In the Heart of Le Pen Country
"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."
When he talks of local politics, the man can be quite witty. I asked him why he was so sure that candidates of the respectable right, the followers of Jacques Chirac and Raymond Barre, would stand down for National Front men and vice versa, whatever the official orders from Paris. Because they don't want to commit political suicide, he replied: "On the fourth floor, faced with the choice between the window and the staircase, you obviously can jump, but...." Dedé is there for Arab-bashing and Arrighi for vote-catching--the Front, after all, is doing well here in both posh and popular districts--but when it comes to fundamentals their message is the same. It panders to the lowest prejudices and plays on the deepest fears, seeking the ultimate root of all evil in the outsider, the alien, in this case the Arab.
Mohammed the Scapegoat. Next to the names of National Front candidates on the billboards there are small posters. With a minaret in the background and a quotation: "In 20 years' time, it is sure, France will be an Islamic republic." It is not worth checking whether the Hezbollah leader to whom this is attributed really did make such an absurd forecast. All foreigners combined account for less than 7 percent of the French population, a proportion that has remained roughly stable for the past dozen years, and immigrants from North Africa represent 2.6 percent. Besides, it is estimated that only pome 5 percent of the potentially Islamic population are practicing Moslems. But to give credence to such forecasts is no more irrational than the often-heard suggestion that if you want a job, a subsidized flat or a place in a kindergarten, you had better be called "Ben-something" than Dupont. This kind of whispering campaign is universal; only here it is unusually successful. Is it because foreigners are so much more numerous here in Marseilles? Not really, since according to the 1982 census, they number 80,752--or 9.3 percent of the population; immigrants from North Africa, estimated at 56,784, account for 6.5 percent of the total. Admittedly, they are more visible, since the immigrant ghetto lies in the center of the city. The district stretching between the Canebière and the railway station with its monumental staircase, full of narrow streets and shady hotels, has always been a shelter for the poor of the planet. By now it has expanded and looks like a North African casbah. Arabs are thus to be found not only on the outskirts in the most overcrowded and derelict housing projects but also in the very hem of the town. On top of it all, there is the population afloat. The port of a Marseilles is the main transit place and provisional stop for North Africans entering or leaving France.
Yet one cannot attribute the political explosion of racism to some optical illusion. Having once gone to school here, I can testify that Marseilles is an ethnic patchwork, the nearest thing to the United States with its successive waves of immigrants. The Arabs come after the Spaniards, Armenians and Greeks on the solid foundations laid by the Corsicans and, above all, the Italians. In 193 1 foreigners accounted for a quarter of the town's population, so to talk now of a "threshold of tolerance" is nonsense. Besides, the proportion of foreigners has not grown perceptibly in the past seven years, during which the National Front has climbed from marginality to political pride of place in this city. To understand this rise, racism alone is not sufficient explanation; it is necessary to glance at the deeper crisis of this town, of its living conditions, its economy and its system of power.