It was a splendid demonstration. On that sunny Saturday, February 22, there were more than 100,000 people in the streets, starting symbolically at the Gare de l’Est, from which the Jews were deported during the war, and marching through Paris to proclaim that immigration was not a central problem but a phony issue designed to divide and disturb; that the racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, as one poster put it, is himself “alien” to France’s democratic tradition and that politicians pander too much to his constituency. Considering that political parties and labor unions played a minor role in organizing it, the demo was a tremendous success, as had been the petition and the mass collection of signatures that prompted this unprecedented episode. The pretext was the umpteenth bill to tighten regulations governing the entry and stay of (poor) foreigners, including a new provision requiring French hosts to report the departure of their foreign guests–in other words, to act as informers. (Danielle Mitterrand, the President’s widow, said she would not comply, following the example of her father, a headmaster who during the war refused to report who among his teachers was Jewish.)
But the indignation had deeper roots: the electoral conquest by the xenophobic National Front of a fourth town in southern France (this time by an absolute majority, and not the result of a triangular fight); reports from the three other cities of the Front gradually extending its control over cultural life; the gut feeling that if nothing is done to fight back, the cancer will spread. And so, when a group of young filmmakers published a pledge to disobey the new law, it opened the floodgates: Thousands and thousands wanted to sign. For the first time in years, the intellectuals had,awakened the community.
Legally, they achieved little. The government dropped the informer clause and got the rest of the bill easily through the House. According to opinion polls, most people here favor stricter controls on immigration; this may explain the strangely moderate posture of left-wing leaders and particularly of the socialist Lionel Jospin during the whole confrontation. Admittedly, industrial workers were not legion in that Saturday demo, and to carry out one’s policy it is necessary to win a majority. But how? By putting one’s head in the sand, avoiding awkward subjects and allowing Le Pen to dictate the political agenda? Or by tackling the central problem of unemployment, offering solutions instead of scapegoats and attacking racism head on, wherever it is to be found, including within the working class?
In the winter of 1995, through a series of strikes and mass demonstrations, the French people rejected the downsizing model and its dismantling of the welfare state. This refusal to accept the blackmail that there is no alternative marks a date. It is now up to the French left to reconcile that movement of social protest with the new one of moral indignation, linking the two through concrete economic proposals and the vision of a radically different society. When and if it does so, Paris will really be the pioneer, showing the way to the Western world.