France's Far Right Climbs Out of the Shadows
Recently by Eric Margolis: South Asia's Arms Race Heats Up
PARIS — It wasn't another French Revolution, but the dramatic showing of France's far right in last week's presidential election was a bombshell that left France shaken and Europe confused and alarmed.
Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front party won 18% of the vote in the first round presidential election in which ten candidates competed. Nine were from either left or right, and only one a self-professed centrist. In France, the center has all but vanished.
President Nicholas Sarkozy did better than polls had predicted, but the widely anticipated first place win of Socialist Francois Hollande was still a humiliation to the hyperkinetic Sarkozy who sought to wrap himself in the French flag. Polls show Hollande, a bland, unassuming figure, continues to lead Sarkozy in the final runoff election to be held on 6 May.
The National Front is no longer on the ballot in the final two-man race, but it remains the hulking 800 lb gorilla in the ornate drawing room of French politics.
As Marine Le Pen said, French politics will never be the same again.
Just who and what does the National Front represent? I spent a day in the late 1980's interviewing party founder and father of Marine, Jean Marie LePen, and have followed the Le Pens ever since.
Leftist critics have branded Jean-Marie Le Pen as a fascist, and his daughter, and now party leader, a fascist wolf in a designer dress.
This view is not accurate. I found the big, burly, convivial former paratrooper a modern-day apostle of the Vichy France of 1940's era: ardently Catholic, anti-foreign, a hater of Islam (Jews used to fill this role), an enemy of the rich industrial class and what he calls "Jewish money," a fierce foe of Communism and Socialism, and advocate of harsh law and order. "Emigration equals invasion," he memorably told me.
The term "fascist" is over-used. The Le Pens are traditional rightists familiar to France, Spain, Turkey and Portugal during the 1930's.
Marine Le Pen softened her father's rhetoric and is more discreet, but her policies are similar. She wants France to ditch the Euro, end globalism, break the power of the banking elite — a goal shared by Hollande — and crack down on crime and emigration.
Marine Le Pen's policies are stridently anti-Muslim. She blames France's 5-6 million Muslims for many of the nation's troubles. Islamophobia has replaced the right's anti-Jewish creed of the 1930's. Unfortunately, this toxic practice has also spread to America's hard right and religious fundamentalists.
Sarkozy, in an desperate attempt to attract National Front voters on 6 May, has also jumped on the anti-Muslim bandwagon and has intensified his anti-Muslim rhetoric, warning of the alleged dangers of mosques, halal meat, veils and terrorism — which has become code for Arabs.
Sarkozy, a close ally of Israel, is beating the war drums for attacks on Syria and Iran. France's 600,000 Jews are solidly behind him.
The big question now is how many of the 6.4 million French who just voted for the National Front can Sarkozy and his UMP party attract. This shift will decide the election.
National Front supporters are a mixed bag. There are working class people furious their factories are being closed and outsourced to East Europe or Asia as unemployment heads over 10%. Many blame Sarkozy and his business mogul friends, or Jewish finance, Muslims, or Americans. They are angry and explosive and find many like-minded workers across de-industrializing Europe.
Other National Front members come from the ultra-conservative Catholic haut bourgeoisie, the same class that supported Marshal Petain's Vichy government during the war. They saw Communism as a far greater threat than Hitler's National Socialism. Francois Hollande's Socialists and its far left allies horrify France's bourgeoisie.
The National Front also draws Muslim haters, anti-Semites, supporters of an all white France, the elderly, and minor neo-fascist groups, as well as small shopkeepers fearing their businesses will be crushed by huge retailers. In the 1950's, a rightist political Party led by Pierre Poujade fought for "petits commercants."
France's right and left have been locked in battle since the 1870's. Now, the forceful entry of the National Front into this conflict has muddied this two-way fight.
Marine Le Pen's strategy is to break up Sarkozy's UMP party and become the party of the center-right. If Sarkozy is defeated on 6 May, his bickering, unstable party may indeed fragment, allowing Le Pen to pick up the pieces in important parliamentary elections on 6 June.
Europe's neo-fascists, like Holland's Geert Wilders' Freedom Party, are cheering Le Pen's stunning vote win. Europe's center-right leaders are not. They fear growing economic malaise and stresses will spark the same kind of surge to the far right seen in France.
They fear as much a win by Hollande's big-spending Socialists will undermine their efforts to stabilize continental finances through austerity and saving, or even wreck the vital Franco-German entente that is the foundation of European unity.
But Le Pen's calls to quit the Euro, return to the franc, and protectionism find many ears across Europe.
Eric Margolis [send him mail] is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.