Cartoonists can beat journalists at their own game of first oversimplifying and then exaggerating. In France, where everybody knows about the trial of Maurice Papon–sued for his role in the wartime deportation of Jews and pleading ignorance of the gravity of Nazi crimes–Plantu, the brilliant cartoonist of Le Monde, drew a similar court case, but staged in the year 2030, with the prosecutor saying, "In March 1998 you collaborated with the National Front," and the accused replying, "But at the time nobody knew they were so dangerous." Naturally, the analogy is overdramatized. History does not need to repeat itself, and France will not awaken tomorrow under the rule of the Nazis. But the image conveys the historical significance of the political crisis now shaking the country. The respectable right, i.e., one that has hitherto refused any collusion with National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, is in disarray, as a vital taboo has been broken: The xenophobic, semifascist National Front has ceased to be the untouchable of French politics.
To understand these events we must cut through the maze of local politics. For ages France has been divided into departments, now ninety-five, which are split into cantons. In 1986 a structure of twenty-two regions was superimposed, on the assumption that larger units are needed to compete in Europe; the prerogatives are ill defined, and the whole system clearly needs revision. Cantonal and regional elections were held simultaneously on March 15. It was the latter poll, with councilors chosen through proportional representation, that precipitated the upheaval of the French right, possibly foreshadowing the end of the Fifth Republic.
Paradoxically, the great political realignment was not brought about by a major shift in voting patterns. Admittedly, in 1992 the left was at its nadir and the respectable right (made up of the R.PR., the neo-Gaullist followers of President Jacques Chirac; and the U.D.E, the rather fragmented conservative coalition once headed by former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing) captured twenty of the twenty-two regions. It was bound to lose some of them this year, but, having won only about 35 percent of the vote, it did no better but no worse than in last year’s parliamentary poll. The plural left–Socialists, Communists and Greens–with only a fractionally bigger share of the vote, lost ground compared with the previous year, partly because the predominantly Trotskyist far left climbed to an unexpected 5 percent. As for the National Front, with just over 15 percent it barely gained on its presidential or parliamentary score. But under the influence of its crafty deputy leader, Bruno Mégret, it radically altered its tactics.
Le Pen is a loudmouth willing to shock. On the eve of this election, he delivered a commemorative oration for a comrade in arms, an openly pro-Nazi revisionist, leaving his potential partners no illusions and no excuse. The small, Goebbels-like Mégret, a clever technocrat, wants not to bully but to corrupt the right; this was a golden opportunity. If they were simply willing to transgress the rules, he was ready to save the skin of right-wingers in about ten regions. To ease matters, the front was asking little. The eager candidates merely had to proclaim that they were against higher taxes and for law and order. Though the Parisian headquarters of the right condemned any contact with Le Pen as morally wrong, tactically stupid and strategically suicidal, when it came to picking regional executives on March 20, a really Black Friday, five "honorable men" belonging to the U.D.F. accepted presidencies with the backing of a party whose leader proclaims that the races are unequal and the Holocaust is a "detail" of history.