Le Pen's People

By Guttenplan, D. D.; Margaronis, Maria | The Nation, May 27, 2002 | Go to article overview

Le Pen's People


Guttenplan, D. D., Margaronis, Maria, The Nation


The second round of France's presidential elections was billed as "l'escroc" (the crook) versus "le facho" (the fascist). In the event, incumbent President Jacques Chirac got the kind of majority usually associated with the heads of one-party states. "As always in times of difficulty, France rallied around what is essential," said the man even many of his supporters dubbed "the Superliar" as he claimed his victory.

It was precisely the history of France's response in "times of difficulty" that led Europe to hold its collective breath on May 5. Like his reference to the Holocaust as "une detaille" and his proposal that illegal immigrants be held in "transit camps," Jean-Marie Le Pen's claim to be "socially left, economically right, and nationally French" was a deliberate echo of the fascist past--in this case the pre-war fascist slogan "Neither left nor right--French!" The evident relief in the faces of the African and North African immigrants on the streets of Paris as the scale of Le Pen's defeat became apparent was a reminder of just how high the stakes had been. But Le Pen polled nearly 6 million votes--300,000 more than the total for both far-right parties in the first round--despite being condemned by a pantheon of national heroes, from Charles Aznavour to Zinedine Zidane.

Not exactly cause for celebration. Instead, some sobering reflections. First, that history matters. A great deal of attention has been paid to Le Pen's anti-immigrant, anti-European Union rhetoric. Other far-right parties, singing from the same hymnal, have made recent gains all across Europe. But Le Pen also can claim the mantle of a tradition with very deep roots in French soil, embracing the clerical absolutism of Action francaise, the anti-Semitism of Vichy collaborators like Robert Brasillach and the provincial bitterness of Pierre Poujade. (Perhaps the oddest moment in the whole campaign was when Le Pen, who got his start in politics in Poujade's 1956 shopkeepers' revolt, found himself disowned by his former mentor.) France is not the only country where nostalgia for fascism has crawled out from under its stone. The right wing of Silvio Berlusconi's government in Italy carries a torch for Mussolini; the leader of the British National Party, which won three seats in local elections recently, decorates his office with German flags. …

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