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"The Crescent and the Tricolor" (November 2000)
France today has more Muslims than practicing Catholics, and couscous has arguably become the country's national food. By Christopher Caldwell

The Atlantic Monthly | Feburary 1985
 
Trouble on the Right

"For the first time since the 1960s the extreme right broke out of its marginal role within the structures of the moderate and conservative parties"
 
by Daniel Cohen
 
.....
 
EPUTIES TO THE European Parliament, an assembly of representatives from the ten Common Market countries, wield little power at home; nevertheless, the election last summer of the eighty-one-member delegation from France changed the French political landscape. The tallies established Jean-Marie Le Pen, the head of the far-rightist National Front, as the fastest-rising political figure in the country. Le Pen devoted his campaign to attacking two targets: the presence in France of four million immigrants, especially the 1.5 million Arabs among them; and the political influence of the Communists, which he insisted was pervasive not only in the Socialist government headed by François Mitterrand but also among the Gaullists and moderates who governed France for most of the Fifth Republic's twenty-six years. Le Pen received 2.2 million votes, 11 percent of the total, and his party took ten seats in the European Parliament. This result put an end to more than twenty years of obscurity for Le Pen, during which sometimes violent squabbles among a clutch of tiny extreme-right factions had occupied most of his energy.

Le Pen's success highlighted a dramatic tilt to the right that has transformed the political mood since the election of the Socialists in 1981, when Mitterrand's party, which called itself "the Tranquil Force," took office on a wave of quasi-revolutionary euphoria. Since then the left has lost every round of local and regional elections, largely because of anger over economic conditions: nearly 2.4 million French, 9.5 percent of the work force, are jobless. In the European Parliament election the Socialist and Communist slates together received only 32 percent of the vote, a low-water mark for any modern French government in power. The Communist Party lost almost half the electoral support it had had in 1979, in its worst showing in more than fifty years. The Communists, who have had a reputation as the best-organized voting bloc in France, barely outpolled the National Front, which in 1981 had been unable to muster even the 500 signatures needed to put Le Pen on the presidential ballot.

Le Pen's unexpected popularity emphasized the public's sullen rejection of the Socialists' agenda and placed his themes at the center of political debate: plans to deport foreigners by the thousands, calls to form groups to defend the "indigenous" French against crime, and accusations that the left was "sliding toward fascism." Some members of the moderate and conservative opposition have even laid claim to elements of Le Pen's ideology in order to win back his voters as their own in the 1986 National Assembly elections.

OR THE FIRST time since the 1960s the extreme right broke out of its marginal role within the structures of the moderate and conservative parties. During the campaign opposition leaders such as Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris and the head of the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) Party, and former president Valéry Giscard d' Estaing, of the Union for French Democracy (UDF) coalition, found themselves being challenged on issues—crime, the status of foreigners—that they had themslves used (as had a number of leftist politicians). Le Pen brought fear and prejudice to the surface with a verbally aggressive style rarely heard in French politics since the Second World War. "Tomorrow, if you don't stay on guard," he said of the immigrants early in the campaign, "they will install themselves at your place, eat your soup, and sleep with your wife, your daughter, ... or your son." A mocking manner and the haberdashery of a banker—a reflection of the wealth willed to him by a National Front supporter in 1976—have helped make him France's newest media personality.

Using the slogan "the French first," Le Pen promotes a vision of France largely free of foreigners. He has said that if the illegal residents were rounded up, the immigrant population would decline by as much as 80 percent, although the government has estimated that illegals number between three and ten percent of the total. The cost of deporting them, Le Pen has suggested, could be deducted from trade credits extended to their countries of origin. Le Pen also advocates creating separate retirement and unemployment funds for foreigners and denying their French-born children the possibility of citizenship, proposals similar to legislation imposed by the Vichy regime during the Second World War. "When you say, 'The immigrants are going to stay,' people know it's true but they don't want to hear it," says Françoise Gaspard, the Socialist ex-mayor of Dreux, sixty miles west of Paris. She lost that office in 1983 to a conservative alliance that included the National Front, which had won 17 percent of the first-round vote, and the RPR.

