The hour’s exposure on prime-time television would have been a prize for a politician of any stripe. But for Jean-Marie Le Pen, the blustering leader of France’s National Front, the guest spot on L'heure de vérité (the hour of truth)—a public affairs show that has featured such illustrious names as President François Mitter-rand—was a coup of far greater significance. With that controversial invitation last month, the country’s second TV channel officially conferred an award of respectability on a street-brawling, former Foreign Legion paratrooper who has spent most of the past 30 years on the fringes of French politics. Indeed, the media, in a flurry of recent headlines, has recognized in Le Pen the country’s newest and most unsettling political phenomenon: the emergence of an extreme right wing that is playing on nationalist and racist fears to become the fastest-growing force in France.
The rise of the National Front began slightly more than a year ago. During France’s 1983 municipal elections sympathizers of the extreme right wing
tweaked the nerve ends of racial discord in an attempt to make the 4.2 to six million immigrants into scapegoats for the economic crisis. Le Pen jabbed that inflammatory nerve in Paris’s 20th arrondissement, a working-class neighborhood populated increasingly by North Africans, and won 11.3 per cent of the vote. That score was all the more startling because the National Front had never polled higher than three per cent in two decades. Most disturbing of all, the strong showing came in response to his provocative rallying cry: “Two million unemployed equals two million immigrants. France for the French.” Now, after three more substantial byelection displays of strength in the past six months, Le Pen’s followers have wielded that slogan—and others, not nearly so genteel—to prove that his strength is not an isolated local phenomenon.
Le Pen claims that the National Front has doubled its membership in less than two years to 20,000. At a January congress of the party’s governing board in Lyons, he attracted k record 1,500 supporters who cheered Le Pen’s denunciations of immigrant workers, Communist cabinet ministers, proabortionists and general moral laxity. At the same time, according to a Sofres agency poll published in the right-wing Figaro Magazine, 12 per cent of French
people want Le Pen to play a more active role on the national political stage. Added Jerôme Jaffre, director of political studies for Sofres:
“The renaissance of the extreme right wing is one of the major political events in France since the Socialists took power in May, 1981.”
For Le Pen, 55, the burly blond son of a Breton fisherman, his growing popularity is providing him for the first time with a measure of the legitimacy he has craved ever since he enlisted in the Foreign Legion to fight for France in Indochina more than 30 years ago.
Then in 1956, after a chance meeting with right-wing politician Pierre Poujade, he joined the shortlived conservative Poujadist revolt of small-businessmen against the Socialist government of the day and became the youngest-ever deputy elected to the National Assembly. But the assembly twice revoked his parliamentary immunity because of his rhetorical excesses
and street fights. In one election brawl with a North African, he lost the sight in his left eye.
While in office Le Pen volunteered for the Algerian War, where the Algerian police charged him with using electric-shock torture on a young Algerian. That bloody, divisive war—President
Charles de Gaulle’s unsuccessful bid to keep Algeria under French control-represented the last major show of force of the French extreme right. Le Pen remained on the shadowy margins of France’s political life until 1972 when he founded the National Front.
Le Pen began retailoring his image in a quest for respectability only after Hubert Lambert, an eccentric millionaire, in his 1976 will left the former paratrooper his fortune and a château
overlooking Paris. Le
Pen now wears monogrammed shirts, a glass eye has replaced his black patch, and he has
traded his fistic approach for a slick, thun-
dering rhetoric. He denies that he is anti-Semitic. But he hits out at antiracist laws with thinly veiled slurs: “I do not see why Jews should have superior protection than other Frenchmen,” he declared. Le Pen no longer openly attacks Arabs or blacks, but he opposes what he calls “Islamo-Arab hege-
mony.” Still, he allows his followers to make more specific slurs in the name of freedom of speech. When a National Front candidate warned in a November byelection that “Arabs will eat your soup, sleep with your wife, your daughter and even your son,” Le Pen dismissed the verbal attack as harmless machismo. Those subtle—and more open—invitations to hate have struck a dark cord in French society. Declared Le Pen: “I say out loud what other people whisper in secret.”
Le Pen has attracted a motley grab bag of France’s disaffected, young, right-to-lifers and frightened workingclass voters with his simplistic solutions for the country’s complex problems. Ironically, Mitterrand’s government, after repeatedly rejecting Le Pen’s claim that sending foreign workers home would wipe out unemployment, unwittingly fuelled it recently by offering immigrants in France’s faltering heavy industries a 40,000-franc ($6,400) bonus for returning to their countries. Some observers say that the Socialists’ arrival in power provoked right-wing hard-liners to come out of the closet. Indeed, the National Front has won a growing number of members from the conservative NeoGaullist party under Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac. Said Mireille Brion, one of the four National Front delegates to Dreux’s city council: “Chirac was too soft after the arrival of the socialoCommunists in power. In a crisis you have to be energetic.” But another Sofres study of National Front membership last month showed that many new recruits were disenchanted defectors from the Left as well: 22 per cent had voted for Mitterrand in the last presidential elections.
Indeed, the National Front has made its largest gains among the working class on whom the Socialist government depends for its support. René Rémond, a historian of the French Right, points out that Le Pen is profiting from the same wellspring of alienation that launched his onetime mentor, Poujade, in 1956: an economic crisis coupled with a fear of social change and a distrust of the classical political structures.
Rémond’s analysis offers scant comfort to the political observers who see the crisis—and the National Front’s rise—continuing. They predict that Le Pen may well succeed in gaining the 10 to 15 per cent of votes that he is aiming for in June’s European parliamentary elections. The possibility of the National Front gaining access to a wider forum is a disturbing prospect to many people at a time when the fate of Europe’s 14.6 million immigrant workers remains the continent’s most volatile human rights issue.
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