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Opinion

Almost all of the social and economic conditions are there for events in France to be replicated in Wales

06 Jul 2024 8 minute read
Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, meets Emmanuel Macron, President of France, at the British Normandy memorial, on the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

Luke James

Days after a general election in which right-wingers have been swept from Westminster, the political winds in France are about to blow in the completely opposite direction.

Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally) are set to at least double their number of seats in the second round of France’s parliamentary elections taking place on Sunday.

With up to 205 of the 577 seats, National Rally will almost certainly become the largest party in the Assemblée National, although polls suggest they will fall short of a majority.

It all appears a world away from us in Wales, where even the centre-right has been wiped out.

But scratch beneath the surface and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that we are closer than ever to following France down this destructive path.

One of the most shocking results in the first round of the French elections came in the 20th constituency of the Nord department, which the Communist Party had held in fourteen consecutive elections since 1962.

Electoral strength

Unlike in Britain, the Communist party retains electoral strength in parts of France and had government ministers as late as 2002. And the party was represented by its leader and the incumbent MP, Fabien Roussel, who was recently voted the most popular politician on the French left.

He faced no left-wing competitors thanks to the reformation of the Popular Front which saw the Communists and Socialists combine to win power in 1936. Despite all that, the race hasn’t even reached this Sunday’s second round because the National Rally won more than 50% at the first attempt.

The same story played out across the north-east, France’s answer to the red wall, where 17 seats were won by the National Rally last Sunday – half of all seats they won in the first round. In most cases, they had needed both rounds to beat the left of President Macron’s liberals last time.

Familiar story

How did we get here? The story is a familiar one: coalfield communities left behind by deindustrialisation and globalisation which now have higher than average unemployment and the highest levels of poverty in France.

These are the conditions on which the far-right thrive in any country. It is why Nigel Farage chose to launch Reform’s general election campaign in the Gurnos and why it came second in almost half of Welsh seats with 11.5 point increase in vote share.

Tata Steel’s decision to turn off one of the blast furnaces at Port Talbot on the day of the election adds further fuel to these flames.

The antidote is hope, but it is in shorter supply than it might be after a Labour landslide due to Keir Starmer’s determination to be seen as fiscally responsible above all else.

“I don’t think there can be anybody out there who has voted in this election who hadn’t heard him and [Chancellor] Rachel Reeves say that there’s not going to be much extra money for the first couple of years,” said former First Minister Mark Drakeford on Friday.

Mistakes

While Starmer must have understandably felt the weight of carrying the priceless Ming vase across the highly polished floor, he would do well to reflect on the mistakes made by Macron when it comes to actually exercising power – both in terms of policy and presentation.

For many in France, Macron, who attended Paris’ elite universities and worked as an investment banker before entering politics, represents an arrogant and out-of-touch elite.

That image was solidified in people’s minds by an incident in 2022 when Macron issued a Norman Tebbit-style rebuke to a young job seeker, saying he’d find work if he simply crossed the road.

As the son of a toolmaker and a nurse, Starmer’s background couldn’t be more different. But Welsh sociologist Dr Dan Evans has argued Starmer’s technocratic approach to politics means he is “in many ways the ultimate embodiment” of the same professional managerial class from which Macron comes.

This approach is most dangerously expressed through austerity as a form of medicine, with paternalistic governments telling the public they might not like it but it’s good for them – see the way Macron bypassed a vote in the French Parliament to raise the pension age by decree.

‘Sharp cuts’

Here the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that Labour’s approach to fiscal policy could imply “sharp cuts” in public spending.

Before going down that path, Starmer should bear in mind recent research on the political consequences of austerity in Europe which found that a 1% reduction in regional public spending leads to an increase in extreme parties’ vote share of around 3% – notably in former industrial regions.

Fourteen years of Conservative government has already pushed the public’s tolerance for underfunded services to breaking point.

And the Tories look set to keep handing gifts to Nigel Farage and co. from opposition.

Despite making comparisons with French socialism one of their main attack lines on Labour, the clearer parallel is between the Conservatives and their centre-right counterparts in the country.

Founded in a pragmatic Gaullist tradition by Jacques Chirac, Les Republicains (The Republicans) began drifting decidedly to the right under Nicolas Sarkozy and have never regained control.

