Ethnic and Racial Studies Volume 14 Number 3 July 1991 © Routledge 1991

The resistible rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen



This article offers an overview of the growth of electoral support in France for the Front National [FN] and of the political biography of its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. It argues that the extreme right has become a permanent feature of French politics and offers an explanation of why it is that the FN moved to the centre of the political stage in France during the 1980s. The explanation places particular emphasis upon the shifting balance of political forces against the background of the economic crisis that emerged in the early 1970s.

'It can happen here' proclaimed a London leader-writer, back in the 1950s, shocked by the racism-inspired riots of Notting Hill Gate. Yes, it can happen anywhere and it tends to take commentators by surprise. Thus, Western observers seemed stunned when in June 1984, in a democratic country like France, in an entirely free election, the candidates of the xenophobic Front National [FN] captured more than one tenth of the poll or, to be precise, 11.06 per cent of the votes cast in the election to the European Parliament. Admittedly, such a triumph for the extreme right was not entirely unprecedented in post-war France.

In January 1956 Pierre Poujade, the famous stationer from St-Ceré, whose name gave substance to an adjective, led his shopkeepers' movement to success at the polls: they too gained nearly 11 per cent of the vote in a national election. However, Poujade's philosophy, putting the blame for the small traders' troubles on tax collectors, eggheads and on big business, particularly Jewish, was rather muddled and his movement -- the Union pour la Défense des Commerçants et Artisans [UDCA](1) -- proved a seven-day or rather a two-year wonder, since by 1958 it was politically dead. By contrast, the political profile of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is an admirer of General Pinochet in Chile and of General Franco, is unmistakable. His movement, the FN, shows no sign of departing, despite the many announcements of its impending doom.

Such forecasts multiply whenever the FN suffers a real or apparent set-back: when its vote drops, as it did in 1988, from the peak of nearly 15 per cent reached by Le Pen himself in the Presidential election back to around 10 per cent in the ensuing Parliamentary poll; when, because of the shift from proportional representation to a majority system in the latter, the parliamentary contingent of the FN is almost entirely wiped out; (2) when its leader, dismissing the Holocaust and the gas chambers as a 'detail in the history of the Second World War(3) antagonizes some potential supporters; or when the profanation of graves and mutilation of a corpse at the Jewish cemetery of Carpentras, in May 1990, shocks a whole nation and inspires mass protests turning the FN, at least temporarily, into an outcast. Rather than examine the specific features of the given vote, the impact of the change in the law on the result or the very nature of the FN's electorate, many wishful thinkers jump to the conclusion that this is the beginning of the end. Only to find out that it is not quite. The European election, held on 18 June 1989, was one such reminder. Clearly, at that stage, the FN was no longer spreading spectacularly. Yet arriving in third place, behind the coalition of the right and the Socialists, with 11.67 per cent of the votes cast, it had consolidated its position. Then, in December 1989, at a parliamentary by-election in Dreux, Mme Stirbois actually won a seat for the FN and the following spring, just before the shock of Carpentras, opinion polls were attributing around 15 per cent of the national vote to Le Pen's party. Quite obviously, the FN has come to stay. The extreme right is now a permanent feature of French politics. With the German Republicans making their entry into the Strasbourg assembly, one was almost tempted to say European politics.(4)

Our purpose here is to examine why France provided the scope for this sinister come-back. After all, racism has possibly stronger roots in Britain where a similar National Front showed dangerous signs of growth earlier.(5) Why did this marginal political force in France suddenly move from the fringes to the centre of the political stage? Was it due to the economic crisis, to unemployment, to the massive presence of immigrants, to the advent of the left into office after twenty-three years spent in opposition -- or to a combination of all these factors? We shall look in succession at the Dreux by-election to see how the untouchables become respectable; at the seamy, usually unexplored side of consensus politics to grasp the excellent performance of Le Pen, the odd man out, in the Presidential poll of April 1988; and at Marseilles, the contaminated city, to get a glimpse of those southern towns that are now the strongholds of the FN. It is against this background that we shall try to give tentative answers to questions about the reasons for the take-off of the FN, about the somewhat changing nature of its electorate, about its two temptations and inner contradictions, and finally about the shadow that it casts over French political life. Since we are dealing with one of those movements whose fortunes are closely connected with the fate of its Führer, Duce, or Chef, we might as well begin with his profile.

