D.D. Guttenplan, who writes from The Nation's London bureau, is the author of American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
The second round of France's presidential elections was billed as
"l'escroc" (the crook) versus "le facho" (the fascist). In
the event, incumbent President Jacques Chirac got the kind of majority
usually associated with the heads of one-party states. "As always in
times of difficulty, France rallied around what is essential," said the
man even many of his supporters dubbed "the Superliar" as he claimed his
It was precisely the history of France's response in "times of
difficulty" that led Europe to hold its collective breath on May 5. Like
his reference to the Holocaust as "une détaille" and his
proposal that illegal immigrants be held in "transit camps," Jean-Marie
Le Pen's claim to be "socially left, economically right, and nationally
French" was a deliberate echo of the fascist past--in this case the
pre-war fascist slogan "Neither left nor right--French!" The evident
relief in the faces of the African and North African immigrants on the
streets of Paris as the scale of Le Pen's defeat became apparent was a
reminder of just how high the stakes had been. But Le Pen polled nearly
6 million votes--300,000 more than the total for both far-right parties
in the first round--despite being condemned by a pantheon of national
heroes, from Charles Aznavour to Zinedine Zidane.
Not exactly cause for celebration. Instead, some sobering reflections.
First, that history matters. A great deal of attention has been paid to
Le Pen's anti-immigrant, anti-European Union rhetoric. Other far-right
parties, singing from the same hymnal, have made recent gains all across
Europe. But Le Pen also can claim the mantle of a tradition with very
deep roots in French soil, embracing the clerical absolutism of
Action française, the anti-Semitism of Vichy collaborators
like Robert Brasillach and the provincial bitterness of Pierre Poujade.
(Perhaps the oddest moment in the whole campaign was when Le Pen, who
got his start in politics in Poujade's 1956 shopkeepers' revolt, found
himself disowned by his former mentor.) France is not the only country
where nostalgia for fascism has crawled out from under its stone. The
right wing of Silvio Berlusconi's government in Italy carries a torch
for Mussolini; the leader of the British National Party, which won three
seats in local elections recently, decorates his office with German
flags. Pim Fortuyn's assassination on May 6 has left the Dutch far right
leaderless--but may also have furnished the movement's first martyr.
Second, that it isn't just "the economy, stupid." Prosperity didn't save
Lionel Jospin any more than it did Al Gore. To a labor force
increasingly threatened by globalization, Jospin's approach may have
seemed less dirigiste than laissez-faire, but his positions on
workers' rights were still rooted in social democracy. Yet working-class
voters preferred Le Pen to Jospin. The true balance of forces won't be
known until the parliamentary elections in June. Mainstream
conservatives have already agreed to run as a coalition, the Union for a
Presidential Majority. A chastened left has also promised to unite, but
the Socialists have been decapitated, the Communists polled just over 3
percent in April and the Trotskyists are, as usual, split. If the
National Front vote holds at May 5 levels, the far right could become
the main opposition party in the next French Parliament.
For the left outside France, the lasting aftershock of these elections
is the re-emergence of identity as a political problem. For more
than two decades periodicals on the left (including this one) have been
deriding "identity politics" as a suicidal strategy blamed both for the
left's demise after the1960s and for its failure to capture blue-collar
workers supposedly alienated by excessive attention to the concerns of
women and minorities. Instead, we have been urged to limit ourselves to
the language of economic self- (or class) interest. As the pundits who
dismissed Le Pen never tired of pointing out, he barely had an economic
program worthy of the name. Challenged on television to explain his plan
to abolish income tax, he answered that he had other people to do the
figures for him. What he did offer voters was a sense of
identity--crude, nationalistic and defensive, but for many the only
apparent alternative to a mainstream politics offering little more than
the local management of global capitalism. The left may have progressed
beyond such appeals, but if Le Pen is any indication, a right-wing
politics of identity is still very much alive and dangerous.
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