It didn’t go unnoticed that last Friday was the anniversary of the infamous first round
of the French presidential election of 2002, when a divided vote on the
left allowed the far-right’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, with 16.9% of the vote,
to run second and therefore go through to the second round. Le Pen has
lost some ground since then, but the most recent polls still put him
around 10%, and the combined far-right vote at perhaps 15%.

Various explanations can be offered for Le Pen’s continued strength
(watching him on TV, he does have a certain weird charisma, not unlike
Joh Bjelke-Petersen), but an obvious one is the fact that France lacks
a mainstream centre-right nationalist party.

The arguments about national sovereignty that are made by our Liberal
Party and its counterparts – sceptical about the UN and international
law – are not made by France’s centre-right party, the UMP: or rather
they are drowned out by its practice of enthusiastic support for
European integration. It also, for historical reasons, has other
positions not typically associated with the right, such as cool
relations with Israel and strong opposition to the war in Iraq. So Le
Pen and his like fill a gap: they pick up votes that otherwise might
stay within the mainstream.

It now seems that something similar might happen in the UK. There in
recent years the Conservative Party has been one of the most
nationalist and Eurosceptic of the continent’s major centre-right
parties. Whatever one might think of that as a policy position, it had
the merit of marginalising the extreme right, in much the same way that
John Howard reduced One Nation to irrelevance by stealing its thunder
on immigration.

But new Tory leader David Cameron, although still making some
Eurosceptical noises, has been taking his party to the left, and
thereby opening up space for the far-right British National Party.
Mainstream politicians have been expressing concern that the BNP could
make significant gains in the British local elections to be held on 4
May.

It is conceivable that the price of the Gladstonian convergence between
the major parties in Britain may be that the BNP or something like it
will become a permanent presence that they have to learn to live with,
much the way the French have with Le Pen.

Peter Fray

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