Into every generation a new irrational fear is born and with every generation a new scapegoat is provided to exorcise it.
There are some perennial favourites among the bigoted classes; single mothers and Jewish people spring to mind, but every twenty years or so the paranoid (stereotypically on the Right wing of the political spectrum) classes find a new ‘Big Bad’ to huddle in fear of. In the past ten or so years since 9/11 Islamophobia has really taken off on an unprecedented scale and the fear of terrorist attack as allowed Far Right groups to mutate it to fit their generalised xenophobic, anti-immigration attitudes. For instance, Marine Le Pen, leader of the Far Right Le Front National in France (the French equivalent of the BNP) used the deadly terrorist attack by Mohamed Mereh of seven people in Toulouse in March as an example of the danger international immigration posed to the indigenous French community as Mereh was Algerian by birth with a French passport. ‘How many Mohammad Merehs are in the boats, the aeroplanes, that arrive each day in France?’ she thundered at a rally during her election campaign.
When the French voters went to the polls for the Presidential elections last Sunday the fears of immigration and Islamist radicals appeared on the surface to win out as Marine Le Pen scooped up eighteen per cent of the vote and will influence the run off between Socialist candidate and favourite François Hollande and incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy. This is even better than her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, managed in 2002 when he squeezed into the second round run off against Jacques Chirac and sensationally beat socialist candidate Lionel Jospin. This prompted the Economist to run the headline Are 18% of French People Racist?
Now, the article concludes, rightly so, that this is not necessarily the case and the reality is far more complex but it does address the issue that most left and indeed some more mainstream right wing commentators would rather sweep under the carpet.
Whilst commenting on the French election result, a few sanctimonious Guardian user commentators saw fit to espouse the view that it was a ‘French’ problem as they were obviously far more bigoted and narrow minded than their cousins across the channel. This represents the ‘othering’ of the problem.
We look at those who take to the streets to protest, who vote BNP and believe that the borders should be closed, and demonise them as unthinking and inherently ‘nasty’ so we do not have to look at where these fears are coming from.
The BNP and Le Front National have undergone something of an image makeover in the past few years as the world economy simultaneously faltered and plunged thousands into unemployment. The BNP has tried to clean up its act, modify its most outrageous policies or at least hide them from view and get rid of its more unsavoury members. This has led to the rise of the EDL as an offshoot who believe the BNP are not radical enough. Similarly, Marine has distanced herself from her father’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and called for the severe curtail of, rather than an end to, immigration. This has made them more palatable to the average voter. As such, those who have become so disenfranchised by the mainstream political parties and threatened by perceived overseas menace will vote for them.
However it is done out of desperation rather than hatred. The political establishment’s constant toing and froing between those who only care about the rich and those who care about the rich and the middle classes has left the working classes angry and ostracised. Voting turnout at General Elections in the UK is on average eighteen per cent lower in the lowest economic groups compared with the highest so it is no surprise that those who do show up opt for the political fringes rather than what they perceive will be more of the same.
Groups like the BNP and Le Front National claim to speak for the working man and woman. After the desertion of the mainstream political parties the holy grail of the middle class vote is it any wonder people are turning to a party that claims, even if it is hiding ugly values, to put their interests first?
Owen Jones in his bestselling (and furious) polemic about the marginalisation of the working class, Chavs recounts an encounter with an angry Bangladeshi woman whilst out doorknocking for the Labour party who proclaimed she was voting BNP because she was concerned about immigration.
She hardly fits the profile of your typical racist does she?
We want the people who vote for them to be bigoted, mean and potentially violent. We socially stereotype them as feckless, lazy and stupid because we do not want to consider what they have to say. However the abysmal failure of the proposed EDL Far Right summit in Aarhus in March shows that of Far Right votes do not shared the Far Right establishment’s hatred or bigotry.
By dismissing them as ‘racist’ we get away with ignoring them. The problems associated with the blistering sore of unemployment that has helped to plunge the UK back into recession and the ongoing perception of a tax free-for-all at the top end of society can therefore be helpfully disregarded as all in their heads.
The BNP represent nearly every opinion that is abhorrent to ‘respectable’ modern society. By stereotyping those who put a cross in their box once every four years we are saying they are wrong and therefore their opinions or their concerns don’t matter. We isolate them, we pretend that they don’t have legitimate concerns about money or livelihood and their rather dire economic and social conditions are their own fault for being so stupid and feckless.
The publishing of a list of BNP party members a couple of years ago was met with vindictive glee by the liberal establishment as it was an excuse to route out and expose unsavoury elements of society. It was from this list they could be ejected from the political establishment and the mainstream could get on pretending they do not exist. However their only crime was belonging to a political party. One with horrendous policies true, but we once condemned those who once supported the Communist party during Stalin’s purges. Regardless of whether we would agree with them, today we would say this violates their right to free speech. How would the public react if a list of Conservative or Labour party members was released? Would we not want to respect the privacy of their opinions?
It is a worrying sign of the times that Le Pen got almost 1/5 th of the French electorate on side last week. However the answer not to pretend that 1/5th of France is stupid or racist; its to acknowledge why they voted in the first place. The French economy is in chaos and Sarkozy has done little to alleviate the suffering of the lower classes. If he or Hollande can fix it they may find by the next Presidential election that the ‘racists’ of this one are suddenly ‘not racist’ anymore.