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April 26, 2002
Right Again
Le Pen’s Strong Showing Leaves the French Left in Disarray

Non! to Le Pen

By defeating Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the April 21 first round of France’s presidential elections to become the only candidate in the runoff against conservative President Jacques Chirac, the neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen has dramatically underscored the insidious rise of rampant racism engulfing Continental Europe. He has confirmed for skeptics the dangers posed by the mushrooming growth of xenophobic, ultra-nationalist parties of the extreme right from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, and shaken France’s democratic institutions to their very core.

One in five French voters, in the privacy of the voting booth, chose one of the two neo-fascist parties (Le Pen’s National Front, which rolled up an impressive 16.9 percent, and the tiny splinter party of former Le Pen deputy Bruno Megret, which got 2.4 percent). Le Pen is the linear descendant of Vichy France’s collaborationists with the Nazis (he got his start in politics as a young lieutenant in the crypto-fascist political formation led in the ’50s by Tixier-Vignancourt, the lawyer for Marshal Petain at his treason trial); a notorious anti-Semite (he wrote a forward to the neo-Nazi tract published by Franz Schönhuber, the former SS officer and leader of Germany’s fascist Republican Party in the ’70s and ’80s—later declared illegal); an ex-paratrooper who tortured Algerians during the former French colony’s war for independence; and a politician whose bashing of France’s Arab and black African immigrant population is his stock in trade.

Le Pen won nearly a million votes more than his score in the 1995 contest for chief of state, despite the toll the actuarial charts have taken on his traditional core electoral base of nostalgics of Vichy and the Latin mass (and despite the presence of other candidates who nibbled away at his vote, including Megret; Jean Saint-Josse, leader of the Hunting-Fishing-Nature-Tradition Party, which casts itself as the representative of rural interests—4.3 percent; and Christine Bottin, an anti-homosexual demagogue of the Catholic right—1.5 percent).

Now France is faced with the nauseating choice between Le Pen and the odiferous Chirac, who has been named in eight separate investigations of political corruption, and who has been saved from likely indictment and trial only by his presidential immunity. In the days after Le Pen’s victory, France was engulfed by largely spontaneous demonstrations in the principal cities across the country, the first wave led by tens of thousands of lyceéns, most not of voting age, chanting their favorite slogan: “Votez escroc, pas Facho!” (“Vote for the crook, not the fascist!”).

Chirac will be re-elected without difficulty (and thus stay out of jail for another seven years), thanks to the support of the left parties, who have called for “blocking the road” to Le Pen by voting for their recent adversary. This bizarre spectacle is made even more so by the recent revelation that, at a secret meeting during Chirac’s 1988 campaign against Socialist President Francois Mitterand, Chirac sought Le Pen’s support in the runoff. In that same campaign, in an appeal to the racist vote, Chirac referred to the bad “odors” of the immigrants (even the cuisine-mad French didn’t believe him when he later tried to explain that he was only talking about their cooking).

Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est, says the adage known to every Latin student—all Gaul is divided into three parts, and that is true of the French political landscape today. Only a third of France’s registered voters cast a ballot for the traditional governing parties of the left and right; another third either abstained or cast blank ballots (a record in French presidential elections); while the remaining third cast a protest vote for one of the minor party presidential candidates in the unusually crowded field of 16.

This slap-in-the-face rejection of the political establishment of left and right by two-thirds of the potential electorate, which allowed Le Pen his breakthrough, is dominating political debate in the European press and provoking a recomposition of the French political scene. Most significant, however, is the debacle of Jospin’s governing “plural left” coalition. Jospin’s calculation that he could win the presidency (which he lost in 1995 by 6 percent) by governing to the center-right on economic matters was proven wrong.

Instead he created legions of alienated left voters who wanted to kick the Socialists back to the left, inflating the combined score of two Trotskyist candidates—Arlette Laguiller, perennial candidate for three decades of the ultra-sectarian Workers’ Struggle Party; and Olivier Bésancenot, an attractive 28-year-old mailman put forward by Alain Krivine’s less-strident Revolutionary Communist League (LCR)—to a surprising 10 percent.

The Communist Party in particular paid for its participation in Jospin’s government, losing part of its electorate to the Trotskyists and part to Le Pen. The party that was once France’s largest achieved only a pitiful 3.4 percent—and by failing to win the 5 percent of the vote necessary to keep its public campaign subsidies (after having lost most of its remaining mayoralties—a key patronage source—to the right in last year’s municipal elections) is now on life support. Indignity of indignities, the Communists are even considering merger with their former sworn enemies, the Trots of the LCR, to create a new party “on the left of the left.”