Voters for Le Pen in the European elections were from diverse political and economic backgrounds, but they exhibited at least one common trait: they ranked immigration and crime as the most important problems, and the economy as the least important—exactly reversing the priorities expressed by supporters of nearly every other slate. Le Pen won more than one out of six voters in France's thirty-six largest cities, with an especially strong showing among self-employed and white-collar workers. Nearly 30 percent of his supporters had voted Socialist in 1981—an emphatic desertion by the swing voters who had made Mitterrand's election possible.

While attacking the supposed surplus of immigrants in France, Le Pen argues that France is underpopulated, at least by those of European stock. Decrying the country's declining birth rate as a "mortal menace," he criticizes the relaxation of abortion laws under Giscard, in 1975, focusing responsibility on Simone Veil, then the health minister. Veil, who is Jewish and a survivor of Auschwitz, headed the mainstream opposition's unified ticket in the European elections. In campaign attacks on Veils as a perpetrator of "anti-French genocide," Le Pen demonstrated the talent for well-crafted innuendo that is at the core of his success. Some of his allies are less circumspect. One of the newly elected National Front deputies to the European Parliament, which meets at Strasbourg, faced indictment for inciting racial hatred against Jews during a "day of French friendship" before the campaign began.

In his call for a society of "moral order" and strict authority Le Pen echoes themes that the French extreme right has used repeatedly. As long ago as the 1870s, following the fall of the Paris Commune, Marshal Edmé Mac-Mahon, a monarchist, tried to portray pro-republicans as intolerable enemies of the state, and in the 1880s General Georges Boulanger used suspicion of an international conspiracy of freemasons to fuel popular sentiment against the Thid Republic. Le Pen, although he doesn't advocate overthrow of French political institutions, has denounced French leaders of the past thirty years (especially De Gaulle, for granting Algerian independence) as cowardly, corrupt, and weak, and he has complained of their "using the votes of the right to carry out the politics of the left." Like Charles Maurras, a turn-of-the-century anti-Semitic theoretician who argued against purely racial hatred of Jews but insisted that they were a threat to French political and economic independence, Le Pen often raises the specter of "powerful foreign minorities." In this case, however, he means Arabs, who, he warns, could act as a seditious force if aroused by a Khomeini or a Qaddafi.

Le Pen's first political success came in 1956, when he was elected to the National Assembly as a supporter of Pierre Poujade, whose conservative constituency—mostly shopkeepers and artisans—had been angered by an economic downturn, an unfavorable tax structure, and an increase in the role of government in their lives. As a paratrooper in the Foreign Legion during the Algerian War, Le Pen became a sympathizer of the Secret Army Organization, or OAS, a group of French military men who led a clandestine campaign to reverse the decision to withdraw from Algeria, though he never joined the illegal plottng. When the general strike of May, 1968, ended the deep hostility between the traditional right and the extreme right, many former OAS supporters found political roles in the Gaullist camp. Le Pen, however, joined the tiny fringe who rejected compromise with Chirac or Giscard.

In 1968 Le Pen was convicted of "apologizing for war crimes," a misdemeanor under French law. In liner notes to a recording of songs and speeches of the Nazi era he had characterized Hitler's rise as the result of "a powerful mass movement finally popular and democratic." Le Pen, who insists that he is neither racist nor anti-Semitic, has claimed that the charge was a Communist-inspired distortion of his work as a publisher of historical records and tapes. Stung by the conviction, which carried only a minimal fine but branded him a neo-Nazi, Le Pen learned about the political use of French libel laws. In the course of his recent campaign he successfuly sued more than twenty journalists and political opponents, including the newspaper Le Monde, national-television reporters, the Communist Party chief Georges Marchais, and leaders of the country's foremost anti-racism groups, for asserting without legal proof that he was racist, fascist, or anti-Semitic.

