Jean-Marie Le Pen

26 April 2002

 Jean-Marie Le Pen

By Gwynne Dyer

‘A terrifying cataclysm,” said the French finance minister, Laurent Fabius. “A thunderbolt,” said Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, announcing that he was retiring from politics. “Ashamed to be French,” read the banner unfurled by one disgusted voter. What was it that prompted this hysterical response?

It was the fact that Jean-Marie Le Pen, a far-right, anti-Semitic, racist candidate peddling a toxic brew of anti-immigrant invective and nostalgia for an authoritarian past, finished second in the first-round vote for the French presidency last Sunday evening. The Socialist presidential candidate and incumbent prime minister, Lionel Jospin, was knocked out of the race, and it will be Le Pen against President Jaques Chirac in the runoff on May 5 – “SuperFascist against SuperLiar,” as the Paris daily Liberation put it.

But so what? Telephone surveys suggest that Chirac will beat Le Pen in round two by the greatest landslide ever, as much as 80-20 percent. In the first round, where not one of the 16 candidates polled even 20 percent of the vote, Le Pen slipped past the uninspiring Jospin by less than one percentage point to cop second place, but the extreme right-wing vote has not actually grown.

Le Pen got 4.8 million votes, almost exactly the same as in 1995, though a lower turnout swelled his share of votes cast from 15 to 17 percent. The voters dislike both the mainstream candidates, Chirac and Jospin, and many decided to send them a message by voting for candidates of the romantic left or the hard right, or just abstaining in the first round, before returning to serious politics and voting responsibly in the runoff.

The voters got it wrong, but it was a very small cataclysm: The French are not going fascist. But just how racist is France if around one-fifth of the voters can bring themselves to vote for Le Pen? Indeed, how racist is Europe, where the last few years have seen far-right candidates winning places in coalition governments from Norway to Italy?

In a continent that only 50 years ago was over 99 percent white, “race” and immigration are essentially the same issue. The proportion of relatively recent non-European immigrants and their children now runs between 5 and 10 percent of the population in most European countries, so immigration has become a hot-button issue for those who share Le Pen’s apocalyptic view that “we risk being submerged.”

There used to be an unwritten understanding among mainstream parties in Europe to exclude fascists and racists from their coalitions, but recently that understanding has broken down in a number of countries. It fractured most spectacularly in Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing Forza Italia party swept to power last June in coalition with the anti-foreigner Northern League and the “post-fascist” National Alliance.

In October, a government propped up by the far-right Progress Party took power in Norway. The same thing happened in Denmark in November, with the ultra-right Danish People’s Party entering government, and again in Portugal last month with the inclusion of the ferociously anti-immigrant Popular Party in the government. It may happen next month in the Netherlands.

But despite what is certainly an anti-immigrant backlash in some countries at the moment, the larger picture is not discouraging. The farther east you go in Europe, the more overt the racism gets, but that’s because under the Communists people had virtually no experience of immigrants until a dozen years ago. In some small, very homogeneous countries such as Austria and Norway, even the slightest shift in perceptions of who “we” are causes a major collective psychological crisis. But in the bigger countries such as Britain, France and Germany, the situation is generally not bad at all.

There are ugly exceptions like the northern English mill towns where uneducated Pakistani immigrants and the old white working class were left to rot together when the mills closed down. In France, disgruntled whites in declining industrial towns, and in depressed rural areas where jobless North African ex-farm workers live in misery, have been the main source of Le Pen’s vote for decades. Former East Germans blame “foreigners” and “immigrants” for all their post-unification hardships.

But the more important truth is that in the big cities where most Europeans live, race relations, especially among the young, are actually pretty good. The neighborhoods aren’t segregated, and young people intermarry without a second thought.

Four out of five French citizens will vote against Le Pen in the May 5 runoff – even though half of them will have to hold their noses to vote for Chirac instead. What the first round showed was that the French are mighty fed up with the same smug and mediocre set of politicians.