ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Summer 2002


Jim Wolfreys

‘The centre cannot hold’

Fascism, the left and the crisis of French politics


From International Socialism 2:95, Summer 2002.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The crisis of mainstream politics

The events of 21 April 2002, when the fascist candidate for the French presidency, Jean-Marie Le Pen, won more votes than Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, and went through to the second round stand-off against the Gaullist Jacques Chirac, were widely described as an ‘earthquake’. Certainly they ripped apart the myth, fuelled for a decade and a half by a smug chorus of politicians, journalists and academics, that France was now a nation in which the conflicts of the past, between left and right, bosses and workers, people and institutions, were over. Jospin and Chirac had just come to the end of a five-year period of ‘cohabitation’ between a Socialist prime minister and a Gaullist president. The arrangement had once been held up as a shining example of the maturity of French democracy, proof that the politics of consensus now underpinned its institutions. On 21 April the president and the prime minister polled fewer votes between them than the number of abstentions. Nobody has ever become president with a lower first round score than Chirac’s paltry 19.8 percent. Jospin’s vote, meanwhile, was the lowest score achieved by a Socialist presidential candidate since the party’s formation. In the process, the party lost half its manual worker vote. During the 1980s the four principal mainstream parties (the Socialists, Communists, Gaullists and the right wing UDF coalition) consistently won three quarters of the votes. In 2002 they were unable to win half the vote despite the 11 million abstentions, which included 40 percent of young voters. This rounds off a ten year period in which all four major parties have experienced their worst electoral result ever.

The results contained a number of paradoxes. Le Pen’s score, when added to the 2.34 percent won by Bruno Mégret’s rival far right party, was the highest ever for the extreme right, up nearly a million on the Front National’s (FN) 1995 performance. But Le Pen’s organisation had gone into the election weaker than at any time over the previous decade, following a major split which had seen Mégret and half the party cadre leave in 1999. No left wing candidate made it to the second round, but the total left vote was more or less on a par with that won by the right. The mainstream right, moreover, lost more votes (4 million) than the mainstream left (1.5 million). And although the campaign was dominated by a traditionally right wing issue, law and order, the Trotskyist left won its highest ever vote, topping 10 percent and winning nearly 3 million votes, over three times more than the French Communist Party (PCF).

The PCF, after five years as a loyal partner in Jospin’s ‘plural left’ government, during the course of which its transport minister Jean-Claude Gayssot had helped ensure that more public industries were privatised than under all of its right wing predecessors put together, received the lowest vote in its history, lower even than the number of spoilt ballots. Having long since lost its standing as the biggest party in France, the organisation is now losing its claim to be a party of any long-term significance at all. Once lambasted by Trotsky as a ‘trained donkey with a cargo of patriotism’, the PCF’s current plight is personified by its inane leader Robert Hue, a meek little social democratic pony. The two main parties of the revolutionary left, Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), clearly won support from voters disaffected with the compromises of the left in office. But their score was also a reflection of two important developments in French society over the past decade. The 1990s saw a resurgence of labour militancy on the one hand, and on the other the development of political activism beyond the confines of mainstream parties. Towards the end of the decade both began to fuse with a burgeoning anti-capitalist movement associated with figures like José Bové and groups like Attac. The LO/LCR vote confirms that the new mood opened up by the public sector strikes of December 1995, and the impetus this gave to anti-racism and anti-capitalism, has not dissipated. Indeed, while LO’s vote confirmed that a significant number of workers identify the organisation as the most resolute defender of their interests, the performance of Olivier Besancenot for the LCR further underlines the volatility of the present situation. His ability to put forward socialist arguments in terms that resonated with the concerns of anti-capitalist youth meant he was able to win the support of more voters under 25 than either Jospin or Le Pen. That a young Trotskyist postal worker, completely unknown before the campaign, could come from nowhere to win over a million votes is an indication that the new mood is generalising and generating a desire for political alternatives to the mainstream.

