1980s >> 1985 >> no-972-august-1985

Letter From Europe: Racism and anti-racism in France

They seem to be everywhere. Posters in blue, white and red proclaiming “France and the French First”. “Three million immigrants. Three million unemployed”. “Halt to anti-French racism” and other such slogans and signed “le Front National”.

The Front National is almost the exact equivalent on the French political scene of the National Front in Britain. Like the British organisation, its original members were a mixture of traditional conservatives and neo-Nazi lunatics. But, unlike the National Front, the Front National has, thanks to proportional representation, been able to overcome the credibility gap. Ten of the 81 French members of the European Parliament sit for the National Front and a solid phalanx of National Fronters are expected to be elected to the French National Assembly in next March’s general elections — ironically, thanks to the change over to proportional representation which the outgoing “socialist” government has decided to introduce as its only chance of avoiding utter defeat. Already the Front’s leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is regularly interviewed on news and current affairs programmes as an established national political leader.

Le Pen, an ex-Poujadist MP and paratroop officer, founded the National Front in 1972. For the first ten years his party was just one of a number of small competing extreme right-wing grouplets and in fact was unable to get enough signatures to present Le Pen as a candidate in the 1981 presidential elections. The breakthrough came in 1983 in the municipal elections when Le Pen himself was elected a municipal councillor for the 10th arrondissement of Paris, in the past a “communist” party stronghold, while in Dreux. an industrial town west of Paris with a high immigrant population, the National Front’s list obtained 17 per cent of the votes, enough to go through to the second round. In the event the National Front and the traditional conservative opposition parties did a deal which resulted not only in the election of a number of National Front councillors but also in some of them being given municipal responsibilities.

Although the National Front claims to be a proper political party with a full range of policies on defence, Europe, law and order and so on. it is basically a one-issue organisation with a single crude political message: Arabs Go Home! Over the years there has been a considerable migration across the Mediterranean of workers from France’s ex-colonies in North Africa — Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia — to fill labouring and other lowly jobs in France. The figures show, however, that most migrants to France since the war have come from Southern Europe, from Portugal, Spain and Italy. But it remains true that the North Africans are the most conspicuous and, as Muslims, the most “alien” of recent migrants and as such the perfect scapegoats for an anti-immigrant party like the National Front.

Although the evidence seems to be that the National Front has expanded at the expense of the traditional conservative parties, the Gaullist RPR and ex-President Giscard’s UDF, it is clear that its rise has been a direct result of the failure of the reformist PS-PCF government that came to power in 1981. These parties had promised to end the economic crisis, to reduce unemployment and to improve the living standards of ordinary people. They did none of these things, basically because they are not within the government’s power to do: the capitalist economy works according to certain economic laws which demand in particular that priority be given to profit-making over popular consumption and governments, whatever their political colour, are in the end forced to comply with them. The PS-PCF government had learned this when, after only a year in office, they were compelled to impose a wage freeze. So not only were their promises not honoured but the crisis got worse, unemployment continued to rise steadily and living standards were reduced. This failure earned them the resentment, even the hatred, of large numbers of ordinary people which the National Front was able cleverly to exploit, blaming immigration and immigrants rather than the workings of capitalism for their continuing problems and worsened conditions. But since immigrant workers generally perform the most ill-paid jobs and live in the worst housing conditions it should be clear that they are fellow victims of capitalism rather than the cause of other workers’ problems.

The government’s reaction to the rise of the National Front has been to proclaim that it has been just as firm on immigration as the previous government and that it too is just as keen on tracking down “illegal immigrants”. In other words, to give in to anti-immigrant sentiment as a means of preserving votes which could make the difference between victory and defeat, especially at local level.
Mitterrand, who with his repeated wordy declarations on “human rights” must be a front-runner for the Nobel prize for hypocrisy. expressed the following sentiments in 1983 (at the time of the Dreux municipal election):

   Illegal immigrants must be sent back to their countries (Républicain Lorrain, 1 September 1983).
I must protect the employment of French people . . . Illegal immigrant workers must therefore leave France (Le Monde, 17 September 1983).

 

Of course at the same time Mitterrand preaches that all human beings are equal, and that discrimination and racism are bad. but this does not alter the fact that the line between being “anti-immigration” (like him) and “anti-immigrant” (like Le Pen) is a thin one easily crossed in the minds of the politically ignorant electors who vote for one or other of the parties of capitalism, including his own PS and the PCF.

 

The French “Communist” Party, of course, is a past-master in this hypocritical game of behaving in a racist way without actually having to utter racist or anti-immigrant sentiments (the incident of the bulldozer sent by one of its mayors to demolish a hostel for African workers at Bitry in the South of Paris in December 1980 is not likely to be forgotten for a long while). There is also a very real sense in which the PCF helped to pave the way for the National Front. A widely-used PCF poster proclaimed “Produisons français” (“Produce French”), which the National Front capped with another reading “Produisons français. d’accord, mais avec des travailleurs français” (“Produce French, yes, but with French workers”).

 

A more interesting reaction to the rise of the National Front than this, or the traditional Trotskyite policy of “Smash the Fascists” (which provided wonderful free publicity for the Front during the 1983 municipal and 1984 European elections), has been the campaign SOS Racism with its badge in the form of a hand proclaiming “Touche pas à mon pote” (“Hands Off My Mate”). Here the appeal has been not to violence but to people’s common humanity.

 

This naive approach runs the risk of being exploited politically (and in fact the government has already begun to do so), but it has had a remarkable success. In schools in the big towns in particular, children whose parents came from various parts of Europe. Asia and Africa study and play together and therefore tend to know that racism is a load of nonsense. But then so is nationalism, and the logic of the argument “we’re all human beings” should lead to the conclusion “and we have only one country: the world”. There is no automatic guarantee that this conclusion will in fact be drawn, but appealing to people as members of the same human race is a much more fruitful response to racism than shrill calls to use violence against misguided workers, who have imbibed racist nonsense. It at least allows a reasoned dialogue to take place, the only logical conclusion of which can be a recognition that world socialism is the only way to end racism and all other forms of oppression and discrimination.

Adam Buick,
Paris