For once the news from France's racist front is optimistic. At least the worst will not happen. Until quite recently, the xenophobic National Front appeared to be heading for an impressive score in next June's elections for the European Parliament in Strasbourg and, with the respectable right divided on the question of Europe, casting an even bigger shadow over French politics. It won't happen. Personal ambition and the thirst for power have done their job. It is now the turn of the Front to be split deeply down the middle. Its 70-year-old leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party in 1972, clings to his property. A rival, the 49-year-old Bruno Mégret, backed by much more than a splinter, also claims the heritage. Indeed, he was elected leader by the rebels, who met January 23-24 in Marignane, one of the four southern towns conquered by France's quasi-fascists.
To the question, Which of the Fuhrers is less repellent, the only possible answer is Heine's alle beide stinken. They both stink to high heaven, though not in the same fashion. Le Pen, a fighting thug in earlier days, is by now bloated, Göring-like, but still a charismatic rabble-rouser; he is likely to preserve a bigger portion of the popular vote. Mégret, small, Göbbels-like, is more bourgeois; a product of France's best engineering school with a diploma from Berkeley, he is a schemer, an organizer, and this is how he won the majority of the party's cadres, its apparatus. They differ on tactics: Le Pen wants to bully the respectable right-wing parties to toe his line, Mégret to woo them through bribes and corruption. But their platform and their methods are the same. They thrive on racism, on immigrant-bashing, on law and order. They play on the French people's fears and pander to their lowest prejudices. Their ideology is also identical. If Le Pen's can be defined by his repeated claim that the Holocaust was but a "detail" in the history of the last war, it is Mégret who has attracted to his side the party's main theologians of racism. So take your pick.
It can be hoped that the bitter fight, the insults, the resulting revelations, will cost both sides some support. Thus, if in the coming European elections the Le Pen front gets, say, 8 percent of the vote and the Mégret faction around 4 percent, it would have quite a different impact than if the united party had beaten its previous record of 15 percent, as it was expected to do. One should be grateful for small mercies, which is not the same as cherishing illusions about the disappearance of the danger. For a decade after its formation, the National Front was marginal, politically irrelevant. It required the economic crisis, unemployment and popular disappointment with a left that betrayed its promises on coming to office for Le Pen and his party to take off in 1983. It has been consolidating its position ever since. If the left once again proves unable to cope with unemployment and the resulting social disarray, the same causes will produce the same effect or, rather, the already serious disease could become much worse. Who would benefit is much more difficult to forecast. For Le Pen, although he is likely to do better than his rival on this occasion, it is probably the beginning of the end. Mégret may get his chance if he survives the awkward test of the European elections. These are held in each member country under a system of proportional representation, but in France a party must get 5 percent of the votes to have any representatives. If the M*gret faction fails to clear this hurdle, it will be in real trouble: Its supporters will conclude that it has no future.
Yet whoever profits, if the economic crisis persists, a party putting the blame not on the real causes but on the immigrant, the alien, the Other, will prosper. The slender hope is that for its second time in office in France, the left will fare better with the economy and with enhancing social justice. The serious fear is that the respectable right, trying to woo Le Pen's disgruntled electorate, will merely help spread the poison that has already penetrated deeply into the body politic. Even in such pleasant moments as this, when one can enjoy watching scoundrels fighting each other, it is unwise to rely on the enemy to do the job for you for very long. The struggle against racism knows no respite.