Portrait of a leader

He no longer wears a black patch over his left eye, lost in a political brawl, which made him look more like a thug than a pirate. By now, smartly dressed and smiling, he seems -- particularly on television, where he is on his best behaviour -- a reasonable fellow and frank at that, saying aloud 'what everybody thinks but does not dare to utter', warning the silent majority against muggers, drug addicts, gays and crypto-pinkos, explaining that France would be just marvellous without Marxists and Muslims. What is so extremist in the views of the man who shares with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher the view that Communism, not money, is the root of all evil? Such attempts to describe the tub-thumper as the picture of sweet reasonableness are spoilt quite regularly by his violent outbursts against the 'Arab invasion' or his gruesome remarks about gas chambers (6). Above all, the image does not stand up to the record. The adult life of Jean-Marie Le Pen coincides with the post war story of the French fascist fringe.

He was born in June 1928 at Trinité-sur-Mer, a small Breton harbour, the son of a fisherman. He was orphaned as an adolescent, his father's fishing boat blown up by a mine. The attempt to describe the father as fighting the Germans is part of the same legend that tries to invent a resistance record for young Jean-Marie; none is to be found. Actually, in postwar Paris, where he came as a student, the Red-baiting Le Pen tended to have as allies -- and this was to be true throughout his career -- people connected with Vichy France and collaboration with Nazism rather than the Resistance. The young provincial came to the capital armed with two assets: an undoubted 'gift of the gab' and a predilection for fisticuffs, political or otherwise. This earned him a police record and a reputation amid extreme right-wingers. By 1954, with a law degree in his pocket, he went to Indochina as a paratroop officer with the Foreign Legion. Here, yet another legend must be spoilt. He went there after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and he 'fought' his war in an editorial office. Nevertheless, back in Paris, two years later, he was given his first chance by a movement whose rise helps us to understand the current success of the FN.

In France, the 1950s witnessed the combined process of mass migration from the countryside and of industrial as well as commercial concentration in the towns. Since nobody likes to be eliminated, even if it is allegedly in the name of economic progress, the small shopkeepers, craftsmen and other victims of the squeeze rebelled. Their rather crude prophet was the already mentioned Pierre Poujade, and Le Pen, the unscrupulous but efficient demagogue, became his lieutenant. As such, he entered the National Assembly at the age of twenty-seven. Although the Poujadist contingent was not particularly well behaved, he stood out among them and enhanced in the Palais Bourbon his reputation for violence and racial innuendos. (The choice example is his insult to Pierre Mendès-France, a former Prime Minister who happened to be Jewish: 'You crystallize in your person a certain number of patriotic and almost physical revulsions').

As the Fourth Republic was tottering, Poujade and his lieutenant parted company. Le Pen decided that Algeria was the crucial battleground and he travelled there as a paratroop officer. This time he did see active service. Because of amnesty and the statute of limitation, it is difficult to claim that Le Pen was personally involved in the torture that took place in Algiers (the newspapers that tried to do so lost a complicated case on appeal; see Le Monde [17 January 1986]), but he did approve its use at the time and, in any case, this Algerian venture now paid electoral dividends. When Algeria finally gained independence in 1962, most of the million or so European settlers crossed the Mediterranean. When not in Paris, they resettled, for obvious geographical reasons, in southern France. The concentrations of these so-called pieds-noirs in part coincide today with the strongholds of the FN.

Back in 1958, however, when the Fourth Republic fell, the extreme right-wingers did not get the prize. They were thwarted by General de Gaulle. Once back in power, the general gradually grasped that he had to extricate himself from this colonial mess. The European settlers in Algeria and the military barons who had made him king then felt betrayed, rebelled, succeeded in spreading terror throughout Algeria and even in exporting it to France. Le Pen was too clever to commit himself fully to a losing side by going underground. He did not join the so-called Organisation de l'Armée Secrète [OAS], though there was little doubt about his sympathies. In 1965, three years after Algeria had won its independence and he had lost his parliamentary seat, we find Le Pen as Presidential campaign manager for Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, former junior minister in the Vichy government of Marshal Pétain and more recently chief defence lawyer for the OAS leaders and executioners. This attempt to unite the mourners of Algérie Française with older fragments of French reaction, to combine colonialism and collaboration won the candidate 5 per cent of the votes cast, the best far-right performance on the national level till June 1984.

