On April 21, the head of the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, astonished the world by coming in second in the first round of the French presidential election, and winning a place in the runoff against the incumbent Gaullist, Jacques Chirac. In the final round, running against the united opposition of the entire French political system, Mr. Le Pen went down to a disappointing defeat, winning only 18.04 percent of the vote against 81.96 for Mr. Chirac. Still, the 73-year-old former paratrooper’s breakthrough in the first round was hugely encouraging for all European (and American) nationalists, and once again showed that millions of Europeans are prepared to fight against Third-World immigration and for the reassertion of national sovereignty. The Le Pen campaign and others like it throughout Europe show that vigorous racial and national sentiment can rise to the surface when political systems permit it.
History of Steady Growth
Despite the constant accusations of “fascism” and “Nazism,” the program of the National Front has always been one most American conservatives of just a few decades ago would find congenial. Besides his wish to preserve France from waves of non-white and Muslim immigrants, Mr. Le Pen supports the death penalty, opposes abortion, wants greater independence from the European Union, and thinks social welfare benefits should favor native Frenchmen.
Mr. Le Pen founded the National Front in 1972 and made his first of four runs for the presidency in 1974, winning less than one percent of the vote. The front’s first real breakthrough came in 1984, ironically in elections to the European Parliament. In balloting based on proportional representation, the front gained 11 percent of the national vote, and Mr. Le Pen led a front delegation to the parliament in Strasbourg. In the 1988 presidential race, Mr. Le Pen won 14.4 percent of the vote, and in 1995 he won 15.2 percent.
The party’s representation in the National Assembly has been kept artificially low because all the French parties gang up against it in the two-round election process. After splitting the vote in the first round, parties of both the left and right ordinarily withdraw candidates from the second round to improve the better-placed “right” or “left” candidate’s chances of winning, but no party will play that game with the National Front. Only in 1988, when President François Mittérand introduced proportional representation in an attempt to split the conservative vote, did Mr. Le Pen find himself at the head of a 35-member legislative bloc. The next election, when Mr. Chirac as Prime Minister reintroduced the two-round system, the front lost all but one seat in the assembly, despite winning 400,000 more votes.
In 1997, the front’s 3.9 million votes won it only one seat in the legislature, and because the front and the “conservative” Gaullists did not withdraw in each others’ favor in the second round, the left, whose Communists, Socialists, and Greens all withdrew candidates in favor of each other, went on to a massive and undeserved victory.
The next year, the front suffered a terrible internal rupture, with Mr. Le Pen’s number-two man, Bruno Mégret, walking out to form his own National Republican Movement. It was a very bitter, very public divorce, which so weakened the patriotic right that many observers thought it was finished. It was therefore as something of a return from the dead that Mr. Le Pen entered the 2002 presidential election — and he almost failed even to get on the ballot.
To enter the election, a candidate must win the endorsement of at least 500 French mayors, who are courted and feted in the runup to the election. Despite his standing as one of the most durable and popular political figures in France, Mr. Le Pen almost failed to get his 500 signatures. Officials elected from Mr. Chirac’s Gaullist party, the Rally for the Republic, boycotted Mr. Le Pen in the hope of keeping him from splitting the “conservative” vote.
It was finally Socialist mayors who made up the difference for Mr. Le Pen’s 500, mouthing high sentiments about the need for democratic recognition of all points of view, but in fact delighted to help field a candidate who would draw votes from Mr. Chirac and improve the chances of the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin. The fact that no fewer than 16 candidates managed to get their 500 endorsements — including assorted Trotskyites and a hunters’ and fishers’ party — shows how steeply the political deck is stacked against Mr. Le Pen.
According to the French presidential system, if no candidate wins a majority in the first round, the two who did best face each other in a runoff two weeks later. Virtually everyone except Mr. Le Pen himself expected the two winners to be Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin. The Gaullist president and Socialist Prime Minister were both colorless men with virtually identical platforms, but represented the two traditional centers of political gravity.
In the field of 16 candidates, however, the three Trotskyite candidates, together with the Communist and the Green, took nearly 20 percent of the vote, virtually all of which would have gone to the Socialist Jospin in a head-to-head left/right race of only two candidates. This vote-splitting on the left pushed Mr. Le Pen past Mr. Jospin.
The other 13 candidates trailed in far behind, all with single-digit showings. If the 2.37 percent of the vote that went to Mr. Mégret were added to the Le Pen total, the National Front vote would have come within a fraction of a percent of edging out even Mr. Chirac. It was the first time since 1969 that no candidate from the left had survived into the second round.
