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.
In Paris it began to look
Like Jacques Chirac was just a crook,
But voters voted for him when
He ran against Le Pen again.
Though graft is certainly a curse,
They figured there are things far worse.
On April 11, 2002, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was ousted in an ill-fated coup attempt. On April 14 he returned in triumph to the presidential palace. What to call the interregnum?
Earthquake. Cataclysm. Electroshock. The 9/11 of French politics.
These were the recurring terms that established political leaders of
both left and right used to characterize the April 21 presidential
elections in France--in which nearly one in five voters cast
their lot with the two neofascist parties of the extreme right, and
racist National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen edged past Socialist
Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to become the sole candidate against
conservative President Jacques Chirac in the May 5 runoff. How did it
With opinion polls showing throughout the campaign that between
two-thirds and three-quarters of the electorate could find no difference
between the programs proposed by Chirac and Jospin, the elections
represented a stunning rejection of the French political establishment.
Roughly a third of the electorate (28.8 percent) abstained--a record in
France--or cast blank ballots. Only half of those who did vote supported
the governing parties of the traditional left and right. The rest voted
for one of the protest candidates in the field of sixteen, including
three Trotskyists; a candidate claiming to represent the interests of
rural France; an antihomosexual demagogue of the Catholic right; and the
two neofascists, Le Pen (who got 16.9 percent) and Bruno Megret (the
former Le Pen lieutenant whose tiny MNR Party got 2.35 percent). Thus,
two-thirds of the voters rejected the perceived stasis of politics as
It's important to remember that these elections took place against the
backdrop of the ongoing, hydra-headed political corruption scandals
making headlines for a decade, which have revealed that all the major
parties with the exception of the Greens--the Socialists and Communists
as well as the conservatives--were involved in highly organized systems
of bribes and kickbacks on the letting of government contracts, with
secret corporate contributions, laundered money and Swiss bank accounts.
In this context of massive voter alienation, it is the defeat of the
governing left that stands out. Only 195,000 votes separated Le Pen from
Jospin, but as Serge July editorialized in Libération,
"the left defeated the left." A bit of history: When the Socialist
Jospin--with the support of the Greens, the Communists and two tiny left
parties--lost the 1995 presidential runoff to Chirac, he obtained 44
percent of the vote, which represented the maximum strength of the
united left. After leading his "plural left" coalition to victory in the
1997 parliamentary elections, Jospin as prime minister dedicated himself
to finding the 6 percent of votes he needed to eventually win the
presidency by governing to the center-right on economic matters.
Jospin's austere, technocratic style of governance created legions of
the disaffected among "le peuple de gauche" (the left-identified
electorate), all the more so when he appeared impotent in the face of
industrial plant closings by multinationals with rich profit margins,
which threw tens of thousands of workers into the streets. Le Pen, who
blames the immigrants for unemployment and high taxes, got twice as many
working-class votes as Jospin did this time around, according to exit
polls. Jospin, who proclaimed early this year that his was "not a
Socialist program," was further undercut when the two most significant
Trotskyist candidates garnered a surprising 10 percent of the vote.
Chirac succeeded in making "insecurity"--the French code-word for crime,
blamed largely on immigrants--the central issue of the campaign, and
Jospin played into voters' fears on this issue by repeatedly claiming
that Chirac had "copied my program." Both Chirac and Jospin thus
legitimized the central discourse of Le Pen, whose law-and-order
immigrant-bashing has long been his staple stock in trade; and, as Le
Pen never stopped proclaiming, many voters "prefer the original to the
photocopy." September 11 only heightened fear of the immigrant Arab
population, as did the recent wave of violent anti-Semitic incidents by
French-Arab delinquents in the wake of the Israeli war in Palestine (303
in March alone). Le Pen's victory reflected the growing, Continent-wide
wave of racism that has led to startling breakthroughs by the xenophobic
extreme right, whose parties now participate in the governments of
Italy, Denmark, Portugal and Austria.
Although the parties of the French "plural left" lost 1.5 million votes
this time compared with their 1995 first round score, the traditional
right lost more: 3,846,000. France's president is relatively powerless,
and the real test of political strength will come in the two-stage
parliamentary elections on June 9 and 16. The left could well win these
elections if the National Front achieves the 12.5 percent
district-by-district threshold to stay on the ballot in the second round
of voting and divides the conservative vote. The Communists and the
Greens have already agreed to join the Socialists in supporting united
candidacies of the left in swing districts. Many of those who cast
protest votes for the Trotskyists to pressure the "plural left" back to
the left will return to the fold and support them. Meanwhile, Chirac has
just created a new formation, the Union for a Presidential Majority, to
run unified conservative candidates in June--but so far two smaller
parties in Chirac's coalition (they got 10 percent of the vote in the
presidential first round) are balking at joining. Whoever wins in June,
the incoming government will have to work creatively to heal the social
and racial fracture the presidential election revealed--and to stop the
racist virus from spreading even further.
Nothing is more to be despised, in a time of crisis, than the affectation of "evenhandedness." But there are two very nasty delusions and euphemisms gaining ground at present. The first of these is that suicide bombing is a response to despair, and the second is that Sharon's policy is a riposte to suicide bombing.
What is the fundamental difference between Slobodan Milosevic and Ariel Sharon? The former is on trial for war crimes, while the latter still leads an occupying army.
