Justice: The New Antagonist of Anti-Establishment Politics

The leader of France’s National Front, Marine Le Pen, has found both a new antagonist in the judicial system and a vector for her populist and europhobic discourse. Le Pen has picked a new institution to join the media as part of an “establishment,” that is inherently and unfairly opposed to her candidacy. With the first round of the French presidential election scheduled in under two months’ time, the far-right candidate and her party are at the centre of an investigation into misspent European Parliament funds, which Le Pen claims is a deliberate attack against her.

Mme Le Pen has refused to pay the €339,946 required of her by the European Parliament to compensate for the salaries that two of Le Pen’s parliamentary assistants received. The European Parliament believes that, instead of working on Le Pen’s activities in the European Parliament, her two assistants contributed to the Front National and to Le Pen’s domestic politics. One of those two assistants, Catherine Griset, Le Pen’s current chief-of-staff, has been officially indicted for extortion and abuse of trust this Wednesday.

Marine Le Pen has been a Member of European Parliament (MEP) since 2004, and is currently ranked 384th out of 750 MEPs by MEPranking in terms of parliamentary activity, highest-to-lowest, for the ongoing term. In line with her father’s views, Marine Le Pen has been a harsh critic of the European Union (EU), and has turned europhobia into one of her major electoral arguments. Europhobia is as easily associated with an anti-establishment discourse against elitist eurocrats in Brussels as with a nationalist discourse against the interference of European institutions in French affairs, which Le Pen has framed as an attack on the sovereignty of the French people.

The first point of Le Pen’s 144 points-long platform is to hold a referendum of France’s membership in the EU, as europhobia has been a mainstay of Front National politics since the days of Jean-Marie Le Pen. This has not stopped Le Pen from becoming an MEP, nor her party for gaining the most seats of any French party in the last European elections in 2014. But in her financial squabbles with the Parliament, Marine Le Pen might have sought to reinforce her europhobic credentials.

Such concerns do not hamper Le Pen in the polls, where she has held a steady lead for months and still remains on top. Nor do the judicial troubles that she is facing seem to hurt her electoral chances;  instead, they seem to bolster her lead.

Le Pen is not the only French presidential candidate to escape electoral fallout caused by judicial affairs. François Fillon, the candidate of the right-wing party Les Républicains, has staunchly fought off grave allegations of corruption. Like Le Pen, he is accused of having paid his wife for work as his parliamentary assistant despite her never having done the work. For over a decade. Fillon has answered these legal proceedings, including a full judicial enquiry launched this Friday, by adopting an aggressive stance, lashing out at a judicial process that he claims is politically motivated. By calling the judicial inquiry an “institutional coup” designed by the “the left” and “the powers-that-be” to sabotage his campaign, Fillon parted with traditional politics and embraced a populist approach centered around the theme of victimisation, a narrative Le Pen has also adopted with aplomb.

François Fillon – Wikimedia

Victimisation thrives on the notion that the politician in question is the target of unwarranted attacks by his or her opponents. These opponents supposedly do not hesitate to instrumentalise the media or the justice as part of their tactics, and their meddling can be seen behind every institutional challenge posed to the candidate. Victimisation discourse can then take on a conspiratorial tone, as Le Pen’s speech in Nantes did on February 26th.

In the speech, Marine Le Pen strove to paint herself as the target of the “system  a state apparatus that is a mounting “persecutions” and “cabals” against her candidacy. In a recent interview, Le Pen explicitly denounced the justice system as a tool wielded by her political enemies.

Le Pen, in addition to refusing to pay the European Parliament, has refused to talk to the French judicial police until the legislative elections are over, in June. That her decision does not comply with the justice systems orders is shocking, coming from a presidential candidate, but Le Pen is shielded by her parliamentary immunity as an MEP. Le Pen has been fending off other investigations into the Front National’s finances, and the police raid of the party’s headquarters on February 21st only reinforced her openly defiant attitude.

To defend her delaying of the judicial process, Le Pen alludes to a “republican truce”: that the judicial process should be conveniently put on hold during electoral periods. It is a notion without any legal or constitutional basis, and whether or not it might have been respected in times past is irrelevant. If Le Pen wins the presidential elections, she would then benefit from penal immunity for the next five years, further stymying due process.

Fillon and his supporters have made similar appeals to a republican “tradition”. In addition, Fillon has been lamenting that he “hasn’t been treated as a subject like all others, pointing to the unusual expediency of the judicial system in dealing with his case. Fillon is right that proceedings have gone at a much brisker pace than usual: Fillon has been summoned by judges on March 15th, less than two months after the opening of the preliminary investigation on January 25th. Fillon will then be indicted, over a month before the first round of the elections, on April 23rd. Back in January, as allegations against him were surfacing, François Fillon had promised to drop out if he was ever indicted.

Le Pen’s and Fillon’s argument is plagued by a central contradiction. They both demand what amounts to special judicial treatment, out of a fabled republican tradition, while claiming that they are being singled out by the judicial system.Fillon and Le Pen also accuse judicial proceedings to be politically motivated against their candidacies, yet also claim that these proceedings ought to be suspended out of respect for political events. Both simultaneously question the judicial system’s independence and request that it furthers jeopardise its independence by taking political matters into consideration.

Though Le Monde, a center-left daily newspaper and France’s most respected news source, denounces Le Pen as a candidate who “rejects the rule of law,”  this approach seems to benefit Le Pen. It has equally enabled Fillon to remain at a stable position in the polls, hovering around 20%, neck and neck with Macron for second place. Along with their distrust of the media, their questioning of  the judicial system is an attack on the last stronghold of impartiality within our institutions. The judicial system makes for easy political prey because it cannot respond to any attack for risk of stepping out of its bounds, yet it is worrying that neither candidate has taken a hit in the polls as a result of taking the justice system head on.

In search of short-term political gain, politicians as Le Pen and Fillon could damage long term popular trust in judicial institutions. It is an irresponsible thing to do, especially for individuals aspiring to the highest responsibility.

Similar instances can be observed abroad—most obviously in the United States—where Trump has openly challenged the judicial system over its response to his “Muslim ban.” In the United Kingdom  too, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been facing similar allegations to those lobbed against the Front National: its pan-European parliamentary group, the Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe, has been accused of having misspent 427 000 pounds of European parliament money. Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, responded by claiming that “every single eurosceptic  party and group” was being “willfully victimised” by the European Union.

It turns out that what populist and eurosceptic parties have in common, along with their leadership style, is a perpetual claim to victimhood.

For these parties to be able to brush off and delegitimise judicial procedures ought to be a worry to magistrates and citizens alike. Anti-establishment discourse has extended the breadth of its complaints and paranoia to the media and the justice system, and the authority of two of Western democracies’ most central checks to political power are being actively questioned by major political forces for electoral gain. That a politician as François Fillon, a member of parliament for 35 years, minister, prime minister, and now presidential candidate, would adopt such inflammatory tactics is unheard of. It results in the normalisation of these fringe tactics.

This is a sudden trend that warrants monitoring, particularly because the functioning of judicial proceedings, being lengthy and slow-paced by nature, would be severely hindered if they become mired in political dealings . The more the judicial system is accused of being politicised, the more difficult it will be for it to function apolitically, and another safeguard against demagoguery will be weakened.