|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
25 April - 1 May 2002
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The Le Pen phenomenonInsecurity and the exploitation of French fears of immigration from the countries of the South lie at the root of the Le Pen phenomenon, writes David Tresilian from Paris
In what French commentators are describing as a "political earthquake," Jean-Marie Le Pen, the 74-year-old leader of France's extreme right- wing National Front (Front National, FN) Party, beat last Sunday the socialist French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to come a close second to French President Jacques Chirac in the first round of France's presidential elections.
A young man walks past the smeared election poster of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, next to an untouched campaign poster of French President Jacques Chirac and Le Pen holds a press conference, watched by an unidentified bodyguard
Chirac scored 19.88 per cent of the vote, with Le Pen coming second with 16.86 per cent and Jospin third with 16.18 per cent. Having come third, Jospin was eliminated from the second round of voting which takes place on 5 May and will pitch Chirac against Le Pen.
Immediately following the announcement -- made at 8.00pm on Sunday night -- Jospin, who has been prime minister and leader of a left-wing coalition government since 1997, announced his retirement from politics. Le Pen, meanwhile, hailed the result as a "major defeat for the two establishment leaders."
President Chirac, who now seems certain to win the next round of the voting and, therefore, a second term in the French presidency, called upon "all French citizens to come together to defend human rights, guarantee national cohesion, affirm the unity of the Republic and restore the authority of the State," before what he described as "a calling into question of our idea of France" and of the country's "role in Europe and in the world."
"Discontent and rejection can express themselves during an election, but they cannot serve as the foundations of French politics," he said. On the contrary, "France is most truly herself in fraternity and in openness to others."
Le Pen's Front National Party was founded in 1973 and achieved its last peak of electoral success in 1986, when 35 of its deputies were elected to the French parliament. In the 1990s, it mustered some 1,500 local councillors as well as political control of southern French towns such as Orange, Toulon and Vitrolles. It has never before played so important a role in national French politics, largely dominated by established parties such as Jospin's Socialist Party and Chirac's RPR (Rassemblement pour la République).
Le Pen, who had early links with right-wing paramilitary groups involved in the French colonial war in Algeria in the 1950s and the neo- fascist New Order group in the early 1970s, is known for his racist and xenophobic views.
Describing his politics, the French newspaper Le Monde commented that Le Pen "has been able to construct a political discourse that furnishes a response to multiple insecurities. The insecurity resulting from the threat of unemployment, along with that of the working class and of small business, is put together with a fear of delinquency in a single diagnosis for social ills that has a common cause (globalisation) and a simple remedy: send back the immigrants."
Front National election material was marked by slogans such as "La France aux français" (France for the French) and "français d'abord" (French first). Le Pen has made no secret of his desire to "send back the immigrants," by which he has meant chiefly non-white immigrants from former French colonies in Arab North Africa and in sub-Saharan Africa, whom he has accused of being responsible for France's social problems.
France has the largest population of Arab origin of any country in Europe, the majority of which comes from the Arab Maghreb countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. This population has been disproportionately affected by the unemployment and poverty of recent years, and many immigrant families live in poor conditions in crime-ridden suburbs outside the major French cities.
All the opinion polls taken before voting began -- in the course of a lacklustre campaign that was dominated by the twin issues of rising crime and worries over security -- predicted that Jospin would go through to the second round against President Chirac. The two men are old political adversaries who competed in France's last presidential elections in 1995.
Following the upset's announcement, spontaneous demonstrations against Le Pen and the Front National broke out across France and continued over the following days. In Paris, 30,000 people demonstrated against the Front National on Sunday night, protesting against the "nightmare" and "disaster" that Le Pen's success represents. Similar demonstrations took place in the French towns of Bordeaux, Toulouse, Rennes, Rouen, Nantes and Montpellier.
In explaining Le Pen's success, French political commentators have stressed the high rate of abstention in the elections which, at almost 30 per cent of the electorate, is the highest ever recorded for a French presidential election. Neither Chirac nor Jospin presided over a charismatic campaign and the presence of 16 other candidates -- amongst which there were several leftist candidates -- led to the dilution of the leftist vote.
Similarly, commentators have argued that the Left's "identity crisis" and the fact that the campaign was largely fought on issues such as personal security and crime meant that there was little enthusiasm for Jospin, whose generally good record in government largely went unpromoted in his campaign.
Le Pen, on the other hand, exploited worries about rising crime, especially juvenile criminality, to attract voters to his message which stresses the need for greater law and order. The resulting effect was boosted by the Front National's efforts to present itself as a "respectable," non-extremist political party.
According to an editorial in Le Monde, Le Pen's success in France, like that of other extreme European right-wing parties such as "the FPO in Austria, the Vlaams Blok in Belgium, the Northern League in Italy, the People's Party in Denmark, the Party of Truth and Life in Hungary, the Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands" can be explained in terms of "the powerlessness of the nation state in the face of the redistribution of power to European institutions, of economic and financial globalisation and of a common perception of a rise in criminality."
However, the newspaper continued, the "common thread" that joins all such parties and which lies at the foundation of Le Pen's politics is "immigration... from the South, which is forcing the welfare state to be rethought, threatens the cohesion of certain communities and is the vehicle for all manner of fears and fantasies."
It is this fear that, according to commentators, lies at the root of the Front National's electoral success, as it does in the case of extreme-right parties elsewhere in Europe.
The press in France has been virtually united in rejecting Le Pen and what he represents. "France has been wounded, and, for a number of French people, humiliated, by this result", Le Monde commented on its front page on Monday.
French anti-racist groups such as SOS Racisme are mobilising in the campaign against the Front National in May's run-off elections, and, with Socialist Party leaders urging their supporters to forget political differences and vote for President Chirac, a further seven-year term in the Elysée Palace now seems certain for the RPR leader .
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