The 1990s, however, were also years characterised by job insecurity, long-term unemployment and aggressive management attitudes to sackings and working conditions. ‘Precarious’ employment – part-time, seasonal or fixed term jobs – became particularly widespread. Between 1990 and 1998 the proportion of contracts issued on this basis doubled from 10 percent to 20 percent. By 1998 over 900,000 workers were on fixed term contracts and over 600,000 in temporary posts. In industry, and in the catering, clothing and building trades, ‘precarious’ work has become particularly widespread. At the Peugeot-Sochaux plant, for example, one quarter of the workforce – 4,700 people – are on temporary contracts [1], while at the Renault-Douai factory the proportion is nearly half – 2,000 of the 4,500 workers. The effect of all this has been to increase workers’ sense of insecurity, despite the much trumpeted fall in unemployment under Jospin. By the end of the 1990s almost a third of all workers felt that their jobs were in danger. [2] Moreover, as we shall see below, one of the effects of the introduction of the 35-hour week by the Jospin government was to intensify this sense of insecurity. If from the mid-1990s a reaction against this situation began to gather pace, the conditions which gave rise to the reaction have not disappeared.

This situation impacted on the election campaign in various ways. Huge numbers of workers rejected the parties of government. Those at the LU biscuit factory in Calais, furious at the Socialists’ decision to stand by and let the owners, Danone, close it down, made plans to spoil their ballots in what they thought would be a Chirac/Jospin second round. Some of them drew up ballot papers printed with a message to Jospin: ‘The Pétits LU of Calais thank you for your failure to render assistance against the stock market sackings by Danone of which they are the victims.’ [3] Lutte Ouvrière’s candidate, Arlette Laguiller, campaigned for companies in the black to be banned from making redundancies. Many of her best attended meetings in provincial France were in areas where LO had few roots but where local populations had been affected by sackings. When it came to the vote, LO and the LCR won 13.5 percent of manual workers’ votes, the majority going to Laguiller (despite a concerted campaign against her by the plural left), against only 5.3 percent for the PCF. Although this election saw a dramatic rise in support for the revolutionary left, and the continuing decline in working class support for the Socialist Party (PS) and PCF, Le Pen continues to win votes from workers and from almost a third of the unemployed. This needs putting into perspective. According to the sociologist Emmanuel Todd:

It is important to note that on 21 April there was no rise in Le Pen’s vote among workers, or only a tiny rise. The real breakthrough took place between 1988 and 1995, when Le Pen went from 16 percent to 27 percent among the working class electorate. Today the figure, depending on the polls, stands at between 16 percent and 30 percent... No, the new phenomenon in 2002, in popular areas, is the rise in the far left and the aspirations that expresses ... In effect the Le Pen vote represents a corruption of workers by the values of inequality which ravage capitalist society ... The middle classes’ ... scorn for the people has reverberated among workers against immigrants. The vote for the far left is the rediscovery of the values of equality. [4]

The FN is a party led by a millionaire. It has an essentially neo-liberal economic programme. Studies have shown that its core voters identify with racist ideas and an extreme right ideology and generally enjoy a good standard of living. [5] During the 1980s and 1990s, as the mainstream parties lost credibility, the organisation’s promise of change began to attract significant support among workers. The FN’s two biggest electoral constituencies are therefore among workers and small businessmen (artisans, traders, petty entrepreneurs) – two groups with opposite interests. What unites them is a sense that things are getting worse, that immigrants are to blame for this, and that radical change is necessary. This has led many to assume that the cause of the FN vote can be located in relation to the presence of immigrants. New Labour’s Peter Hain, for instance, referring to the ‘intolerable situation’ around the Sangatte camp near the Channel Tunnel, remarked that, ‘Le Pen did very well in the Sangatte area. If you look at Le Pen’s vote it’s concentrated right round the border, the German border as well; it’s a really disturbing fear of outsiders.’ [6] The obvious question to ask would be why it took them, and so many other people in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region (a traditionally left wing area) until 2002 to realise that there was a border on their doorstep. Hain’s arguments are dealt with in more detail below. A more plausible reason for workers looking towards Le Pen’s desperate alternative lies with the shortcomings of the Jospin government. One unemployed former PCF voter in Calais gave this explanation for voting FN: ‘I can’t trust Robert Hue, mixed up in this government and the plural left. Left or right, I’ve not seen the difference as far as I’m concerned. If I chose Le Pen, it’s because he’s the only one to be able to shake up all these numbskulls. Lots of those sacked at LU voted like me. It’s our chance to kick up a stink.’ [7]

