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 victory.
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.