Special to the RW

The Shock of Le Pen

Revolutionary Worker #1151, May 19, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

On May First, more than 1.75 million people turned out all over France for the biggest demonstrations in nearly a generation. They were demonstrating against Jean-Marie Le Pen, a fascist who had just come in second in a field of 16 candidates in the first round of France's presidential elections. In Paris alone well over a half million people marched (or tried to, as the streets were so jammed with people coming from every direction that many could not even move). Le Pen faced the incumbent Jacques Chirac in the final round May 5 (where Chirac won the presidency by a landslide).

A great wave of shock hit France on April 21, when the public learned that Le Pen, leader of the National Front, would be in the runoff of the French presidential elections. Lionel Jospin, the current prime minister and an important leader of France's Socialist Party, was considered by all to be a shoo-in for the second round. Instead he received less votes than Le Pen. The surprise was not that Le Pen had won so many votes (16.86%--only slightly higher than in previous years in percentage terms and almost the same in terms of the actual number of votes), but that the candidates of the two main parties had won so few. In fact, the president and prime minister were both humiliated. The winner in the first round, Chirac, scored only 19.88% and Jospin 16.18%. The number of abstentions and blank and spoiled ballots totalled almost a third (28.4 and 3.37% respectively, shocking figures for France), far greater than the number of ballots for any candidate.

The Blatancy of Le Pen

What makes Le Pen different from the other candidates? His proposals to stifle immigration, bring back the death penalty, restrict abortion, roll back minimum wage laws and other workers' rights and benefits and so on are more openly harsh than those of the traditional candidates, but all of them have anti-immigrant policies and Le Pen is hardly alone in calling for the rest of his agenda. The deliberate blatancy of his racism and xenophobia (anti-foreigner attitude)--for instance calling for ending France's painful unemployment by replacing all foreign workers with people of French origin--does mark him as different. But the biggest difference lies in what he sarcastically alludes to: Most French politicians try to hide or prettify what they're up to. Everyone knows what Le Pen really stands for.

After serving in France's colonial war in Vietnam, Le Pen was first elected to parliament in the 1950s as a representative of an extreme right-wing party whose core constituency was made up of shopkeepers and rural petit-bourgeois conservatives. When an independence movement broke out in Algeria, then a French colony, Le Pen joined with the Socialist government in voting to send troops to "maintain order."

In the kind of political gesture that became his signature, Le Pen enlisted himself. He was made a lieutenant in charge of an intelligence unit whose job was to torture and murder Algerian freedom fighters. "I tortured because it had to be done," he later bragged, after France voted an amnesty for the crimes its army committed. A boy whose father was tortured to death by Le Pen's unit when they burst into his home during the battle of Algiers found a paratrooper's knife inscribed with Le Pen's name in the courtyard. It is in a museum in Algiers today, a vivid souvenir of Le Pen's basic message. The Socialists (including the future President Mitterrand) and the traditional right led by De Gaulle all have Algerian blood on their hands. The difference is that while the traditional parties have tried to cover up these facts, Le Pen makes them his banner.

Then there is the Nazi question. Mitterrand himself, it was revealed toward the end of his life, was a minor official in the Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime during World War 2 and protected high-level Nazi collaborators afterwards. De Gaulle, Chirac's political mentor, also protected Nazi henchman--he made one of them his Paris police chief when it came time to slaughter Algerian demonstrators in the capital by the hundreds. But unlike the Socialists and the Gaullists, Le Pen publicly flaunts his close association with Vichyites, French Nazis and the German Nazi SS.

Le Pen supporters like to point out that his father died during the war against Germany, but from the beginning to today he has never hidden his admiration for Nazi policies. His flagrant adoption of the infamous Vichy slogan "Family, Work, Fatherland" is a direct challenge to the republic's official slogan "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." He became particularly infamous for remarks about "the Jewish race" and jokes about sending people to concentration camp ovens. But for this election he declared himself pro-Israel, a switch that inspired French protesters to carry signs calling him "France's Sharon" and Sharon "Israel's Le Pen." He also cultivates a reputation as a thug by physically assaulting opponents and sometimes even his own people under the lights of the television cameras.

In the mid-1990s, fascist skinheads at a Le Pen demonstration murdered an Arab by the Seine river, a crime that became emblematic of the National Front's real program. The unhidden subtext is when Le Pen unofficially but deliberately echoes the Nazi past by calling for "special trains" and "transit camps" to rid France of the "immigrant problem."

Beginning in 1972 Le Pen created the National Front out of a hodgepodge of extreme right-wing groups. It was his job to bring together these existing currents and make them a "respectable" part of the French political landscape. In successive elections he moved from a 1.5% fringe vote in the early `70s to about 15% a decade ago. However, only a few months ago many observers saw so little support for him that they questioned whether he was finished politically. Many people attribute the fact that 17% of the vote propelled Le Pen into this year's second round election to a mood of disgust with the politicians that have been in power--and especially the collapse of the traditional left, the Socialist and Communist parties.

