How Le Pen’s party obstructs EU moves to defend workers
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Marine Le Pen’s National Front party claims its Eurosceptic platform is aimed at protecting workers. But in the European Parliament, critics say the French far-right party has done everything to scuttle workers' rights.
Two days after she made it past the first round of the 2017 French presidential election, Le Pen was live on national TV, trying to position herself as the "candidate of the people". The 48-year-old National Front (FN) presidential candidate was ticking the boxes when she declared, "The choice I offer is the choice of the nation, the choice of the homeland, for the protection of the French people against the excesses of regulations, and the drifts of the market."
Le Pen has long cast herself as the saviour of French workers against a rapacious global financial system – stealing the thunder of the French left in the process.
However the voting history of FN members in the European Parliament reveals a pattern of choices that contravene Le Pen’s stated intentions.
The 23 French far-right European Parliament members (MEPs) almost systematically choose to vote against measures aimed at improving the lot of Europe’s workers, according to critics. These include the fight against de-industrialisation, directives to reduce tax evasion, as well as measures against social dumping (the practice of employing cheap labour or moving work sites to low-wage countries). The far-right bloc has also voted against a directive seeking to prevent and deter undeclared work – or paid activities that are not declared to public authorities and therefore not taxed.
Despite the party’s staunchly anti-EU platform, the FN has had no qualms about running for European parliamentary elections – and generally does better than in national legislative elections, benefitting from low voter turnouts for EU elections. While the party has more than 20 seats in the European Parliament, it has only three in the French National Assembly.
Once in, the elected FN MEPs benefit from EU salaries, perks and privileges. Earlier this week, the party was accused of defrauding the European Parliament of nearly €5 million, more than twice an initial estimate.
The allegations however have not appeared to affect her popularity ratings among the party’s core base of supporters, who are overwhelmingly Europhobic.
‘We have never seen the FN’
For anti-National Front MEPs though, the French far-right party’s obstructionist voting track record is particularly galling.
"What strikes me most is that they act, in the European Parliament, in opposition to everything they say in France," said Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, an MEP from the French centre-right Les Républicains party and member of the EU’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee.
"Because the National Front rejects the legitimacy of European institutions, they vote against everything that gives power to these institutions to invest locally, even if their intervention is positive for social rights," said Doru Frantescu, director of VoteWatch, a Brussels-based think tank that monitors the votes of European parliamentarians.
Thiébaut Weber of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which includes almost all the French trade unions, agrees. "Social and labour rights issues at the European level and the National Front are two different things. They are totally absent on these issues," he said, explaining that he does not count on the elected representatives of the French far-right party to defend the interests of European workers. "We have never seen the FN, no effective work, no initiatives, only speeches. Their position is not to engage," explained Weber.
‘They cannot claim they defend the most precarious workers’
The most striking example of this disengagement was during the initiative to pass the “posting of workers directive”, which aims to ensure “the same pay for the same job at the same place”. The measure was pushed by a group of countries including France, Germany and Belgium, who argue that existing EU rules on the posting of workers could be abused by employers to undercut local labour laws.
In April 2014, Le Pen was the FN representative in the Employment and Social Affairs Committee responsible for examining the directive. "She was never seen, except on the day of the inauguration, and in plenary session, she abstained [from voting]," said Morin-Chartier.
Today, while the abolition of the directive is one of the measures put forward in the FN election platform, the MEPs from the FN continue to desert the ranks of the European Parliament right at question time. Morin-Chartier, rapporteur of the directive currently under review, notes that Dominique Martin, the FN MEP who represents the extreme right on the committee, did not participate in the first meetings.
"They cannot claim they defend the most precarious workers," said Morin-Chartier.
Examples of the FN’s disinterest on labour issues abound in the annals of the European Parliament. Morin-Chartier recalled that in September 2016, the FN MEPs voted against the introduction of national minimum wages to at least 60 percent of the national average wage in the framework of a social anti-dumping report. In the same vote, they abstained on a measure to draw up a European blacklist of enterprises responsible for serious violations of social legislation.
VoteWatch has also noted similar inconsistencies, such as the refusal to vote for a resolution on the fight against tax evasion in December 2015. When asked about the abstention, the FN’s Bernard Monot said the party did not want to “encourage a European fiscal union". At a plenary session, Monot claimed, "The National Front has joined all the texts in favour of fiscal transparency, but categorically refuses to move towards a fiscal union."
This record has incensed Weber. "What interest do they have in solving European problems?" he fumes. "The FN has no interest in supporting the European policies that are needed, as Europe is the basis of their business. It uses the European Parliament as a forum to get media attention during plenary sessions. But once that happens, the party’s elected representatives are absent most of the time.”
For their part, MEPs from the FN complain that their voices are ignored in parliament. "Our counter-proposals, our amendments are rejected in all areas, proof that this is all just cinema," dismissed Monot.
But for the pro-EU MEPs in the chamber, this discourse is yet another example of the FN’s theatrics in Brussels, or “just cinema”, as Monot describes it.
This article was translated from the original in French.