Unusually, the French are Happy

Unusually, the French are Happy

Mini Teaser: Lionel Jospin told a group of foreigners last summer that "it is a sociological fact that the French are always discontented with how they are governed." Yet polls show the French feel prosperous and confident in the future.

by Author(s): William Pfaff

A generational change is taking place in the National Front.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, a paratrooper in the Algerian war who founded the
NF, is a blustering racist and reactionary demagogue who relishes
scandalizing right-thinking people with crude but often adroit
comments on matters politically correct. When the star of France's
World Cup victory last summer proved to be a young man of Algerian
descent, and the French were congratulating themselves on the
multiracialism of a team that included players from France's
Caribbean and Pacific territories, Le Pen toasted the hero of the day
as "a true son of Algérie Française"--literally true, since the
player, born in France, is the son of a "Harki", a member of the
Algerian auxiliary force that fought alongside the French army
against Algerian independence, and who subsequently found refuge in

However, Mr. Le Pen's crudity limits his appeal to the moderate and
middle-class conservatives whose votes the party must win and hold if
it is to become a lasting national force. He is now in his seventies,
and the battle to succeed him pits a figure from the reactionary
Catholic traditionalist movement of the late Archbishop Lefebvre
(condemned by Rome) against Mégret, a young and educated rightist
radical. The ideological competition is between a representative of
the old and familiar populist, Pétainist, anti-Semitic,
anti-immigrant margin of French opinion, and an educated and
intellectual fascism that wishes to use the party for its own
ideological ends.

Fascism is a much-abused term. Le Pen is commonly called a fascist
because his program is racist, nationalist, and xenophobic, and
because he says such things as that the Nazi death camps were a mere
"detail" of the Second World War. This does not make him a fascist in
a historically useful sense of that term. He is much closer to the
late Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi than to Benito Mussolini,
or to the pre-war Jacques Doriot, the closest France has had to a
native fascist leader.

Bruno Mégret is a graduate of two of the most important of France's
institutions of elite scientific education, the École Polytechnique,
where he graduated eighteenth in his class, and the eminent
engineering school, l'École des Ponts et Chaussées. He then took an
M.S. at Berkeley. He is said to owe his interest in rightist notions
of order to his experience of the Berkeley of the 1970s. Returning to
France, he joined the French office for national planning. He was
recruited to a newly formed rightist discussion group, the Club de
l'Horloge (named for the clock in the room where it first met in
1974), established by young graduates of the National School of
Administration (ENA). It tried to bring high state functionaries,
academics, and business executives into discussions on right-wing
themes concerning race, north-south relations, and the philosophy and
nature of government. It advocated national preference to counter the
threat to France's national identity allegedly posed by immigration.

It flourished at a time when the domination of the Left over Paris
intellectual life had been broken by the belated publication of
Solzhenitsyn's works, and several groups jointly identified as the
"Nouvelle Droite" were attempting to re-establish a coherent
intellectual Right. Among the themes of this movement were an
intellectualized racism, neo-paganism, a commitment to elitism, and
an interest in eugenics and ethnology. The "warrior" values of the
northern "man of the forests" were favorably contrasted with the
alleged passivity and submission of Christians and Jews, monotheist
"peoples of the desert."

Fascism, in short, was not dead in France, which was difficult for
Americans and the British to appreciate. Ideological debate in the
United States is never about anything really serious, but Europe
remains a dangerous place. Shortly after Norman Podhoretz had put
Ronald Reagan into the White House, he and several other prominent
American neoconservatives proposed to travel to Paris to share a
platform with representatives of the Nouvelle Droite, assuming that
all were fellow-travelers on the same road. The late Raymond Aron
fortunately heard of this and, horrified, headed the Americans off.

Bruno Mégret is the first product of this movement (otherwise now a
faded force) to become a significant political figure. If he succeeds
in imposing himself on the National Front, he can give a novel
anti-democratic direction to a party that, however unrespectable its
views, still functions within the framework of democratic politics
and debate.