In good years and bad for his party, Le Pen has served the bourgeoisie in France in three basic ways: First, he has given voice to the anti-immigrant and general reactionary program of restrictions and crackdowns. This program, to varying degrees, has been shared by most of the bourgeois parties of both the right and left in France, whose own programmatic march to the right is justified as necessary to keep voters from turning to Le Pen. Second, his monstrous features have enabled the main defenders of the bourgeois order (especially the Socialists) to demand that everyone fall in line behind them to prevent Le Pen from taking over. Third, he keeps alive a fascist party and fascist mass base that can be used by the bourgeoisie if and when it feels it needs to rule by other, non-electoral, means.

Behind the Le Pen Surprise

Before Le Pen's surprise showing, the 2002 election was marked by widespread indifference, especially with the traditional bourgeois parties of the right and the left. Few were excited about the prospects of another rerun of the Chirac-Jospin confrontation -- the team who had been jointly running the country for the last five years in what the French call "cohabitation." The Socialist government of Mitterrand, which had promised basic social change when first elected in 1982, had turned out to be at least as "business-friendly" and reactionary toward the people as the traditional right and bred a cynicism that affected much of French public life. This year, Jospin began his campaign by announcing that he had dropped even the pretense and promises of his party's "socialist" programme of previous elections, modelling himself on the UK's Tony Blair or Bill Clinton. After so many years of governing on behalf of the bourgeoisie, it was difficult indeed to manufacture any enthusiasm for the tired old slogans of fighting "the right," the Socialist's bottom line argument from the time it first came to power through today.

The general feeling of disgust with France's traditional parties led to relative success for the unprecedented number of minor party candidates. There were no less than three official Trotskyist candidates, who together polled 11% of the vote. (Jospin himself, it seems, was for many years a Trotskyite mole, a secret member of a Trotskyist party sent to win influence by ascending to the Socialist leadership, a fact that changed few minds when it came out since most people took it not as a sign of some radical past, but of a lifetime of hypocrisy and double-dealing that was already obvious.) The Trotskyite parties had the distinct advantage of not having been directly associated with the left government.

The biggest loser of the election was the Communist Party of France (PCF), once one of the two most powerful revisionist parties in the imperialist countries (along with the Communist Party of Italy)-- which at one time had almost a quarter of the vote and a big majority of support among the workers. After five years as part of the "plural Left" government, the PCF finished with a miserable 3.37% of the vote, behind two of the Trotskyite parties and the Greens, devastated even in many of its strongholds such as the so-called "red-belt" of working class suburbs surrounding Paris.

Particularly frightening is that some of the past support for the PCF seems to have shifted to Le Pen. In the past fifteen years, National Front electoral support has shifted from its previous base among the self- employed and small businessmen (not to mention cops and other reactionaries) to include more workers and unemployed, although the highest level of support for Le Pen comes from prosperous villages in eastern France (where, ironically, there are few immigrants) and Mediterranean areas with high percentages of former French colonists from Algeria.

Polls indicate that Le Pen picked up 30% of the vote of the workers and 25% of the unemployed. Actually it is more correct to say that he received the support of French workers and unemployed, since the millions of immigrant proletarians do not have the right to vote. Furthermore, the categories provided by bourgeois analysts tend to obscure the division of the working class into a labour aristocracy on one end of the pole and a "real proletariat" with nothing to lose on the other. But even with this caveat there is no doubt that Le Pen reached a significant section of the middle or average workers.

Over the years, the PCF has practiced a two-faced policy toward immigrant workers: on the one hand trying to recruit immigrants and, currently, especially immigrant youth, while on the other staging several well publicised attacks on immigrants in the past--such as a bulldozer to wipe out an immigrant workers housing project in the Paris suburb of Vitry where the PCF ran city hall. These policies helped lay the basis for the growth of Le Pen votes among the workers in the first place. After all, if French chauvinism is your banner, why not let Le Pen carry it? Especially since the collapse of the USSR (to whom the PCF may have been the most loyal party in the world), the PCF has been floundering ideologically as well as organisationally, unable to put forward a coherent revisionist platform different from that of the social- democratic left generally.

It is widely said that Le Pen's votes came, to a large extent, from people worried about "public safety." In fact, "public safety" emerged as the only burning issue in a campaign where real problems like unemployment were barely mentioned by the two leading candidates and the American- led wars and imperialism in general went totally untouched by all of them. It is appropriate to put the words in quotation marks because France is not experiencing a crime wave. A recent change in the way statistics are counted meant that incidents previously ignored (such as complaints filed about rape where the police never charged anyone) are now part of the official figures, but there has been little change on the ground. Yet according to the TV, newspapers and most politicians, including leading Socialists and Jospin himself, you would think the streets of France had become as dangerous as the U.S. or England.

