“It cries in my heart as it rains on the town,” wrote Verlaine, and it was pouring over Marseilles as I arrived just before the Whitsun holiday. Then the mistral cleared the sky and the sun shone on all the celebrated landmarks: the vast avenue of the Canebière descending to the Old Harbor, the View Port itself, with its armada of small boats in white or blue, and the bigger ones taking the tourists to the Chateau d’if of Monte Cristo fame. But for all the fine weather, the time was for tears rather than smiles in Marcel Pagnol’s country. With 102,541 of its 361,804 voters picking Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first presidential round in April, Marseilles, the old melting pot, the gateway to Africa and the Orient, has become the racist capital of Europe.
As last week’s national elections approached, all the main leaders of Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front swooped over the region, the department of Bouches-du-Rhône, like vultures in search of parliamentary seats. Le Pen himself picked the eighth district of Marseilles (where in April he had polled nearly 30 percent). But attention is already being focused beyond the current election, toward the Ides of March, the likely date of next year’s poll for the Town Hall. Can a neofascist become the mayor of France’s second city? The very fact that the question can be raised requires a lot of explanation.
The Thug and the Politician. If you want to see a folkloric image of the danger, take the left side of the Old Harbor, move beyond the restaurants whose enterprising owners solicit you to taste their bouillabaisse, to the Bar des Yachts. You can’t miss it: Posters of the leader are plastered all over with the now-obsolete stickers “Le Pen–president.” On the left-hand side there is a symptomatic kitsch painting: A priest with a holy cross is exorcising a devil painted in red. So that the point should not be missed, the devil has 1789–the date of the French Revolution–scribbled on his back. The bar’s owner, Dedé (short for Andrew), a man well known for his exploits with fists or gun, is well in line with the painting: “It’s the Alamo here. Only instead of being on the defensive, we shall attack.” Then, changing periods and metaphors: “Charles Martel [who stopped the Arabs near Poitiers in the seventh century] -that’s kid stuff. It’s from here that the great anti-Islamic crusade will start..” The customers, who look like a bunch of aggressive salesmen, nod approvingly. If the National Front attracted only such reactionaries, nostalgic for the King, Pétain and French Algeria, the threat would not be too great.
To measure its seriousness I have to go to the other side of the Old Harbor, beyond the seventeenth-century Town Hall, where the Socialists are still the masters, to a ware- house that had been turned into offices and plastered with portraits of Le Pen with or without a tie. There I meet the local leader of the National Front. Sixtyish and paunchy, Pascal Arrighi is one of the reactionary notables who rallied to Le Pen. A former high-level public servant, he is a clever politician and a smooth talker. Why does his party do well in this area? In addition to economic circumstances, there are two basic reasons -immigration and “its daughter, in- security.” Marseilles, he claims, is a hospitable city, but the Arabs are just too much. When I venture that the arguments used to explain their otherness-different race, different religion, they don’t mix or intermarry- had been advanced to oppose Jews before the war, he weighs me up suspiciously then decides to play it safe: No, the Jews had “the gift of adaptation and the will to integrate,” whereas the Arabs are unbearable. He takes me into his confidence: “A cousin of mine, a doctor, her name was not in the telephone book, but they found it to shout obscenities because she had refused to sign phony certificates for social security. They just get on everybody’s nerves.”