All of Le Pen's adversaries, in fact, have had difficulty finding effective ways to oppose him. His ridiculing of "the Gang of Four"—the major parties—touched a popular disenchantment with the familiar political figures, and his own vocabulary became acceptable in political discourse. Leftist street demonstrations often turned into brawls with the police or with young Le Pen supporters, allowing Le Pen to attack the "extremists" who were against him. Socialist leaders, who believed Le Pen to be a dangerous if "banal" reincarnation of France's historical racism, tried to tar their Gaullist parliamentary opposition with the same brush and to mobilize voters with the fifty-year-old theme "Fascism shall not pass." When it came time to confront Le Pen face-to-face, however, the Socialists were at a loss. Jean Poperen, a prominent Socialist, walked off the stage—on national television—rather than debate Le Pen, with the justification that his themes didn't merit discussion. Le Pen scorned the left's refusal to debate as "anti-democratic." In any case, the Socialists' tactics did little to slow Le Pen's rise, perhaps in part because "people didn't know what was meant by the word 'fascism,'" according to Gaspard, the ex-mayor of Dreux, who is still a member of the National Assembly. "When it was said to them, it evoked nothing."

E PEN HAS brought a more immediate crisis of strategy to the moderates and conservatives. The mainstream right—the centrist and moderate UDF coalition of Giscard and Raymond Barre, his former prime minister, plus Chirac's RPR Party—found itself winning local and regional by-elections with increasingly solid majorities only a few months after its loss of power to the left in 1981, the first such defeat in nearly twenty-five years. But its unity is imperiled by rivalry among its three top leaders for the 1988 presidential nomination. The right has not been able to define a clear program, a task that has traditionally concerned it less than simply managing institutions. Last summer the right lost one of its most useful targets when the Communists in the cabinet resigned to protest the economic austerity of Laurent Fabius, the newly named prime minister.

For the European elections, however, Chirac set out to bring the right together, at least temporarily, and to soften his own hard-line image in preparation for the 1988 presidential race. Despite reluctance in Giscard's coalition, Chirac managed to force agreement on a unified opposition ticket, headed by Veil, one of the most popular centrist figures in France. Learning of that choice at the beginning of the campaign, Le Pen exclaimed, "If they only knew what a gift they were giving me!" As the campaign progressed, Le Pen increasingly focused his criticism on Veil as "a woman of the left," and though her ticket received 43 percent of the vote, Le Pen denied her the outright majority she had hoped for. Unlike most Fifth Republic elections, the European contest had no second round in which the leaders could assemble a winning margin from other camps.

As a result, some leaders on the right have argued for a national alliance with the National Front, like the one the RPR made in Dreux. Others have begun to voice Le Pen-like themes. Various figures from both the UDF and the RPR have, for example, lamented the declining birth rate among the French, announced plans to move immigrants out of certain localities, and supported the formation of local "security committees" to fight crime. Others, Veil among them, have refused to consider any alliance with Le Pen's forces and have urged the disavowal of his programs.

Members of both the RPR and the UDF have intensified their attacks on the "legitimacy" of the left's government, though they have stopped short of questioning its actual legality. Insisting that the left lost the authority of its mandate because of successive electoral losses, a chorus of conservatives, led by Chirac, has demanded the immediate dissolution of the National Assembly, where the Socialists hold a majority. Conservatives have also tried to shut down all activity in both the National Assembly and the Senate rather than allow action on controversial Socialist proposals, notably a proposal to increase state supervision of France's private schools, which receive public funds. One sixth of France's schoolchildren go to private schools, most of which are Roman Catholic.

In June a million people demonstrated in Paris against the school plan as a threat to parents' freedom of choice in how to educate their children. The "free school" leaders, including the church hierarchy, sought to revise the Socialists' proposal. The rightist parliamentary opposition mounted a much broader campaign against the government as "the enemy of personal liberty" and the builder of the Leviathan state. The right then insisted on a national referendum, making it clear that they expected Mitterrand to resign if, as seemed probable, his plan lost. After Mitterrand withdrew it, the conservative-dominated Senate refused to allow him to sponsor his own referendum on a constitutional amendment that would permit more such votes on issues of personal freedom. The result, as the centrist magazine L'Express put it, was a "climate of verbal civil war."