In fact, it was not so surprising a result. There was a very high abstention rate of 28.4 percent in the first round, with many voters bored at the prospect of the Chirac/Jospin contest the polls predicted. Mr. Le Pen himself did not win that many more votes than the 15.2 percent he had won in the first round of the previous presidential election, and his supporters are committed people who vote even when others stay home.
As much as it was a victory for the National Front, the vote was even more a slap in the face of the French ruling class. There were more non-voters than ever before — six percent more than in the previous worst case in 1995 — and also more spoiled ballots (2.4 percent). Mr. Chirac got fewer votes than any sitting president in the history of the Fifth Republic, and for a sitting Prime Minister not even to make the second round was so deep a humiliation that Mr. Jospin promptly announced his retirement from politics. The high vote totals for nationalist candidates and for the hard left also demonstrated the disgust the French feel for their rulers. Even the Communists, who have been a considerable force in French politics since the party’s founding in 1920, were flattened by the steam-roller of protest against politics as usual. Their candidate, Robert Hue, got a miserable 3.41 percent of the vote.
Mr. Le Pen was the top vote-getter in 35 Departments (out of 100) and in nine Regions (out of 22). His strength was greatest in those parts of the country with the highest concentrations of immigrants, and he came in first in such cities as Marseille, Perpignan, and Avignon. Much to the chagrin of the Socialists, he was the favorite of the working class and the unemployed, and he also polled well with mid-level managers.
Mr. Le Pen appealed to many voters because he was the only candidate to speak bluntly about the issue that most troubles the French: crime. Hard as it may be for Americans to believe, Paris now has a higher crime rate than New York City. There are Arab housing projects so tough and dangerous the police never go near them. Burning cars in the street has become something of a national sport. Virtually every square inch of wall in Paris outside the tourist areas is covered with le tagging, the spray-paint graffiti that used to make New York so ugly. No fewer than 58 percent of voters said crime was their biggest worry, and this was followed by 39 percent who said unemployment was their biggest concern.
Mr. Le Pen blamed both problems on immigrants, many of whom work for sub-standard wages and many of whom commit crimes. Ever since Sept. 11, and the realization that Muslims intent on murder had been living freely in Europe, a sense of siege has settled upon the French. The Socialists, for whom it was considered “racist” even to talk about crime, left the issue almost entirely to Mr. Le Pen and Mr. Chirac.
The National Front also got support from an unlikely quarter: Jews. Mr. Le Pen has been regularly regarded as an anti-Semite, but he was the only candidate to speak out vigorously against the Muslim immigration that is fueling increasing violence against Jews. At 600,000 the French Jewish community is the largest in Europe, and its leaders are unanimous in the view that the current rash of beatings and synagogue bombings is the work of Muslims protesting Israeli action in the West Bank, not an upsurge of French anti-Semitism. Many French Jews have finally begun to understand that five million Muslims are a much greater threat than the National Front’s alleged anti-Semitism.
Jo Goldenberg, one of the pillars of the Jewish establishment and whose family owns the best-known Jewish restaurant in Paris, Chez Goldenberg, publicly announced he had voted for Mr. Le Pen in the first round. Many Jews criticized him for this, but Jews generally played a muted role in the chorus of anti-Le Pen screeching that met the results of the April 21 vote.
And the screeching was deafening. On the very evening the first-round results were announced, lefty mobs took to the streets to shout their dismay. In Paris alone 10,000 people filled the Place de la Bastille, waving signs that said “I’m ashamed to be French,” and chanting slogans like “First, second, third generation — we’re all immigrants.” In various cities around the country police had to use tear gas to break up anti-Le Pen mobs.
The great irony was that the anti-Le Pen forces were united in calling the National Front’s success a “threat to democracy” — and were united in their desire to crush the “fascists” by any means. Some of the least lunatic lefties were even a little uneasy about this, with Socialist leaders urging their people not to demonstrate, for fear that thuggishness would play into the hands of the nationalists.
Needless to say, the National Front has never shown the slightest hint of an anti-democratic impulse. It has never called for violence or dictatorship, and its elected officials have always left office when they lost an election. It is pure nonsense to call Mr. Le Pen a threat to democracy.
Immediately Trotskyites, Greens, Communists — everyone but Bruno Mégret, who promptly urged his followers to support Mr. Le Pen in the second round — joined forces against the National Front. The contemptible Jacques Chirac accepted the endorsement of Communists and Trotskyites even as he warned against the “anti-democratic” dangers of the front. “The values of the republic” are “at risk,” he warned voters; “France needs you and I need you.” Communists were apparently going to help Mr. Chirac defend “the values of the republic” against the fearsome Mr. Le Pen.
