The Rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen pt.2
This month France goes to the polls to elect a new National Assembly. The French National Front, the biggest far-right party in Europe since the war, is expected to do well in terms of votes if not seats. We conclude our two-part article on the rise of its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
In 1987 Jean-Marie Le Pen caused quite a stir by suggesting that the Nazi gas chambers were “a small point in the history of the Second World War”. Not surprisingly he was condemned by both the Left and some on the Right, and in 1990 was to be fined one franc for this remark. For many years, he managed to cover up his anti-Semitism; but now the mask had slipped.
When the French presidential election came round on 24 April 1988, Le Pen stood on behalf of the Front National (seven years previously he had not been able to get enough nominations to stand). He called for the immediate denial of jobs or social security to immigrant workers, stiffer “law and order” legislation (blandly ignoring the considerable number of Front supporters involved in violent attacks on immigrants, particularly in the south of the country), and for “an Aids-free France”.
In the first round, he received 4,367,926 votes, an unprecedented 14.5 percent. As previously, the Front obtained the highest percentage in the south—28.4 percent in Marseille, for example. But, significantly, as with the fascist Parti Populaire Français before the war, the FN made dramatic inroads into the traditional working class votes of the Communist Party. In the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint Denis for instance the FN polled 107,702 against the PCF’s 73,625. The two leading right-wing candidates. Jacques Chirac and Raymond Barre, were particularly concerned, and made strenuous efforts to attract the Front’s support in the second round. In the event, the “socialist” Francois Mitterrand was re-elected.
But all was not well within the Front National. One of their members in the National Assembly left the party to join the Gaullists. as he considered their views on immigration to be similar to those of the Front. Furthermore, despite Le Pen’s wealth, and that of a number of his supporters, the FN had been troubled with financial problems during the presidential election, and had reportedly been pressing the Rev Moon’s Unification Church for funds. Nevertheless. Le Pen was able to parade more than 50,000 FN members and supporters through Paris on May Day.
As is usual in France, the presidential election was followed, in June, by new elections to the National Assembly. This time proportional representation had been abolished and the previous two-round system restored. The results were something of a set-back for Le Pen and the FN. In the first round, the Front National received 2,359,228 votes, 5 percent less than in April. The level of abstentions was a massive 34.3 percent. Only 12 FN candidates got through to the second round and, although they won over 40 percent of the vote, only one was elected to the National Assembly.
Although of less interest, the European elections of 18 June 1989 resulted in the Front National again winning 10 seats in the European Parliament, with 2,125,077 votes—almost 12 percent of those who voted. Le Pen was said to be jubilant.
During 1990 attacks mainly on North Africans continued. After one incident, where a Moroccan was attacked and left clinically dead, another left paralysed and a third killed, the Moroccan government officially protested to the French government. In the Department of the Loire, an Arab worker was deliberately killed by two men in a car; and in Saint-Florentine, south of Paris, one Arab was killed and his brother left paralysed by a gunman. In Nice, a skinhead gang of six went on trial for kicking to death a Tunisian building worker. Asked in court why they attacked and killed the man, one of the gang laughed and replied: “We hate all Arabs, and we had to do something”. While the court was in session, another group of skinheads, in the same city, set upon a black man in the main railway station, severely beating him and blinding him in one eye.
Throughout 1989 and 1990 there was a wave of anti-Jewish vandalism similar to that perpetrated in Germany and elsewhere. Scores of Jewish graves in a number of cemeteries were desecrated, mainly by having swastikas daubed on them. And so on.
In April 1990 the Front National held a congress, also in Nice. The hall was decorated with posters proclaiming that “One million immigrants equals one million jobless”. Le Pen accused the Gaullists and Giscardians of stealing the Front’s policies (which to some extent was true); and claimed that the only way of stopping violence against immigrant workers was to expel “four million of them” from the country. “France is being turned into an Islamic country”, said Le Pen. At the same time he talked of France being “dominated by Jewish power” and of the “activities of international Jewish cabals hostile to the interests of the Nation”. All old-style Nazi rhetoric. Speaking “for the little people”, and for “real Frenchmen”, he said that “France was in great danger”—presumably from “four million Muslims and 700,000 Jews” (the population of France is nearly 57 million).
By the end of 1991, Jean-Marie Le Pen and his Front National, as well as various fringe Fascist and racist groups, were more than pleased with their progress. An opinion poll, published in November, showed that the FN had the biggest support of any single party on the right, with 17 percent. And according to a survey in Le Monde, more than 32 percent of the French people were in agreement with Le Pen on defence, immigration and law and order. But 60 percent felt that Le Pen and the Front National were “a danger for democracy”. Moreover, the Front’s support of the Ba’ath Party régime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was not popular with many.
In December, Le Pen visited London. He did not receive a particularly warm welcome. Indeed, no MPs met him. He accused his opponents of “intellectual terrorism”. And he walked out of a World in Action TV interview when asked about his anti-Semitism. It is doubtful if 2 percent of the British population knew that Le Pen was in England. The British working-class may not be particularly class-conscious, but they are not likely to fall for a far-right political con-man such as Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Roots of racism
So what of the future? It is far from bright. Indeed:
“Behind France’s façade of high living standards and grand works lies a nation in crisis. Mass immigration has given credibility to an extreme right-wing politician while mainstream figures like President Mitterrand are held in widespread contempt; financial scandal has further undermined the major parties; farmers are in revolt as their livelihoods are destroyed.” (Sunday Times Magazine, 23 March 1992).
Officially, unemployment is three million. But, as in Britain, it is probably nearer four million, and still rising. As in Britain and elsewhere in the world, capitalism in France is going through one of its inevitable crises. In such a situation, racism, xenophobia and fascism increase, particularly when workers, employed or unemployed, are still nationalistic and do not understand their class position in society; when they identify with their national exploiters and oppressors rather than with their fellow workers and their families who may have a different coloured skin, or perhaps speak a different language, or practise a different religion or come from another country or continent. In such conditions power-hungry demagogues such as Jean-Marie Le Pen flourish.
At the present level of support the Front National would be able to win more than 70 seats in this month’s election—if there was proportional representation, but there isn’t and some commentators in France are suggesting that the Front’s support has peaked and could decline. Recently, at least at national level, the orthodox right-wing parties of Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing have been refusing to co-operate with Le Pen; and without such co-operation, under the two-round system, many of the Front’s first-round votes could go to them in the second round and the Front only get a handful of seats if any.
Whatever happens, Le Pen’s Front National is the largest far-right party in Europe, with 130,000 members—about the same as Jacques Doriot’s PPF was in 1937. It’s a sobering thought.
Peter E. Newell