The party lent respectability to far-right policies and talking points on immigration, with its last presidential candidate, Valérie Pécresse, a kind of Gallic Liz Truss, criticised for raising the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory in one of her campaign speeches.

The result of mainstreaming far-right ideas was ultimately the great replacement of The Republicans as the largest right-wing party by the National Rally.

Similarly, the Conservatives gave credibility to Reform through the Rwanda policy and slogans like “stop the boats.”

For The Republicans, this process reached its inevitable end point last month when Eric Ciotti, the president of The Republicans, announced he wanted to combine forces with the National Rally.

Farcical scenes

Grandees have tried to kick him out of the party and, in farcical scenes played out before TV cameras, out of the party’s office in Paris. But the damage to their brand has already been done.

The same conflict is now underway between different factions of the Conservative party. with the likes of Suella Braverman advocating for Farage to be brought into the fold while David Cameron has accused him of trying to destroy the party.

Among the places which have best resisted the rise of the National Rally are Brittany, the Basque Country and Corsica.

Not a single far-right candidate made it to the second round of the 2022 legislative elections in any of the three countries.

“The strong Breton identity weakens certain arguments from the National Rally about supposed threats to French identity,” explained Professor Arnauld Leclerc of Nantes University. “This is without a doubt also true in Corsica and the Basque Country.”

One of the most prominent candidates on the French left, Francois Ruffin, is also seeking to use regional identity to appeal to voters, standing under the banner of Picardie Debout (Arise Picardie) in order to avoid the same fate as the Communists in the post-industrial north-east.

A link between national identity and progressive politics is a source of pride for many in Wales too, as can be seen from celebrations of the conservative wipeout on Thursday.

But the results at home and abroad do show the limits of depending on national or regional identity as the sole firewall against the far-right.

Identifying as Welsh

The places in Wales which registered the highest votes for Reform on Thursday have among the highest share of residents strongly identifying as Welsh. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a large share of Welsh-identifying residents voted for Reform. But it underscores the fact that a homegrown vote for the populist-right is now part of our political landscape.

In Brittany, the National Rally go into Sunday’s second round leading in five constituencies. They were helped by a familiar controversy over the selection of the left’s candidates being selected centrally in Paris without consideration of local factors.

In the Basque Country and Corsica, the Nationally Rally have qualified for the second round in all of the constituencies.

Peio Dufau, a candidate for the left-wing New Popular Front in the Basque Country, explained the rise in support for the National Rally like this: “They are always presented in the media as the opposition to Emmanuel Macron and, even in the Basque Country, where there aren’t really National Rally activists, I think people voted for them thinking it was the way to get rid of Macron.”

There is a real risk that many voters could see Reform in the same way at the next elections if they take place against a background of an increasingly unpopular Labour government and a Conservative party in chaos.

As opposition parties in the ascendency after the general election, there is also a responsibility on Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to offer those who feel left behind a progressive alternative that re-empowers people and communities rather than simply playing on their fears.

This ‘loveless landslide’ barely conceals considerable danger that lies just below the surface.

Almost all of the social and economic conditions are there for events in France to be replicated in Wales in the not distant future unless all parties learn the right lessons from the rise of the National Rally.


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Simon
Simon
8 days ago

Your reflections on the ripeness of Wales to see a National Rally (Reform UK or other) type party surge into government in the Senedd are fascinating to read. I think that you present, in your writing, a trend which ought to disturb any member of our society who wants a brighter, better future for Wales – a new Wales, if you will. How do we all work together to bring fresh ideas into play and actually see progress for all in our communities? I am convinced that this will not come from the Labour party, who have tied themselves into… Read more »

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
8 days ago
Reply to  Simon

When I was examining the GE results in Wales, I was thinking the same. I am glad I am not alone. There is a part of UK that has gone down that road to inviting the Far right into power and despite what the UK media says because it is in the South-east of England – It is a disadvantaged area and poor and that place is Essex ! Do we really want Wales to go down that plughole. We have only 2 years from the next Senedd election here in Wales. Given the state of the UK, this will… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
8 days ago
Reply to  Simon

Speaking as a Plaid Cymru member and activist, I too am concerned about Reform. It is clear that working class people who identify as “Welsh” (albeit far fewer I’d imagine who identify as “Cymry”) are voting reform. In my constituency, Plaid came close to winning. Had Green and Liberal voters voted tactically we would have beaten the incumbent Labour MP. What we saw was that the Tory vote collapsed and went to Reform. Labour lost voters which then went 4 ways. Its working class culturally conservative vote went to Reform. Its Left leaning vote split 3 ways. So my constituency… Read more »