For Le Pen the fifteen years from 1965 were really lean. On a personal level, only to begin with: without a deputy's salary, he had to earn a living. Together with some companions, he set up a company specializing in historical records, particularly of military songs. It was sued and fined under anti-racist laws for the text on the cover of an album of Nazi songs that described Hitler's movement as 'on the whole popular and democratic'. Then came a strange stroke of luck. The alcoholic heir of a big firm, the Lambert Cement Company, left his fortune to the leader of the FN. The family wanted to contest the will, but an out-of-court settlement in 1977 gave Le Pen a mansion on the outskirts of Paris dominating the capital and enough money for him not to have to worry about his future.

Politically, however, it was a lean period throughout. In 1968 fascist thugs were swept out of their favourite Latin Quarter by the mass student movement. Four years later the remnants of various quasi-fascist sects merged together to form the FN and picked Le Pen, the most presentable, as its leader. In electoral terms, it was still a highly marginal coalition. In the Presidential poll of 1974, when Valéry Giscard d'Estaing very narrowly defeated François Mitterrand, Le Pen obtained 0.75 per cent of the vote. Seven years later, when Mitterrand was to get his revenge, he was weaker still. He could not even find the five-hundred elected sponsors required for him to be allowed to stand. The economic crisis was on and unemployment was high; yet for the leader of the far right to get his second chance, another factor was apparently needed in France. The left had to win the election.

Drawing lessons from Dreux

Having stayed permanently in office for twenty-three years, the French right could not bear to be out. The shock of defeat over and the euphoria of Socialist victory dissipated, it moved on to the counteroffensive ready to play on people's fears and pander to their prejudices. The opportunities were there. After a quarter of a century of rapid urban development, the towns were coming apart at the seams. Petty crime and the feeling of insecurity grew together with unemployment. As long as the right was in office, this was an international trend and, as such, in the nature of things. Thereafter, it became the fault of the left and of its laxity. The change of line over immigration was even more striking. It had been the right that, in search of cheap foreign labour, had presided for two decades over the mass import of foreign workers. This was now conveniently forgotten and the blame for immigrants' 'grabbing your jobs' was put squarely on France's new 'Marxist' rulers.

What the respectable right did not bargain for was that, however low it might stoop, others could stoop even lower. When it accused Robert Badinter, the Socialist Minister of Justice, of laxity, the FN newspaper wrote about him: 'He is always for the marginal and against a society that had for a long time rejected the Badinters... ' and its readers translated -- bloody foreign Jew.(7) When the right mentioned foreign workers as a source of unemployment, the FN invented the equation as effective as it was absurd: 'Two million immigrant workers = two million unemployed'. And who among these apprentices could speak like Le Pen of invaders 'who want to sleep in my bed, with my wife'? Law and order was the main theme in the municipal elections of March 1983 and for the first time the FN fared relatively well here and there (8) The turning-point came six months later, with the byelection of Dreux.

Dreux is a town of less than 50,000 inhabitants about sixty kilometres west of Paris. It had a relatively large Muslim population, including some harkis, that is, Algerian auxiliaries of French troops who fought against their country's independence. Paradoxically, these former allies of Le Pen were treated by his followers as aliens. Dreux had as its Deputy and Mayor Françoise Gaspard, a Socialist with progressive views on the immigrant question. It was also the fief of Jean-Pierre Stirbois, Le Pen's second-in-command as Secretary General of the FN, who had nursed this constituency for some time.(9) In the municipal elections of March 1983 the list of the left, headed by Gaspard, got in by a handful of votes. As the result was challenged, it was legally decided to have a re-run and that is why in September the limelight was on Dreux.

