After the electoral triumph of the anti-immigrant Eurosceptic parties in France and the United Kingdom in May, many liberals expressed their shock and worry. However, there was something of a feigned naiveté in their indignation and wonder at the Right victories. What one should wonder about is why it took the anti-immigrant Right so long to make a decisive breakthrough.
When Jean-Marie Le Pen—founder of the French far-right National Front party that triumphed in France’s recent European Parliament elections—made a tasteless gas-chamber joke about a French pop singer of Jewish descent, his daughter Marine Le Pen, the party leader, publicly criticized him, thereby promoting her image as her father’s human face. It is irrelevant whether this family conflict is staged or real—the oscillation between the two faces, the brutal one and the civilized one, is what defines today’s populist Right. Beneath the civilized public mask lurks its brutal, obscene real face, and the difference between the two is only the degree to which the hidden face is openly exposed. Even if this underside remains totally out of sight, it is there as a silent presupposition, as an invisible point of reference. Without her father’s specter, Marine Le Pen doesn’t exist.
There is no surprise in Marine Le Pen’s message: It’s the usual anti-elitist, working-class patriotism that targets transnational financial powers and the alienated Brussels bureaucracy. She rejects the unelected Brussels financial technocrats who brutally enforce the interests of international financial capital and prohibit individual states from prioritizing the welfare of their own people. She thus advocates a politics that connects with the worries and cares of ordinary working people. Le Pen forms a clear contrast to the sterile European technocrats: While her party’s Fascist outbursts are a thing of the past, she brings passion back to politics. Even some disoriented leftists succumb to the temptation to defend her. What unites Le Pen and her European leftist sympathizers is their shared rejection of a strong Europe and their desire for a return to sovereignty of nation states.
The problem with this shared rejection is that, as they say in a joke, Le Pen is not looking for the causes of the distresses in the dark corner where they really are, but under the light, because one sees better there. Instead of trying to discern the antagonisms of today’s global capitalism, she focuses on easy targets like immigrants whose presence is visible to everyone on our streets. Le Pen’s message begins with the right premise: the failure of the austerity politics practiced by the Brussels experts. When the Romanian leftist writer Panait Istrati visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the time of the big purges and show trials, a Soviet apologist trying to convince him of the need for violence against enemies of the state evoked the proverb, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” To which Istrati tersely replied: “All right. I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelet of yours?” We should say the same about the austerity measures imposed by the Brussels technocrats: “OK, you are breaking our eggs around Europe, but where’s the omelet you have promised us?”