JEAN-MARIE LE PEN:
A RIGHT-WING EXTREMIST AND HIS PARTY

Introduction

In no major country has the resurgence of an ultranationalist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic political party made more headway than in France. With a vote share of between 15 and 20 percent, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National (FN) has become a central element in French political life.
"While the FN’s basic approach in recent years has been to curb immigration ... Le Pen and his aides have also consistently espoused anti-Semitism."
It has triggered a split in the conservative coalition headed by President Jacques Chirac; caused the major parties who normally oppose each other to withdraw in local contests in favor of one or the other so as to forestall a Le Pen victory — not always successfully, and it has continued to make slow but steady headway in polls and local balloting without having to moderate its message of bigotry.

The issues involved became unmistakably clear on the Easter weekend this year in the city of Strasbourg: this site of French-German reconciliation and seat of the European Parliament was where extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic Jean-Marie Le Pen held his Front National (FN) party’s national congress.

As thousands of demonstrators led by Strasbourg’s Mayor, Catherine Trautmann, marched to protest the FN’s congress, they also demonstrated the mainstream political parties’ trouble in coming to grips with the increasingly successful campaigning by the Le Pen party.

While the FN’s basic approach in recent years has been to curb immigration, send many immigrants back to their country of origin and compel those who stay in France to assimilate, Le Pen and his aides have also consistently espoused anti-Semitism. Only in February this year, Le Pen accused President Chirac of being "in the pay of Jewish organizations, and particularly of the notorious B’nai B’rith." In a book
". . .the newly elected Mayor of the town of Vitrolles. . . repeated a Le Pen statement that 'there are differences between the races. . . there are simply too many immigrants, and they make who knows how many children whom they send into the streets and then claim welfare. . . .' "
about the rise of Jacques Chirac to the presidency, the authors quote Le Pen as saying that only this could explain why Chirac is so "hostile" to the Front National.

The FN’s racist ideology has most recently been spelled out in the words of the newly elected Mayor of the town of Vitrolles, near Marseilles — an area in which the party now controls the city halls of four municipalities. Catherine Mégret, who stood in for her husband, Bruno, the number two leader of the FN and often described as the party’s brain, repeated a Le Pen statement that "there are differences between the races. . .there are differences in the genes. . .there are simply too many immigrants, and they make who knows how many children whom they send into the streets and then claim welfare...."
 


History

The roots of the Front National’s role in political life go back a long time in modern French history. One need only look back to the Dreyfuss case, one of the harshest chapters in European anti-Semitism before Hitler.
". . . pro—Nazi and racist publicists shaped Le Pen’s oratory,. . . . What he has more recently added . . . is the use of modern information technology"
It took the combined and dedicated efforts of a group of French intellectuals led by Emile Zola to fight the military and political establishments’ pillorying of the Jewish army captain and, after he had served a term in prison, to rehabilitate him. After World War I, in the ‘30s, the Croix de Feu movement under Col. de la Roque attempted to copy Hitler’s work across the Rhine, and after the war, the demagogue Poujade rekindled the right-wing xenophobic flame.

Fortunately, France’s revolutionary tradition captured in the words Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité prevailed to prevent any of these movements’ coming even close to power. Only in the war, under the Nazi occupation, did a Nazi-style regime take over in south-central France, where Hitler saw it to his interest to install a government doing his work. What is significant in this context is that there were leading French military and political personalities who lent themselves to this task. These men — Marshal Pétain, Pierre Laval and others — followed in the pattern that had been set long before.

Le Pen, who is presently 68 years-old, founded the Front National in 1972 as a coalition of extreme right-wing groups. Among those who made up the leadership team were men like the late convicted war criminal Pierre Bousquet, who edited the FN magazine Militant; Francois Brigneau, editor of the FN daily Present, who was a member of the Vichy militia during World War II, and Waffen SS member Jean Castrillo, the former editor of Militant.

These early pro—Nazi and racist publicists shaped Le Pen’s oratory, highlighted by morbid puns and phrases. What he has more recently added, with the help of younger men and women, is the use of modern information technology.
"He has also concentrated in the recent past on organizing working people, small shopkeepers, police and other professionals. . . . [H]is efforts have been most successful in areas where immigrants. . . have been concentrated"
He has also concentrated in the recent past on organizing working people, small shopkeepers, police and other professionals. This is an effort to form FN groups to compete with mainstream professional associations and trade unions.

With Bruno Mégret, the Vitriolles Mayor’s husband, as the source of most of his political campaigning and organizing efforts, Le Pen has demonstrated substantial grass-roots support. Not surprisingly, his efforts have been most successful in areas where immigrants — mainly those from North Africa — have been concentrated: Marseilles, Toulon and other cities and towns in the Rhone delta region, and in suburbs of major cities, including Paris, where foreign workers live in large housing projects.
 


