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 Pens Front National (FN) has become a central element in French political life.
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) partys national congress.
As thousands of demonstrators led by Strasbourgs Mayor, Catherine Trautmann, marched to protest the FNs 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 FNs 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 Bnai Brith." In a book
The FNs 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
partys 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
The roots of the Front Nationals 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.
Fortunately, Frances 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 proNazi and racist publicists shaped Le Pens 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.
With Bruno Mégret, the Vitriolles Mayors 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 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 Pens 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 Pens bigoted language, they do show substantial support for his broader nationalist themes.
Thus, a recent poll shows 30 percent of respondents agreeing with Le Pens 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.
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 Pens campaigning.
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 governments 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.
© 2001 Anti-Defamation League