In the Heart of Le Pen Country

In the Heart of Le Pen Country

Marseilles, France


Marseilles, France

“It cries in my heart as it rains on the town,” wrote Verlaine, and it was pouring over Marseilles as I arrived just before the Whitsun holiday. Then the mistral cleared the sky and the sun shone on all the celebrated landmarks: the vast avenue of the Canebière descending to the Old Harbor, the View Port itself, with its armada of small boats in white or blue, and the bigger ones taking the tourists to the Chateau d’if of Monte Cristo fame. But for all the fine weather, the time was for tears rather than smiles in Marcel Pagnol’s country. With 102,541 of its 361,804 voters picking Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first presidential round in April, Marseilles, the old melting pot, the gateway to Africa and the Orient, has become the racist capital of Europe.

As last week’s national elections approached, all the main leaders of Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front swooped over the region, the department of Bouches-du-Rhône, like vultures in search of parliamentary seats. Le Pen himself picked the eighth district of Marseilles (where in April he had polled nearly 30 percent). But attention is already being focused beyond the current election, toward the Ides of March, the likely date of next year’s poll for the Town Hall. Can a neofascist become the mayor of France’s second city? The very fact that the question can be raised requires a lot of explanation.

The Thug and the Politician. If you want to see a folkloric image of the danger, take the left side of the Old Harbor, move beyond the restaurants whose enterprising owners solicit you to taste their bouillabaisse, to the Bar des Yachts. You can’t miss it: Posters of the leader are plastered all over with the now-obsolete stickers “Le Pen–president.” On the left-hand side there is a symptomatic kitsch painting: A priest with a holy cross is exorcising a devil painted in red. So that the point should not be missed, the devil has 1789–the date of the French Revolution–scribbled on his back. The bar’s owner, Dedé (short for Andrew), a man well known for his exploits with fists or gun, is well in line with the painting: “It’s the Alamo here. Only instead of being on the defensive, we shall attack.” Then, changing periods and metaphors: “Charles Martel [who stopped the Arabs near Poitiers in the seventh century] -that’s kid stuff. It’s from here that the great anti-Islamic crusade will start..” The customers, who look like a bunch of aggressive salesmen, nod approvingly. If the National Front attracted only such reactionaries, nostalgic for the King, Pétain and French Algeria, the threat would not be too great.

To measure its seriousness I have to go to the other side of the Old Harbor, beyond the seventeenth-century Town Hall, where the Socialists are still the masters, to a ware- house that had been turned into offices and plastered with portraits of Le Pen with or without a tie. There I meet the local leader of the National Front. Sixtyish and paunchy, Pascal Arrighi is one of the reactionary notables who rallied to Le Pen. A former high-level public servant, he is a clever politician and a smooth talker. Why does his party do well in this area? In addition to economic circumstances, there are two basic reasons -immigration and “its daughter, in- security.” Marseilles, he claims, is a hospitable city, but the Arabs are just too much. When I venture that the arguments used to explain their otherness-different race, different religion, they don’t mix or intermarry- had been advanced to oppose Jews before the war, he weighs me up suspiciously then decides to play it safe: No, the Jews had “the gift of adaptation and the will to integrate,” whereas the Arabs are unbearable. He takes me into his confidence: “A cousin of mine, a doctor, her name was not in the telephone book, but they found it to shout obscenities because she had refused to sign phony certificates for social security. They just get on everybody’s nerves.”

When he talks of local politics, the man can be quite witty. I asked him why he was so sure that candidates of the respectable right, the followers of Jacques Chirac and Raymond Barre, would stand down for National Front men and vice versa, whatever the official orders from Paris. Because they don’t want to commit political suicide, he replied: “On the fourth floor, faced with the choice between the window and the staircase, you obviously can jump, but….” Dedé is there for Arab-bashing and Arrighi for vote-catching–the Front, after all, is doing well here in both posh and popular districts–but when it comes to fundamentals their message is the same. It panders to the lowest prejudices and plays on the deepest fears, seeking the ultimate root of all evil in the outsider, the alien, in this case the Arab.

Mohammed the Scapegoat. Next to the names of National Front candidates on the billboards there are small posters. With a minaret in the background and a quotation: “In 20 years’ time, it is sure, France will be an Islamic republic.” It is not worth checking whether the Hezbollah leader to whom this is attributed really did make such an absurd forecast. All foreigners combined account for less than 7 percent of the French population, a proportion that has remained roughly stable for the past dozen years, and immigrants from North Africa represent 2.6 percent. Besides, it is estimated that only pome 5 percent of the potentially Islamic population are practicing Moslems. But to give credence to such forecasts is no more irrational than the often-heard suggestion that if you want a job, a subsidized flat or a place in a kindergarten, you had better be called “Ben-something” than Dupont. This kind of whispering campaign is universal; only here it is unusually successful. Is it because foreigners are so much more numerous here in Marseilles? Not really, since according to the 1982 census, they number 80,752–or 9.3 percent of the population; immigrants from North Africa, estimated at 56,784, account for 6.5 percent of the total. Admittedly, they are more visible, since the immigrant ghetto lies in the center of the city. The district stretching between the Canebière and the railway station with its monumental staircase, full of narrow streets and shady hotels, has always been a shelter for the poor of the planet. By now it has expanded and looks like a North African casbah. Arabs are thus to be found not only on the outskirts in the most overcrowded and derelict housing projects but also in the very hem of the town. On top of it all, there is the population afloat. The port of a Marseilles is the main transit place and provisional stop for North Africans entering or leaving France.