The NF has until now been an amalgam of traditional themes:
Poujadism, xenophobia, nationalism, anti-Semitism,
anti-"Europeanism", anti-Americanism, anti-modernism, and nostalgia
for Algérie Française. It is a movement of uncoordinated prejudice
and provocation that has inherited the function of political and
social protest that the Communist Party abandoned when it became part
of the first Mitterrand government in 1981.

Mégret believes in "ethnic rootedness" and racial elites, and opposes
the "métissage généralisé des races humaines." He thinks
"cosmopolitanism . . . an illness of the spirit which acts on a
nation in the manner that aids does on the human body: it destroys
the immunities which protect it from undesirable foreign bodies." He
would limit the number of immigrant children admitted to French
schools and would challenge the naturalizations of foreigners that
have taken place since 1974. All this amounts to is a program likely
to give pause to the Frenchman who votes National Front because he is
angry that North Africans occupy his old neighborhood, allegedly have
stolen his and his children's jobs, and whose own children are rowdy
or delinquent. He is unlikely to have framed his plight in terms of
"cosmopolitanism", or of the struggle of Aryan warriors of the forest
against the men of the desert. Present or past Catholics (the
Lefebvre movement is very important to the existing NF) are unlikely
to sympathize with their party's new leaders' recommendation of a
virile paganism. (A national poll in June found that 68 percent of
the French oppose discrimination in employment between the French and
immigrants with legal residence. Sixty-seven percent oppose
discrimination in social housing. The same percentage says that
unemployed immigrants have the right to remain in France and receive
social benefits. Only a quarter of those asked favor sending
unemployed legal immigrants back to their own countries.)

The Nouvelle Droite has always been a marginal intellectual movement,
and Mégret's bid for National Front leadership is an attempt to
appropriate a populist movement of social and political protest whose
existing motivations have little to do with Nouvelle Droite ideas.
The mayonnaise is unlikely to take. For that reason, a Mégret
takeover of the National Front seems more likely to reduce its
influence than increase it.

The future of the National Front is far more likely to be decided by
the employment figures of the next few years. There are no more
foreigners in France today than there were in 1931 (6.4 percent of
the population; and of the 3.6 million "foreigners" currently in
France, 740,000 were born in the country). However, North Africans,
the main target of National Front hostility, are more easily
identified than the Spanish, Italians, Poles, and Jews of earlier
immigrations, and are mostly Muslims, while the earlier immigrants
were mostly Catholic.

Europe is likely to take the immigration issue away from the National
Front by internationalizing it. The EU nations other than Britain,
the Scandinavians, and Greece now are part of the so-called Shengen
space, inside which there is free passage without immigration
controls. Immigration control is the responsibility of individual
member countries with respect to arrivals from outside the Shengen
area. Thus it has become necessary to integrate and regularize
immigration policies across all these countries. The former
conservative prime minister, Edouard Balladur, has suggested that
this makes it possible to re-admit the National Front into an
all-party international debate over immigration, thereby limiting its
national appeal by internationalizing the argument.

The children of the North Africans invited to France in the 1950s and
1960s to supply labor for the country's growth during les trentes
glorieuses are educated and employable. The French state school
system is still a high-prestige, high-competence system that really
educates children. The problem is that there currently are not enough
jobs for these children. A culture of unemployment has begun to
develop in immigrant suburbs where fathers have been pensioned off,
or have lost low-level jobs and exist on state benefits, whiletheir
sons and daughters cannot find work.

In mid-October what began as good-natured national student
demonstrations demanding more money and teachers for the schools, a
more or less seasonal phenomenon, took a sinister turn. Bands of
young people from the ghetto suburbs infiltrated the demonstrations
not only to smash up shops and cars but to attack the mainstream
demonstrators, stealing their leather jackets, paraboots, backpacks,
and portable telephones. The student organizers were left in anger
and tears, but also in shock at the seeming nihilism of this eruption
of violence from the suburban ghettoes.

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