In the first ballot the list of the left, which was running a moderate campaign (Gaspard took a back seat to cool things), received 42.7 per cent of the vote, the FN 16.7 per cent and the mainstream right 40.6 per cent. The odds were that the latter would win in the second ballot in any case. They decided, however, to play it safe. Since the French system allows for the merging of lists between ballots, they struck a deal with the FN, granting it and its sympathisers twelve out of thirty-nine seats and promising a number of aldermen. Above all, with the whole of France looking on, they were turning yesterday's untouchables into tomorrow's respectable allies. It is true that some liberal right-wingers, like Simone Weil, rejected this strategy, claiming that in Dreux they would not have voted for the list including the FN. They were the exception. The honourable leaders of the coalition, Messrs Barre, Chirac and Giscard, had no such scruples. To say that Mme Weil only acted that way because she was Jewish seems unfair. Jewishness was not enough. After all, Professor Raymond Aron, for example, stood on the other side of the fence, accepting the slogan then fashionable on the right that four FN councillors in Dreux were less dangerous than four 'Red fascists' (read Communist ministers) in Paris.

The victory of the right in the Dreux by-election did not matter much in political terms. The bestowing of respectability on the FN did. A racist was no longer an outcast since 'honourable men' were ready to make a deal with him. Le Pen became a favourite guest on various radio and television chat shows and proved quite an effective performer (reserving his less amiable side for the rallies of his own party). One did not have to wait long for results. In June 1984, as already mentioned, the FN obtained its first national success, over one-tenth of the votes cast in the European election.

Admittedly, the circumstances were exceptionally favourable. The European Parliament has limited powers and therefore those who bother to vote -- abstentions are high -- can express their real preferences without great political calculation. Besides, in France the electoral system is one of proportional representation with party lists on a national scale. Thus, the big parties receive no special advantage and new ones, lacking local political figures as the FN did, are not handicapped. Yet when all this has been said, the increase was spectacular. With a score on a par with the Parti Communiste Français [PCF], the FN moved to the first division.(10)

The surprise of the consensus

Nothing succeeds like success. In 1983-84, the FN drew most of its electoral support from disgruntled right-wingers finding the conservative parties not radical enough in opposition to the Socialists in office. The left-wingers disappointed with the policies of their government were at that time expressing their discontent by staying at home. With the policy of orthodox capitalist austerity, to which Mitterrand was converted, now beginning to bite, the FN could expect to gain some support from certain sections of the disillusioned electorate of the left in the forthcoming Parliamentary poll of 1986. On top of such hopes it received the gift of a new electoral law.

From the very birth of the Fifth Republic, in 1958, French deputies were being elected in single-member constituencies by a majority system not dissimilar from the British one (except that in France there were two ballots: an absolute majority was required in the first, a simple one was sufficient in the second). This method favoured the winning party or coalition. Thus, in 1981 the left with 55 per cent of the vote in the country had an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly and the Socialists, with only 38 per cent, had a majority of their own. As the general election of 1986 drew nearer, everything suggested that the positions would be reversed, the right this time benefiting from the bias -- unless it were wiped out by a switch to proportional representation.

In fairness, it must be added that proportional representation, considered more equitable, figured in the Presidential programme of François Mitterrand. Whether it would have been enacted so swiftly if it had not been so convenient for the Socialists can only be guessed; it certainly was very convenient. It promised to reduce considerably the prospective majority of the right in the new chamber and to face there the respectable right with a new awkward partner, the FN. The not-so-lame President of the Republic might thus be able to 'coexist' for a couple of years with a hostile parliament and use this period for a political recovery. Things actually turned out as Mitterrand had calculated. In the National Assembly elected in March 1986 the left in general and the Socialists in particular duly lost their supremacy, but the conservative coalition had the barest of majorities. The real winner was the FN making its parliamentary debut as Jean-Marie Le Pen re-entered the Palais Bourbon followed by thirty-four supporters. Was this the end of the beginning?

Frangois Mitterrand also proved right about the consequences of this bout of coexistence. On the eve of the Presidential poll, he was being praised throughout the world, admittedly for his political skill rather than his consistency. He had not set out to do this, but he was now being hailed as the champion of moderation, as the 'normalizer' guiding France on the road to consensus politics. Indeed, the contrast was striking between the hopes, or fears, aroused by the Presidential election of 1981 and the apparent apathy seven years later. Busy singing the virtues of moderation and centrism, most observers were taken aback by Le Pen's score of 14.4 per cent. That one French adult in every seven should have voted for the xenophobic leader of the FN was really shocking, though on reflection not so surprising. Mitterrand converted France to consensus politics by destroying the image of the left as a radical alternative. Le Pen, in his campaign, quite cleverly exploited this situation, parading as the outsider, the only man against the establishment. In his last television appeal, he told Frenchmen in short: 'You've seen them all; if you want to get on with inflation, unemployment, insecurity and the foreign invasion, keep the "gang of four".' 'But', he continued, 'If you want change, you can only vote for me.' And it worked to some extent.