Yet one cannot attribute the political explosion of racism to some optical illusion. Having once gone to school here, I can testify that Marseilles is an ethnic patchwork, the nearest thing to the United States with its successive waves of immigrants. The Arabs come after the Spaniards, Armenians and Greeks on the solid foundations laid by the Corsicans and, above all, the Italians. In 193 1 foreigners accounted for a quarter of the town’s population, so to talk now of a “threshold of tolerance” is nonsense. Besides, the proportion of foreigners has not grown perceptibly in the past seven years, during which the National Front has climbed from marginality to political pride of place in this city. To understand this rise, racism alone is not sufficient explanation; it is necessary to glance at the deeper crisis of this town, of its living conditions, its economy and its system of power.

La Rose in Concrete. The eighth electoral district of Marseilles, picked by Le Pen to test his strength, is a mixture of popular and middle-class sections. You can reach it by the new modern subway, getting off at La Rose station, the end of the line. Outside you have blocks and blocks of flats. Indeed, as you reach the suburbs of Marseilles you are struck by a series of high-rise, cheap housing projects, which have grown like mushrooms during the building boom. Those at La Rose are not among the worst and therefore not packed with immigrants. Yet here as elsewhere there are no cultural amenities, and community spirit has vanished. The blue- and, increasingly, white-collar workers feel insecure, worried about travel in their evenings, about their jobs, about the future. Marseilles seems to be surrounded by a concrete wall of crumbling expectations.

Experts on the spot confirm what is written in the few studies on the subject, namely that Marseilles has mismanaged its economic modernization. It is not just that the harbor was affected by the end of the French Empire; this was partly compensated for by the development of oil traffic. Marseilles failed to build an industrial hinterland, to diversify beyond its traditional activities connected with the harbor, or with the soap, oil and food manufacturing industries. The failure was concealed for a time by the building boom, linked with the jump in population–from 660,000 in 1954 to 882,000 in 1968–spurred partly by the return of French settlers from North Africa. But beneath this bustle, the local bourgeoisie, satisfied with petty speculation, missed its opportunity during the postwar transformation of the French economy to more capital-intensive methods of production. Or, to be more accurate, the chance of regional expansion conceived of in the late 1960s through the Fos complex (i.e., petrochemicals and a steel industry based on imported ore) came too late. The “miracle” was over and the vast plan got bogged down in the international crisis.

As a result, Marseilles is a town whose population is dwindling and where industrial jobs are declining–a very partial explanation of the collapse of the local Communist Party, whose electoral strength declined in seven years from 25.8 to 10.9 percent. White-collar employment has not expanded sufficiently to compensate and is, on the whole, on the lower end of the pay and status scale. Marseilles, lagging behind the national average in higher or technical education, is well above it in unemployment. The North Africans, brought over during the boom years, particularly for work in the construction industry, provide their contingent of the jobless. The economic deterioration goes a long way to ex- plain the melancholy mood of this town and coincides with – the end of one man’s political reign.

In Search of a Godfather. On arrival in Marseilles everybody tells you that this month’s parliamentary elections are merely skirmishes for next year’s big municipal battle, which will determine the choice of the new godfather. This mafia analogy is disrespectful–if not entirely unfair–to the Socialist Gaston Defferre, a well-off Protestant lawyer from neighboring Hérault who dominated local but from politics throughout the postwar period. He was Mayor of Marseilles for-thirty-three years until his death in 1986, but his system lasted for thirty; it was set up in 1953, when, fearing a Communist takeover, the right–except for the Gaullists–made an alliance with the Socialists. The pact was based on the assumption that the bourgeoisie would get the profits and the Socialists the patronage. Thus, town planning, for example, was entrusted to the right, which explains the social segregation that has seen the poorer people driven from the city center to the new high-rises of the periphery. The Socialists were in charge of the allocation of lower-rent flats and also controlled jobs provided by the municipality and the harbor. Indeed, they turned the network of power and patronage into a fine art; hence the passion in the present struggle for the Town Hall.

Strained by the economic and social crisis, the pact collapsed under the impact of national politics. Defferre could not sit in government in Paris (where he was Minister of the Interior) together with the Communists and at the same time rule in Marseilles in alliance with the right. In 1983 he chose to fight the municipal election with a popular front. The two big parties of the respectable right, determined to defeat him, based their campaign on law and order. To their surprise, a completely unknown list called Marseilles-Security lagging captured more than 5 percent of the poll. The way in which not only the right but the Socialists too wooed this jingoist electorate between ballots was one of the most shameful pages in the S.P.’s history.