Le Pen’s score, however, although disturbingly high, was not a reflection of a fundamental shift to the right in French society, or an indication that France is on the verge of fascism. The unrelenting wave of anti-fascist demonstrations which swept France from the moment the results were announced bears this out. The vote for the far right was rather a product of an ongoing process of polarisation, to the left and right, which is squeezing the mainstream parties. These parties are increasingly seen as interchangeable, sharing a consensus on social and economic policy and a commitment to European integration. Invited to compare Jospin’s programme, launched on the slogan ‘Je m’engage’ (‘I commit myself’), and Chirac’s, launched on the slogan ‘Mon engagement pour la France’ (‘My commitment to France’), three quarters of the electorate could see no difference between them. Public indifference was a feature of the first round campaign. Occasionally the mutual contempt which characterises the relationship between population and politicians came to the surface. Chirac was spat at in Mantes-la-Jolie and Jospin squirted with ketchup by two women in Lille (‘We wanted to put some red into his campaign’). In Strasbourg the UDF candidate slapped a child who appeared to be picking his pocket.

Widespread disregard for mainstream politicians, reflected in the vote, is fuelled by their corruption, the most corrupt of all being the president himself. Between December 1992 and July 1995, just after his June election on a promise to heal France’s ‘social fracture’, Chirac and his entourage spent around a quarter of a million pounds on holidays, entirely paid for in cash. Chirac and his wife also made sure that measures introduced to keep rents on social housing down were applied to their opulent Paris apartment, situated within walking distance of the Left Bank squat which Chirac visited during the 1995 campaign in a show of solidarity with the homeless. His political allies showed similar enterprise. Chirac’s first prime minister, Alain Juppé, was accused of personally intervening to reduce the rent paid by his son on another municipal property. Deputy mayor of Paris Jean Tibéri used public money to pay his son’s rent and do the flat up nicely in marble. By this time the existence of the so-called ‘système Chirac’, set up during his time as mayor of Paris (1977-1995), had been an open secret for years. Every year an estimated £2.5 million would be paid to the RPR, via intermediaries appointed by Chirac, in exchange for lucrative contracts from the city’s public housing budget. Up to £10 million a year would also be raised from public funds for the RPR by bogus posts for party functionaries.

Sleaze is one of the defining characteristics of mainstream political life. All the major parties are involved to varying degrees in forms of corruption. One of the more grotesque aspects of their current obsession with juvenile delinquence in urban areas is the fact that the maintenance budget for secondary schools in the Paris region is believed to have been used during the 1990s by all four major parties to raise £5.6 million in illegal commissions from companies seeking construction and renovation contracts. [8]

Those seeking explanations for Jospin’s failure to take advantage of the constant stream of revelations about Chirac’s larceny need therefore look no further than his own entourage. His political fixer, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, and finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, were both obliged to drop out of politics for prolonged periods following accusations of involvement in a scam involving phantom jobs for cronies. Laurent Fabius, rehabilitated as a senior figure in the PS, will forever be remembered as the man responsible for infecting part of France’s haemophiliac population with HIV-contaminated blood, even if the courts, like some Socialists, considered him ‘responsible but not guilty’. [9] One of the many examples of the extent of the degeneration of the PS is the attitude of the so-called Gauche Socialiste (Socialist left), which has spent the past couple of years seeking alliances with Henri Emmanuelli, newly rehabilitated himself after being banned from public office and given a suspended prison sentence in 1995 for his part in overseeing the Socialists’ Urba slush fund, also based on exploiting political control over public works contracts. Various attempts by the Socialist deputy Arnaud Montebourg to change the law to enable a standing president to stand trial have been rejected by the party leadership. This is partly because the PS plays an active role in the political establishment’s vast money laundering operation, but also because the Socialists fear any challenge to the institutions of the republic. Jospin’s own desire to be ‘statesmanlike’ in turn explains his right wing campaign and disastrous claim that his programme was not Socialist but ‘a synthesis of what is necessary today’. [10] ‘We’re not talking enough about workers,’ one leading Socialist warned him towards the end of the campaign. ‘We have to reassure our social base.’ [11] Jospin’s last-ditch attempts to effect a ‘social turn’, like the latest rediscovery of social democratic values by the post-Jospin leadership, are all too little too late.

