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The New French Left

Jean-Marie Le Pen's surprise showing brought forth France's closet radicals. Watch out Europe.

12:00 AM, Apr 22, 2002 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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PARIS--The Monday morning newspapers were already on the streets at midnight Sunday, and so was the French left. Both were describing National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's runner-up finish in the first round of the presidential elections as "A shock!" and "A political earthquake!" Le Pen, who bested 14 other candidates, now gets to face incumbent president Jacques Chirac head-to-head in the general election on May 5. Most everyone in France had expected a barren reprise of the 1995 elections, with Chirac facing Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin. Instead, Le Pen got 17.5 percent to Jospin's 16.3, trailing only Chirac's 19.8 percent. So for the first time since 1969 (in the wake of the Paris riots), the left has been excluded from the second round altogether. At his concession speech Jospin announced his retirement from politics. And around midnight on Sunday night, the hard left marched on place de la Bastille and place de la Republique.

Le Pen has changed his political clothing often since he entered French politics decades ago, but his shirt has always been one shade or another of brown. In the 1960s, he urged that France prosecute its war against Algerian independence by any means necessary. In the 1970s he railed against immigrants in the manner of Britain's Enoch Powell and, lacking Powell's eloquence, wound up treated less like a visionary than a clown. In the 1980s he tried to enter the mainstream by developing a Thatcherite economic program. But after the Gulf War (which he opposed), he turned his venom on the United States, "global capitalism," and B'nai B'rith. Today's tirades focus more on the European Union and on "Maastricht capitalism." He infamously called the Holocaust a mere "detail" in the history of World War II, and his rhetoric is often plagiarized from that of the collaborationist orators of Vichy France. While he describes his present politics as "on the left socially, on the right economically," he remains a politician to whom the adjective "fascist" can be applied as not just an epithet but a description.

Le Pen advanced for many reasons. The weakness of the Socialist party was chief among them. Jospin and his Socialists have actually done a good job on most of the issues that U.S. voters would care about. Despite an economic downturn that followed the American dot-com recession, three-and-a-half booming years at the beginning of Jospin's term have left the French vastly better off than they were when he came to power in April 1997. Radical-seeming reforms, like a mandated 35-hour work week, actually helped the economy, since they gave French entrepreneurs a pretext to reform the entire structure of their businesses, moving parts of them out from under government regulation. The problem for the socialists is that the French don't always vote on peace and prosperity--It's the dialectical materialism, stupid--and Jospin failed to excite voters this time out. Among the self-identified "working class," who are supposed to be the Socialist base, Le Pen pulled twice as many votes as Jospin. That lifted Le Pen's usual vote total ever so slightly--from 14.4 percent in 1988 and 15 percent in 1995 to 17.5 percent this year--but, with the Socialist vote falling through the floor, it was enough.

The Socialist vote fell through the floor because the party snootily failed to talk about the one concrete issue French people did want to talk about. The country is enduring a dizzying upward spiral in violent and petty crime--which the French political class euphemizes as "insecurity" and "incivility," respectively. Much of this crime gets committed by immigrants and the children of immigrants. Fifty-eight percent of voters named crime as an issue they voted on; "unemployment," named by 39 percent, was the only other issue that even came close. The week before the elections, the Nouvel Observateur, the country's flagship center-left opinion journal, asked in a cover story whether Paris would benefit from the "zero tolerance" policies Rudolph Giuliani used in New York. It's a question worth asking: Paris now has a higher crime rate than New York. Much of the city, outside the regularly spiffed-up tourist areas, looks as New York did in the late 1970s, with graffiti on most subway cars and on every single square inch of wall that is not under perpetual surveillance. You can see where it helped Le Pen and Chirac that they felt able to raise the subject. In the Communist-controlled Lyon suburb of Vaulx-en-Velin, scene of the country's most violent immigrant riots a decade ago, the Communist candidate Robert Hue fell to 6 percent, while Le Pen picked up 26.