Scapegoating foreigners marks French and British elections

Sunday 23/04/2017
Fuelling the narrative. French soldiers stand guard near the Champs- Elysées in Paris after a shooting, on April 20. (AFP)

With an unex­pected new election in Europe scheduled for just one month after the French presidential election run-off, the United Kingdom’s snap election on June 8 will almost certainly be dominated by the same focus on immigration.

Last year there were Brexit and Donald Trump’s election. This year there are elections in France, Britain and Germany. In all these campaigns the main tension is between a vision for an open globalised society and a reactionary neo-nativism from those that vision has left behind. To put it another way: The issue is immigration.

For many, immigrants ulti­mately contribute more than they cost. From financial contri­butions to the economy in terms of taxes and employment to cultural contributions, immi­grants play an overall positive role in society. In Britain, for example, immigration is vital to the running of the National Health Service and agriculture, add to that the influence post-colonial migrants have had on British culture, whether cooking, literature or music.

For many others, however, immigrants are convenient scapegoats to explain austerity and lacklustre health care, employment and housing prospects. There are also those who tie immigration to crime and terrorism and decry the cost immigration has on national identity.

Stoking fears about “the other” has always been an easy way for politicians to win votes. It worked for Brexit and Trump. It could work in European elec­tions. But when will Europe’s right-wing politicians learn from the mistakes of the continent’s past?

National Front leader Marine Le Pen has promised, if she is voted president, a referendum on France’s membership of the European Union, citing exaspera­tion with unfettered immigra­tion. “My first measure as president will be to reinstate France’s borders,” she told a crowd of cheering fans in Paris less than one week before the elections.

A few days later, an Islamic State-inspired terrorist opened fire on police in Paris’s Champs-Élysées, killing one and wound­ing two others. Le Pen responded by calling for the government to “immediately” take control of its borders and expel foreigners on its intelligence watch list. The attacker was a French national.

While explaining her decision to call for a snap election, British Prime Minister Theresa May said the elections would promote unity at a time when “division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit.” As for what a successful Brexit means, she outlined it meant the British regaining control of “our own money, our own laws and our own borders.”

Where will all this ultimately lead?

This is a trend that could lead to the breakup of the European Union. If Frexit were to follow on the heels of Brexit, that would be an ignoble end of this ambitious political and economic union.

The European Union traces its history to the end of the second world war and the idea that European integration was necessary as a bulwark against the extreme xenophobia and nationalism that defined that era. For the European Union to be destroyed in a new wave of xenophobia and nationalism is particularly disappointing and worrying.

This is a trend that has led to increased reports of hate speech and hate crime in Britain, particularly targeting Muslims. Hate crimes targeting Jews and Muslims in France are also on the rise.

The increase in hate crimes will lead to feelings of disillusion­ment and isolation for the continent’s immigrant communi­ties, fuelling a vicious cycle of blame and counter-blame.

Most dangerously, impression­able young Muslims who find themselves disillusioned and questioning their own identity are easy prey for extremist preachers and terrorist recruit­ers.

This is a trend, in short, that will lead to greater division and fragmentation. In 2017, when the world is experiencing excep­tional armed conflicts and global tensions and the greatest number of displaced people since the second world war, more division and fragmentation is the last thing we need.