Beyond the failings of Jospin’s government, and the errors of his campaign, is a much more profound crisis. The presidential election result expresses a rejection not just of France’s mainstream parties but of the institutions they inhabit. As soon as the election was over, voices from within the mainstream, notably the Green candidate No’l Mamère and the Socialist deputy Montebourg, began to question the viability of the Fifth Republic itself. Established in 1958 by de Gaulle, its institutions were designed to overcome the weakness and instability of the Fourth Republic which had begun to crumble during the Algerian war of independence. Today both president and government stand accused of failing to provide solutions to the havoc wreaked by modern capitalism. A constant refrain of disaffected voters was their contempt for the self satisfaction of a political elite which has done nothing to improve their lives. As a consequence barely half of France’s 41 million registered voters were prepared to support candidates with links to the mainstream, with around 21 million people either abstaining, spoiling their ballots or voting for the far left or far right. As one respected constitutional commentator put it:

France is not alone in experiencing a crisis of politics and institutions which, in the heterogeneous forms of populist nationalism, is surfacing across Europe. But France is not as well armed as others to confront it. Its institutions are damaged. Its parties, which have always been weaker than anywhere else, have been obliterated or are becoming extinct ... France is in the grip of a gigantic maelstrom of complex changes which are redistributing profits and losses without anyone being able to provide adequate solutions ... New political perspectives for the French and new instruments to embody them remain to be invented. A vast programme, of which not a single element can for the moment be seen on the horizon. [12]

Anger at the apparent impotence of the state is expressed in various forms. Some condemn Jospin’s passivity faced with factory closures or the employers’ offensive over the 35-hour week. Others seek scapegoats in refugees and demand the state intervenes to clamp down on asylum seekers. Some seek more repression to eradicate crime. Lack of faith in the centre to provide answers has led to the multiplication of candidates. Some, like Jospin’s former interior minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who combines nationalist anti-globalisation rhetoric with a reactionary record on crime and immigration, want to return to a time when the republican state exercised more authority. Others, like the hunting and fishing candidate Jean Saint-Josse, want to return to a time when rural France was left to its own devices. Neither has a structured party behind them. The Front National, in contrast, does. But although Le Pen’s score underlines the extreme right’s ability to build a stable electoral base feeding off fear and demoralisation, it has yet to transform this into an anchored mass movement of the far right. This was underlined by its comparatively low profile during the presidential campaign, its lack of street sales, its failure to mobilise any more than one fifth of the expected 100,000 supporters for its May Day parade and the fact that it managed to hold only one poorly attended election rally between the two rounds of the election. In this sense, then, the 3 million votes for the revolutionary left, up 1.5 million since 1995, compared to a rise of under 1 million for the extreme right, stand out as the reflection of an active social force, the electoral expression of a genuine, tangible movement of workers and anti-capitalist youth. But if it is true that the left, despite Le Pen’s score, is still in the ascendancy, the volatility of the present situation means that there is no guarantee this will remain the case.

If, following the public sector strikes of 1995, there was a ‘whiff of pre-1968’ in the air, today the atmosphere is more like 1934. [13] Despite differences of scale and intensity, France today, as in the 1930s, is a country of tired and declining institutions, a corrupt political establishment and a centre ground showing signs of buckling under the pressure of increasing polarisation. There exists an unprecedented crisis of all four major ideological currents in mainstream French politics: Gaullism, neo-liberalism, Communism and social democracy. Their failure to offer coherent leadership in a world of growing inequalities, political volatility and war is the context both of the revolutionary left’s success and of the resurgent threat of fascism. The FN, like the far right in 1934, is not about to take power and does not yet have a mass activist base. But how serious is the threat it poses? Can Le Pen be stopped? Will a viable left alternative to social democracy emerge? The rest of this article will attempt to address these questions. We begin with an account of how a fascist current around Le Pen was able to adapt the heritage of inter-war fascism to modern conditions, and an analysis of the strategy followed by the Front National since its formation in 1972. Reasons will be offered for the revival of the organisation since 1999, and for Jospin’s failure, along with an assessment of the decisions now confronting those forces emerging to the left of the Socialist and Communist parties.