Just a few days after the first round, when the nationalist leader rose to speak about the Middle East in the European Parliament where he still holds a seat, dozens of parliamentarians — faithful servants of democracy, no doubt — waved signs saying “Non,” and tried to shout him down. He had planned a press conference that day but decided against it, since so many potentially unruly protesters had mingled with journalists. Dozens of protesters had already gathered around the room, many wearing yellow stickers that said “Stop the Nazis.”
Although it is a tradition that the two candidates in the second round meet for a series of public debates, Mr. Chirac did his democratic duty by refusing to face Mr. Le Pen. “Faced with intolerance and hatred,” he explained primly, “no debate is possible.” Of course, it was Mr. Chirac who was hateful and intolerant in his treatment of Mr. Le Pen. Finance minister Laurent Fabius denounced Le Pen’s victory as “a cataclysm of terrifying proportions,” and every major newspaper beat its breast over the horror of the Le Pen campaign.
Foreigners also poured contempt on the freely-expressed choices of the French people. Neil Kinnock, former Labour Party Leader and now European Union Commissioner pronounced himself “astounded and horrified,” and said the vote “throws a great dirty rock into the European political pool.” The chairman of the British Labour Party, Charles Clarke, grieved over the “tragic situation for France.” Iain Duncan Smith, leader of the supposedly conservative Tory party, said “I consider this to be a very worrying development . . . This rise of extremism must be taken head on.” The Church of England bishops of the West Midlands denounced the National Front, saying it was misusing Christianity in its campaign. The Economist, which is perhaps the most influential British magazine, wrote of “the odious Jean-Marie Le Pen.”
Spain’s interior minister, Mariano Rajoy said the vote was “not good news for the stability of democratic systems.” A Greek government spokesman said Le Pen was dangerous for Europe’s future. Pat Cox, president of the European Parliament, called his success “a wake-up call to the French democratic process, for all those who believe in the fight against racism and xenophobia.” The Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet called the election “an insult to democracy.”
In Brussels, officials of the European Union were studiously silent, afraid to repeat their disastrous mistake of having sanctioned Austria for the success of Jörg Haider’s freedom party, only to back down in humiliation. George W. Bush was a rare voice of sanity when he observed, through spokesman Ari Fleischer, that French elections were a matter for the French, and that he had no comment.
As expected, the opposition to Mr. Le Pen used every means at its disposal, no matter how crude. Just a few days before the first round, a movie called Ferocious was released to French cinemas. It stars veteran star Jean-Marc Thibaut (brother-in-law to Lionel Jospin) as a far-right party boss whom trailers describe as “a total swine, an ogre, the pure incarnation of evil.” The hero of the movie is a French Algerian whose sister is kidnapped by “fascists” and who wreaks vengeance upon the “total swine.” The press release for the film makes no secret of its political purpose: “Since [the split of] 1998, some have said that Le Pen and Mégret were finished . . . The coming elections could give them an opportunity to take center stage again . . . 2002 could be the year of their resurrection.”
The movie posters, which show a back view of an imposing man who looks like Mr. Le Pen, are just as straightforward. “The film you must see before you vote,” they shout. The movie had been completed for some time and was held in reserve specifically for the elections.
Likewise, the television station Canal + reached far back into its archives and reran an interview given by Mr. Le Pen’s former wife Peirrette at about the time of their divorce. In it, she says many uncomplimentary things about Mr. Le Pen that she now wishes she hadn’t said. Writing in the newspaper Rivarol, she explained, “I gave this interview at a particular time in my life, and I am scandalized that it has been rebroadcast now without my permission . . . Jean-Marie Le Pen has all the qualities of a future president of the republic.”
During the two weeks between the first and second rounds, Mr. Le Pen relished the opportunity to pitch his message harder than ever. He said he would round up illegal immigrants and hold them in “relatively comfortable transit camps” before expelling them. Former education minister Claude Allegre said this plan “is not yet Nazi, but pre-Nazi.”
When British prime minister Tony Blair called him a “racist,” Mr. Le Pen pointed out that the French have had to build a detention camp at Sangatte, near the entrance to the channel tunnel, to hold people who are trying to sneak through the tunnel to Britain but are refused entry. If the British are so “anti-racist,” said Mr. Le Pen, “I think we could make a special train to send them [the detainees] to Mr. Blair.”
Mr. Le Pen also hit hard at Mr. Chirac, whom he repeatedly referred to as “super-liar” after a satirical anti-Chirac television program of the same name. The Gaullist leader has an unshakable reputation for crookedness because of allegations that he used the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money to pay for vacations for his family and friends while he was mayor of Paris. He now says he was entitled to use the money, which came from a special fund. No one believes this, and government investigators have looked into other allegations that he took millions in kickbacks that he funneled into his political party, the Rally for the Republic.