However useful in thwarting Mitterrand, these skirmishes have not helped the conservatives in their effort toward campaigning for the 1986 National Assembly election under the politically fashionable banner of "liberalism"—which in France means strict laissez-faire capitalism as well as a social philosophy of free choice. Free-market economics has recently become popular among the French, who regard with awe the creation of six million new jobs in the United States under the Reagan Administration. The French have lost some 500,000 jobs in the same period. French conservatives have suddenly discovered the work of the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, whose theories on the need for less government planning and reduced social-benefit programs, first published in the 1930s, became popular among their American counterparts twenty years ago. French theoreticians have begun to debate how far to take denationalization of state-run business—not only the thirty-six banks and five major industrial firms nationalized by Mitterrand but also traditionally public institutions such as the national railways, Air France, the national health system, and the national electric utility. Their agenda is similar to that of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Such a program runs contrary to the instincts and practices of the French right, in the past rarely averse to big government so long as it was in power. Since the reign of Louis XIV, who personally controlled the largest enterprises of his day, the French have expected the state to keep a guiding hand on major economic matters as part of its duty. Chirac, for example, who has been especially active in efforts to emphasize privatization in the RPR platform, has never objected to the national government's 3.6-billion-franc ($395 million) annual subsidy of his city's Métro, nor does he show any disposition to decentralize the city administration. Since the Second World War, French conservatives have played an important role in the government domination of the telecommunications industry, 60 percent of which is now publicly owned, and the founding of the state-run aerospace company SNIAS, the builder of the Concorde and the Airbus commercial aircraft, which grosses 11 billion francs a year. "When you talk about the primacy of the market, you are a dissenter from most opinion on the right," complains one Paris-based management consultant.

N TRYING TO flesh out "liberalism" from an attractive idea to a meaningful program, Chirac and other conservatives found themselves in a surprising contest with the Socialists over who could more energetically support the virtues of private enterprise. Although the Socialists took office in 1981 with an aggressive program of nationalization and increased state spending, fifteen months later they began to cut subsidies for ailing state-run industries such as ship-building and steel and they rejected further nationalization. Last summer the government chose to let Creusot-Loire, the nation's largest heavy-machinery maker, with 23,000 employees, go bankrupt rather than subsidize it. The right, supported by major business leaders, demanded a government rescue grant of $350 million. "Sometimes the left is more 'liberal' than the right," admits Guy Sorman, a political scientist whose book The Conservative American Revolution became a best seller.

The Socialists' embrace of the notion that enterprise creates wealth, as Mitterrand put it recently, and their inability to keep their electoral promise to protect existing jobs at all costs have shocked much of the left's electoral base. But French intellectuals on the left, who from the time of the Dreyfus case, in 1898, to the general strike of 1968 sponsored a nearly continuous stream of petitions and declarations on pressing social issues, have been notably silent on the Socialists' change of doctrine. Solzhenitsyn's account of the gulag and news of massacres in Cambodia led the intelligentsia to repudiate Marxist orthodoxy en masse in the late 1970s, and it has remained distant from the Mitterrand regime. The tenaciously Stalinist French Communist Party's three years of participation in the government, and the government's presumption that intellectuals would automatically justify official actions, have made this detachment more pronounced.

Some prominent French intellectuals have in recent years adopted positions at odds with much leftist thinking. André Glucksmann, for example, the writer and philosopher, who was a leader of the 1968 movement, conceived of his recent book, The Force of Vertigo, as a rebuttal to American arguments for a nuclear freeze. Asserting the necessity of nuclear deterrence by the West and decrying the rise of pacifism among the Germans, Glucksmann labeled accommodation of the Russians—of which Giscard was a strong proponent—"Pétainist." Other leftist intellectuals, including the economist François de Closets, have criticized French workers' expectations of "always more" benefits, privileges, and material ease, cautioning that it may be necessary in the future to make do with less.

At the same time, most intellectuals still refuse to be identified with the right. "There isn't much great thinking on the right," says Glucksmann, who considers the French conservatives' fascination with the "errors" of too much state influence and social welfare to be "embarrassing." The quadrupling of real living standards in the thirty years after the Second World War cannot have occurred by error, he insists. Although Glucksmann sees the battle against Soviet totalitarianism as consistent with the left's ideals, many other members of the "haut intelligentsia"—university professors and writers—seem stranded between disavowal of Marxism and their established distaste for the European right's defense of class and narrow privilege.

A group of self-proclaimed conservative thinkers have taken on the mission of contesting what they see as the cultural domination of left-wing ideology and creating a "bank" of ideas for the right. Some, among them Sorman—whose account of the American right not only lucidly describes its rise but also asserts its final victory—strongly advocate a reduction in state spending and an increase in privatization, an agenda that Sorman concedes may run contrary to the French political reflex to look to the government for solutions. "The French aren't going to rally to 'liberalism' because they believe in the superiority of person over state but because it brings them something," he says. The theoreticians, many of whom belong to the Club de l'Horloge and other political debating societies, hope to draw up concrete proposals—the use of private management to rescue the financially ailing national health system, for example—that will promote their view of society, as well as translate into a political victory in 1986.

