The Resistible Rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen
This article originally appeared as a "Letter From Europe" in the September 7, 1985, issue.
History, pace Hegel and Marx, need not repeat itself as farce. When the French right blames bloody immigrants and the Reds in the Mitterrand government for growing unemployment, memories of the 1930s send shivers down the spine. Admittedly, the jobless are not as numerous today as they were then and their fate is not quite the same. There are also some encouraging signs of reaction on the left--for example, the Woodstock-like rally in the heart of Paris on June 15 which drew some 300,000 youngsters to the Place de la Concorde to listen to rock groups and comedians under the antiracist banner of the "Hands off my pal" campaign. But before assessing the possibilities of a reversal, one must look at the grim tide itself, and especially at Jean-Marie Le Pen, the man whose name is synonymous with the recent revival of overt racism in French politics and society.
He no longer wears a black patch over his left eye, which he lost in a political brawl. It made him look less like a pirate than like the thug he has been throughout his adult life. Smiling, smartly dressed, he now seems--particularly on television, where he is on his best behavior--a frank and reasonable fellow saying aloud "what everybody really believes," telling people "what they already know," a man who merely echoes the basic precept of that great American Ronald Reagan: namely, that communism is the root of all evil. A red-faced, rather fat man who warns the "silent majority" against muggers, drug addicts, gays and crypto-pinkos, Le Pen might be described as a sort of French Spiro Agnew preaching law and order, except that he is not of Greek or any other foreign extraction. That is an important difference, because the man and the movement he leads, the National Front, trumpet the slogan "Frenchmen First" and spread the fairy tale that everything would be fine in the streets and hospitals, in the schools and even the factories were it not for the foreign hordes invading France, particularly those crossing the Mediterranean. France would be just marvelous without Marxists, Arabs and other aliens.
Jean-Marie Le Pen was born fifty-seven years ago in Brittany. The orphaned son of a fisherman, he came to Paris to study law and rapidly became notorious in the Latin Quarter as a Red-baiter and an active participant in drunken or political brawls. He completed his education as a soldier, going to Indochina with the paratroopers of the Foreign Legion after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. At the age of 26 and back in Paris, he was elected to Parliament as a member of a political movement whose rise helps us understand the current success of the National Front.
The 1950s in France saw the beginning of mass migration from the countryside and of industrial as well as commercial concentration in the cities. Since nobody likes to be eliminated, even in the name of economic progress, the traders, craftsmen and other victims of the squeeze rebelled. Their discontent was exploited by a shopkeeper from southern France who cleverly put the blame for their misfortunes on eggheads, tax collectors and Jewish-owned big business. His name was Pierre Poujade. To everybody's surprise, his movement, a seven-day wonder, gained nearly 11 percent of the vote in the 1956 elections and more than two score deputies. Le Pen, an unscrupulous but efficient demagogue, was for a while Poujade's lieutenant, and in the Parliament he expressed his distaste for racial impurity with this oft-quoted apostrophe to Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France, a Jew: "You crystallize in your person a certain number of patriotic and almost physical repulsions."
In 1957, a year after the elections, Le Pen split with Poujade and turned his attention to the colonial war in Algeria, volunteering for service as a paratrooper. Herein lies another clue to his present support: he has the backing of European settlers who fled to France when Algeria won its independence. Recently a skeleton was taken out of his closet: Le Canard Enchâné provided chapter and verse showing that, among other exploits, Le Pen had been an active performer in the torture chamber at the notorious Villa Susini, in Algeria, where instruments ranged from old-fashioned whips to modern electrical gadgets. A story in Libération, drawing on Algerian witnesses, accused him of acting as an executioner. Le Pen sued both publications for libel, but they won. The judge reasoned that you couldn't defend the principle of the use of torture in Algeria, as Le Pen had done, and be libeled when accused of putting the principle into practice. Le Pen had argued not that the facts were wrong but that his honor had been impugned.
For the extreme right the war in Algeria was a high-water mark. The chief beneficiary of their struggle, however, was Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who took advantage of the 1958 political crisis to bring down the tottering Fourth Republic. When he sought to extricate himself from the colonial mess, the European settlers in Algeria and the military barons who had made him king felt betrayed. They formed the Secret Army Organization (O.A.S.) and succeeded in spreading terror in Algeria and even in exporting it to France. The tide of popular opinion was flowing against the O.A.S., however, and Le Pen was clever enough not to tie himself too closely to a loser. But there was no doubt about his feelings. In 1965, three years after Algeria won independence, he served as campaign manager for Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignacourt, a presidential candidate who sought to unite the mourners of Algerie Française with older fragments of French reaction. Tixier-Vignacourt, who had been the chief attorney for the O.A.S. leaders and a former junior minister in Marshal Pétain's Vichy government during World War 11, symbolized the union of colonialism and collaboration. This mixture brought him no more than 5 percent of the votes cast, the high point of the far right's support for several years to come.
For Le Pen those were lean years. Having lost his seat in the National Assembly, he had to earn a living. With some colleagues, he set up a company specializing in historical phonograph records, mainly of military songs. They were sued and fined under France's antiracist laws because the liner notes on an album of Nazi songs described Hitler's movement as "on the whole popular and democratic." Politically, things were hardly better. Fascist thugs were swept out of their favorite Latin Quarter haunts by the mass student movement in 1968. Four years later the various extremist sects of the right merged to form the National Front. Le Pen, the least disreputable of the lot, was chosen to be their leader, but their electoral strength was still measured in fractions of a percentage point.
Then came a stroke of good fortune. A degenerate, or shall we say worthy, heir of an industrial empire (the Lambert cement company) died young, leaving his fortune to the leader of the National Front. Part of the family wanted to fight the will on the ground that its author was of unsound mind, but an out-of-court settlement in 1977 gave Le Pen a mansion on the outskirts of Paris and enough money not to have to worry about financial matters. In fairness, it should be said that prosperity did not weaken his political appetite, though the fat years were still to come. In the 1974 presidential poll, won narrowly by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Le Pen obtained 0.75 percent of the vote. Seven years later, when François Mitterrand triumphed, Le Pen could not even find the number of elected officials required in France to sponsor a presidential candidacy. The economic crisis of the 1970s helped spread xenophobia, preparing the ground for the National Front. But the victory of the left in the 1981 elections and its subsequent failure to cope with the crisis was necessary before Le Pen could take off.