Le Pen and the rebirth of French fascism

Le Pen’s success represented the high point of a career dedicated to the rebuilding of a fascist party in France in the decades that followed the defeat of the Vichy regime. The key to this reconstruction was a recognition that modern fascism would have to adapt to the post-war period. The quest for respectability was crucial. Le Pen, elected France’s youngest ever deputy as part of Pierre Poujade’s petty bourgeois populist movement in 1956, was well placed to lend an aura of legitimacy to the fragments of the far right which united to form the Front National in 1972. But his career has always been about far more than simply making his mark on mainstream politics. Typical of Le Pen’s relationship to the mainstream was his experience as a Poujadiste. Divisions soon emerged between Poujade and Le Pen, who wanted to turn Poujadism into something other than just a movement of shopkeeper revolt. According to Poujade, ‘Le Pen was the Trojan horse who tried, at the time, to turn the Poujadist mass into the great people’s party of the extreme right. He didn’t succeed and he left us.’ [14] In September 1956, when Poujade sacked Le Pen from the presidency of the movement’s youth wing, which under his leadership had become a rallying point for fascist activists, Le Pen took six months’ leave from parliament and signed up to fight in Algeria. Here Le Pen was to prove himself capable of the most deplorable acts.

This is an extract from the police report of an incident involving a young Algerian which took place in March 1957 in the Villa Susini:

… two electric wires were attached to his earlobes and Lieutenant Le Pen himself cranked up the magneto, with the help of which he sent electrical discharges into his body. In the presence of the same officer, young Yagiaoui was hit with a truncheon and was tied, naked, to a bench, feet and wrists bound, and forcibly made to swallow a certain amount of water. Finally, he was confined for five days in an empty hole, dug like a grave in the ground, closed in by barbed wire. [15]

The police commissioner’s text ends with the statement, ‘Lieutenant Le Pen is a deputy in the National Assembly.’ [16] Various other accounts of Le Pen’s atrocities have been published over the years. [17] Another surfaced between the two rounds of this year’s presidential election. It told the story of the execution of Ahmed Moulay through the eyes of his son, Mohammed Chefif, then a 12 year old boy. Moulay was taken, naked, by French paratroopers and tortured in front of his children, their mother and her four month old baby. Le Pen asked the questions. The paratroopers forced Moulay to drink litre after litre of soapy water. Then they stuffed a towel in his mouth while one of them jumped up and down on his distended stomach. Each time they took the towel out of his mouth he vomited. Then they administered electric shocks. The children listened to the screaming until the ordeal ended with a burst of machine-gun fire. Mohammed Cherif still owns the knife he later found when the soldiers left, with Le Pen’s name and division inscribed on the sheath. [18]

On his return to France Le Pen was perfectly frank about his involvement in such atrocities: ‘I’ve got nothing to hide. I tortured because it was necessary.’ [19] The defeat of France at the hands of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and the collapse of the Algérie française movement to keep Algeria French provoked a crisis for the far right. ‘We put so much hope into this Algérie française,’ Le Pen later recalled. ‘We would have made a national revolution there, to mould new, different men.’ He nevertheless refused to sanction the attempted coup of April 1961, not because he disagreed with the methods of the putschists, but because he found their aim of handing French Algeria to De Gaulle, who didn’t want it, ‘incoherent and moronic’. [20]

During the 1960s the French extreme right tried to come to terms with three factors to which post-war fascism had to adapt. The defeat of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, rapid economic modernisation and decolonisation raised the question of fascism’s relevance. A former leader of the Vichy militia in northern France, François Gaucher, wrote a book on the subject in 1961. Le Fascisme est-il actuel? argued that fascism was characterised by its flexible approach to dogma. This meant that fascists were not obliged to operate in the same way as during the inter-war period. The integration of both the peasantry and the working class into post-war society via urbanisation, industrialisation and the welfare state, along with the emergence of a new middle class whose interests were tied to an expanding state bureaucracy, meant that fascism could no longer simply pose as a way out of extreme economic hardship, as a bastion against Communism or as the defender of old traditions. The experience of fascism in power would also work against any movement that tried to revive it. The far right could no longer hark back to the inter-war period, call itself fascist or retain its previous political programme, some aspects of which were no longer relevant, whereas others ‘had proved rather unfortunate when put to the test’. Fascists should aim to mobilise both those seeking tougher democratic government and supporters of an authoritarian state. [21]

Le Pen was no stranger to these ideas. On his return from Algeria he set up a record publishing operation, the SERP, with three associates. One of them later became FN treasurer. Another, Léon Gaultier, had been a member of the Vichy regime and was a former Waffen SS officer. Nazism, for Gaultier, was ‘a great altruistic adventure’. [22] With Le Pen and company he produced records like Songs of the German Revolution: The Men and Events of the Third Reich. The record’s sleeve stated that, ‘Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party’s rise to power was characterised by a powerful mass movement, by and large popular and democratic, since its triumph followed legitimate elections, circumstances generally forgotten.’ Gaultier was a friend of François Gaucher’s and used to make sure that Le Pen read his work. ‘We had the same intellectual tastes,’ he said of Le Pen in 1990. ‘He was ten years younger than me and I said to myself: he’ll carry the torch, he’ll carry the torch very well. He hasn’t disappointed me!’ [23]

