The Magazine

Liberte, Egalite, Judeophobie

Why Le Pen is the least of France's problems.

May 6, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 33 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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The atmosphere of the first round of France's presidential election was captured by candidate Francois Bayrou's visit to Strasbourg on April 9. Bayrou, who represents Valery Giscard d'Estaing's center-right Union of French Democracy (UDF), was scheduled to visit a new mayoral sub-office on Strasbourg's outskirts with the city's elegant, Berkeley-educated UDF mayor, Fabienne Keller. Bayrou got hung up campaigning in another city. While Keller waited for him, she was surrounded by a mob of jeunes des banlieues--or "suburban youth." This is the euphemism the French use for residents of the crime-infested ring of high-rise housing projects (HLMs) that were built on the outskirts of all French cities in the 1960s and '70s.

The "youth," all of them beurs, or Muslims of North African descent, were staging an orchestrated protest against Bayrou, who as education minister in the mid-1990s had opposed letting Muslim girls wear the hijab, the Muslim headscarf, to public schools. But Keller was a convenient stand-in. They shouted insults and obscenities at her, one of them threatening (according to an account I was too embarrassed to ask the mayor to confirm specifically when I interviewed her days later) to take a razor to her private parts. When Bayrou arrived, the two went inside for meetings, and the crowd began to pelt the new building with stones, and howl what was really on their minds. First, "Why did you ban the headscarf!" And second, "F-- off! We don't want to live anymore in a country that has Jews in it!"

Bayrou emerged from the building while the stones were still flying and told the mob, "Talk about Jews that way today, and you may find people talking about young Muslims the same way tomorrow." At some point during Bayrou's visit, an 11-year-old boy jostled up against him and tried to pick his pocket. Bayrou, heedless that the cameras were running, slapped the kid in the face.

Politicians of the left tried to make hay of the incident, using it to paint Bayrou as some kind of fogey, and themselves as hip to the country's new and "vibrant" youth culture. "Heck, I live in the suburbs, and no one's ever tried to pick my pockets," said Communist party presidential candidate Robert Hue. "Me neither," added Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, also running for president. The French public didn't see it that way. The more the Bayrou slap played on national television, the higher Bayrou's poll numbers rose--as he was seen as willing to support an assertion of authority against the country's lawless youths. He emerged from deep in the pack of 16 presidential candidates to finish a respectable fourth place, just behind Lionel Jospin. To the extent that he mentioned crime at all (and he never did, preferring the euphemism insecurite), Jospin evinced a la-di-da attitude that dropped him to third place and ended his political career.

As French students by the hundreds of thousands stage protest marches across the country, pretty much the entire world knows the result of the first round of the French election. Jacques Chirac, the conservative sitting president, goes into a runoff on May 5 against not Jospin but Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the country's fascistic National Front. Le Pen has built his career mimicking the oratory of the rightists who collaborated with Nazi Germany in World War II. He has been a consistent foe of immigration and a practitioner of nudge-nudge, wink-wink cracks against Jews. In the past decade he has added rage against America and the global economy to his oratorical repertory. He is a goon and a gangster, but he had little need to raise divisive issues in the first round. France now has 4,244 crimes per 100,000 residents annually, according to European Union statistics, making it a higher-crime society than even the long-belittled United States. During a week when the top story on tabloid TV was the bloody beating of an 80-year-old man in sleepy Orleans by a gang of beurs who had invaded his house, Le Pen focused, as did Chirac, on the dramatic upsurge in violence over the past decade.

But while crime was what brought voters to the polls, France has an even more ominous problem: a wave of attacks and threats against the country's 700,000 Jews that is unprecedented in the last half century of European history. It includes what Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center describes as "the largest onslaught against European synagogues and Jewish schools since Kristallnacht" in 1938. What is surprising and confusing in all of this is that the "new anti-Semitism" in France is a phenomenon of the left. It has practically nothing to do with Le Pen. In fact, its most dangerous practitioners are to be found among the very crowds thronging the streets to protest him.