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May 9, 2002
Downright Shocking
Rising neofascism in France

Le Pen rises his arms in triumph.
Le Pen lost the presidency, but his National Front party could complicate regional elections.

Thanks to the left’s electorate—which wanted to ensure the lowest possible score for the racist Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front—conservative French President Jacques Chirac was re-elected May 5 with 82 percent of the vote. But U.S. media failed to understand that the presidential runoff actually confirmed the solid implantation of the National Front in important regions of France; and, in fact, Le Pen increased his score for the neofascist right by some 720,000 votes compared to the first-round election on April 21.

In the traditional left-wing bastions of the industrial North, Le Pen ran 4 to 5 percent ahead of his national 18 percent score, capturing nearly a quarter of the working-class vote. In the South, where there is a sizable Arab and black immigrant population from France’s former colonies, Le Pen’s racist-populist demagogy won him between 25 and 30 percent in many places (example: 27 percent in multiracial Marseille, France’s second-largest city).

These results were all the more disturbing because they followed two weeks of intense hammering away at Le Pen by all the mass media; all the unions; the traditional parties of left and right (even one of the Trotskyist parties—Alain Krivine’s LCR—urged a vote for the odious Chirac); sports and entertainment stars; and the business leadership’s organization (MEDEF) and the Catholic Episcopate (neither ever make election recommendations). Exit polls said that just 10 percent of Le Pen’s first-round voters deserted him in the runoff—those who voted for him only as a protest against politics as usual. But Le Pen’s runoff score was a vote of adhesion, not protest.

Le Pen founded the National Front a quarter century ago with the extremist dregs of French political life—including veterans of the all-French Charlemagne Division of Hitler’s Waffen SS and the OAS (Secret Army Organization, whose bloody bombing campaign in the ’60s to maintain French power in Algeria included assassination attempts on Jean-Paul Sartre and even President Charles de Gaulle). And while this year Le Pen largely avoided the anti-Semitic and crudely racist jibes that have marked his discourse in the past, he told a regional newspaper (in the wake of massive daily anti-Le Pen demonstrations in the streets): “We hear a lot these days that Chirac is a crook and Le Pen a fascist—I prefer the latter adjective.”

If one could claim that some of Le Pen’s first-round protest voters ignored his true colors (like the 18 to 25 age group, among whom he came in first of 16 candidates), it’s impossible—after two weeks of anti-fascist tumult—to make that assertion for his voters in the runoff.

Le Pen’s presidential runoff score also suggests that the National Front may be strong enough to keep its candidates on the runoff ballot in half the country for the two-stage legislative elections beginning June 9 (for which the district-by-district threshold is 12.5 percent). This means that in many places the candidates of the “united left” (Socialists, Communists, Greens and the Left Radicals) could be eliminated in the first round, leaving runoff duels between the National Front and Chirac’s newly founded coalition, the Union for a Presidential Majority. In others, Le Pen’s candidates could split the right-wing vote and allow left victories.

The most positive development has been the political awakening of a new generation of French youth, which many are comparing to that of May 1968. The day after Le Pen’s first-round victory over Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, it was the under-voting-age lycˇens, reinforced by college students—both hitherto overwhelmingly careerist and anti-political—who led the growing waves of daily anti-fascist demonstrations: 100,000 on the first day, 400,000 by the end of the first week, and culminating in huge May Day demonstrations that put some 1.5 million trade unionists, middle-class left voters and students into the streets in 400 cities all over France.

But the Europe-wide wave of racism that has been motoring the rise of the extreme right also gave the British a wake-up call days before the French runoff when the neofascist British National Party—whose leader, the Cambridge-educated Nick Griffin, proclaims its goal is “a white Britain”—for the first time ever won three council seats in racially conflicted Burnley (the British press called it “the Le Pen effect”).

Next rendezvous with the European extreme right: May 15 in the Netherlands, where the ticket led by the xenophobic demagogue Pim Fortuyn had threatened to make an entry in force into parliament in the historically tolerant country. Anger at Fortuyn’s assassination on May 6 could well reinforce the expected important score for his list.

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