Another who shared these intellectual tastes was Dominique Venner, son of a member of Jacques Doriot’s Parti Populaire Français, which became France’s largest fascist party between the wars and openly embraced Nazi rule during the occupation. Venner, like Gaucher, focused on the increasing sophistication of the modern state apparatus and the need for fascism to adapt to contemporary conditions. The struggle over Algeria had shown that the more conservative, respectable elements of the far right could help create a climate favourable to the hard-core, fascist elements, but that they were incapable of transforming popular revolt into revolution. On the other hand, those who simply hankered after Nazi rule were incapable of understanding the demands which the present situation imposed on them. If fascists were to win sections of the state bureaucracy to revolution, they would have to prove themselves capable of running a modern state. In 1965 Le Pen invited Venner’s group Europe-Action to participate in his latest attempt to play a role as a federator of conservative and hard-core elements, which Poujade had put a stop to a decade earlier. Le Pen took charge of the presidential campaign of Pétain’s former information minister, Jean-Louis Tixier Vignancour. Le Pen’s efforts were derailed by the charges brought against him during the campaign as an apologist for war crimes (as a consequence of the SERP record mentioned above). He was later found guilty, fined and given a two-year suspended sentence.

The formation of the Front National

Le Pen’s big chance came in 1972 when the Front National was formed. The initiative was taken by the leading organisation on the extreme right at the time, Ordre Nouveau (New Order), which believed Venner’s analysis of the prospects for modern fascism to be the equivalent of Lenin’s What is to be Done? The changing role of the state was again central to the analysis of the prospects for fascism. Mussolini’s triumph, Ordre Nouveau argued, had been due in part to the extreme weakness of the Italian state which enabled the Blackshirts to win over a large part of the state administration and to enjoy almost open support in ruling circles. The modern French state was far more powerful. Movements driven simply by their own spontaneity were unable to go beyond the narrow demands of a particular professional group. No one had predicted the Poujadist movement of 1956, the peasant revolts of 1961 or the student unrest of 1968. The potential for future explosions remained, struggles based around nationalist issues, the workers’ movement or the independent professions. Without organisation, however, such revolts would end in defeat. ‘No revolution without theory,’ [24] proclaimed Ordre Nouveau.

Every aspect of Ordre Nouveau’s activity must therefore be geared towards offering a credible alternative to the regime. This would take time and require flexibility. The far right therefore needed both a hard core of revolutionary cadre able to offer leadership to the movement and wider layers of support in order to expand ‘the scope of nationalist struggle by opening out as broadly as possible’. [25] Elections were considered ‘an excellent instrument of struggle for a revolutionary party ... It is not the form of activity, but the goal which characterises a revolutionary organisation. [26] The means are solely dependent on circumstances.’ [27] If they were to escape isolation, violence and revenge attacks on the left must be avoided. At the same time, however:

… we have not yet trained our supporters to assert themselves on the streets in large scale demonstrations, authorised or not, and that is very important: it is not enough that they attend our meetings. We must show our strength outside, make our views on various problems heard in the streets, other than by the mere presence of our militants, show our numbers and our determination. In this way our supporters rediscover the taste for militant activity and for combat, and the isolation of our activists is avoided. A revolutionary party is inconceivable without large scale demonstrations. [28]

The conscious use of rallies and marches in developing a fascist cadre was directly inspired by Hitler’s Mein Kampf:

The mass meeting is necessary if only for the reason that in it the individual, who in becoming an adherent of a new movement feels lonely and is easily seized with the fear of being alone, receives for the first time the picture of a greater community, something that has a strengthening and an encouraging effect on most people ... If he steps for the first time out of his small workshop or out of the big enterprise, in which he feels very small, into the mass meeting and is now surrounded by thousands and thousands of people with the same conviction ... he himself succumbs to the magic influence of what we call mass suggestion. [29]