However, this Reaganomics à la française is by no means popular among all parts of the right. What is called the New Right in France consists of a small group of thinkers who reject the fashion for "liberalism" and its insistence on the freedom of the market. This New Right, which was founded in 1968 by a conservative group of journalists, academics, and civil servants, has aimed at reshaping cultural values rather than winning elections. It promotes a "fundamental critique of egalitarianism," according to Alain de Benoist, a central ideologue of the New Right. Opposing the "totalitarian mystique" of Western democracy, the New Right upholds the preservation of traditional cultures and "collective identities," glamorizing particularly the Nordic, pre-Christian roots of Europe.

Although Benoist has dissociated himself from Le Pen's anti-immigrant rthetoric, he also has attacked the "homogenization" of multiracial industrialized societies, the worst example of which, in his view, is the United States. Benoist argues instead for a "differentialism" that would preserve traditional cultures as well as the genetic integrity of distinct populations—a "scientific" posture adapted from such sources as the zoologist Konrad Lorenz and the anthropologist Georges Dumézil. Unlike Le Pen, the New Right has acquired a certain intellectual cachet and an image of moderation. And, far from reviling DeGaulle, as Le Pen does, the New Right reveres De Gaulle's detachment from the Atlantic alliance, his incarnation of nationhood, and his "grand design" for France, which together suggest a leadership model that Benoist would like some future pan-European "empire" to follow. Distasteful as the New Right may find Le Pen, its "cultural combat" against egalitarian democracy and multiethnic society over the past fifteen years has surely helped him, by popularizing ideas that have increased the extreme right's appeal and put pressure on the traditional right to accommodate the extremists once again.

ONETHELESS, MANY French politicians of both the left and the right believe that Le Pen's latest career will be short-lived, like the career of his mentor, Pierre Poujade. Just two years after the Poujadists sent fifty-two deputies to the National Assembly, in 1956—with 2.5 million votes, 11.6 percent of the total, numbers that nearly match Le Pen's tally last June—fully four fifths of their voters deserted the cause in order to support De Gaulle's return to political power. Le Pen's voting bloc—an amalgam of dedicated extreme-rightists, disillusioned swing voters, and conservatives protesting Veil's too-moderate presence on their ticket—may prove to be no more stable. The conditions and sentiments that gave Le Pen his support are deeply enmeshed in current French society, however, and are not likely to vanish any time soon.

In the short run the National Front's future may be determined in large measure by Mitterrand, who has pledged to revise the electoral law before the 1986 National Assembly elections. The present law, fashioned by De Gaulle in 1958, requires a runoff in races in which there is no absolute majority on the first round, a system that accentuates shifts in the voters' opinions and weakens splinter parties. Although this mechanism favored the Socialists' rise in 1981, turning its 38 percent of the vote into a 58 percent majority in the National Assembly, the left has traditionally opposed the Gaullist voting plan that deprived it of power for decades. Mitterrand, faced with a strong conservative opposition that may well take control of the National Assembly while he remains in power, may opt for a return to a proportional system like that in effect during the Fourth Republic—and for the European elections. Such proportional voting, which distributes seats according to the national tally, might well reintroduce the endlessly shifting parliamentary coalitions that plagued France during the 1950s but might also give Mitterrand, a consummate coalition-assembler in that era, room to maneuver with centrist potential allies. Or it might, as Le Pen hopes, leave the National Front with enough support to put a conservative majority in control of the National Assembly. Such an outcome—and the predictably fierce combat over what kind of deal to strike with Le Pen —could shatter existing political alliances and even call into question the future of the formerly unshakable institutions of the Fifth Republic.

Daniel Cohen, a fondly remembered contributor to The Atlantic Monthly and other magazines, wrote on French and American politics and culture. He died in 1995.

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Copyright © 1985 by Daniel Cohen. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1985; Trouble on the Right; Volume 255, No. 2; page 26.