Jean-Marie Le Pen was late, as he often is. But it was not his fault, he explained to the capacity audience who had paid 40 francs each to hear him in a huge, cheerless exhibition hall outside Toulouse. His plane had been delayed and the pilot – ‘a good Frenchman’ – had told him it was because air traffic control for France was run from a centre at Maastricht. That was what you got, Le Pen thought, when you handed control of your skies to Eurocrats. At Maastricht, he had learned from the pilot, the French air traffic controllers had been chased from their jobs by the Dutch, the Germans and the British, who were now holding up French planes to give their own national airlines an unfair advantage. It was another anti-French plot, and it explained why the hero of the National Front, the defender of the purity of France, the burly rabble-rouser who holds audiences spellbound as he speaks without notes for two hours or more, had kept the good people of the South-West waiting to hear him this spring evening.
The Far Right everywhere thrives on fear and nobody is better at whipping it up than Le Pen. Over the last 12 years his political career has been based on real and imagined terror. In the housing estates outside big cities it is the fear of hordes of lawless immigrants on the doorstep; in areas where there are few black or brown faces, it is fear of the unknown, fed by tales from the ghettos. That fear has turned the National Front from a fringe movement at the start of the Eighties into France’s fourth strongest political grouping.
There is still an understandable but mistaken tendency among his opponents and some commentators to try to ignore Le Pen in the hope that he and his party will disappear, but he’s scarcely a flash in the pan. He was first elected to Parliament for the Far Right in 1956, only to resign his seat to join the paratroopers in Suez and Algeria. Gaullism was bad for him and the first stage of his renaissance in the Eighties could be put down to disenchantment with the Socialists and the transfer of urban protest votes from the declining Communists. Then, in 1988, after two years of Jacques Chirac as prime minister, Le Pen won 14.4 per cent in the Presidential election. Four years later, the Front scored 13.9 per cent in regional elections followed by 12.7 per cent in the 1993 legislative election. Against the warnings of the whole of France’s political establishment, Le Pen got 15 per cent of the vote in the first round of the Presidential elections last April. Yet when the Front went on to win control of three sizeable towns in municipal elections in June and saw one of its friends become mayor of Nice, the political editor of Le Monde could still argue that ‘when it is forced to operate in the full light of day, it fails.’
The desire to write off Le Pen as a passing protest figure is so strong that the Front’s failure to win three other towns where it was well placed in the municipal elections was greeted yet again as a sign that his star was waning. The page one headline in the Times read: ‘Voters turn their backs on Le Pen.’ In fact, the Front failed to turn its strong scores in the first round of voting into victory in the second mainly because the orthodox Right and Left linked up behind common candidates to stop it. It is a dramatic assertion of power for the Front to bring about an alliance between political enemies; it also appears to justify Le Pen’s jibe that, whatever their party labels, all France’s other politicians are wishy-washy social democrats of the same ineffective and corrupt stripe.
It is true that local rivalries in the mainstream Right opened the door to the Front to win power in Orange, Toulon and Marignane, near Marseilles; but given the unnatural alliances among the Front’s opponents elsewhere and the fact that the Left won control of 23 towns and cities in the elections on a minority vote, it is pigheaded to insist that the Front’s showing is somehow different from that of other parties, or that because of its authoritarian beliefs, the movement’s scores at the voting booths are not quite democratic.
There is something here of the way the Nazis were dismissed in the Twenties, just as there is something of appeasement about mainstream right-wingers who believe that the only way of clawing back votes from Le Pen is to form loose alliances with the Front on a local level. The Party has been extremely fortunate in the reactions it has drawn from opponents, whether they’re those of an eminent university professor from Aix-en-Provence who forbids his students to use the word ‘immigration’ or those of the former President of the Republic who thought that doctoring the electoral system in the Front’s favour with a dose of proportional representation would be a clever way of weakening his political opponents – a striking piece of cynicism, even for Mitterrand.
The Presidential ballot was an extraordinary result for Le Pen. On 23 April, smartly suited and beaming, he walked from a polling station behind the Eiffel Tower to a nearby café in the 15th arrondissement. After a round of handshakes and bear hugs, he drank a coffee and stepped out into the sunshine where his black car with tinted windows was waiting with a police escort. Further handshakes, a huge grin and a confident forecast. ‘We’re going to score well.’ But when he got the first predictions of the result that night in his large white villa on a hill outside Paris, Le Pen cursed. His 15 per cent had put him in fourth position, only three points behind Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, and far clear of the other assorted outsiders. What annoyed Le Pen was the failure of Philippe de Villiers, the anti-Europe, family-values nobleman from the Vendée, to heed his advice and withdraw his candidacy. Had he done so, Le Pen might have finished neck-and-neck with Jacques Chirac.
There is of course no way of telling how many of the de Villiers voters would have backed Le Pen. They tended to be older and more sophisticated than the average Front supporters, so he might only have picked up a couple of percentage points, but that would have brought him level with Balladur, which would have been the sensation of the election. As it was, the voting pattern showed how deeply Le Pen had upset conventional French politics. He took more than 18 per cent of the vote in a third of France’s metropolitan departments. Scoring strongly in his stamping ground of the South, with its high immigrant concentrations and its Algérie Française heritage, he also made significant inroads round Lyon and in the traditionally left-wing industrial areas of the North and the borderlands with Germany.