Those who founded the FN wanted a highly organised, hierarchical, nationalist movement with a mass base dedicated to smashing democracy and the left. At the same time they recognised the advantages of a front which united right wing conservatives and fascists. [30] Ordre Nouveau reassured its members about the road it had embarked upon:

The electoral road is not a game. It is not an easy road, but it’s the only one which offers the hope of ending up with something serious, which can give our ideas a chance to influence reality ... But we shall be all the better armed to follow this route if the demand for honour, for loyalty, and this revolutionary will that makes us the nationalists that we are, remain present in us. [31]

Initital municipal electoral results were poor. In 1973 the FN managed only 1.3 percent of the total poll. The following year doubts were raised about the decision to make immigration the extreme right’s central propaganda theme. Despite opposition to immigrants among the French, it was argued, this had not yet developed into a political attitude, as the election results demonstrated. In some areas of Marseille up to a quarter of the population were immigrants, but the far right had failed to break through even though the local Ordre Nouveau branch had been agitating around the issue for four years. The conclusion was that it had been a ‘political error’ to wage the campaign. Potential sympathisers were scared off, ‘traumatised by the issue of racism’. [32] Le Pen found himself under pressure from activists impatient at the lack of success electoralism was bringing.

The election campaign had highlighted the lack of any sort of structure enabling the FN to capitalise on its desire to broaden its activist base. The man Le Pen appointed to address this problem had ample experience of building fascist organisations. Victor Barthelémy left the Communist Party and joined Doriot’s Parti Populaire Français in November 1936, becoming general secretary in 1939. Under the occupation he was part of an alliance of collaborationist groups which sought to form a single fascist party. A member of the Legion of French Volunteers against Bolshevism, which fought in defence of a Nazi Europe, he was sent on a mission to Italy in 1944 where he worked alongside Mussolini. The other key figure in building the FN was François Duprat. A leading member of Ordre Nouveau and proponent of the front strategy, Duprat recognised the need to avoid being openly associated with fascism: ‘to be accused of fascism today leads, in many cases, to being excluded from the system, not to say all significant public activity’. [33] This did not prevent him from editing a number of publications dedicated to charting the history of fascism and the fortunes of the contemporary far right. Nor did it prevent him from becoming one of a handful of negationists propagating Holocaust revisionist texts active in France during the 1970s. When he was killed by a car bomb in 1978 Le Pen’s newspaper paid tribute to this aspect oF. Duprat’s activities, saluting his attempts to challenge ‘all these taboos inherited from the Second World War’. [34] Duprat became a hero for the Front National. ‘Know that in any case you did not die in vain,’ declared the FN’s newspaper, ‘because we will take up the torch. Your work will be continued!’ [35]

The official image cultivated by Le Pen played down these associations. ‘I do not define the Front National as a movement of the extreme right,’ was his message. ‘I challenge anyone to find, either in its methods or in its philosophy or in its writings, anything which is extremist. It is a party which professes to be part of the social, popular and national right and which is proud to declare itself on the right. It does not intend to be labelled extreme right.’ [36] Duprat, who organised the FN campaign for the municipal elections of March 1977, understood the importance of electoral success: ‘[A] good result for Le Pen would not only benefit his FN, but all the national movements, who would gain a new political credibility in the eyes of public opinion.’ [37] After the Front’s electoral breakthrough, Duprat still played a role in binding the FN’s semi-respectable elements to the hard core. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, Le Pen insists on taking a group of leading FN members to his grave to pay homage to the man responsible for translating Did Six Million Really Die? and whose own publications sought to ‘rediscover the very essence of the fascist phenomenon’. [38]

Le Pen continued to urge activists frustrated by the constraints of legality to respect the leadership’s strategy and not to be drawn into the orbit of fascist groups which opposed it:

We know that the legal road imposes great patience. That’s why it repels certain young people who then find themselves trapped by ... bodies whose principal activity is to attack the FN ... These unfortunates do not see that they are playing into the hands of the political police, to the delight of the left and the government. They are lured by the carnival fascism of these little groups only to be crushed by disappointment in the end. [39]

Such groups were condemned for needlessly provoking the government. At the same time other far right groups were attacked for pandering to the mainstream right. There was only one road leading to the overthrow of the establishment parties – that chosen by the Front National: ‘It is not paved with gold and does not allow us to go very fast ... But it’s the only one which leads to the true liberation of the homeland.’ [40]

