Outside of France, Jean-Marie Le Pen is probably best-known for a single phrase. The Nazi gas chambers, he once said, were “a detail of history.” Shocking though that was, don’t be misled by it. Monsieur Le Pen’s surprise success in the first round of the French presidential elections on Sunday—he defeated the prime minister, Lionel Jospin, and came a close second to the sitting president, Jacques Chirac—had very little to do with anybody’s sympathy for Hitler. And although “racist” is a word correctly applied both to Le Pen and to his party, the National Front, I don’t believe Le Pen’s receipt of 17 percent of the vote means that the French have suddenly become more racist than anybody else, either. This wasn’t an election about racism, exactly—but it was an election about taboos.
To be precise, there are two large taboos in French public life. The taboos are immigration and the creeping economic and political power of “Europe,” meaning the European Union. Because both of these issues touch on the question of national identity—what does it mean, nowadays, to be French?—they are issues that make many people nervous. At the same time, no mainstream politician wants to address them: The French center-left and the French center-right remain united in their belief that noisy opposition to immigration is racist and that serious criticism of the EU is nationalist. For that reason, both issues have been pushed to the margins, left for the extremists like Le Pen: He is vehemently opposed to immigration, and he vehemently objects to France’s participation in the European Union.
In France, as in many European countries, immigration isn’t so much an issue in principle as it is an issue in practice. In principle, the French have a far more open definition of nationality than, say, their German neighbors, and a far more liberal definition of citizenship. While even third-generation immigrants do not necessarily find it easy to become German citizens, France does naturalize many of the 100,000 legal immigrants who enter the country every year, and about 6 percent of the population is foreign-born.
In practice, however, many French do object to their large North African immigrant population, some 5 million people. Rightly or wrongly, many believe the North Africans have failed to assimilate. Rightly or wrongly, many believe they take jobs away from natives. Rightly or wrongly, many link their presence to rising crime. Rightly or wrongly—in the wake of Sept. 11—many believe Islamic fundamentalism in France is growing. It may well be, as defenders of French immigration policy contend, that none of these statements is true and that immigration is slowing down in any case. But if French politicians make it unacceptable to discuss such things in the mainstream, then the discussion will take place on the far-right fringes.
The same is true of the European Union. As I wrote in January, the absence of open opposition to the new European currency still remains mysterious, at least to me—and nowhere more so than in France. A high percentage of French legislation now originates in Brussels; the European Central Bank controls French monetary policy; and European bureaucrats dictate the shape of France’s economic regulations, France’s environmental policy, even France’s immigration policy. Given that this is the country that virtually invented nationalism, it’s not surprising that many in France object to the French loss of control over French internal affairs. When they do so out loud, however, mainstream politicians and the mainstream press accuse them of being “anti-European”—a terrible insult, on par with “fascist”—leaving them with no one to vote for except Le Pen.
There is a third taboo in France as well—although this is one shared by most French politicians, from Le Pen to Chirac to Jospin, and most French voters, too. This is the taboo on the vigorous advocacy of liberal economic reforms—the elements of what the French call “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism. In fact, there have been liberal reforms in France, including privatizations—usually instituted quietly, by left-wing politicians—but not enough to shake France convincingly out of recession. One isn’t allowed to say so in polite society, however, so unemployment continues to rise, without any explanation or apparent solution, and insecurity increases, bringing yet more votes for Le Pen.
I exaggerate, slightly, to make a point: There are some more or less mainstream euro-skeptic, economically liberal French politicians. Nevertheless, there aren’t enough of them to prevent Le Pen from making use of immigration, Europe, and fears of unemployment to win votes. In this, Le Pen is strikingly similar to Jörg Haider, whose occasional words of praise for Nazi Austria also led to street demonstrations and anti-fascist marches when his Freedom Party joined the Austrian coalition government two years ago. Their political circumstances were similar, too. Haider was fighting against “left-wing” Social Democrats and “right-wing” Christian Democrats who had been serving together in coalition governments so long they had ceased to have any real political or economic differences. Le Pen’s victory came in a contest between the “left-wing” Jospin and the “right-wing” Chirac, two men who had also shared power, “cohabiting” as prime minister and president. Don’t overlook the fact that the Trotskyites got 11 percent of the vote in last weekend’s presidential poll as well: Above all, this election was a protest against the blandness, the interchangeability, and the suspected corruption of the two centrist parties.
Although Chirac will certainly win in the final round, the story may not end here. The unthinkable has now happened twice: The supposedly marginal far-right has scored damaging blows on the mainstream politicians of both Austria and France. Others should draw lessons. As I wrote last month, a number of European countries have avoided a similar calamity through the rejuvenation of center-right parties (most recently Denmark, Italy, and Portugal), which advocate liberal economic reforms, on the American model, more restricted immigration, and a more vigorous debate about the European Union. The rejuvenation of the left—on the somewhat idiosyncratic model of the British Labor Party—might work just as well. The alternative is bleak. If politicians refuse to address their voters’ concerns—however dark and unacceptable those concerns may be—sooner or later, the voters will make them pay for it.