Ever since he began to draw away the Communist protest vote in the early Eighties, Le Pen’s appeal has been wider than those who classify him as a born-again stormtrooper like to admit. Arlette Laguiller, the perennial Trotskyite presidential candidate, simply refuses to acknowledge that any member of the proletariat could ever vote for the National Front. According to research by the Sofres polling organisation, however, Le Pen got 30 per cent of industrial working-class votes this spring, compared to 21 per cent for the socialist Lionel Jospin, 19 per cent for Chirac and 8 per cent for the Communist Robert Hue. Ten years ago, on the same measure, the Front received 8 per cent of working-class support. Only 30 per cent of Le Pen’s voters see themselves as belonging to the Far Right. Another 23 say simply that they are of the Right, while 29 per cent believe they belong to the centre and 18 per cent that they are from the Left or Far Left. Polling surveys suggest that 20 per cent of those who backed Le Pen in the first round switched to Jospin in the run-off with Chirac.
The municipal elections last month confirmed that the Front has evolved to the point at which some of its leaders talk of it becoming the French equivalent of Italy’s neo-fascist party. Le Pen still dominates but the movement is no longer the one-man band that it was in the Eighties. In the past, the leader’s commanding presence at the head of his troops was invoked as another reason why the Front did not have to be taken all that seriously. Le Pen was the Front and the Front was Le Pen, whether he was standing to attention with his chest puffed out in front of a statue of Joan of Arc or hectoring television journalists who dared to mention the violent behaviour of his followers. He was in his sixties and would not live for ever. When he went, the movement would wither into insignificance.
In the last few years, however, new figures have come to the fore. They have been careful not to challenge Le Pen and instead have created the appearance of something like a traditional party apparatus. Bruno Mégret, the Party theoretician and Le Pen’s second-in-command, has emerged as an intense, waspish spokesman whose smallness and piercing gaze have led to comparisons with Goebbels. Carl Lang, the Party’s main organiser, is a highly efficient political manager. Its three mayors in the South now have stages on which to show what the Front can do about its bugbears: immigration, crime, bad government and corruption. They may fall flat on their faces. Jacques Bompard, the new Mayor of Orange, hardly inspired confidence when he proclaimed that the country has gone back to the Middle Ages and so his citizens must be protected in medieval ways – with barriers around the town which could be raised or lowered at the touch of a button in his office. Laurent Fabius, the former prime minister, proposed an immediate sports and cultural boycott of Front-run towns, but this idea has won little support and drew a typical burst of invective from Le Pen.
The most interesting example of the way the Front operates in power is likely to be in Toulon, France’s 13th largest city, where Jean-Marie Le Chevallier, the new mayor, inherits a municipality whose run-down economy, clan politics and social tensions are typical of the Mediterranean belt. He has been a friend of the Front since 1976, when he put up the Le Pen family for three months after their flat had been blown up. But there are signs that he is keen to strike a more reasonable note than his leader and look for support beyond the Front’s sectarian borders. He is stressing the law and order themes and plans to bring back gendarmes on bicycles, to patrol the streets in pairs.
Drawing on an estimated 70,000 party workers on the ground and a network of professional organisations, the Front has increasingly been able to translate Le Pen’s charisma into votes in elections where he is not standing. Eighty per cent of those who backed him in the Presidential elections are thought to have voted for Front candidates in the municipal elections.
From abroad it is easy to wonder why it matters that the Front has around a thousand municipal councillors – three times as many as before the June elections – and now runs three southern towns. But local politics in France, with its regional power bases and big city mayors, are important in a way unknown in England since the beginning of this century. They were a vital factor in the former strength of the Communist Party and they are the most fertile ground for the Front’s national agenda. Since June, it has found a new watchword: ‘préférence nationale’. What this means, quite simply, is putting the French first. A town like Orange cannot actually expel immigrants but Front mayors will do their damndest to make sure that Arabs and Africans go to the back of the queue when it comes to housing, education or municipal services. The policy is illegal. However, once again, Le Pen has put his opponents in an embarrassing position. There may be endless legal wrangles ahead, but is the Minister of the Interior going to order the police in Toulon to arrest the mayor for housing unemployed French dock workers rather than North Africans? How, asks the Front, can anybody object to the native French being given preference over illegal immigrants? At a stroke, it has cast all immigrants as frontier-hoppers – this in addition to their being welfare scroungers who terrorise their decent, pale-skinned neighbours, who bring in their second cousins to live the life of Riley at the taxpayer’s expense, who undermine the education system with their ignorant, unruly children and who, particularly if they are young, are responsible for crime and insecurity.
Le Pen has little need to call on the long tradition of authoritarian right-wing thought in France, although he is much better read than his truculent public persona might suggest. But echoes of a past that France thought it had put behind it can be heard from time to time, giving comfort to those whose racism stretches back to another era. During the presidential campaign, Le Pen made a point of denouncing ‘cosmopolitan’ agents who were conspiring against France. Back in the Eighties he complained with ironic amazement that France had come to a pretty pass when he could no longer attack Simone Veil, the Minister of Health, because she was a woman, because she was ugly – and because she was Jewish.
But his is not a nostalgic movement, despite the mementos of North African settler culture on sale at his meetings or his habit of suddenly stopping his restless pacing of the platform to praise the millions of French soldiers whose deaths in defence of ‘la Patrie’ have been betrayed by ministers who have allowed the European Union and Gatt to destroy France’s national identity. There is enough in contemporary France to preoccupy him without delving back to the anti-Republican thinkers of the Third Republic. Abroad, there will always be an anti-French conspiracy to expose, while at home, the crop of political funding scandals on the Left and Right, but not in the Front, has been much to his advantage. A recent housing scandal in Paris involving cut-price accommodation for the rich, starting with Chirac and Alain Juppé, the Prime Minister, has done him no harm. Two-thirds of the French, according to the polls, believe their politicians are corrupt – a grubby state of affairs, of which Le Pen is sure to make the most. During the Presidential race, his campaign team placed a little present on every seat at the venues for his rallies – a bar of soap with a wrapper proclaiming: ‘Head high and clean hands. Le Pen, the big wash.’