He came, he threatened, but he didn’t conquer. The French Riviera will not be the first important region in Europe to be ruled by neofascists. The growing shadow of Jean-Marie Le Pen prompted people throughout France to go to the polls on March 22. Half of them were expected to stay home, but at the last minute some 69 percent cast their ballots, thus reducing the share of the xenophobic National Front. Since Le Pen had boasted in advance that he represented a wave submerging the country, France sighed with exaggerated relief.
Actually, the disease is getting more serious. Garnering 14 percent of the vote, the Front managed to do as well in a regional election as its charismatic leader had done in a more favorable presidential poll. One person out of seven throughout the country, and one out of four in large sections of southern France, was willing to vote for a party that admired apartheid, praised Pinochet and intends to kick Arabs across the Mediterranean.
The last-minute democratic surge was no boost for the establishment. Indeed, consensus politics, barely introduced into France, is already threatened with extinction. Francois Mitterrand, who did the introducing by destroying the left as a radical alternative, discovered that his countrymen are not fond of the politics of tweedledum and tweedledee. The Socialists, who promised to “change life” and then nicely fitted into the prevailing pattern, are now paying the price. For a ruling party to win less than one-fifth of the vote, as the Socialists did, is plainly disastrous. Yet their principal rival–and partner in the establishment–the conservative coalition headed by Jacques Chirac and Valery Giscard d’Estaing, did not take advantage of this fall. Receiving barely one-third of the vote, it too suffered a setback. The only winners were the outsiders: the National Front and the environmentalists, who, in their two incarnations, the Green Party and the Ecological Generation, also took 14 percent of the vote. One has the feeling that, in a society shaken by crisis, citizens are groping toward new forms of political expression. The March elections conveyed a double message: The spectacular climb of the ecologists is a potentially optimistic portent for the future; the continued rise of the National Front is a sinister reminder of a ghastly past.
But is this not reading too much into a local election? The results in France were confusing because of the combination of two polls and the complexity of local government. France is divided into ninety-six departments, including Corsica. These are split into cantons, but in 1982 they were also merged into twenty-two regions. On March 22 half of France chose councilors for the departmental assemblies from the cantons, each of which is represented by a single member. At the same time, voters elected members of the regional assemblies by a system of proportional representation. It was this nationwide poll that offered scope for political interpretation.
Let me focus on the region that was most in the limelight, the so-called PACA, which stands for Provence, Alpes, Cote d’Azur. It is a region containing six departments, the three biggest centered around the cities of Marseilles, Nice and Toulon. Each department is entitled to a number of councilors based on its population, and each party puts up a full slate, which has a local head and which proclaims whom it would support for president of the regional assembly. The PACA was in the limelight because in addition to the incumbent, the conservative Jean-Claude Gaudin, it had as candidates for the presidency of the region two stars of the media, the tycoon Bernard Tapie, running as a Socialist, and Le Pen himself. To find out how real the Le Pen danger is, I followed the Leader down south to Nice.