While Defferre survived by the skin of his teeth, his system was in ruins.’Ia the European elections a year later the National Front made a triumphant entry with 21.4 percent of the votes cast, grabbing support from all sides. In the parliamentary elections of 1986, which unlike this year’s were run through proportional representation, it climbed to 24.4 percent, while the left, once an overwhelming power in the town, was reduced to about 40 percent. Le Pen’s score in this April’s presidential poll thus marks a steady rather than a spectacular advance. The swing is no longer from the left from the classical to the extreme right. The loser is Jean-Claude Gaudin, the conservative bloc’s crafty leader, rather than its strongman. He thought it clever to be elected president of the regional council with the support of the National Front, then to take neofascists as his assistants. He simply rendered the Front more respectable. With 28.3 percent of the poll, Le Pen won more votes in Marseilles than Chirac and Barre combined.

It was this showing that induced Le Pen to seek his fortune here. Yet he was taking quite a gamble. To get a parliamentary seat, let alone the Town Hall, Le Pen, who got 33 percent of the poll in the first ballot, on June 5 , required the backing not just of some but of all the supporters of the respectable right to stand a chance of winning. Had we reached that stage, the situation would be desperate, which it is not. With Le Pen faltering, the Socialists will now present as their candidate for mayor Michel Pezet, the man who won the skin game for Defferre’s succession. But they were playing it safe.

Le Pen was not the only “parachutist,” as carpetbaggers are called in France, in this area. Bernard Tapie, the handsome tycoon and. media personality, landed in Marseilles with the Socialists’ blessing, promising to cure unemployment. That this capitalist champion of “restructuring” should be of the few cases of ouverture is symptomatic. Come to think of it, Mitterrand’s “opening” is really the Defferre system writ large on a national scale, a Socialist alliance with the bourgeoisie, with the respectable right renamed the “center” for the purpose. This will be the test in next year’s municipal elections. In the polarized world of French politics, it will not be an easy one, either in Marseilles or the rest of the country.

The Thermometer and the Epidemic. I have written so far as if Marseilles were an island. Admittedly, this volatile port has some unhappy precedents: Simon Sabiani and his gangsters controlled the city in the early 1930s, and the Gaullist Rally at its worst conquered the Town Hall in 1947. But today Marseilles has ceased to be so distinctive. It has the same disease only in stronger or more advanced forms. It is not even very much ahead of the trend in the Midi. The electoral map of southern France now looks pretty ghastly. Le Pen got a quarter of the vote in the regions around Marseilles, Nice and Toulon; a fifth in the Avignon, Nîmes and, further west, Perpignan areas. The greater success of the National Front in the southern regions is partly due to the presence there of French settlers from North Africa–adding to French racism their own anti-Arab brand–and possibly to a greater fear of European integration. But nobody likes to be squeezed in the name of economic p 13 ogress, or to call “modernization” what is perceived as unemployment. Le Pen has reached close to 10 percent support in Brittany, for instance, where there are no foreign workers. The disease has become national.

What Marseilles does reveal is how the National Front has grown, and the timing of its growth. The economic crisis and a good number of immigrants were no sufficient on their own. The left had first to get into office–on the one hand to madden the right, and then, on the other, having failed to keep its promises, to disappoint its own supporters. It was in 1983-84, with those two preconditions fulfilled, that the National Front took off. Then, in the past two years, the respectable right had to get back into office and confirm its own inability to cope, giving a new boost to the Front.

Historians will probably describe this period as the end of an era for two major movements-the Gaullist Party, which had managed to harness the authoritarian trend of the French right, and the Communist Party, which had furnished hope and the semblance of a solution to left-wing protesters. Consensus politics will not exorcise the Front. If the crisis and unemployment continue, as they are likely to, and no section of the left provides a radical alternative, Le Pen has quite a future ahead of him.

Is this forecast not too gloomy now that the share of the National Front in the total vote has gone down from over 14 percent to less than 10 percent, and the party has been virtually deprived of deputies? No. A movement whose growth is so recent and which lacks well-known figures was bound to lose some ground in an election where local personalities matter, while the disappearance of deputies is purely the effect of a change in the electoral law from proportional representation to a winder-take-all system. The danger now is that those who have altered the way one reads the thermometer may convince themselves that the disease is cured. Yves Montand, the brilliant performer who now seldom Asses the chance to say something politically silly, argued the other day that one cannot describe as fascists the people with whom he plays pétanque on the Riviera. Jackboots somehow do not fit into Pagnol’s country.

But serious trouble does not ! begin when the men with jackboots or with cloven hoofs opt for fascism. It begins when the tinker and tailor, your neighbor and your cousin, are driven sufficiently mad by circumstances to vote for an admirer of Pinochet, a preacher of apartheid, a man for whom the gas chambers are a mere “detail.” As I looked down from the steps of the station, on departing this outwardly still-warm and attractive town, I could not help feeling that moral Pollution is not so easily perceived. All the more reason to probe below the surface, to sound the alarm and, above all, to seek a cure–unless we want to wake up one day, too late, in a fully contaminated city or country.

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