Racism and Anti-Semitism

The language of Le Pen and his publications leaves no doubt that the leader espouses bigotry and anti-Semitism and sees little problem with
"In 1990, he was convicted of incitement to racial hatred by casting doubt on the Nazi persecution of Jews and Gypsies under a French law banning such rhetoric."
Hitler’s policy of exterminating the Jews.

In 1987, he said that the Nazi death camps were "a mere detail" of World War II. In 1990, he was convicted of incitement to racial hatred by casting doubt on the Nazi persecution of Jews and Gypsies under a French law banning such rhetoric. He was fined the equivalent of $233,000 and has appealed the sentence to the European Court of Human Rights.

In those days, Le Pen seemed to be compulsive in belittling or ridiculing Auschwitz. He was critical of a then-cabinet minister named Durafour, and in referring to him said, as in a joke and with a smile, "Durafour-crématoire’ It was a pun on "four," French for oven.

Le Pen’s most egregious recent’ comment, evoking widespread protest from parties across the political spectrum and from human rights and Jewish organizations, was that "the races are not equal’ It was a comment that was repeated by the newly elected Mayor of Vitrolles, Mine Mégret, and seems to be a staple of the FN ideology. Both Le Pen and Mme Mégret elaborated on the statement by noting that, after all, different races have different strengths. Thus, both said, Blacks are better at sports.
 


Range and Limits of Public Support

While public opinion polls do not reflect explicit agreement by large proportions of respondents with Le Pen’s bigoted language, they do show substantial support for his broader nationalist themes.

Thus, a recent poll shows 30 percent of respondents agreeing with Le Pen’s positions on "defending traditional values"; 26 percent with his attitude on controlling crime by a tougher judicial system; and 25 percent supporting his opposition to further immigration and his demand that immigrants conform to French customs and speak French, leaving the culture of their origin in their home countries.
". . .a recent poll shows . . . that only 4 percent of the respondents agreed with Le Pen on anti- Semitism."
He said once that he is bothered by seeing the outlines of mosques on the horizon when he travels through the country, where only church spires should grace the sky. The one positive component of this poll is that only 4 percent of the respondents agreed with Le Pen on anti-Semitism. On the other side of the public opinion ledger, when people were asked whether they agree with the Front National’s ideas in general — as distinct from specific policies — 76 percent of respondents said they opposed the Le Pen ideology. And 75 percent felt that Le Pen represented a danger to democracy. But these overall figures fall into a different perspective when supporters of the conservative majority that now governs France are asked about Le Pen. While in President Chirac’s RPR party half of the respondents considered Le Pen’s policies "excessive," only 36 percent found them "unacceptable:’ In the other main coalition partner of the majority, the UDF, the figures are similar.

This tendency among conservative voters to reject only the most extreme positions and language of Le Pen and his spokesmen, while sympathizing with the underlying attitudes toward immigrants and "traditional values," explains the indecision among conservatives about how to counter Le Pen’s campaigning.
". . . conservative voters [tend] to reject only the most extreme positions and language of Le Pen and his spokesmen, while sympathizing with the underlying attitudes toward immigrants and 'traditional values'. . ."
To wit: Prime Minister Juppe (RPR) thinks the conservatives can win the upcoming parliamentary elections by opposing both the Front National and the Socialists. Former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua thinks that the conservatives must seize back from Le Pen the watchwords "Fatherland (patrie)," "virtue" and "morality."

On the left side of the political spectrum, there is clear and unambiguous opposition to Le Pen, but the main opposition party — the Socialists — are also engaged in internal strategy debates and find it difficult to come up with policy alternatives that reflect liberal positions on immigration and unemployment — the two big issues in France today —while at the same time doing something to curb illegal immigration. Unemployment, ranging in France between 12 and 14 percent, is connected with immigration in the mind of large sectors of the public, and no one has been able to develop economic and social policies that would substantially reduce unemployment.

The single most contentious issue in recent public discussion has been a provision in the government’s bill to control illegal immigrants by having hosts report their foreign guests periodically to the police, or having the visitors themselves show up at the local prefecture to make sure they have valid visas. The proposal triggered massive demonstrations by civil rights and human rights organizations because it reminded people of the denunciation of hidden Jews and dissidents under the Nazi occupation.

Modification of the proposal satisfied neither the rights groups, among them Jewish organizations and other minority representatives, nor the large numbers of voters who want to curb immigration and many of whom sympathize with or support Le Pen.

It is these dilemmas that the Front National exploits in the hope of boosting its share of upcoming elections. And it is in the resolution of these problems that those committed to civil rights, an open society, and opposed to all manifestations of discrimination, with Jews prominently among them, have a vital interest.
 

This report was published in April 1997
© 2001 Anti-Defamation League