France has its own Tea Party -- and it's upending Europe’s socialist stronghold.
France and Texas go way back. In 1839, as the handsome wood mansion in Austin that housed the French Legation still reminds us, France was one of the few nations to recognize Texas during its short life as a republic. (Although, relations weren't always cordial, and during the famous "Pig War" of 1841 the French chargé d'affaires had his valet shoot a number of porcine marauders that had invaded his residence.) A few decades later, a motley crew of Provençal poets, enamored of "le wild west," dressed up as cowboys and Indians, transforming the Camargue, a stretch of swampy land in southern France, into a Mediterranean Texas, replete with bulls and ranches. A few years after that, in 1984, French audiences and the Cannes jury hailed Wim Wenders stunning film "Paris, Texas" -- an equally romanticized, though somewhat grimmer, French riff on the Lone Star state.
Is it possible that France is now importing the brand of conservative politics peculiar to Texas? Following their first round of local elections last Sunday, the French, at least at first glance, seem intent on doing so. Though a second round of voting will take place this Sunday, French voters have already spoken. What they had to say echoes what Texas conservatives, in particular the Tea Party stalwarts, have been saying for some time: Less federal government (whether D.C. or Brussels), more traditional values, and please, no more immigrants trying to change things around here.
To be sure, close to 40 percent of voters spoke by refusing to speak at all: Never before has the abstention rate been so high in a French election. As with the Texas Democrats -- scarcely half a million turned out to vote in the most recent primary -- voter abstention is the ruling Socialist Party's greatest fear. And the problem has only gotten worse as the approval ratings of national leaders have plummeted. François Hollande continues to go in public esteem where no French president has ever gone before: Just before the elections, a poll taken by the newspaper Le Figaro placed his approval rating at 17 percent. (For a little perspective, Obama's approval ratings in Texas are hovering at just above 30 percent.)
Whether it reflected widespread apathy or hostility, France's unprecedented abstention rate benefitted the conservative opposition's base. The neo-Gaullist UMP outperformed the Socialists by 8 percentage points in the popular vote, despite being convulsed by a series of financial and political scandals, many tugging at the heels of both their current leader, Jean-François Copé, and those of former President Nicolas Sarkozy. But the real significance of the UMP's relative success was that it required the party to move substantially to the right. Like mainstream Texas Republicans, French conservatives have succeeded by glomming onto the worldview espoused by their extreme right flank. Indeed, the real winner last Sunday was the extreme-right Front National (FN). The party captured only around 5 percent of the popular vote, but presented candidates in only 600 of the 32,000 towns and cities that held elections over the weekend. This indisputable victory not only could lead to the capture of several city halls, but perhaps more importantly, has already redefined France's political landscape.
Even from the modest height of the ersatz Eiffel Tower in Paris, Texas, the twinned radicalization of Lone Star and French conservatives unfolds in neat parallel. On a number of issues, the discourses of the Tea Party in Texas and the FN in France have pushed the traditional conservative establishments to the right. While "compassionate conservatives" have long argued for a more humane and generous immigration policy, the Tea Party has pushed mightily in the opposite direction. This seismic shift has led to the growing isolation of establishment figures like former President George W. Bush, and the growing prominence of radicals like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who himself becomes a beacon of moderation when compared to Tea Party militants like Senate candidate Chris Mapp, who told the Dallas Morning News that ranchers should be allowed to shoot on sight illegal immigrants -- in his words, "wetbacks" -- crossing the border.
The French right has responded in a similar manner to the FN's harsh immigration policies. While no one has suggested shooting illegal immigrants from Romania or North Africa, the FN long ago called for the expulsion of three million "illegals" from France. More recently, FN leader Marine Le Pen has spoken about an "Arab occupation" of many French cities, while Florian Philippot, the FN candidate who is poised to win the mayor's race in the Alsatian city of Forbach, insists on the term "invasion."
In response, the mainstream French right has adopted the same language, sometimes with even greater ferocity. In 2005, Sarkozy famously dismissed the rioting youths in suburban Paris, many of whose parents were from North Africa, as "la racaille" or scum of society. A few years later, he proposed that naturalized citizens -- i.e., North African immigrants -- who break the law be stripped of their citizenship. Since becoming the leader of the UMP, Jean-François Copé has upped the ideological ante, asserting that the children of illegal immigrants born on French soil should not automatically become French citizens.
The so-called droitisation, or pushing to the right, of the UMP's discourse, is clearing the ground for tacit alliances with the FN. In a few cities and towns, deals between FN and UMP politicians have been struck in this Sunday's run-off elections. When the Socialists expressed alarm, Sarkozy's former Prime Minister François Fillon chuckled: "The Republic is not in danger should two or three FN candidates win city halls."
But the Front National and the Tea Party share more than just a deep fear of being overrun by foreigners with brown skin. Libertarians apart, many members of the Tea Party have a distinctive view of Christianity and the religious foundations of the United States. This is also the case in France, where the FN has attracted a growing proportion of young Catholic voters and even allied with militant Catholic organizations during the recent anti-gay marriage demonstrations. These Catholic voters are, admittedly, less than enthusiastic over Le Pen's desire to resurrect the death penalty in France, outlawed in 1981. (They would have been thoroughly nonplussed when an American audience cheered the announcement that 234 executions have taken place under Gov. Rick Perry's watch.) But they are attracted to Le Pen's opposition to state-reimbursed abortion and applauded the recent claim by her second in command (and companion), Louis Alliot, that the French state "does everything to encourage abortion and nothing to preserve life."
While the UMP and other conservative and centrist parties have not embraced all of these positions, the FN has nevertheless tilted the playing field in that direction. Like the Tea Party, they continue to ram the center of political discourse ever farther right. For this reason, the results of the second round of elections this Sunday are already in. After Steeve Briois, the FN candidate in the city of Hénin-Beaumont, won the first round outright last Sunday, one of his supporters shouted gleefully: "The world will now know who we are." As we like to say in these parts, "Texas is bigger than France" -- a claim that, unless it plans to annex Luxembourg, France can never challenge. But it may soon be able to make a different boast: "France is redder than Texas."
Photo Illustration: Ed Johnson/FP