Sarkozy’s Dangerous Flirtation With France’s Far-Right, Anti-Muslim Nationalists

Far-right French nationalist politician Marine Le Pen is currently in the midst of a contest to succeed her father, well-known inciter of racial hatred Jean-Marie Le Pen, the infamous perennial French presidential candidate, as the leader of the virulently anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim Front National party. Some had speculated that the charismatic, blonde Marine Le Pen would offer a kinder, gentler, and less anti-Semitic face for a party that has long played a central role in stirring the always-simmering and occasionally-boiling pot of racial and religious tensions omnipresent in French society. That notion, however, was quickly dispelled by her recent comments to some party faithful which both stoked fears about the far-right’s pet notion of ‘creeping sharia’ and likened French Muslims who are forced to pray in the streets due to overcrowded Mosques to France’s Nazi occupiers during World War II:

For those who like to speak about the Second World War, here we can talk about occupation. […] Certainly there are no tanks, there are no soldiers, but it weighs heavily on local people.

Amid a recent spate of incidents, including the banning in June of a “wine and sausage” street party organized in response to Muslims praying in the street in Paris, France’s mainstream political parties quickly denounced Le Pen’s comments. The Socialist Party’s national secretary called them “shameful” and its spokesman added that “Marine Le Pen is just as dangerous as Jean-Marie Le Pen.” The education minister for the ruling Union for Popular Movement (UMP) said they were “unacceptable” and the party’s spokesman also disputed the idea that daughter Le Pen was any different from her father, calling them “interchangeable.” Le Pen pushed back against these critics and others who had suggested she committed a gaffe by saying “My comments were absolutely not a blunder, but a completely thought-out analysis.” She then went on to note that she was merely giving voice to what she claims everyone thinks privately. 
Le Pen has the nod of her father and is widely expected to contest the 2012 presidential election for the FN, with her comments clearly “meant to remind [FN party activists] that she has not abandoned the party’s ideas” ahead of the January 16th party vote. She is also currently polling nationally at 12-14 percent, which is relatively high for the far-right party in recent years, but shy of the nearly 17 percent her father took in the 2002 presidential election, in which he shocked the nation by beating the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, to advance to the runoff with then-President Jacques Chirac. Her personal approval rating has risen to a shocking 33 percent.    
While both Le Pens’ inflammatory statements have come to be an expected — if extremely unfortunate — part of French political life, perhaps more disturbing is the increasingly rightward lurch that President Nicolas Sarkozy and his party have taken on issues relating to immigration and Islam’s place in French society and culture. Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (née Union for a Presidential Majority, which was born of the merger of several center-right parties in order to stand united against Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 presidential runoff election) took the elder Le Pen’s success as a shot across the bow and has moved dramatically rightward in a largely failed effort to stem further electoral gains by the FN.
Though in 2004, he sought to liberalize France’s sacrosanct 1905 Law, the law that governs France’s strict separation of church and state, in order to allow state funding for the construction of mosques and other facilities to staunch the flow of funds from extremist sources abroad, Sarkozy has since moved far to the right.  He was widely criticized for remarks he made as Interior Minister in 2005, when he said the “scum or “rabble” of France’s notorious suburban ghettos, then in active revolt, needed to be “cleaned out” using a Kärcher, a type of high-pressure water hose.  More recently he has stoked anti-Muslim fears, already widespread in French society, by banning the wearing of burkas in public and initiating a government-sponsored national debate over French national identity.  The latter collapsed earlier this year after it degenerated into little more than “a forum for immigrant bashing.”

Though his party initially condemned the younger Le Pen’s comments as “unacceptable,” Sarkozy himself is now set to deliver a New Year’s Eve speech calling Muslim prayer in the streets “unacceptable.”  An aide to the French president noted that “people overreacted to Marine Le Pen’s comments” about overcrowded mosques overflowing into the streets and that “she is right: this phenomenon is unacceptable.”

In addition to the highly questionable moral implications of Sarkozy’s flirtation with the far right, it’s also unclear whether it represents a winning electoral strategy for the embattled French president.  The FN also robs votes from the far left and has recently posted strong showings in many economically devastated communities that were long bastions of the French Communist Party. France’s Muslim community is the largest in Europe (French law prohibits the government from collecting statistics about religion so an exact count is unavailable) and moving too far to the right could further boost the fortunes of the Socialists among Muslim voters. It could also empower more moderate forces on the center-right, including bitter Sarkozy rival Dominique de Villepin, who formed a new party earlier this year following the UMP’s disastrous results in the country’s regional elections.