The anticipation ends as the theme from the movie Christopher Columbus suddenly swells, signalling that Jean-Marie Le Pen is here at last, propelled into the faithful by a fist of bodyguards. As 1,500 National Front supporters in the Bordeaux convention centre rise to
roar approval, their leader tucks his head down with “aw shucks” humility, then shrugs, surrenders to their affection, and gives them the famous Le Pen arms-thrust-skyward pump. The French will elect a new parliament beginning on Sunday, May 25, and Le Pen’s obvious love for the rough and rumble of campaigning stands out from the technocratic cool of other party leaders. Onstage, he is part politician, part stand-up comic, with a repertoire that includes mocking impersonations of his enemies. His message, however, has remained unchanged for two decades: the National Front will rid France of immigrants, homosexuals, abortionists and the
“rotten” political establishment—in no particular order.
This is not some gathering of thugs in a prewar German beer cellar. The modern convention hall in the sunny
southwestern city of Bordeaux is filled with men and women, soberly dressed, most of them middle-aged or older but some young couples with children, too. “We used to be afraid of what our friends would think of us if they knew we supported Le Pen,” says car salesman Patrick Duval, 27, standing at the back of the hall. “But France’s problems got worse. And now, each of us hears Le Pen speaking to us about our own problems.” It takes Le Pen over an hour and a half to cover those troubles: political corruption, pedophilia (“the result of triumphant homosexuality”), the evils of a federal Europe (“the more Europe, the more unemployment”), and the perils of global trading rules that, among other things, are now forcing the French to accept imports of hormone-spiked beef from America. “Do we really want our women to have moustaches?” Le Pen asks, and the crowd laughs and screams “No.”
What ails France in 1997 has far deeper causes, of course. But Le Pen has a touch for putting problems and solutions in simplistic language. He gets a hearing in a country where unemployment is
stuck at almost 13 per cent and people talk about the national “crisis” the way Canadians complain about the weather. Furthermore, government plans to slash spending in order to meet European Union criteria for the coming single currency have provoked street protests and wildcat strikes, calling into question the ability of any government to reform France’s sclerotic economic system. President Jacques Chirac called this election 10 months earlier than required, hoping to jump-start the reform process. He wanted to give the coalition of right-wing parties, which already controlled the National Assembly, the breathing space of another five-year term to stiffen their spines (the president himself does not face an election until 2002). A “new élan” was what Chirac said he was seeking.
Instead, he got trouble. Support for the right-wing parties sank as soon as the campaign began. For a few days, polls even showed that the left-wing coalition, led by the Socialist party but including their unrepentant and quarrelsome Communist partners, might squeak back into power. Chirac sniffed the souring political winds and unhitched himself from Alain Juppé, his deeply unpopular prime minister who now seems unlikely to keep his job—whatever the election outcome. Chirac floated above the campaign wreckage, choosing to be seen hanging out with the Armani film festival crowd on the beach at Cannes, then in a Beijing armchair discussing matters of state with China’s leaders.
Last week’s polls did show the right recovering slightly. They are now expected to hold on to power by a slim margin, largely because the nearly 15 per cent of voters backing the National Front should come to the conservatives’ aid in the second runoff round of voting on June 1 once their own candidates are eliminated in the first round
on May 25. There was never much excitement for the left anyway. The scandals and economic strains of the François Mitterrand era still burden the Socialists, and are rekindled almost weekly with new post-mortem revelations about the late president’s private life (the latest bombshell came from his astrologer, who says Mitterrand secretly consulted her for five years about state business).
Nor do the Socialists seem to have much in the way of realistic solutions to France’s ills. After Tony Blair’s smashing victory in Britain this month, Socialist Leader Lionel Jospin tried to slipstream behind the Labour Party leader’s comet. In an essay called ‘Tony Blair and Us,” Jospin wrote that French Socialists were, like Labour, a modern left-wing party. In fact, Blair’s new Labour Party has challenged the unions with more nerve and brio than the French right has ever mustered. And as Jospin’s poll numbers rose, his program came under scrutiny. “Credible?” asked the newsweekly Le Point over a picture of the grey Socialist leader. After examining such policies as a plan to create jobs by shortening the work week to 35 hours from 39—without any cut in pay—most economists thought the answer was: hardly.
But the close election shows how difficult it will be for any government to maintain the political courage needed to proceed with unpopular economic reforms. The essential fault line in French politics remains ideological. On one side are those who believe in maintaining the state’s influential role in the economy, which has given the French generous pension and welfare systems as well as huge state-owned companies. On the other are the so-called liberals like Juppé who want to cut public spending, privatize the state’s biggest money-bleeders and loosen rigid employment rules to encourage businesses to create more jobs. But those plans have provoked fury in a country where many people regard such American-style economic orthodoxy as alien and unwanted. “Our social security is part of our culture, and French people are not ready to give that up,” says Mathieu Moulinier, 18, an economics student at the same Bordeaux secondary school where Juppé studied briefly in the early 1960s. “And we will defend our interests in the streets.”
The streets are where much of French politics is played out these days. Interest in the election is low, but it is always easy to round up enough bodies for a demonstration. Because Juppé is also the mayor of Bordeaux, the city sees a good deal of the unrest: strawberry farmers dumping berries on the town-hall steps, doctors paralyzing the city centre over plans to limit their billings. France has become a place where the reformers are in office, and those resistant to change—the multitude of special interests—are in the streets.
The French do seem to have one common worry: what they see as France’s falling place in the world. Washington’s current assertion of its diplomatic muscle in Zaire, which the French consider to be part of their sphere of influence, has been watched by the political class with horror. There are continuing worries that French cultural industries, from film to food, are stagnating. “French films don’t like to tell cruel truths,” actor and national icon Sophie Marceau said when she left France to make films like Braveheart in Hollywood. “They follow a basic formula: husband sleeps with Jeanne because Bernadette cuckolded him by sleeping with Christophe, and in the end they all go off to a restaurant. How many times can you act in that kind of film?” And even Europe, once regarded as a possible counterweight to American dominance, is now regarded with more suspicion than longing. “The European single market was sold as a paradise, where everyone would be rich and happy and nobody would be unemployed,” says Maurice Levy, chairman of Publicis, France’s largest advertising agency. “Now, Europe is the mother of all the pain, of all our difficulties.”
Few hate Europe with the passion of Le Pen. Sauntering across the stage in Bordeaux last week, he got more worked up about France becoming submerged in a federal Europe than he did about all the North African immigrants filling French cities. It was a federation that was to blame for the American Civil War, he told his rapt audience, which “then laid the way for the terrible wars and millions of deaths in the world wars this century.” In a united Europe, he said, “foreign wars will just become civil wars, and experience shows us that these are the most awful of all.” Remember, Le Pen said, almost out of breath now as applause rose in the hall, “it is only us who know who we are.” But the French remain many different people politically. And there is no sign of consensus on the way ahead. □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.