In the Heart of Le Pen Country | The Nation


In the Heart of Le Pen Country

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The Thermometer and the Epidemic. I have written so far as if Marseilles were an island. Admittedly, this volatile port has some unhappy precedents: Simon Sabiani and his gangsters controlled the city in the early 1930s, and the Gaullist Rally at its worst conquered the Town Hall in 1947. But today Marseilles has ceased to be so distinctive. It has the same disease only in stronger or more advanced forms. It is not even very much ahead of the trend in the Midi. The electoral map of southern France now looks pretty ghastly. Le Pen got a quarter of the vote in the regions around Marseilles, Nice and Toulon; a fifth in the Avignon, Nîmes and, further west, Perpignan areas. The greater success of the National Front in the southern regions is partly due to the presence there of French settlers from North Africa--adding to French racism their own anti-Arab brand--and possibly to a greater fear of European integration. But nobody likes to be squeezed in the name of economic p 13 ogress, or to call "modernization" what is perceived as unemployment. Le Pen has reached close to 10 percent support in Brittany, for instance, where there are no foreign workers. The disease has become national.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

What Marseilles does reveal is how the National Front has grown, and the timing of its growth. The economic crisis and a good number of immigrants were no sufficient on their own. The left had first to get into office--on the one hand to madden the right, and then, on the other, having failed to keep its promises, to disappoint its own supporters. It was in 1983-84, with those two preconditions fulfilled, that the National Front took off. Then, in the past two years, the respectable right had to get back into office and confirm its own inability to cope, giving a new boost to the Front.

Historians will probably describe this period as the end of an era for two major movements-the Gaullist Party, which had managed to harness the authoritarian trend of the French right, and the Communist Party, which had furnished hope and the semblance of a solution to left-wing protesters. Consensus politics will not exorcise the Front. If the crisis and unemployment continue, as they are likely to, and no section of the left provides a radical alternative, Le Pen has quite a future ahead of him.

Is this forecast not too gloomy now that the share of the National Front in the total vote has gone down from over 14 percent to less than 10 percent, and the party has been virtually deprived of deputies? No. A movement whose growth is so recent and which lacks well-known figures was bound to lose some ground in an election where local personalities matter, while the disappearance of deputies is purely the effect of a change in the electoral law from proportional representation to a winder-take-all system. The danger now is that those who have altered the way one reads the thermometer may convince themselves that the disease is cured. Yves Montand, the brilliant performer who now seldom Asses the chance to say something politically silly, argued the other day that one cannot describe as fascists the people with whom he plays pétanque on the Riviera. Jackboots somehow do not fit into Pagnol's country.

But serious trouble does not ! begin when the men with jackboots or with cloven hoofs opt for fascism. It begins when the tinker and tailor, your neighbor and your cousin, are driven sufficiently mad by circumstances to vote for an admirer of Pinochet, a preacher of apartheid, a man for whom the gas chambers are a mere "detail." As I looked down from the steps of the station, on departing this outwardly still-warm and attractive town, I could not help feeling that moral Pollution is not so easily perceived. All the more reason to probe below the surface, to sound the alarm and, above all, to seek a cure--unless we want to wake up one day, too late, in a fully contaminated city or country.

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