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
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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