Fighting Words

The French Reaction

Le Pen rises again.

Jean-Marie Le Pen

PARIS—Tooling along the Rue de Rivoli, I meet an old friend who conscripts me on the spot to attend a dinner given by French politicos and journalists for their visiting American counterparts. We repair (I am sworn to stay off the record) to the fine old hotel where Graham Greene placed Aunt Augusta in Travels With My Aunt. The U.S. guests have already met with the staff of the three foremost candidates for the French presidency, but it has been decided not to seek a meeting with the campaign of M. Jean-Marie Le Pen, of the National Front. As an adamant foe of the tradition of Petain and Poujade, I don’t especially object to this fastidious etiquette. But it can be taken to extremes. (Jane Kramer’s essay from Paris in this week’s New Yorker had Le Pen as an offstage character only, as if in homage to the Greek drama, and the accompanying cartoon of the candidates simply omitted his blustering, vulgar visage.)

This is a bit silly, because the most salient fact about the French elections is the degree to which they show a France that is moving steadily to the right. “Sixty-five per cent to the right, in fact,” as I am told by Louis Dreyfus of the Nouvel Observateur. Only 30 percent of even the dwindling blue-collar electorate can now be counted upon to vote Socialist or Communist. The surprise “centrist” figure in the contest, Francois Bayrou, is an upper-crust Catholic from the elite ranks of Giscard d’Estaing’s rump conservative faction. The front-runner, Nicolas Sarkozy, is a “law-and-order” hard-liner who promises to get tough with young Muslim slum-dwellers and rioters. The superficially glamorous Socialist, Segolene Royal, who got the nomination only by forcefully repudiating her party’s Old Left, has pitched herself as the spokeswoman for the holy trinity of the tricolor, the Marseillaise,and Joan of Arc. M. Le Pen smirks broadly and says that everyone is moving his way in one form or another. And he isn’t completely bluffing. There is a reason why the French Communist Party, which used to dominate the working class, the unions, and much of the lumpen intelligentsia, is now a spent force that represents perhaps 3 percent of the electorate. And that reason, uncomfortable as it may be, is that most of the Communist electorate defected straight to the National Front. Moreover, as Louis Dreyfus adds rather gloomily, none of Le Pen’s last-time voters (who put him in the second round against Chirac and knocked the Socialist candidate out of the race) have any reason not to vote the same way this time.

Add to this the rather peculiar fact that a huge tranche of voters—most recently as large as 40 percent—simply refuse to tell the opinion polls (who last time got everything calamitously wrong) how they intend to cast their ballots. Again, the best intuitive explanation of this reticence is that many people are embarrassed to declare a Le Pen allegiance in advance. If I am wrong about this, then why are the other candidates so obviously seeking to appeal to his first-round supporters?

There are other ways in which what one might call the “atmospherics” favor the right. A few nights before I arrived in Paris, there had been another explosion of violence between young immigrants and the police. This time it was not in the “suburbs” (or bidonvilles, as they used to be called), which are so poor and nasty that no middle-class people ever have to see them except from the ring-roads. The fighting took place in and around the Gare du Nord, a major railway hub in the city and the station at which Eurostar trains arrive from London and Brussels. While I was still in town, a series of suicide bombs had been detonated in Algeria and Morocco, by an al-Qaida affiliate, which openly declares that former French North Africa is only the front line in a war to conquer Europe. These attentats could have been designed—conceivably even were designed—to intensify the sense of national, ethnic, and religious polarization in France itself.

All this comes at a time when the French political elite is discredited and enervated to an amazing degree. There is general agreement that the country cannot afford any more featherbedding, but the Socialist program is only the most egregious in promising to pay people more than they earn. Anti-Americanism has reached a point of diminishing returns. A society that has benefited hugely from EU subsidies now resents the very bureaucracy at whose tit it has so long nursed. Amazing insularity is demonstrated in almost every presidential debate, with Mme. Royale the most astonishing in her apparent innocence of a world beyond the landlocked French district of Poitou of which she is regional president. (In the latest of many gaffe-strewn interviews, she seemed to be blissfully unaware that the Taliban was no longer the official government of Afghanistan. And which French Socialist does not know how to snigger at George Bush for his lack of sophistication in foreign affairs!)

Le Pen may still be proven wrong next weekend in his overconfident assertion that people will vote for the real thing rather than a surrogate. Sarkozy, and others, may draw his fangs by stealing his voters. But some of us can remember a time when—as someone once put it—if you heard people discussing La Revolution in a French cafe, you realized that they were talking not about the last one, but the next one. I don’t think it is sufficiently appreciated that France has now become the most conservative major country in Europe, where different defenses of the status quo are at war only with different forms of nostalgia and even outright reaction.