To describe, as Le Pen and his followers did, this electoral progress to 14 per cent as an 'earthquake' was clearly an exaggeration. A steady spread of the disease seems a more appropriate metaphor. The plague did, in fact, extend all over France even if some parts were particularly affected. In the southern regions around Nice, Marseilles or Toulon, Le Pen received about one-quarter of the votes cast. In the industrial north, in the suburbs of Paris or in Alsace and Lorraine, in towns particularly affected by the economic crisis, he gained about a fifth. This time everywhere, even, say, in Brittany with no immigrant workers in sight, he obtained between 8 and 9 per cent. So far there have been no mass shifts of Communist voters to Le Pen,(11) yet with the PCF having spent three years in office, the FN somehow took over the reputation of being the party of protest.

Alarmed by the unexpected performance of Le Pen, foreign observers were duly relieved when two months later the vote of the FN went back to normal and the party virtually lost all its deputies in the National Assembly. To avoid further surprises, let us repeat some elementary points. The FN, which is still building its base and has relatively few notables, does better in national elections (European, Presidential) than in municipal or cantonal ones, where the personality of the local candidate counts. Similarly, in Parliamentary polls it does better in the more impersonal system of lists on the scale of a département (French proportional representation) than in single-member constituencies, where the services rendered by the deputy over the years carry weight. It must also be recalled that as soon as it returned to office in 1986, the respectable right reverted to the previous voting system in Parliamentary elections and this time François Mitterrand had no special reason to reverse its decision. For an FN candidate to be elected to parliament was, therefore, a very tall order. Although in theory an absolute majority is only required in the first ballot, in most constituencies the second ballot is a duel between left and right. To get 30 per cent of the vote here and there is one thing, to capture over 50 per cent is quite another. The social upheaval in France is not deep enough to drive liberal conservatives to vote massively for French admirers of Pinochet. At this undramatic stage in the economic crisis, the two elections of 1988 probably reflect the present support of the FN: somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent.

The mirror of Marseilles

When they had to look for constituencies in which they stood a chance of being elected in 1988, most leaders of the FN came down to Marseilles and its region, the département of Bouches-du-Rh6ne. In vain. Together with Le Pen's own defeat, down came the dream of getting him elected the following year as the Mayor of France's second city. However, the idea was not totally absurd. After all, it was there that in the first ballot of the Presidential poll Le Pen received 102,541 votes out of a total of 361,804, that is to say, 28.3 per cent and more than Barre and Chirac combined. What turned this gateway to Africa and the Orient into the racist capital of Europe?

Is it due to 'too many immigrants'? The theory of a 'threshold of tolerance'(12) scientifically phoney in itself, is in this case absurd. In the 1982 census, the share of foreigners in the town's population, at 9.3 per cent, was only slightly above the national average and well below the level of Paris. True, the proportion of immigrants from North Africa, at 6.5 per cent, is relatively high and they are quite visible. The immigrant ghetto lies in the heart of the city. The district, next to the Canebière, which has always been a shelter for the poor of the planet, now looks like the casbah. The Arabs are the more prominent since the port of Marseilles is the main transit to North Africa. Yet one cannot attribute the political explosion of racism to an optical illusion. After all, Marseilles is the nearest thing Europe has to a melting pot. The Arabs come after Spaniards, Armenians and Greeks on the solid foundations laid by the Corsicans and, above all, Italians. Back in 1931 foreigners accounted for about a quarter of the town's population. Besides, their share has not gone up perceptibly in the last seven years, when the FN climbed from marginality to political pride of place in the city. So there must be some other explanations.

