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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.

For socialists, it was the equivalent of racism even to raise the crime issue at all. Jospin's minister of finance, Laurent Fabius, complained as the results came in that Le Pen had advanced by "instrumentalizing insecurity." Socialist party secretary Francois Hollande added, "It's an unjust defeat. All this talk of insecurity has had the result of bringing the right to power." Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille, who was Jospin's Labor minister until two years ago, pouted, "France has done nothing to deserve this." Sure. Nothing except vote for the guy.

Le Pen and Chirac both benefited from a splintering of the left-wing opposition. In addition to the official candidate of Jospin's Communist coalition partners, there were three Trotskyite candidates (Hue of the PC was not pur et dur enough for them), and the four of them shared 14 percent of the vote, giving the hard left its highest tally ever. Fausto Bertinotti, secretary of the Italian leftist party Refondazione, said on Sunday night, "The French election results mark an end to the history of the center-left in Europe."

Bertinotti is correct, but the center-left is going to be replaced with something considerably more activist, and more radical. No sooner had Chirac, Jospin, and Le Pen given their speeches than crowds of people were milling northwards on rue de Lyon, beneath my hotel window. By the time I arrived, the Place was three-quarters full. People were climbing the monuments, lying under cars, chanting, singing. There were tens of thousands of people there, holding signs that read "Tonight I Am Ashamed to Be French" and "Piss on the Flame" (symbol of Le Pen's National Front). One college-age girl even had written on her forehead, "C. LA MERDE." There were hammer-and-sickle flags being waved out of windows, and the gold-and-yellow standards of the League of Communist Revolution.

Repugnant though they may find Le Pen, the hard left has no desperate need to protest him. For one thing, the 74-year-old Le Pen has no chance of winning the second round. Snap polls showed 78 or 80 percent of the French would vote Chirac two weeks from now. For another thing, his ideology has a great deal in common with that of the French hard left: it begins with globalism and ends in an alliance with (and abetting of) anti-Semites. But whereas the old right's anti-Semitism is vestigial and utterly hemmed in by French constitutional practice, this new left's anti-Semitism--which operates through an identification with Islamicist ideology that was spreading like poison even before Zacharias Moussaoui replaced Camembert as France's most famous export--is activist, violent, and chic. (More on the subject of anti-Semitic violence in France will follow in the next issue of The Weekly Standard.)

Le Pen's second-place finish may have one positive consequence, even if he is a singularly inelegant means of arriving at it. Up until now it appeared likely that Jospin and Chirac--two candidates of yesteryear, with lukewarm mandates at best--would stagger into the second round with only 15 percent of the vote. Whoever got elected would likely lose the legislative elections that followed, since the losing candidate would have recourse to the appeal "Do you really want to give the other guy all that power?" The French constitution was not designed for two-party rule, and the "cohabitation" that has been the order of the day for the last five years has been nightmarishly unworkable (particularly in foreign policy, where prime minister Jospin increasingly usurped terrain that has traditionally been presidential). A collapsed center-left and a Chirac who can win the mandate of three-quarters of voters make divided government a less likely outcome, and may help France avoid a predicted constitutional crisis.

Responding to an interviewer who asked him what he thought of Parisian youth marching to protest his fascism, Le Pen replied, "What's fascist is using street protests to dispute the result of a free election." He's right in a way. The psychologist and political analyst Ali Magoudi, who wrote a best-selling book on Le Pen's ideology, thinks the real "shock" of the elections comes when you add Le Pen's vote to that of the non-republican left. "That means at least 30 percent of the population," Magoudi says, "don't recognize themselves in the politics of the country."

The big news of the election is not any drift towards fascism but the emergence of a new hard left organized on the ruins of French Communism.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.