Jospin’s other important coalition partner, the Greens, also saw their score drop to just over 5 percent, losing four points from their last national electoral outing (in the elections for the European Parliament). Le Pen got twice as many working-class voters as Jospin did, according to exit polls, and also a majority of the unemployed (53 percent). And, with opinion polls having shown that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the electorate could find no difference between the programs of Chirac and Jospin, many disgusted left voters simply stayed home or waited for the runoff—having been assured by all the pollsters that it would be a Jospin-Chirac duel. That too helped Le Pen beat Jospin by just 195,000 votes.

Jospin (and his allies) were thus penalized for having failed to learn the lesson of Italian politics—that when a government of the left carries out the economic policies of the right (a fact of which Jospin brutally reminded the electorate at the beginning of the campaign, when he agreed to the privatization of the publicly owned electricity company), the subsequent disillusionment opens the door to the extreme right.

Deposed by the race-baiting Silvio Berlusconi and his extreme-right allies (the post-fascist Alleanza Nationale and the xenophobic Northern League), the Party of Democratic Socialism and its coalition partners in Italy have been relegated to the sidelines in the struggle against Berlusconi’s attempt to create a corporate-media state. But in March, a remarkable revolt of Italian “civil society,” disgusted with the flaccid impotence of the traditional left parties, saw the birth of a nearly spontaneous mass movement in protest against Berlusconi’s policies.

A group of women—some veterans of the 1968 student rebellions, some never before political—sparked the new protest movement when, in conscious imitation of the tricotteuses of the French Revolution, they created the girotondo—demonstrations encircling the buildings that house threatened political institutions (the Justice and Education ministries, the headquarters of Italy’s three public television networks and the like).

The agitation, spread by word of mouth and the Internet, was given a further boost when the popular film director Nanni Moretti used the microphone at a rally sponsored by the center-left Olive Tree coalition to denounce its political leadership for their feeble irrelevance. Soon, intellectuals (normally absent from Italian public life) and former judges evicted by Berlusconi for trying to pursue political corruption and tax fraud cases against him and his business associates—all emerged as leaders of the new movement, which organized huge demonstrations in the major cities on the peninsula, their ranks swelled by people from all social classes.

This unexpected revolt created the climate in which Sergio Cofferati, the leader of Italy’s largest union federation (the CGIL) felt confident enough to call a one-day, eight-hour general strike on April 15, to protest Berlusconi’s attempt to eliminate a law protecting workers from being fired “without just cause.” The strike paralyzed the entire country and drew 3 million Italians into the streets to demonstrate—and Cofferati has now become the most important leader of the civil contestation.

April also saw good news from Hungary, where Istvan Csurka’s extreme-right MIEP party won less than 5 percent of the parliamentary vote—but only because conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban had adopted its xenophobic and ultranationalist themes, including making menacing expansionist noises about the ancient Hungarian lands of the Sudetenland and Transylvania. Thankfully, Orban was beaten by a left-center coalition of the Socialists (ex-Communists) and the Free Democrats (ex-refuseniks)—if only by an eyelash.

But on the same day Le Pen won in France, the German land of Saxony-Anhalt saw the electoral crushing of the incumbent Social Democrats—considered a harbinger of defeat for Gerhard Schröder in September. And in March, the Portuguese Socialists unexpectedly lost power to a conservative coalition that includes the immigrant-baiting People’s Party. Portugal thus becomes the fifth European country in which an extreme-right party is part of government, joining Italy, Austria, Denmark and Turkey (where the presence of the MHP—with its fascist accents—in the ruling coalition is holding up Turkey’s entry into the European Union).

In Slovakia, the ultra-nationalist SNS of former prime minister Vladimir Meciar is mounting in the polls after a cosmetic political facelift (and thanks in part to Orban’s threats). And even in the normally tolerant Netherlands, the resignation en masse of Socialist Prime Minister Wim Kok’s coalition government over the Srebrenica affair creates even more fertile ground for the parliamentary ticket led by openly gay xenophobic demagogue Pim Fortuyn in the upcoming Dutch elections, which will undoubtedly see him enter into parliament with a bloc of seats large enough to become the balance of power.

Europe’s turn to the right continues with a vengeance.


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