Eric Halphen is an investigating magistrate who spent the past seven years tracking down evidence of the president’s corruption, but has been stymied by France’s highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court, which recently ruled that a sitting president is immune from prosecution or subpoena. Mr. Halphen said he is convinced Mr. Chirac is a crook but that he would reluctantly vote for him in the second round, explaining that “when one candidate is not an advocate of democracy . . . it’s necessary to vote for the one who is a democrat.”
Mr. Jospin had a better reputation than Mr. Chirac, but last year he, too, was exposed as a liar. For years he denied he was an admirer of Leon Trotsky, but evidence finally surfaced that he could not argue away. Even the French, who are broadly tolerant of dishonest politicians, have been disgusted by their current rulers.
In the end, though, the demonization of Mr. Le Pen was a success. Scores of French sports figures, movie stars, church authorities, and intellectuals joined in denouncing the front. “Vote for the crook, not the fascist,” became a popular slogan, as many left-leaning citizens who are usually apathetic suddenly woke up to a desire to do as they were told. In a two-day period between the voting rounds, the Socialist Party received more applications for membership than it had in the whole of 2001. The Greens, who had been in Mr. Jospin’s coalition government, said they had had 500 new members in four days compared to 60 in a normal week. There was an unprecedented rush for voter registration and applications for absentee ballots. Hundreds of high school and university teachers cancelled classes so students could demonstrate against the fascist menace.
“I’ve become a factor of national unity,” Mr. Le Pen joked, noting the monolithic consensus of opinion against him. “I have for myself only one ally” he added, “but it is a very substantial one: The French people.” As columnist Samuel Francis has pointed out, the ferocious opposition Mr. Le Pen aroused makes it clear that in the West today, there are only two kinds of politicians: those who defend race, nation, and civilization, and those who attack anyone who does.
May 1, which fell just four days before the final round of voting, is a traditional day of celebration for the National Front, and Mr. Le Pen gives an outdoor speech by the statue of Joan of Arc in Paris. This year, there were so many lefty counter-demonstrations planned that the party seriously considered canceling its own rally for fear of violence. Paris authorities mobilized no fewer than 3,500 extra police and put the fire department on high alert, and the five demonstrations and counter-demonstrations went off without major incident. The “Le Pen-is-a-Nazi” crowds were far larger, however, with an estimated one million tramping the streets of various French towns, claiming they were marching for democracy.
Even with their man in the second round, many Le Pen supporters still felt they had to stay in the closet. “If you admit you’re a Le Pen supporter, you’re automatically marginalized in society,” said a Paris schoolteacher at the May 1 rally who would gave her name only as Catherine M. “I don’t tell my friends or colleagues. I even hide it from my children.”
Mr. Le Pen hoped that some of the people who had voted for hard-left candidates in the first-round would continue their protest politics in the second round and vote for him, but very few did. Voter turnout was nearly ten percent higher than in the first round, and a huge part of the electorate made it clear it was not voting for Mr. Chirac but against Mr. Le Pen. Many voters wanted to go to the booths wearing rubber gloves or with clothes pins on their noses, but French election laws would not permit this. Mr. Le Pen proclaimed that anything short of 30 percent of the vote in the second round would be a personal failure, and by that standard he failed, winning only 18.04 percent against Mr. Chirac’s 81.96 percent. Still, to have won six million votes against a tidal wave of denunciation — the best figure ever for the National Front — was a great achievement, and demonstrated that with the Socialists torn to pieces by the hard left, the front is the second-largest party in France.
After the results were in, there was self-congratulatory foolishness all across Europe about democracy having been saved. French Arabs joined in the crowing. “We’re happy for democracy,” said 62-year-old Moussa Brahim. “For Algerians in France it’s a victory,” said Fatima Helal at the Place de la République who was waving, of course, an Algerian flag.
The key question now is whether Mr. Le Pen’s showing in the presidential race will translate into gains for the National Front in the legislative elections to be held on June 9. If the vote goes well, the front could hold the balance of power in as many as 150 of France’s 577 legislative districts. Mr. Le Pen said he looked forward with confidence to the coming contest, and predicted that the anti-front unity would be short-lived. “I won’t have to wait long to see the allies of this morbid coalition tear themselves apart,” he said. He was right. As soon as the Chirac victory was announced, lefties who had voted for him poured back into the streets to denounce him.
If Jacques Chirac’s Gaullists would abandon their insane policy of battling the front to the death in the second round, thereby splitting the conservative vote to the advantage of the left, Mr. Chirac would have a solid, supportive majority in the National Assembly with which to roll back the Socialist gains of the past five years. This is not likely, given the bloody-mindedness of a president who accepts the help of Trotskyites in the fight to save democracy from Mr. Le Pen. Still, the June 9 vote will be another fascinating indication of the racial and national health of the French in the face of unrelenting hysteria.