Posted by on May 08, 2012 in Blog

Francois Hollande’s victory in the French presidential elections on Sunday has already been hailed as an important lesson for this year’s American presidential candidates. Some claim that the rejection of economic austerity policies should serve as a warning to the Republican Party against proposing similar spending cuts, while others see it as bad news for Obama, as Nicolas Sarkozy was the ninth incumbent European leader to fall since the start of Europe’s financial crisis. Still others see a dark road ahead for the U.S. economy, arguing that a Socialist government under Hollande will further weaken Europe at a time when France should be leading the continent’s charge to economic recovery. “The political inspiration that only France can provide Europe will have to be played once again by a United States that is historically tired of playing that role,” wrote Foreign Policy’s James Poulos. 

The real news of the French election, however, was the unprecedented number of votes acquired by extreme conservative Marine Le Pen, who ran her campaign on a largely Islamophobic, anti-immigration platform. Le Pen won 18% of the first-round presidential vote, making her the choice of nearly one in five French voters. This number was not great enough to send her to the second round of voting, but it was more than enough to send Sarkozy and Hollande scrambling to seize her supporters. During their final debate, the two candidates each tried to outdo the other with fervent support for the French burqa ban and affirmations that no halal meat would ever be served in French schools.

Anti-immigrant fervor has been building for years in France and throughout Europe, where a significant portion of immigrants come from North and West Africa and parts of the Middle East. In a growing identity crisis, many in France have had trouble accepting even second- and third- generation French Arabs and Africans as citizens, leading to harsh and institutionalized discrimination. A time of economic hardship in Europe has led to a climate of fear-mongering and extreme nationalism, led by the far-right but increasingly accepted by mainstream politicians. In Germany, xenophobic parties are on the rise, and in Greece, a neo-Nazi party won a record 21 seats in parliamentary elections. More and more frequently, the political discourse has consisted of targeting Muslim immigrants for attacking traditional French culture (thus bans on wearing burqas and serving halal meat) and for adding to the economic turmoil with an ever-expanding population. We have seen the shadows of a similar trend here in the United States, where a post-9/11 world has brought Islamophobia into the spotlight of election politics, and a troubled economy has done the same with anti-immigration policies.

Although both French presidential candidates pandered to the nation’s anti-immigrant sentiments, Hollande’s Islamophobic speech is likely to be little more than election rhetoric. France’s Socialist party has been notably progressive on immigration policy, pushing legislation that would give recent immigrants the right to vote in national elections. However, Hollande did not win due to his mild stance on immigration, and Sarkozy was not ousted because of his anti-Muslim rhetoric. The French presidential election came down to pure economics, as France’s voters opted for Hollande’s optimistic, growth-oriented strategy over Sarkozy’s stern austerity measures. French citizens are looking to restore the nation’s pride–and its AAA credit rating–without the sacrifice and bare-bones spending of Angela Merkel’s German vision. This nationalistic mood will lead the country to turn inward, shunning globalization and a unified European Union for a reinvigorated and independent France. Thus far, the isolationist trend has led to victory for the left due to its economic policy and in spite of its milder immigration platform. However, the coast is not yet clear for France’s immigrant and Muslim populations, as xenophobia may well translate into far different results in June’s parliamentary election.  American politicians will be watching closely, as they too will be facing an upcoming election where an incumbent candidate and his party must convince the public that they can reverse economic trends. Only time will tell whether the United States will see its own economic fears fall prey to the same Islamophobia and anti-immigrant nationalism. 

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