The Resistible Rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen
The French right, deprived of the spoils after twenty-three years in office, was desperate to return to power. When the euphoria of the Socialist victory dissipated after a year, the right hit back without scruple, pandering to fears and prejudices. After a quarter-century of heedless urban development, the cities were coming apart at the seams. Growing unemployment had, predictably, fostered petty crime and a general feeling of insecurity. These were attributed to the left and its "lax" Minister of Justice, Robert Badinter, in particular. Although during the previous two decades the right had presided over the mass importation of cheap foreign labor, it placed blame for the immigrants "grabbing your jobs" squarely on the shoulders of France's "Marxist" rulers. It is well known, after all, that the "Reds," like the Labor Party in Britain, liberals in the United States and Socialists in France, are nigger, Jew and Arab lovers.
Orthodox conservatives, however unscrupulous, are not champions at this game. The National Front always stoops lower than they do. While conservatives criticize the Minister of Justice, the newspaper of the front writes that he is "always for the marginal and against a society that had for a long time rejected the Badinters," and the reader translates: bloody foreign Jews. While the right talks of unemployment, the front invents the absurd but eloquent equation "2 million immigrant workers = 2 million unemployed Frenchmen." And Le Pen speaks of invaders "who want to sleep in my bed, with my wife."
In the local elections of March 1983, the main theme was law and order. The National Front was probably the chief beneficiary of this issue, scoring well for the first time in many urban areas. Le Pen himself was elected to one of the twenty town halls of Paris. The turning point, however, came six months later, in the battle of Dreux, a small town northwest of Paris [see Singer, "The Rise of the Nouveaux Liberals," The Nation, November 12, 1983]. The original vote was so close that another poll was ordered, and the National Front, with an openly racist platform, managed to capture 16.7 percent of the first-round vote. That was bad enough, but there was worse to come. As no side had gained an absolute majority, a second round was required, and between ballots the "respectable" right welcomed members of the front on its own list Klan candidates on its ticket. Racism rewarded.
It must be granted that not all conservative politicians approved of this squalid arrangement. Simone Veil, a former president of the European Parliament and a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, said that had she been a voter in Dreux, she would have abstained. Yet she did not resign from her party or from the right-wing coalition whose main leaders--the very distinguished Raymond Barre, Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing--did not share her distaste. The late Raymond Aron, the famous sociologist who is now being hailed as a paragon of democratic conservatism, sided at the time with those who argued that to have four "quasi-fascist" councilors in Drew was nothing compared with having four "Red fascists"--read Communist ministers--in the government. As Mark Antony would have put it, these are "honorable men"; indeed, one of them is certain to be the next conservative candidate for the presidency.
The label of respectability bestowed on the front had its obvious consequences. Its rating in opinion polls rose sharply. Le Pen became a popular guest on the talk shows and proved to be a clever performer. He knows how to hold back on television and then let loose at rallies of his own supporters. The reward came in June of last year. In the elections for the European Parliament the front obtained nearly 11 percent of the vote (like Poujade in his time): that is to say, almost as much as the Communist Party. Ten National Front deputies now sit in the European assembly, next to their Italian comrades from Giorgio Almirante's neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement.
Nor was it a flash in the pan, as some had hoped, on the assumption that voters do not much care who sits in the European Parliament. In regional elections held earlier this year the front roughly equaled its June score, considering it did not put up candidates throughout the country. Indeed, it polled 20 to 30 percent of the vote in some towns on the French Riviera, in Marseilles and in Montpellier. It did exceptionally well in regions where most of the French refugees from Algeria have settled. Now that the voting system for parliamentary elections has been switched to proportional representation, Le Pen and his gang are bound to win seats in the National Assembly next March. Indeed, some Socialists are relying on the threat of this to prevent a clear-cut verdict for the "respectable" right.
The entry of avowed racists into the French Parliament is not in itself the worst prospect. As the old saying goes, you don't bring the temperature down by breaking the thermometer. I am not even most shocked that in France today one person out of ten, one out of five in many places, votes for a party whose leader is an open defender of apartheid and an admirer of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. More worrisome is the underlying ideological shift to the right, the radical metamorphosis of the substance and form of political debate, of which this plague is only a symptom.
It will be objected that this is merely a revival, that anti-Semitism in France goes back to the last century, to the Dreyfus case and beyond, that in the 1930s fascism paraded openly and racism was incomparably more virulent. True, but that was before the Holocaust. After that, for some thirty-five years, people didn't dare speak, or even think, in quite the same terms. Now they do again. Yesterday they had to say, I am not a racist but.... Today they no longer take the precaution. And apparently decent people echo Le Pen almost unawares. To paraphrase Brecht, the "filthy beast" was not killed off in Nazi Germany. If we don't keep a watchful eye, it will pounce back on the political stage wherever it gets an opportunity.
In my next letter I will look at the fact and fiction behind the immigration figures, at the cowardly surrender of the left and its real problems and at the hopeful signs of a change of tide. History, after all, need not repeat itself as tragedy either.