Le Pen’s ‘earthquake’

BOB LEVIN May 9 1988

Le Pen’s ‘earthquake’

BOB LEVIN May 9 1988

Le Pen’s ‘earthquake’


He once dismissed the Nazi extermination of Jews as a mere “detail” of history.

He campaigned on a platform of “Keep France French,” advocating the expulsion of all immigrant workers.

But last week, when National Front Leader Jean-Marie Le Pen called the results of the first round of France’s presidential elections a “political earthquake,” few Frenchmen appeared to disagree.

The April 24 balloting gave the archconservative Le Pen—a 59-yearold ex-paratrooper who lost his left eye as a result of a political brawl in Paris in the late 1950s—a staggering 14.4 per cent of the popular vote. That score was not enough to carry him into the final round of the election on May 8, when Socialist President François Mitterrand—the favorite—will go head to head with neo-Gaullist Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. But Le Pen’s surprise showing fragmented France’s political right wing, transforming Le Pen from a protest candidate into a formidable force. “From now on,” boasted Le Pen, “nothing can be done without the National Front, nor against its wishes.”

Le Pen’s success may not have been as far-reaching as he claimed, but it plainly altered France’s political landscape. Many Frenchmen expressed concern that it would endanger social peace and damage the nation’s image abroad—particularly because France was now the only Western European country with a burgeoning movement on the far right. In political terms, Chirac, 55, hoping to unseat the 71-year-old Mitterrand, might now feel forced to woo rightist votes on the once-scorned fringe. Le Pen declared that he would not announce an endorsement until May 1. But even if he supports Chirac, the immediate result of Le Pen’s rise may

be a division on the right that could help re-elect the Socialist Mitterrand to a fresh seven-year term.

Last week Mitterrand and Chirac duelled over an unlikely issue: how to restore calm in France’s South Pacific territory of New Caledonia, where indigenous Melanesian Kanak separatists have killed four gendarmes and were holding 22 others hostage (see box). In a heated television debate, Mitterrand accused Chirac of a policy of “brutality” toward the Kanaks, while Chirac dismissed them as “terrorists.”

The clash went beyond that—and it shattered the French consensus on fighting terrorism. Chirac also charged that, as part of a general amnesty at the start of his term in 1981, Mitterrand had released two members of France’s ultraleftist Action directe. In response, Mitterrand accused Chirac of setting free an Iranian Embassy official, Wahid Gordji, last year despite strong evidence that he was implicated in 1986 Paris bombings that killed 13 people. Gordji, who had holed up for four months at the Iranian Embassy in Paris, was allowed to leave in November after an in-

terview with a magistrate — part of an exchange with Iran for two French hostages released from captivity in Beirut. “You sent Mr. Gordji home after explaining to me in my office that the evidence against him was crushing,” Mitterrand said. Chirac denied the charge, saying that he had not interfered in judicial affairs.

For Le Pen, the strongest showing at the polls came in the south. In Marseilles, where many residents blame Arab immigrants for the nation’s 10.3-per-cent unemployment rate, he topped all candidates with 28 per cent of the vote. But á Le Pen—who won a mere 0.7 per cent of the vote when he first ran for the presidency in 1974— showed strength throughout the country, taking votes from all the major candidates. Mitterrand, who had expected to win around 37 per cent of the ballot, had to settle for 34 per cent.

The main victim, however, was Chirac. Since the right’s triumph in the 1986 parliamentary elections, he has served as prime minister in the conservatives’ uneasy “cohabitation” with Mitterrand. Experts calculated that he needed to win nearly 25 per cent of the first-round vote to stand a good chance of beating Mitterrand in the runoif. But he managed just under 20 per cent. Admitted Chirac: “I had frankly expected to do better.”

Former prime minister Raymond Barre, running on a centre-right ticket, was also disappointed, garnering just over 16 per cent. With the first-round results in, Barre threw his support to Chirac for the final round. But he warned that his electorate favored an “open society that rejects xenophobia, racism and all extremisms.” That obvious reference to Le Pen’s platform summed up the problem for Chirac: how to win over Le Pen’s followers without alienating Barre’s. Some of Le Pen’s

lieutenants suggested that their leader would extract a high price for an endorsement of Chirac. But Chirac declared that his campaign would address the National Front electorate’s “legitimate worries” without bending from his own program.

Some mainstream rightists accused Mitterrand of giving the National Front ammunition with which to divide his

traditional opposition. They pointed out that it was Mitterrand who revived the inflammatory immigration issue by suggesting that foreign workers should be granted the right to vote in local elections, setting off a far-right reaction.

During the campaign Mitterrand acknowledged that he had laid a political trap for Chirac—one which obviously succeeded.

But in the May 8 runoff vote, Mitterrand will need the votes of National Front supporters as well as centrists if he wants to continue living in the Elysée Palace. The aggregate first-round tally of leftist parties amounted to just

over 45 per cent, compared to the right’s combined 50 per cent. As a result, Mitterrand supporters reacted cautiously to Le Pen’s breakthrough. Many described the National Front advance as a protest vote that, in the

past, had gone primarily to the oncepowerful French Communist party.

Last week the Communist candidate, André Lajoinie, scraped up less than seven per cent of the vote, the party’s worst showing since the 1920s. Roland Castro, a well-known architect and Mitterrand supporter, maintained that disgruntled voters shifted from left to right as a result of the modern left’s failure to “fully get its values across to the angry, confused and frightened fringe.” Added Castro: “We must explain, explain and explain again.”

That message seemed designed to attract wayward leftists back to the fold —and there were signs that it might succeed. After the first-round vote five separate French polls indicated that even if Le Pen endorsed Chirac, 20 per cent of his supporters would switch to Mitterrand in the runoff, along with up to 16 percent of Barre’s supporters. That would add up to victory for Mitterrand. And without a strong Communist party to force him to placate the far left, he would be free to continue his shift toward the centre. Since gaining power in 1981, he has scrapped many of his leftist programs —such as nationalization of industries—and even embraced such policies as economic austerity measures.

Still, Le Pen’s rise could not easily be dismissed. After his success last week hundreds of his supporters paraded through central Paris, while opponents asked uncomfortable questions about them. “I am worried,” said centre-right Culture Minister François Léotard. “This vote reflects a mixture of fear, passion and a desire to exclude. But no one can believe that 15 per cent of France is fascist. That is simply not true.”