A Trip Through Le Pen Country

Today’s itinerary: Lens and Lille, France.

Why start here, in these grungy northern burghs? Because in 1973, the place to go in America was Michigan—home to disgruntled auto workers moving from the left to Wallace to—we didn’t quite know it yet—Reagan. Le Pen was very strong in Lille and Lens. There are also a great many Arab immigrants. Hence the question: Have the socialists yet comprehended the threat they face? (In America, it took the Democrats 25 years to get their act together.)

Interpreter Kate and I attend a meeting of the Socialist party in Lens, a coal-mining town that is historically a left-wing bastion; now, a city divided between Socialists and Le Pen supporters. The Socialists remind me very much of the post-McGovern, pre-Clinton Democrats. They have no idea how irrelevant they’ve become. We are greeted by the mayor, a fabulous, brushy-haired, pipe-smoking Gallic sort called Guy Delcourt. He is, in turn, greeting new recruits to the Socialist party with a champagne reception (this would not happen in America; beer, at best). There are 60 new recruits, a Le Pen-inspired doubling of the usual rate. And Delcourt is happier than any Frenchman is supposed to be: just unremittingly cheery about his party’s prospects. Yes, Lionel Jospin, the Socialist candidate for president of France was humiliated; yes, the local Socialist vote was down four points to 25 percent; yes, Le Pen was up a bit (to 21 percent in Lens). But prospects for the parliamentary voting in June are much better, and the problems really aren’t that horrible. Crime is not a problem. Crime is a TV show that scares old people. Immigrants, well: “I remind people that they have worked for years in the mines with the Moroccans,” Delcourt says, not realizing that Algerians and Tunisians hate being called Moroccans. If a label is necessary, they would rather be called Arabs or beur (the latter a slang reverse play on the word Arab).

Jean-Claude Bois, the local Socialist candidate for the national assembly, appears—wavy gray hair, glasses, weak chin, a kind man but not nearly so powerful a presence as the mayor. We discuss Jospin. “He scared a lot of people by talking too much about modernity,” Bois says. “He had too idealistic a vision of the future.”

Translation: “Modernity” is the French euphemism for the European Union. I ask Delcourt and Bois what they think about the plans to enlarge the EU to include Poland, the Czech Republic, and eight other Eastern European countries in 2004. “That will probably not happen,” Delcourt says, although I’ve been told that it probably will. “It would result in a leveling of all the economies. We can’t take responsibility for everyone else’s problems. We need to fortify Europe first.”

Translation: “Europe” is the French euphemism for France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, the Benelux countries, and perhaps, grudgingly, the Iberian peninsula (and—they hope against hope—the United Kingdom). Poland, the Czechs, and all the rest, however, are perceived to be a hellhole of porous borders, rutted byways, smoky industrial dinosaurs, and antique farmers (and lots of them: 40 million Poles alone!). It will cost a gazillion euros to bring these places up to Western standards.

We move on to an assembly hall—much more pleasant than its American analogue, flags and flowers abound—where several hundred local leftists are gathered for a Socialist party struggle session, a post-election hashing out of the party’s problems. The audience is mostly Gallic, a few black and beur faces sprinkled about. The Jospin defeat was a failure of communication, says one. Chirac manipulated Jospin, says another. The party hasn’t done enough for local businessmen, says a local businessman. The former mayor, an elderly man, stands and delivers a rambling jeremiad about the failure of the party to adhere to its Socialist past, the failure to distinguish itself from the center-right—this is perhaps the most popular Parisian assessment of the Socialist crumple; it is assumed to be the reason why so many leftists indulged themselves with silly votes for three different Trotskyite parties, the Greens, and other Marxist cats and dogs. Mayor Delcourt, fidgeting through all this, leans over and whispers, “He wants more Socialism, but he doesn’t realize the state pays for it.”

The crime issue rears its ugly head. Maybe it isn’t just a TV program, after all. A middle-aged beur says he is tired of being patted down by the police every day because they think he’s a drug dealer. I look over at Mayor Delcourt, who shrugs: “Well yes, Lens unfortunately is along the route that drug dealers coming from the Netherlands use on their way to Paris.” And yes, most of these drug dealers are, erm, “Moroccans.” And yes, “It is a very serious problem.” Yes.