What does it mean to be Jewish?
They give each other tit for tat.
The next tat may get Arafat.
The trial in The Hague of the first state president indicted for genocide was to be the ultimate showdown. In the culmination of a fifty-year struggle by the human rights community against impunity, the firm weight of evidence and international law would be brought to bear on one of the world's most brutal dictators, Slobodan Milosevic. But the set-piece confrontation that began on February 12--a combined case covering three wars over ten years, which is expected to last more than two years--soon ran into problems.
By refusing legal counsel because he rejects the legitimacy of the court, Milosevic did more than insure the image of himself sitting alone against the world. He also gave himself license to thunder, without risking cross-examination, about the Balkan wars as a Western "Nazi" conspiracy to destroy socialist Yugoslavia. "This is a political trial that has nothing to do with the law," he declared.
For procedural reasons, the judges had the case run backward, starting with Kosovo and later taking up the earlier wars in Croatia and Bosnia. This allowed Milosevic to focus initially on the NATO bombing campaign--spending many hours in his opening speech listing civilians and civilian institutions hit (and including many horribly graphic photographs) and stressing his argument that Albanians fled Western bombs, not Serbian forces.
Milosevic played to public opinion, and much of Belgrade was delighted, with a local poll giving his performance high marks and his proud wife, Mira, beaming. If the tribunal hoped to break through Serbia's deep rejection of any responsibility for the wars and atrocities, the proceedings appeared to be having the opposite effect. "He has decided to work for the Serbian people and not for himself. He has broken the media lies produced about us," boasted one parliamentarian from Milosevic's Socialist Party.
Nor has Milosevic been totally alone outside Serbia. The International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, comprising activists, lawyers and intellectuals (including Harold Pinter and Ramsey Clark) has asserted that the "kangaroo court" with its "victor's justice" is illegitimate because the UN Security Council does not have explicit authority under Chapter VII of its charter to establish tribunals. Critics of the court also focused on small errors and confused witnesses in a prosecution case that began weakly. Some Albanians who took the stand seemed lost, failing to nail down the points sought by the prosecution or appearing overwhelmed by Milosevic's aggressive questioning.
The presiding judge, who sparred so fiercely with the defendant in preliminary proceedings, settled into a routine allowing him fairly wide latitude to cross-examine witnesses, only occasionally scolding, "That is enough, Mr. Milosevic." The schedule of the prosecution's case is constantly revised, as the defendant draws out lengthy (sometimes surprisingly well-prepared) cross-examinations stressing the violence of NATO, the Kosovo Liberation Army and even Al Qaeda against innocent Serbs.
It was easy to imagine Milosevic's performance sending quivers down spines at the US State Department and European foreign ministries as he threatened to call world leaders to the stand, highlight contradictions in the West's Balkans policy as well as civilian deaths caused by its actions, and plot the judicial free-for-all Western governments most fear. Bush Administration officials, appearing before the House Foreign Relations Committee on February 28, criticized delay and mismanagement at the tribunal and called for curtailing some investigations. The comments were delivered by Pierre-Richard Prosper, ambassador at large for war crimes issues, in the very hours when NATO forces were attempting, and failing, to arrest former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in Bosnia. (The Administration sees the arrest of Karadzic as key to its exit strategy for the Balkans and as a prerequisite for closure of the Hague tribunal on the former Yugoslavia by 2008.) Wire reports spoke of "abandoning" the UN system of tribunals and gave the impression that Prosper's view of international tribunals was not far from that of Milosevic himself. Indeed, Washington has been adamant in its rejection of the permanent International Criminal Court, and its position on prisoners from Afghanistan has raised concern in Europe over its commitment to international humanitarian law. Prosper subsequently traveled to The Hague to make more emollient, if less publicized, remarks. Whether the episode was purposefully contradictory, or a storm brewed by selective reporting, a message had been sent.
But for Milosevic, none of this matters. Playing to the media, cross-examining witnesses on tangential issues, making accusations against others (Washington, Sarajevo, Saudi Arabia) instead of addressing charges in the indictment, indeed rejecting the authority of the tribunal (while fully participating)--these are all classic defense strategies. They may influence some opinion in Belgrade and even internationally, but the only relevant audience in the tribunal's hybrid legal system is the panel of three judges who will examine the evidence against him.
Milosevic himself, in court, has several times confirmed a clear chain of military command within the Yugoslav forces. In the coming months, the prosecution can be expected to present senior witnesses from the Belgrade establishment who should go further to confirm a direct conspiracy from the top to commit crimes in Kosovo, particularly mass deportation. The Croatian and Bosnian cases are far more complex, taking place outside the territory over which Milosevic was the chief authority. But the prosecution has laid out detailed diagrams of control in what it calls a joint criminal enterprise, and by all accounts the legal teams on these cases are stronger. The record of Milosevic's responsibility for the wars in the Balkans over the past decade will be aired.
It nonetheless remains a concern that critics, both pro-Milosevic and anti-international law, will exploit the impossibility of anyone but those obsessively following the whole case (available live online at www.domovina.net) to make highly selective critiques. In doing so, they may raise their own profiles but will impede the justice and reconciliation in the region that is the underlying goal of the war crimes tribunal.