The Political Impact of a Growing Narrative of Fear

Shannon Brooks

Recent news is flooded with headlines of political perspectives based on isolationism, and many upcoming electoral nominees are engaging with a strengthening “fear narrative.” Extremist views are spreading, which is leading to new world perspectives, and new political parties that could not have had the same influence or popular support as in the past.

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Prior to embarking on my university exchange abroad, a surprising number of people advised me to be “extremely cautious,” and wondered whether I would be safe in Paris, in light of recent terrorist attacks. Prior to this, the fear narrative had never entered the discussion regarding my decision to study abroad – a desire for knowledge and adventure was my prerogative. Nevertheless, fear convinced many that I should be worried for my safety and well-being in the beautiful country I find myself in today. Media coverage and politicians have successfully, to a troubling extent, politicized the emotion of fear following continued violence and attacks have occurred throughout Europe, the United States, and even here in Canada. Capitalizing on this narrative has facilitated the ascent in popularity of a number of politicians. This has become even more apparent as we approach very important elections in America, Germany, and France.

The use of divisive rhetoric in upcoming elections is troubling. Fear is a powerful, instinctual emotion that breeds a culture of xenophobia, which can lead to divisive actions. Upcoming elections in western democracies like the United States, France and Germany are, in many ways, polling the public on their views of the rhetoric being employed in the name of fear. The public perception and their lack of acceptance, both in terms of immigration and the fear of “others,” is starting to rear its ugly head.

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Front National leader Marine Le Pen

Both the United States and France have upcoming elections in which the results are critical to shaping international politics, and could result in the mainstreaming of fear-driven policies with extremist far-right ideologies. In France, Marine Le Pen is the leader of the Front National (FN), a radical right and xenophobic party that is gaining popular momentum as the country nears its spring 2017 election. FN policies include a massive reduction in legal immigration, ending or severely limiting family reunifications and asylum for refugees, increasing police control over private information, re-negotiation of European treaties to return national sovereignty, re-instating border checks, toughening requirements for French citizenship, a return to national currencies, working to end the Schengen Agreement on free movement within the European Union, and maintaining a deep disdain for the European Union and a desire to leave it. In October 2015, Le Pen was on trial in Lyon, France for charges of inciting racial hatred after she compared Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. She was acquitted.

Le Pen’s perspectives on foreign and defense policy involve withdrawing from NATO’s military alliance; she has also spoken publicly about her admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose controversial statements and actions have drawn considerable criticism from the west.

The United States, which is facing a critical election this fall, has also seen a rise in the use of xenophobic rhetoric. Republican candidate Donald Trump’s political perspectives, however, are not far off from the ever-increasing and devastating rhetoric employed in other countries. In the Spring 2016, Austrian presidential hopeful Norbert Hofer narrowly missed being elected, losing by less than one percent of the popular vote. Had he been successful, he would have become the European Union’s first far-right head of state.

To the alarm of many, recent polls show that the FN in France has seen their support grow continually over the past few years. There are three main political parties in France: the Socialist Party, the Republican Party, and the Front National. The current Socialist Party leader and President of France, François Hollande, is running for re-election after a highly controversial four years in office. His poll numbers are currently trailing behind his two counterparts, with Le Pen, the Front National leader, polling almost twice as popular as the current President. Le Pen was left far behind Sarkozy and Hollande in the lead-up to the 2012 election.

  2012: Second Round Presidential Numbers 2016: Opinion Polls for First Round
Marine Le Pen Did not make it to the second round Forecast: 27% of vote
François Hollande 51.6% Forecast: 15% of vote
Nicolas Sarkozy 48.4% Forecast: 25% of vote

However, her current polling numbers suggest that she may place in the second round and win the election. The French use the two-round voting system where voters cast a single vote, and if a person wins a majority of the votes (50 per cent), they will win the election in the first round. If not, the two people with the highest votes from the first round will advance to the second round for the final election. The growing support for Euro-sceptic Le Pen, and the high probability that this support correlates with both the Brexit vote and ongoing acts of terror in France and Europe, is an ever increasing concern. A two-round election in April and May of 2017 will declare the winner.

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France has made international news for its increasingly vocal nationalist views, its fear of non-French culture, and its anxiety towards Islam — the burkini debate which took place over the summer is a good example this. A number of French towns in the French Riviera imposed bans on burkinis, a type of swimsuit for women that covers the whole body except the face, the hands and the feet, on their beaches. A large majority of the public supported these bans in the name of “public order and secularism”, also known as “Laïcité” – a core concept in the French constitution formally stated in Article 1.

Has something changed in political culture to allow these policies a prominent space on the political playing field?

Arguably, the fear narrative is the reason far-right ideologies could win these upcoming elections. In the light of growing uncertainty and attacks in Western democracies, the fear narrative has allowed extremist policies to enjoy growing popularity. In 1914, World War I was arguably catalyzed by a terrorist attack against Franz Ferdinand. A single act, we remember, has the potential to spark a range of political decisions from elected decision-makers. Who are today’s decision-makers? In Western democratic nations, these leaders are selected, directly or indirectly, by electorates – electorates that are wholeheartedly buying into the fear narrative.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

During his 1933 inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt stated, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I hope that as French and American electorates go the polls, this simple concept will resonate. It is unsettling to watch the fear narrative control political discourse. Politicians use fear as a tool to manipulate electorates. To many, the fear is gripping. I hope that this time around, as French and American voters head to the polls, it does not work.

Shannon Brooks is a second year Master of Public Policy student at the University of Toronto. She is spending her fall semester abroad in Paris at the Sciences Po School of International Affairs. Her policy interests include social policy, municipal policy, immigration, and international affairs. Shannon recently worked as a co-op analyst with the Regional Municipality of York, where she was able to learn more about internal Human Resources policy and municipal finance policy. She is looking forward to hitting up as many European beaches that she possibly can. 

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