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
8 days ago
Reply to  Annibendod

Agree completely with your thinking, but rather than stressing too much on the involvement of the other nations currently in the UK I think that we in Wales need to look to our own interests whilst all the time leaving the door open for when the other nations wish to engage positively. We in Wales must put self-interest first and foremost lest campaigning on a broader, inclusive British front dissipate energies, for there will be those who are not ready to come to that particular party, and at least one country still working through no longer being in control of… Read more »

Llyn
Llyn
8 days ago

The far-right currently in the form of Reform and the Abolish the Assembly Party is a threat to democracy. In the future those on the left to centre left will have to unite (by including tactical voting) to stop the extremists. This can start by Plaid voters dumping the self-harming nonsense that Labour and the Tories are one of the same thing.

Annibendod
Annibendod
8 days ago
Reply to  Llyn

Labour has commited itself to the same political, economic and constitutional orthodoxies as the Conservatives. All they have done is promised to do it better. In that sense, they are very much the same. They say they will raise spending when growth allows for it. The trouble with that idea is that it will clash with the reality of finite resources. What we really need is a decarbonised, circular economy, progressively taxed to a level that allows for services to be funded sufficiently. But the Tories hate that idea and Labour are too frightened of scaring the horses. So we… Read more »

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
8 days ago
Reply to  Llyn

Yes, The Labour party in Wales needs to show it is on the side of the people of Wales. That will also means not accepting donations from polluters and NOT accepting UK decisions that will be not in the interests of the people of Wales. Such as lack of compensation for HS2 rail funding and lack of commitment for the devolution of law, police & justice. Labour will need to show they have policies to improve the lives of the people of Wales (and beyond) so that they will not become disillusioned with democracy and vote for those extremists. At… Read more »

CapM
CapM
8 days ago
Reply to  Llyn

 “In the future those on the left to centre left will have to unite (by including tactical voting) to stop the extremists. “ The next Senedd election uses proportional representation so what need is there for tactical voting? Depending on how the Tory party resets a future Tory party might well be politically more similar to the current Labour one than it is now. Whether it is or not neither party is going to stop or even reduce its British nationalism. This “unite to stop the extremists” is just a rebrand of “stop the Tories”. And given the proportional representation system… Read more »

Chris Hale
Chris Hale
8 days ago

Very thoughtful analysis.
I find the prospect of Reform getting seats in the Assembly frightening, looking at what its previous iterations tried to do when they were elected as MEP’s.
They were also adept at milking the expenses system.
I agree with @Simon that we need to work together to present a radical alternative for our communities.

John Powers
John Powers
8 days ago

Surely PR is the problem here. If people can only protest that risks translating into a protest government that wasn’t intended. STV allows for a more legitimate and serious government to be formed that is actually supported by the majority.

Howie
Howie
8 days ago
Reply to  John Powers

PR in Welsh election was a Labour construct from the start in belief with the partial FPTP would guarantee them power, moving to full PR is their choice, if it causes them issues at next election it will be because of their performance since 1999, it is incumbent on them to prove to Welsh electorate they deserve continuing in charge.
As it is incumbent on PC and Lib Dems to offer a credible alternative as well.
But it is just not a Wales only issue if you look at the vote share not seats in recent election.

John Powers
John Powers
8 days ago
Reply to  Howie

There’s plenty of time to rethink the proposed system before 2026.

CapM
CapM
8 days ago
Reply to  John Powers

Time isn’t an issue.
Do you really think Starmer would allow Gething to support a change to a STV system even if Gething wanted it!

hdavies15
hdavies15
8 days ago

Watch out for Reform exploiting that innovative (or mickey mouse !) electoral scheme dreamt up by Labour with Plaid connivance to secure their wet dream of long term hegemony. Well it might work at next Senedd election for Labour but Farage’s Falange will gain a significant foothold and will, like the other power crazy parties, be able to place all sorts of weirdos on their “closed list” If that’s democracy I’ll be happy to topple it.

Annibendod
Annibendod
8 days ago
Reply to  hdavies15

Plaid made a compromise to get the 96 member Senedd. Not a compromise I thought we should have made but then again we may not have had the Senedd expansion. So I’ll keep campaigning for STV.

