France Turns to the Right: The Effect of Terrorism Near Election Time


The police swarmed the area around the Champs-Élysées after the shooting. (Kamil Zihnioglu / Associated Press)

The police swarmed the area around the Champs-Élysées after the shooting. (Kamil Zihnioglu / Associated Press)

On April 26, President François Hollande and other top French officials paid tribute to a slain police officer, 37-year-old Xavier Jugelé, who died tragically last Thursday to a gunman in Champs-Elysees. Two other policemen were injured in the terror attack, which ISIS has claimed responsibility for.

France again is suffering, a feeling so familiar to its citizens. In the past two years, France has experienced some of the worst atrocities in the western world. The string of terror attacks began in January 2015 with the Charlie Hebdo shootings, in which two masked gunmen drove up in a black Citroen C3, entered the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper and killed 17 people to retaliate against a satirical depiction of the prophet Muhammad. There were the attacks in Paris in 2015, France’s deadliest attack, when casualties totaled 130 through a trifecta of suicide bombings, shootings and hostage operations, which shook France to its core. The first suicide bombings exploded near Stade de France in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. Several mass shootings and more suicide bombings shortly followed. Then, eight months later during Bastille day – the French National Day – in Nice, France, a truck rammed and killed 80 people and injured hundreds more. Islamic terrorist groups have claimed responsibility for all of these attacks.

The Champs-Elysees attack came days before the first round of the national election, an event which could steer voters towards Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front. Trump even tweeted, “Another terrorist attack in Paris. The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!” Ignoring the implication of support for Le Pen, Trump brings up a valid point of how this latest attack could shake up the first round of elections.

However, with the first round over, it appears that President Trump’s claim might prove to be false. While Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron – representative of the centrist movement En Marche!  – both advanced to the final round, Macron took home 23.8 percent of the votes versus Le Pen’s 21.5 percent. With second round polls predicting a victory for the centrist Macron, the populist movement might have finally been thwarted, but pre-celebratory remarks should be withheld – see the 2016 U.S. election. If the French did not give a “terrorism boost” for Le Pen, did terrorism influence the election in any way? Yes: and it already did.

For decades, two parties from the center-right and center-left­ – the Republicans and the Socialist Party respectively – dominated France’s political system, but ever since the populist phenomenon gained worldwide traction, the traditional parties are now afterthoughts. Both parties could barely garner a combined 25 percent of the vote this election cycle – a huge drop off from 55 percent combined in the 2012 election. But more confounding is that, judging from the distribution of votes, the election was about an open versus closed society, rather than right versus left, and that transition can be partly attributed to the recent terrorist attacks in France. Polls had already given Le Pen and Macron favorable results for the first round; one predicted 62 percent support for Macron and 38 percent for Le Pen.

Terrorism seeks to achieve a sole objective: using violence to assert political aims. Terrorists can have multiple motives from regime change to territorial expansion, but there is always a political component attached. The Paris terror attacks in 2015 instilled fear throughout the entire nation and across the globe. When security becomes the main concern for a state, anti-immigration and pro-military defense stances rise in popularity. Israel is a prime example of a liberal – not in the ideological sense – democracy that faces constant threats inside and outside its borders. Constant exposure from rocket threats from Gaza actually increased voting for right-wing parties during the elections from 2003 to 2009. Areas within rocket range had two to six percentage points higher in right-wing voting. Just the threat of violence can influence voting behavior. Another study conducted in the U.S. showed losing a family member from the 9/11 attacks led to more political activism and more conservative voting for the Republican Party.

Anna Getmansky, an assistant professor in the department of government at the University of Essex stated that “exposure to terrorist violence also affects attitudes by inducing intolerance, eroding support for civil liberties, and promoting exclusionist attitudes towards minorities.” Most notable was Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the U.S. election. Although Trump’s remarks were some of the most xenophobic, bigoted, controversial and straight up bullish yet, he was still elected. The past few months of the Trump presidency has resulted in aggressive measures to combat terrorism: a Muslim ban, increased military activity to defeat ISIS and proposed boosting military spending while slashing departments’ budgets.

While counterterrorism is vital to a politician’s platform, many other issues demand attention as well. In a poll conducted last year, 64 percent of French citizens were more concerned with economic reform and social matters over national security. A similar Pew poll indicated that the top two issues for citizens were the economy’s well being and terrorism.

But France may have realized from the United States election that it prefers a more tolerant, positive and less divisive society moving forward. On May 7, as the final round of elections rolls around the corner, the world will be watching earnestly.

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