The large presence of the pieds-noirs is certainly one of them. Their exact number is not known, but they were a key factor in the big jump of the population, which rose from 660,000 in 1954 to 882,000 in 1968. There were many other social reasons. According to most accounts, Marseilles has mismanaged its economic modernization. The local bourgeoisie, satisfied with petty speculation, missed its opportunity during the postwar transformation of the French economy to introduce more capital-intensive methods of production. By the time the programme of regional expansion around the Fos complex was conceived, it was too late. The plan got bogged down in the international crisis. Thus, Marseilles is now a town whose population is declining, where industrial jobs are dwindling and the growth in whitecollar jobs is not enough to compensate. The latter jobs are, on the whole, at the lower end of the scale in terms of pay and status. Altogether, Marseilles is lagging behind the national average in higher and technical education, but is well above it in unemployment. The North Africans, brought over for the construction industry during the boom, provide their own contingent.

As you visit the town with its blocks of flats on the periphery, its cheap housing projects with no social amenities and its community spirit gone, you gain the impression that Marseilles is surrounded by a concrete wall of crumbling expectations. It is there and in the complicated story of the town's politics that you must seek the answer to the Le Pen puzzle. Yet the really worrying point is that, in the south, Marseilles is no longer the exception. If you look at the results of the last European election, Marseilles, where the FN got 24.1 per cent of the vote, is preceded by Toulon (28.3), Nice (27.4) or Perpignan (25.3). You could add a whole series of smaller towns like Antibes, Cannes, Menton, Marignanne, Fréjus or St Raphael. The south west seems contaminated and it is small consolation to say, as Yves Montand did some time ago, that the people with whom he plays pétanque on the Riviera cannot really be described as fascists. Jackboots somehow do not fit into Pagnol's country. Yet serious trouble does not begin when the men with jackboots or with cloven hooves opt for fascism. It begins when the tinker and tailor, your neighbour and your cousin, are driven sufficiently mad by circumstances to vote for an admirer of Pinochet, a preacher of apartheid, a man for whom the gas chambers are a mere 'detail'.

Lessons from France

In the space at my disposal I shall try to draw from this descriptive part some very tentative conclusions or, more precisely, to make some suggestions which may then serve as a basis for debate. These propositions will be the more provocative in that they are, by necessity, presented in shorthand.

(1) In the French case, unemployment (already quite high under Giscard's Presidency) and the number of immigrants (which had barely budged since 1975) were not enough for the extreme right to get its chance. The left had to get into office for Le Pen to take off. Does it mean that once the right is back in office or the left has proved that it does not endanger the rules of the game (consensus) the FN vanishes? Not necessarily. Once grown, it acquires a life of its own. Historians describing this period will probably stress the end of an era for two major movements: the Gaullists who had managed to harness the authoritarian trend of the French right; and the PCF, which had furnished hope and the semblance of a solution to left-wing protesters.

(2) The electorate of the FN changed its nature to some extent as it grew. The first wave was provided by the traditional supporters of the right exasperated by the victory of the left and its early policies. The second, more working-class, included segments of the left disappointed by the policy of their government. This shift is illustrated graphically in Paris. If a Martian studied these electoral figures with the help of the usual commentaries about the 'threshold of tolerance' and the correlation between immigrant population and far right vote, he would have come to the conclusion that Parisians used to hate Spaniards and Portuguese, then switched their distaste to North Africans. The real reason is that in 1984 the FN did relatively well in the wealthy districts, where the Spanish and Portuguese are either concierges or domestic helps; two years later it made progress in the poorer districts of Paris, where you find North Africans (Mayer 1987).

(3) The coexistence of these two electorates explains some of the internal struggles within the FN. The old militants from the Fascist fringe always wanted to bring the Republic down and have no room for frills and compromises. On the other hand, the right-wing notables attracted by the movement's success are quite keen on deals. Le Pen relies on them to widen the range of the FN and thus increase its attraction, but shocks them periodically with his verbal outbursts (there are things you think, but don't say). The FN does not have the 'anti-capitalist' veneer of the prewar extreme right. Le Pen praises Reagan; yet when a spokesman of the IN gets an opportunity to make his inaugural speech in the Strasbourg assembly, he delivers an attack on 'coca-cola civilization'. The conflict between the two lines will be finally solved by the depth and nature of the social crisis.

