This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The European Right—From (Jean-Marie) Le Pen to (Marine) Le Pen—and the Rise of the French Far Right
Next week’s issue of The Nation will feature a report by Stanford Professor Cécile Alduy about the alarming rise of Marine Le Pen and the French far right. In recent years, Le Pen has skillfully, if disingenuously, attempted to scrub her National Front party of the most odious manifestations of the anti-Semitism, racism and outright xenophobia in which her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, specialized during his forty-year leadership of the party. At the same time, Alduy writes, the French mainstream—mistakenly scapegoating immigrants for the country’s economic malaise—has moved further to the right. Whatever the results of local elections slated for later this month and European Parliament elections in May, there is a serious risk that the toxic ideology of the National Front will become further enshrined and legitimized as a driving force in the public conversation—not only in France, but across Europe as a whole.
Although Le Pen “has managed to put a modern gloss on an old political brand,” Alduy writes, the underlying philosophy of the National Front remains almost exactly the same as it was under Jean-Marie Le Pen. It is perhaps useful, then, to re-examine the behavior of the wolf before it donned sheep’s clothing—and for such a mission there is no better guide than Daniel Singer, The Nation’s longtime European correspondent before his death in 2000. His numerous dispatches on Le Pen père—“the man whose name is synonymous with the recent revival of overt racism in French politics and society,” Singer wrote in 1985—show how mutable and dangerous remains the threat emanating from what Singer, in a recurring assortment of related metaphors, called France’s plague, poison and disease.
In “The Resistible Rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen” (September 7, 1985), Singer wrote of Le Pen:
Smiling, smartly dressed, he now seems—particularly on television, where he is on his best behavior—a frank and reasonable fellow saying aloud “what everybody really believes,” telling people “what they already know,” a man who merely echoes the basic precept of that great American Ronald Reagan: namely, that communism is the root of all evil. A red-faced, rather fat man who warns the “silent majority” against muggers, drug addicts, gays and crypto-pinkos, Le Pen might be described as a sort of French Spiro Agnew preaching law and order, except that he is not of Greek or any other foreign extraction. That is an important difference, because the man and the movement he leads, the National Front, trumpet the slogan “Frenchmen First” and spread the fairy tale that everything would be fine in the streets and hospitals, in the schools and even the factories were it not for the foreign hordes invading France, particularly those crossing the Mediterranean. France would be just marvelous without Marxists, Arabs and other aliens.…
The entry of avowed racists into the French Parliament is not in itself the worst prospect. As the old saying goes, you don’t bring the temperature down by breaking the thermometer…. More worrisome is the underlying ideological shift to the right, the radical metamorphosis of the substance and form of political debate, of which this plague is only a symptom.
Three years later, after the National Front had secured a new level of legitimacy when Le Pen won more than 14 percent of the vote in the 1986 presidential election, Singer wrote “In the Heart of Le Pen Country,” about a visit to Marseille:
Serious trouble does not begin when the men with jackboots or with cloven hoofs opt for fascism. It begins when the tinker and tailor, your neighbor 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.” As I looked down from the steps of the station, on departing this outwardly still-warm and attractive town, I could not help feeling that moral pollution is not so easily perceived. All the more reason to probe below the surface, to sound the alarm and, above all, to seek a cure—unless we want to wake up one day, too late, in a fully contaminated city or country.
Singer continued to track Le Pen’s rise throughout the 1990s. His dispatches from the time show an increasing concern about Le Pen’s staying power, and even foreshadows the more recent attempts by his youngest daughter, Marine Le Pen, to conceal the party’s underlying fascism by projecting a more smiling, human face:
“The Ghosts of Nationalism” (March 23, 1992):
Although unemployment in Western Europe is now roughly three times higher than it was twenty years ago, it has not reached the proportions of the prewar Depression, nor is the fate of its victims comparable. Although discontent is high, workers are not flocking en masse to Le Pen and his equivalents. The danger for Western Europe is not an immediate takeover by various National Fronts. The threat lies in the gradual extension of the disease: the spread of racism and the weakening of class solidarity, sapping society’s capacity for resistance should a really catastrophic slump bring back another bout of the deadly epidemic.
“Hate in a Warm Climate” (April 20, 1992):
Le Pen has been told that to win votes he must keep his tongue in check, so he’s on his best behavior. He makes no openly racist or anti-Semitic remarks. Yet, listening carefully, you can still judge the man. His reference to Jean-Claude Gaudin as “the bearded woman”—a not so gentle hint about the incumbent’s alleged homosexuality—gives an idea of his moral tone. The contempt he puts into the words “of every race and religion,” describing demonstrators he saw in London, is also revealing. So is his scorn for those who stir up unpleasant memories of World War II: “They only want to talk about Pétain and Touvier” (a wartime torturer, hidden for years by the clergy and only recently arrested). “Whatever the subject, it reminds them of Hitler and Vichy.”
“Liberté, Egalité, Racisme” (October 21, 1996):
In its new posture the National Front is increasingly reminiscent of the prewar fascist movements. Equally worrying is the fact that the phenomenon is not simply French. From Antwerp to Vienna, passing through northern and southern Italy, in the absence of rational prospects, all sorts of forces of unreason are gaining ground. Naturally, the situation should not be overdramatized. The economic crisis is not yet deep enough for a Le Pen to be voted into power in any Western European country. But the poison is spreading. It will not be halted by pandering to prejudices, making compromises, sticking to an increasingly conservative consensus. It won’t be stopped by decree, either. The counteroffensive will require relentless daily battles on the political, social and cultural fronts. If the respectable right is more to blame as the carrier of the disease, the main responsibility, nevertheless, belongs to the left: The rise of Le Pen will not be really resisted until the people, offered the prospect of a radically different society, start struggling for genuine solutions instead of seeking scapegoats. This French lesson, now read throughout Europe, does not lose its validity on crossing the ocean.
“Supping with the French Devil” (April 20, 1998):
Much having been written here about the resistible rise of Le Pen, we can sum up the spread of the disease in shorthand. When François Mitterrand was elected president in 1981 the front was insignificant. Deprived of office, the right invented the myth that growing unemployment was due to immigrant labor, forgetting that however low it would stoop, Le Pen could get lower still. Thus he acquired his stock in trade, imposing a phony debate on the nation. But he was able to consolidate his position only because the left failed to offer a radical alternative. With France experiencing a vague consensus on economic policy combined with rising social misery, Le Pen could appear to be the only outsider, gaining support notably among workers and the unemployed. His queer mixture of Reaganomics at home and opposition to globalization is incoherent, so whenever the social movement is active (as in the 1995 winter of discontent) the front is cast aside. But it recovers, feeding on the economic failure of the other protagonists.
Thus the fate of the National Front is really in the hands of the left. If it listens to the international financial establishment, opting for a deflationary policy and the dismantling of the welfare state, it will encourage the spread of the disease, which no changing of the electoral thermometer will cure. Only if it tackles unemployment head-on, radically reshaping French society, will the left be able to contain a cancerous growth that is already serious, although not yet fatal. The responsibility is historical because…the corpses of the past are still unburied. Pace Hegel and Marx, history may repeat itself not as farce but as tragicomedy.