The next day, interpreter Kate and I wander about the industrial city of Lille, mostly talking to Arabs. Across from a disastrous, dilapidated public-housing bloc, with women in hijabs leaning out the windows and a massive graffito—”Nique La Police ” (Fuck the police) scrawled above the entrance, we enter the modern offices of Archimed, a purveyor of multimedia software systems. The president of Archimed is Mongi Zidi, a prosperous 37-year-old Tunisian who is, we are told, making quite a name for himself in French hi-tech circles. “I put our offices in this neighborhood as a social statement,” he says, “to provide some hope for the young people across the street.”

Unfortunately, he admits, the young people across the street are mostly interested in tossing rocks through his windows. Zidi has curly black hair, quick dark eyes, and a wrestler’s build. He is an information-age optimist, an entirely contemporary man. He worries about business, mostly. Raising money isn’t easy for a small company in France. The mandated 35-hour working week is a disaster. And then there are the culture-content laws: Among other things, Archimed specializes in multimedia information retrieval systems for libraries—but the systems are built with Microsoft components, so French libraries won’t buy them. “We just sold a system to a library in Cerritos, California,” he says. “Mrs. Bush presided at the opening.”

He insists, at first, that being a first-generation Arab immigrant hasn’t been much of a problem for him. He came to France for an education, decided to stay, and found French backers for his company. Later, though, he admits the Le Pen vote has unsettled him. “You stand in line at the supermarket and hear snickering behind you. You see people whispering to each other and you wonder—one out of five are Le Pen voters—are they laughing at you?”

I ask him about America. He loves America (except for its policy toward Israel). He loves the business atmosphere. And there is one American politician he absolutely adores. “Al Gore,” he says. “He is a very seductive politician, a strong man for the future. I am inspired by his global approach. He is the granpére of the information superhighway.”

Zidi admits that he hasn’t had much contact with the poor, angry young people who throw rocks at his building, but he passes me along to a friend, a journalist named Abdel Kirim Saifi, who offers a tour of the other side of town. But first he offers some sociology: “It is the second generation who are the problem,” Saifi says. “The first generation was recruited to work in the mines and mills; they were treated badly, but they had no expectations. They did have hopes for their children—and the children have been treated no better by society. The second generation is very angry. Many of them see no hope. They drop out of school, get involved with crime and drugs.”

Saifi is thin, quiet, studious—a second-generation Algerian whose sister has made a remarkable leap: She has been named agriculture minister in the new Chirac government, the first Arab to become a Cabinet minister since the colonial era. She had been a leftist for 15 years, he says, but made no progress in the Socialist party. When she switched, the right greeted her with open arms. Saifi remains a man of the left, but now he must concede that his sister has a point: If the Arab vote is not a wholly owned subsidiary of the left, perhaps the Arabs will gain more influence. There are some other unexpected developments in his community. “There has been a revival of religion,” he says. “It is not only a comfort, but it is also a means of self-affirmation, of communal protest, a reaction against the problems of immigrants.”

That night, Saifi takes us to the mosque in Lille Sud, which indeed seems the neighborhood center. Clutches of old men chatting outside; and young people as well, dressed in American athletic gear, the universal costume of the young and the restless. Saifi introduces us to a young man named Farid Sellani, who is immediately and obviously a politician. He speaks quickly, angrily. “I was born in this neighbourhood,” he says. “I have been committed to this cause since I was 20.” He is now 28—another second-generation Algerian and a former Socialist. “I was elected to the town council on the Socialist list, but I was just a token Arab. I tried to get a six-year project to improve this neighbourhood, but they would never listen to me, so now I am running for the national assembly as an independent.”

We crowd into Saifi’s car and take a drive around the neighborhood, which is a monument to the sterility of Socialist dreams past: We’ll build these nice, modern high-rise buildings for the poor. They’ll be so nice, the middle class will be envious. In truth, these aren’t as awful as some of the places I’ve seen in America: There is graffiti and garbage, but an absence of weaponry and menace. The harsh yellow crime lights throw fuzzy glares through a film of dirt.

Sellani the politician begins a rant about integration. He hates the idea; it is demeaning. Either his people are French or they’re not. “We’re only French in the eyes of the politicians during election time. They exploited our parents, worked them to death,” he is screaming now. “And we are supposed to go to them like beggars. Please can we have a house. Please can we have an education. Please can we be part of society. Integration! I want to see that word banished from the dictionary.”

The 1970s indeed.