The Magazine

Le Pen Is Mightier

Why, just four years after its supposed demise, does France’s National Front have its highest poll ratings ever?

Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Sarkozy nonetheless finds himself in a bad political position, from which his formidable skills as a campaigner may be insufficient to extricate him. The financial crisis has eaten up much of his energy. But in a funny way, he may have been imprisoned by the brilliance of his 2007 campaign. The economist Henri Guaino, Sarkozy’s most important adviser, created a stirring Gaullist narrative for Sarkozy full of references to la France éternelle, Mont Saint-Michel, the genius of French poetry, that sort of thing. Sarkozy promised a “rupture” with the way his predecessors had done things. Swing voters put two and two together. They understood Sarkozy to mean that France had been allowed to drift away from what was essentially French about it, into something global, multicultural, undifferentiated—and that a Sarkozy presidency would mean a restoration of an older kind of Frenchness. Sarkozy created a yearning for rupture, but, for all his programmatic tinkering, no rupture happened. 

Maybe the biggest cultural event in France over the past year has been the success of the film Of Gods and Men, the story of seven Trappist monks kidnapped and beheaded in Algeria in 1996. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) claimed responsibility for the killings. Much as the American movie Juno (2007) was discussed for its attitudes towards abortion, even though it is not really about that, Of Gods and Men is a movie about Christian teachings on peace that has provoked a lot of anxiety about Islam. Such anxiety has been brewing for a while. In the rue Myrha in Paris’s 18th arrondissement, hundreds of Muslims fill the street every Friday afternoon for prayers. The practice is unpopular among local residents, it is much discussed on YouTube, and Marine Le Pen has capitalized on it. “Those who pray in a public thoroughfare are acting like an occupying power,” she said in Lyon in December. 

But Sarkozy has been wrong-footed by it. You can make the case—many do—that Muslims are praying in the street because they don’t have mosques, and that the French government should do its part to make sure they are able to build them. So Sarkozy has called for a “debate on Islam.” But this has not satisfied his voters. I attended a magazine editorial board meeting in Paris in February and found the editors in agreement that such a debate would do Sarkozy no good. “The only place this ‘debate’ can wind up is with platitudes like ‘Ninety-nine percent of our Muslim fellow-citizens are good Frenchmen,’ and so on,” said one of the editors present. “It cannot wind up making contact with anything real.”

This is not to say that Sarkozy’s attitude towards immigration and assimilation has been too “soft.” His problems lie just as much in the other direction. Sarkozy’s model of race (or ethnic) relations bears an uncanny resemblance to the carrot-and-stick mix of harsh punishments and easy promotion on which Richard Nixon built his own approach around 1970. Sarkozy has sought to promote the offspring of immigrants to cabinet and sub-cabinet positions, angering a lot of loyalists who were passed over. But he has also placed an unprecedented emphasis on law and order. Last July he spoke in Grenoble after two episodes of ethnic violence. The city had just seen three nights of battles between police and rioters in the neighborhood of Villeneuve, and that came on the heels of an attack on the police station in St-Aignan by 50 Roms, or gypsies, armed with axes. 

Sarkozy gave a speech that leapt way beyond the usual boundaries of tough-on-crime rhetoric. “We are suffering the consequences of 50 years of immigration, insufficiently regulated, that have led to a failure of assimilation,” he said. He urged the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences of unheard-of severity—30 years for serious attacks on police. And he called for stripping French citizenship from any newly naturalized citizen convicted of such a crime. Sarkozy’s critics on the left quickly pointed out that denationalizations had not been carried out since the dark days of the middle of the last century. It was the sort of policy which the National Front has repeatedly been accused of secretly favoring, and here Sarkozy was espousing it openly. While Sarkozy’s Grenoble talk may have pleased some voters, it surely left others wondering why there was a taboo on voting FN in the first place.

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