Marine Le Pen. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen
American discussions of Europe swivel between rationality and hysteria. A discussion of Europe’s awful unemployment figures and swelling mutiny against austerity suddenly mutates into tremulous wails about the menace of fascism in France, rancid racism in the Netherlands, the anti-Semitic beast unchained in Germany (in the terrifying form of Günter Grass’s new poem).
A lot of this has to do with Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front. Now and again I’ll mention her in something I’ve written without the obligatory insults about her family heritage and presumed totalitarian agenda. Furious letters pour in, particularly since she made a strong showing in the first round of the French presidential elections.
Marine Le Pen is a nationalist politician, quite reasonably exploiting the intense social discontent in France amid the imposition of the bankers’ austerity programs. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard put it in the Daily Telegraph recently, she “presents herself as a latterday Jeanne d’Arc, openly comparing France’s pro-EU camp with the Burgundians who plotted ‘English Annexation’ in the 1430s—or indeed ‘Les Collabos’ who bought peace after 1940. ‘Let us break the chains of the French people. Bring on the French Spring,’ she tells Front National rallies.”
Anti-Semitism? Diana Johnstone, an excellent journalist who has been reporting from France for years, writes to me, “There is absolutely nothing attesting to anti-Semitism on the part of Marine Le Pen. She has actually tried to woo the powerful Jewish organizations, and her anti-Islam stance is also a way to woo such groups. The simple fact is that the best way to destroy someone in this country is to call him or her ‘anti-Semitic.’ ”
Marine Le Pen certainly has made some unsavory comments about immigrants and Islamization. But she has gone to the heart of the matter, asserting that monetary union cannot be fudged, that it is incompatible with the French nation-state. She has won 18 percent of the vote by campaigning to pull France out of the euro and smash the whole project. As Johnstone explains, a new poll shows only 3 percent of French voters consider immigration the main issue. So logically, Le Pen cannot owe her 18 percent to that issue. The number-one issue is employment.
It’s true, things could get ugly. Europe’s politics are being refashioned before our eyes. Greece has 21 percent unemployment, and the socialist PASOK party could face near-extinction in the upcoming elections. In Spain one in four is out of work, and the right-wing prime minister insists on maintaining austerity. As Evans-Pritchard points out, “We forget now, but Germany was heavily indebted to foreigners in 1930, like Spain today. It was the refusal of the creditor powers (US and France) to reliquify the system and slow monetary contraction that pushed Germany over a cliff. The parallels are haunting.”