In a way that American readers will find familiar, "public safety" in French politics is a code word for immigrants and proletarian youth in general, especially the "criminal class" as it is sometimes called, or "the savages," as a leading Socialist put it, concentrated in France's suburban housing projects. People of all nationalities in the housing projects have worries that do not concern the "caviar Socialists" (as many people call them) or the equally well-heeled Gaullists. But a great many of these masses also sense, especially the youth among them who are constantly brutalized and sometimes murdered by the police, that they have a common enemy.

In the Streets Against Le Pen

When people discovered Le Pen would be in the final round there was revulsion among a huge section of the population, including the sections of the people targeted by his program and very broadly in French society as well. Most of the French and especially most of the working people strongly reject Le Pen's racist, Neanderthal message, and they set out to actively prove it.

Within days, all across France youth defiantly and loudly took to the streets. Suburban slum teenagers, usually unwelcome in the city centres, poured into the political limelight day after day in huge, angry, very multinational marches closely followed by hordes of riot police. Some high school students went to universities, where they encouraged the students to strike. Even museum employees went on strike to oppose Le Pen's cultural "whiteout," his vision of making traditional European macho- culture mandatory for all. Numerous famous performing artists put on their sneakers to demonstrate. The sudden awakening also took place during a groundswell of activity in defense of the Palestinian people that was mobilizing tens of thousands of people, including many youth of immigrant origins, and there was some, although far from enough, interpenetration between the two movements.

On May 1, Le Pen's motley national parade in Paris numbered only 10,000 -- people conforming to the Catholic rightist dress code, skinheads, couples swaggering in the uniforms of the rich and men wearing berets and carrying baguettes (French bread), a symbol of the traditional values of rural France before the 1968 upheaval, and some normally dressed people as well. Meanwhile, 40 cities and towns all over France saw anti-Le Pen demonstrations on a scale unheard of since the mid-1980s. Large May First demonstrations, once a tradition in France, became a mere shadow of their past in the last two decades, although there has been a significant upswing in the past several years.

The overwhelming sentiment was one of rejection of racism and fascism. Slogans from the Spanish Civil War of "No Pasarán" (They Shall Not Pass) were widespread, as were countless homemade signs and banners with defiant and humorous anti-fascist slogans, calls for solidarity with the immigrants, and denunciations of the whole political establishment's anti-crime hysteria. Even after May Day, many university students and teachers decided there could be no business as usual and devoted their classes to wide-ranging discussion and debates.

The negative side of these developments was an overwhelming sentiment on the part of the masses that they were obligated to vote for Chirac to block Le Pen. Since it was fairly clear to all that Le Pen was going to get trounced in the election in any event, the argument was made that it was essential to vote and achieve the highest score possible in order to prevent the official right from being tempted to woo Le Pen's voters. In some cases it was said that it was the only way to save France's honor internationally.

In the May Day march, there were a thousand and one different ways people were called to vote for Chirac. Slogans and pictures suggested that they do so wearing a clothespin over their nose or surgical gloves. An illustration of a condom labelled "Chirac" carried the instructions "Use once and discard." Worst of all, a great slogan of the French 1968 youth revolt "elections: pige cons" (a trap for fools) was inverted to read "abstention: pige cons." Voting a blank or spoiled ballot was equated in many signs as collaboration with the fascist enemy.

Ironically, while the entire governmental left and most of the "extreme left" were mobilising passionately for Chirac, a man they universally detest, the right manoeuvred to win over Le Pen voters to their parties for the parliamentary elections that are to follow on the heels of the presidential elections. The example of nearby Italy, where the official right under Berlusconi and the fascists descended from Mussolini have joined together to form a government, is there for all to see. Chirac's camp includes prominent Gaullists who cut deals to govern jointly with the National Front on the local level.

While far too many French flags and references to the glories of the bourgeois republic were present on May First, they were quite clearly a counter-current to the general anti-capitalist, anti-establishment mood. No doubt the millions of people who are being shaken into political life and who went to the polls "holding their nose" (the authorities gravely announced no one would be permitted to enter a polling both wearing a nose-clip or gloves) will hardly be satisfied with a Chirac triumph in the second round of the election. Already the talk is of a "third round," meaning the movement in the streets. While the official left will no doubt have some success in channelling the energy of the people into the June parliamentary elections, there is a great deal of reason to hope and believe that the people and especially the youth who are so vibrantly and enthusiastically taking on the ugly representatives of racism and fascism will continue to turn up the heat.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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