La Peste

La Peste



This article originally appeared in the May 7, 1988, issue.


François Mitterrand, everything suggests, will be re-elected as President next Sunday, but Jean-Marie Le Pen is the unquestioned winner of the first-round tally. The fact that one out of seven French people should vote for the xenophobic leader of the National Front shook public opinion well beyond French frontiers. France was supposed to fall into the prevailing pattern of consensus politics. Instead, it set another dangerous precedent. For the first time since the war in Europe, a neofascist candidate captured 14.4 percent of the vote in a democratic poll. When reason falls to provide solutions, unreason may enter the political stage, and all French parties are thus to blame for the resistable rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The respectable right is paying the price for having unleashed a Frankenstein. Five years ago, in order to defeat the ruling left, it launched a cheap campaign on the subject of insecurity and immigration. It forgot that there are always people eager to stoop even lower. Le Pen was one, ready to produce absurd equations such as “2 million foreign workers equals 2 million unemployed” and argue demagogically that immigration is the root of all evil. He is now getting his reward as a real rival to the two right-wing leaders. Raymond Barre, with 16.5 percent of the vote, is barely ahead of him, as is Jacques Chirac, with 19.9 percent. Indeed, Chirac is the main victim. Under the General, Gaullism was able to absorb the authoritarian strand of the French right; neo-Gaullism no longer fulfills that function.

Yet the left is even more responsible for the present plight. For years, in opposition, it was supposed to provide answers to the crisis of the system. Then, within a year of taking power, it dropped its project and became an agent of capitalist “restructuring.” True, Mitterrand recovered politically as the champion of moderation who would convert France to consensus politics. But he did so by destroying the image of the left as a radical alternative. Le Pen, therefore, could parade as the only genuine outsider, and did so. It is not surprising that he won many votes amid the jobless and workers fearing unemployment.

The far left is not innocent either. The Communists, no longer credible because of their volte-faces, have continued their slide. With 6.8 percent of the vote, André Lajoinie did not get half the percentage of his predecessor, Georges Marchais, in 1981. But Pierre Juquin, the outcast reformer, also made no impact. He obtained fewer votes–2.1 percent–than the two Trotskyist candidates combined. Antoine Waechter, the ecologist, who won 3.8 percent of the vote despite an unimpressive campaign, confirmed the permanence of a pocket of sympathy for the Greens. If you add to these figures the number of Communists shocked by their party’s suicidal course, and the Socialists disturbed by their party’s drift to the right, there is quite a potential here for a radical revival.

But time is running short. Le Pen described his success as an “earthquake.” For an advance of 4 percent this may be an exaggeration. The spread of a disease seems a more appropriate metaphor. The plague now extends over all of France, even if some parts are particularly affected. In the southern regions around Nice, Marseilles, Toulon and Avignon, the National Front gets one-quarter of the votes cast; in the industrial north–some suburbs of Paris, Alsace and Lorraine–about a fifth. Paradoxically, this success of the extreme right almost insures the victory of Mitterrand. Starting from less than 20 percent of the electorate, Chirac is hardly expected to achieve an absolute majority, particularly since he has the impossible task of wooing at one and the same time the xenophobic backers of the National Front and some decent supporters of Raymond Barre, who believe that France must remain a tolerant society opposed to any form of racism.

With the prospect of a Socialist President, and only one person out of seven following France’s admirer of apartheid and Gen. Augusto Pinochet, is the alarm not exaggerated? No. What has happened in France is a reminder of what can happen anywhere. It is also a warning that when the left fails to provide a radical and rational alternative, the danger in time of economic crisis is great. Seven years ago, the election of François Mitterrand was a moment of hope and illusion. Next Sunday it 1s likely to be a bitter victory.

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