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Is France going fascist ?

The rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National is a cause of grave concern for anti-racists everywhere. Kenan Malik suggests that many have misunderstood the danger

In regional elections in March, the Front National (FN) won the support of one in seven French voters. In the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Cotes d'Azur, a third of the electorate backed Jean-Marie Le Pen's openly racist party. The FN emerged as the second largest party in five of the country's regions, and may well have become the biggest in several areas had the two mainstream right-wing groups not run as a coalition.

The emergence of the Front National has led commentators on both sides of the Channel to suggest that France faces the spectre of fascism. They are wrong on two counts. Focusing on the threat of the FN exaggerates the dynamism behind Le Pen's movement. But it also underestimates the wider crisis of French politics, which is creating a climate in which all of the mainstream parties now advocate policies once confined to the fascist fringe.

Voters desert

The March regional elections revealed the depth of disillusionment with the major parties. The ruling Socialists won just 18.3 per cent of the vote. Support for the Communists, once the most popular party, slumped to eight per cent. In the decade since a Socialist-Communist coalition elected Francois Mitterrand as president in 1981, a quarter of French voters has deserted the left.

The public is barely more enthusiastic about the old right. The two mainstream right-wing parties - Jacques Chirac's Gaullist RPR and the UDF led by former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing - ran as a coalition in March. Yet, despite facing the most unpopular postwar administration, their support fell by about six per cent and the coalition barely scraped a third of the vote.

Le Pen has been able to exploit this situation to emerge as a national figure with considerable support. Yet the Front National is not the fast-growing fascist mass movement which some pundits describe. At around 14 per cent, its share of the regional vote in March was slightly down on its share in the 1989 European elections - and well short of the 20 per cent which Le Pen had predicted. The leader himself polled quite poorly. And a week later, in the French equivalent of county council elections, the Front National vote fell to seven per cent.

'Les affaires'

The FN has so far failed to break out of its core support. Although Le Pen's emergence should be a matter of grave concern to anti-racists, he is not about to ride to power on a sudden upsurge of grassroots racism. Indeed, when voters in the regional elections were asked what issue most concerned them, only 15 per cent mentioned immigration. Twenty-four per cent picked unemployment. But no less than 41 per cent said that the most pressing issue was 'les affaires' - the political scandals which have rocked French politics of late. 'Les affaires' have come to symbolise for many people everything that is rotten about French society today.

From soaring unemployment to the collapse of the rural economy, from the revolt of public sector workers to the explosion of racial violence, France seems to be coming apart at the seams. There is an air of uncertainty and doubt about French society and France's place in a changing world. A more assertive Germany has created strains in the friendship between Paris and Bonn, and led many in France to question their nation's future role in Europe.

Market bible

This sense of national crisis has grown at a time when traditional political answers no longer seem relevant. While the left has ditched its
heritage - 'without anyone really saying so', noted the conservative newspaper Le Figaro recently, 'the market economy has become the bible of socialism' - the traditional right has become even weaker and more fractious than before.

The French ruling class has run out of answers about how to run society, while the left has run out of ideas about how to change it. The consequence is a crisis of legitimacy which has provided room for the emergence of the far right. Le Pen has adroitly exploited the mainstream malaise by attacking the postwar consensus as the cause of France's problems, and pointing to immigration and the multicultural society as symbolic of French decline.

Top of the agenda

The relative success of the FN reflects the decay of the old political establishment, rather than signalling the advent of popular fascism. Le Pen has certainly had an important impact on French politics; but not by mobilising a dynamic movement among the masses. He has been instrumental in putting race on the agenda of politicians at the top of French society. The emergence of the FN has catalysed the process of making racism a respectable part of mainstream political discussion.

The crisis of French politics has led to the collapse of the liberal centre ground, and removed traditional constraints on overt expressions of racism. Under pressure from the FN, mainstream parties have adapted to its racist programme. Conservatives have tried to cohere themselves around the politics of race. And, in a bid to avoid being outflanked by the right, the ruling Socialist Party has embraced the anti-immigrant consensus.

Vichy revisited?

When the FN unveiled a new programme last October, British journalist Paul Webster observed that 'the plans recall the ideals of the pro-Nazi Vichy government in the Second World War'. The measures do indeed recall the policies of Vichy. But more shocking still is the realisation that almost every one of these measures has already been advocated or implemented by mainstream politicians. The FN's call for non-French nationals to be classified as second class citizens has been unofficially embraced by all the parties.

Gerard Dezenpte, mayor of Chavieu Chavagnon, near Lyons, acts like a Front National stalwart. In 1989, he bulldozed a local mosque with a dozen worshippers inside. Last October, he cut off the water supply to a new Muslim prayer hall. 'The Koran says that if one finds oneself in the desert one can substitute sand or stone for water', he told reporters: 'Let them do likewise.' Dezenpte boasts that his tactics have halved the local Muslim population.

'Moderate' pogroms

Yet Dezenpte is not a fascist. He is a member of the Gaullist RPR. When he was re-elected mayor, trouncing the FN with 66.7 per cent of the vote, he declared that, 'I have always appealed to the population to be moderate'. In France today, 'moderate' policies include the persecution of Muslims.

The FN programme calls for the closure of immigrant hostels. This policy was implemented back in 1980 by the Communist Party mayor of Vitry, near Paris, when he lead a racist mob which attacked and wrecked an immigrant hostel in the town. The same hostel was recently stormed by 300 riot police, who arrested 168 immigrants and deported 19 of them within 24 hours.

The FN demands an 'immigrant quota' in schools. In April 1990, Pierre Bernard, the Gaullist mayor of the Parisian suburb Montfermeil, banned local nursery schools from accepting any more immigrants. The Communist mayor of nearby Clichy-sous-Bois defended the decision, and said he was 'faced with a similar situation'.

The FN wants to ban the building of mosques and control the teaching of Islam. Kofi Yamgname, the black Socialist minister for integration, told Muslims two months before the publication of the FN programme that they must restrict Islamic teaching, and give up traditional scarves for girls at school. Those who would not do as they were told 'should go back home'.

The FN promises mass expulsions of blacks and the retrospective removal of French nationality from many immigrants. Former Socialist prime minister Edith Cresson last year warned she would hire charter planes for mass deportations. Former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing says that nationality should be conferred not by 'birth', but by 'blood'. Little wonder that Le Pen can claim that 'I am now the leader of the centre'.

94 per cent

The new racist agenda has been set by the political elite, rather than thrown up by the masses. But the fact that parties across the parliamentary spectrum now advocate openly anti-immigrant policies has led to a wider public acceptance of racism. Some polls show that 94 per cent believe that France is a racist country - and that 84 per cent 'understand racist reactions'. Three quarters of respondents in one poll thought there were 'too many Arabs in France', and one in two felt 'antipathy' towards them.

Bedazzled by the spectre of fascist extremism, many anti-racists have ignored the racist consensus now at the centre of French politics. SOS Racisme and other left-wing groups refused to back a recent anti-fascist demonstration in Paris for fear of upsetting the Socialist Party in the run-up to the March elections. But who needs Le Pen when a Socialist government is staging deportations and raiding immigrant hostels, while a black Socialist minister says Muslims can 'go home'?

Additional information from Louis Ryan and Richard Christiansen in Paris
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992

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