiorina, an arrogant and avaricious former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, who claimed that “Donald Trump’s overreaction was as bad as President Obama’s under reaction.”
The Republican Party has been lurching to the right since Strom Thurmond, a senator of the Deep South, broke ranks from the Democratic Party and became a Republican in 1964. This is a man who supported segregation and opposed interracial dating—though that did not stop him from fathering a child with his African American maid.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan played dog-whistle politics by launching his campaign at Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair in front of 10,000 raucous white supporters with a ringing endorsement of “states’ rights.” It is here that Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, three civil rights workers campaigning against segregation, were murdered in 1964. Reagan was the first presidential candidate to appear at the fair. He would later go on to support Apartheid South Africa and treat Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. In Mississippi, Reagan was appealing to white supremacists of the Deep South who believed that segregation between the races was a matter of states’ rights in which the Federal government had no right to intervene.
Under George W. Bush, the racial politics of Reagan was replaced by religious fervor. Bush claimed Jesus to be his favorite philosopher. He began breakfast meetings with a prayer and declared the so-called War on Terror a crusade. This author mentioned in a previous The World This Week how the beatified Pope Urban II launched the Crusades in 1095 for the cynical reason of uniting Christian Europe under his leadership. European invaders acted with extraordinary brutality, leaving a toxic legacy that lives on till today. Bush’s use of the word crusade was idiotic and inflammatory because it gave religious hues and historical relevance to a heinous act by a fringe group of fanatics.
The lunatic lurch of the Republicans to the right is reaching its logical conclusion. Under Bush, the US went through a civilizational fall. Torture was legitimized as an enhanced interrogation measure. The irony that Americans had sentenced Japanese to death for torturing prisoners during World War II was lost on the Bush regime. That torture did not work was irrelevant as well. Opponents and critics were denounced as ignorant, incompetent and un-American. Patriotism implied chest thumping jingoism and support for an unintelligent linguistically-challenged president.
Throughout the years, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News has been pouring poison into America’s soul. Murdoch comes from a country that followed a White Australia Policy for decades, and his organization preys on insecurities of white America through vitriol, distortion of facts, deliberate misinformation, racial prejudice and relentless outrage. Fox News has successfully moved the needle of political discourse to the right. Fox News’ tag line is “Fair & Balanced,” and yet the only thing fair about its reporting are its blonder than blonde female news presenters. Murdoch has made his billions by murdering and then burying the Eisenhower Republican six feet under. In the process, he has made Republicans more racist, religious and reactionary. Donald Trump is only saying things overtly that Republicans have long hinted at.
Even as the US and France drifted to the far right, Venezuela voted for its center-right opposition. In a landslide victory, the opposition won 99 of the 167 seats in the national assembly. South America has its own tangled legacy of race and exploitation. White descendants of Spanish conquistadores have a sense of entitlement that they were born to rule. They often preside over economic growth, but the fruits of it end up in their own hands.
Populists who appeal to mestizos and indigenous populations tend to lack the wisdom to rule. More often than not they turn authoritarian, fall prey to corruption and bankrupt the state. Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, were no exceptions. They come from a long lineage of Latin American caudillos who failed to create institutions and viable alternatives to the elites they supplanted.
The election defeat of Maduro’s party was a foregone conclusion because of the fall in oil prices. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was unable to limit production thanks to a Saudi-led policy of pumping until all rivals “are squeezed out of market share.” As a result, prices have fallen from $105.37 a barrel to well below $40 today, and oil exporters like Venezuela are in trouble. Chavez and Maduro were relying on the oil price bonanza to last an eternity. That party has come to an abrupt end and the late Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution” is now in its death throes.
Finally, a landmark climate deal has been reached in Paris that aims to limit the rise in global temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Here’s hoping that it sticks.
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.