(4) All the parties bear some responsibility for the success of the FN. The right, as we saw, prepared the ground for it by its unscrupulous campaign on immigration and law and order. The left had failed for many years to perform its function as the principled enemy of every form of racial discrimination. The PCF pondered for a moment whether it could not swim with the racist tide (the notorious example being the case of the Communist council in Vitry ordering a hostel for black immigrants to be bulldozed in December 1980); it then changed its mind but the damage was done. The Socialists did not have the courage of their opinions as, for example, in the case of Gaston Defferre's campaign in Marseilles during the municipal elections of 1983. There is another significant example from the same campaign. The Ministry of Immigrant Affairs had prepared a popular booklet with simple answers to the usual xenophobic accusations. At the last moment, the government decided to withdraw the 2.2 million booklets that had been printed. The less fuss over this matter, the better!

(5) As things stand, the FN presents no immediate danger as a candidate for the succession. Its worst influence had been indirect: through the infection of the French body politic. For years people had to say: 'I am not a racist, but...'. Now, they can say plainly that they hate or despise Arabs (though possibly not yet Jews). All this should be taken metaphorically as the symptom of a changed climate. True, it can be objected that from the Dreyfus case to World War II France had a terrible tradition of open racism in a language much worse than the current one. Yet this was before the Holocaust. Then for several decades it was different. The achievement of Le Pen and his often unwitting companions has been to render racism almost respectable.

(6) Hitherto I have stressed the gloomy side. The only really bright spot is the popular reaction against racism, particularly among the young, illustrated by such movements as the march from Marseilles to Paris in October 1983, the so-called Convergence for Equality in the following year, and the best known and most publicized SOS-Racisme,with its famous slogan 'Touche pas à mon pote!' ('Hands off my friend!'). This is not the place to discuss all such movements, but they show that quite a lot can be achieved by tackling the issue head-on.

Ultimately, the fate of the extreme right in Europe will be determined by the gravity of the world economic crisis, by the level of unemployment, by society's ability to take its destiny into its own hands. Precedents show that when in time of crisis the left is unable to provide a rational radical alternative, the far right tends to provide an irrational one. Le Pen has reminded us that people can collectively run amok, that it can happen here and everywhere, but also that it does not have to.


1. Actually, by that time the union had become a party called the Union et Fraternité Française. Back to text

2. The number of deputies fell from thirty-one to one, there having been some desertions between 1986 and 1988. Back to text

3. He made this claim on 13 September 1987 on the radio programme 'Grand Jury-RTL-Le Monde'. Back to text

4. The German Republicans obtained 7.1 per cent of the vote and seven seats, and the Italian Movimento Sociale Italiano [MSI] 5.5 per cent of the vote and four seats. Back to text

5. This was from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s which, except for a Conservative interlude, was, significantly, a period of Labour rule. Back to text

6. His latest was a play of words on the name of a government minister, Durafour, nicknamed 'Durafour crématoire'. Back to text

7. At least since the Dreyfus case in the 1890s, anti-Semitism has been a prominent feature of the extreme, and not only the extreme, right in France. After World War II and the Holocaust, its open expression was no longer tolerated for a time. This is discussed further below. Back to text

8. Le Pen himself obtained 11.3 per cent of the vote in the first and 8.5 per cent in the second ballot in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, and this was enough for him to become a local councilor. Back to text

9. He has since been killed in a car crash. His widow took over and, as we saw, won the constituency for the FN. Back to text

10. The PCF obtained 11.19 per cent and the FN 10.06 per cent. Back to text

11. Studies suggest that he inherited, directly, more Socialist voters. Back to text

12. The 'seuil de tolérance' has been used quite a lot in French debates on-immigration in an attempt to give a scientific pretence to the crude idea that, above a certain proportion, immigrants are no longer tolerated by the local population. Since this 'threshold' varies from place to place, it is clearly an instrument of propaganda and not a scientific tool. Back to text


MAYER, NONNA 1987 'De Passy à Barbès: deux visages du vote Le Pen à Paris', Revue Française de Science Politique, vol. 37, no. 6, pp. 891-906

DANIEL SINGER is the European correspondent for The Nation. ADDRESS: 13 rue de Bièvre, 75005 Paris, France.