CapM
CapM
8 days ago
Reply to  hdavies15

That’s the “democracy” of if we can’t win you don’t get to play.

Parties like Reform are a danger to genuine democracy but maintaining an electoral system to exclude them is not a wise strategy.

I suspect that Farage and co although demanding PR actually would far rather stick with FPTP.
They and we know that with PR even by securing a third of the vote they would only get a third of the seats but that with FPTP a third of the vote can get them a significant majority.

Do you still want to topple?
.

hdavies15
hdavies15
7 days ago
Reply to  CapM

That system contrived by Labour and Plaid needs taking down. Much has been written about far more rational structures that retain some semblance of democratic representation but all that has been ignored thus far .

CapM
CapM
7 days ago
Reply to  hdavies15

“That system contrived by Labour and Plaid “ The system was restricted from going further towards a more proportional system by Labour. It needed the support of a “super” majority that mathematics dictated that only Labour and Plaid could generate. The new system is a significant improvement in fair representation terms than the last one. If you want to blame someone then blame Labour but think about whether any change would have happened with Gething as First Minister. In tennis terms the doubles final is over, We got through all the qualifying rounds and were runners up in the final. We… Read more »

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
8 days ago

With UK Labour & Conservative caring only about the Westminster power , London and the English home counties, populist Reform UK as seen with Ukip & Brexit party offer sanctuary to the disenfranchised, the forgotten and politically apathetic like a devil on your shoulder whispering in your ear egging you on. Welsh voters must understand that those who lead Reform UK like Nigel Farage & Richard Tice are right-wing Conservatives who were quite happy to see the devastation of the pit closures in the 1980s and Thatcher’s privatisation of utilities, and where we find ourselves now, with the NHS in… Read more »

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
8 days ago
Reply to  Y Cymro

The most obvious way for any progressive force to counter Reform UK and that ilk is to champion much higher investment in supplying people’s needs, such as social care, health, housing, education and meaningful employment that actually provides a decent standard of life. Starmer is currently saying he can’t do that, and has vowed to continue with the same vile neoliberal ideas that have caused the political and economic crisis in the first place. In this scenario Starmer needs to be strongly reminded that can’t is won’t. What about doing the obvious and taxing the very wealthy much, much more?… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
7 days ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

This. Very much this. Britain pursued social market policies for 30+ years after WW2 and it is the only time in history that inequality in the UK fell. Since 1979 we’ve followed the neoliberal path Thatcher set us on with all its attendant socio-economic deprivations. I forget who said in the 80’s that we were in the foothills of facsism but it is clear that the conditions for populism and the far-right have been formented since that time. The sell off of publicly owned assets, the shift of ownership of private assets from the working and middle classes into capitalist… Read more »

Old Curmudgeon
Old Curmudgeon
7 days ago
Reply to  Annibendod

But how can it be fixed? Thats the bit I’m stuck on.

Old Curmudgeon
Old Curmudgeon
7 days ago

What was it that a German philosopher said. “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history” I could never understand how people like Hitler managed to gain so much power. I’m beginning to realise now…

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
6 days ago

Plaid have a great opportunity to control the narrative if they start electioneering now and up to the next Senedd election. Labour and Gething are ‘damaged goods’, self interest rules them while the tories are a spent force.
I would suggest concern over immigration should be heard and addressed rather than dismissed. People arriving without checks etc does worry many. They too have a right to be heard but an alternative narrative to Reform on the issue can be put forward to dispel the fears. An infrastructure that works for the many would be a big step in that direction

John Ellis
John Ellis
5 days ago

Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally) are set to at least double their number of seats in the second round of France’s parliamentary elections taking place on Sunday.’

Except that, as it actually turned out, that didn’t happen. Best, perhaps, not to underestimate the cunning guile of voters!

John Ellis
John Ellis
5 days ago

When the next Senedd election comes around the year after next, from what I understand we’ll all be voting not for an individual member but wholly on the basis of a predetermined party list. Am I correct? I acknowledge that I might not have understood the proposed new system accurately.

But if so, polling evidence in the very recent Westminster election suggests that ‘Reform’ could well get significant representation in the next Senedd. That should be an interesting outcome, though not one that I would at all personally welcome.

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