Immigration and the rise of the Front National

During the 1980s the FN made its electoral breakthrough and began to recruit large numbers of activists and cadre from the parties of the mainstream right. They, in turn, were to bring much greater sophistication to the organisation’s programme and propaganda. [41] The catalyst for the organisation’s transformation from an insignificant grouping to a major force in French politics was the emergence of immigration as the central issue in mainstream political debate following the Socialist election victory of 1981. There was nothing inevitable about the emergence of this issue or in the rise of the FN. The immigration ‘problem’ did not fall from the sky – it was relentlessly promoted as a political issue by the Front National, aided by the mainstream parties, not unhappy to see scapegoats emerge for the recession which led the Socialists to ditch their manifesto pledges and implement austerity measures from 1982. This played into the FN’s hands.

Signs that disaffection with the Socialist government were beginning to benefit the FN began to emerge in the early 1980s. In September 1982, three months after the government’s first austerity measures were introduced, the FN organised the most successful event in its ten year history, with over 34,000 people attending its festival. A year later the FN general secretary, Jean-Pierre Stirbois, became deputy mayor of the dormitory town of Dreux after campaigning on the slogan ‘2 million unemployed are 2 million immigrants too many’. Stirbois owed his success to two things. Firstly, the Socialist Party nationally chose not to confront the main plank of the FN programme, the assertion that immigration and unemployment were linked. The PS candidate in Dreux, who attempted to challenge the FN line, later admitted to being isolated in a party which chose not to distribute any of the literature it had prepared to combat racist ideas, and which in Marseille ran a campaign which flirted with racism. The Socialist response to FN claims that Muslim agitators were behind the strikes taking place in the car industry was to echo the attacks on ‘religious and political groups’ who did not understand ‘French social realities’. [42] (In August 1984 the Socialist government, supposedly in tune with these realities, was to adopt the Dalle plan for the car industry which would entail the loss of between 50,000 and 70,000 jobs. [43]) The second factor behind the FN breakthrough was the decision by the mainstream right to do a deal with the FN and invite its candidates onto a joint slate for the Dreux election. Jacques Chirac, having first rejected such alliances on the grounds that members of the FN had a ‘congenital defect’, namely racism [44], now argued that such an alliance with the FN was better than inviting Communist ministers into government.

This set the tone for the next 20 years, during which time the FN made steady electoral progress while the mainstream parties fell over themselves in echoing the rhetoric and programme of the far right. Legislation by governments of right and left over two decades, whether cracking down on asylum and revising nationality laws, or tightening border controls, restricting family regroupment and increasing police powers to carry out identity checks, had a twofold effect. Those wanting to fight racism were increasingly put on the defensive, while the FN gained in strength. Its strategy was constantly to up the stakes in an attempt to make it acceptable to say the unacceptable. A good example of the success of this strategy is a speech made in the summer of 1991:

Our problem is not the foreigners, it’s that there’s an overdose. It’s perhaps true that there are no more foreigners than before the war, but they’re not the same and that makes a difference. Certainly, having the Spaniards, Poles and Portuguese working here poses fewer problems than having Muslims or blacks ... How do you expect the French worker who lives in the Goutte d’Or and who works with his wife and who, between them, earn around 15,000 francs and who has, on the same floor, next to his council flat, crammed in, a family with the head of the household, three or four wives and 20 kids, and who earns 50,000 francs in social security payments, naturally without working ... If you add to that the noise and the smell, well! The French worker on the same floor is driven mad and we must understand him. [45]

This speech was made by Jacques Chirac to members of his party in June 1991. It followed President Mitterrand’s decision to embrace what had hitherto been a right wing concept of a ‘level of tolerance’ of immigration. This, he claimed in 1989, had now been reached. In the same vein his prime minister, Edith Cresson, went on national television to declare that her Socialist government would charter planes whenever necessary to deport illegal immigrants. Former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing pitched in with the word ‘invasion’ to describe immigration to France, while his colleague Michel Poniatowski claimed France resembled an ‘African boulevard’.

What effect did this ‘get tough’ approach to immigration have on the Front? The organisation’s swift and effective response was to show that when it came to racism, nobody did it better than the FN. In November 1991 party chairman Bruno Mégret denounced the threat posed to ‘races’ by ‘generalised cross-breeding’. He then proposed a draconian 50 point plan of immigration measures. These included proposals to legalise discrimination against immigrants in favour of French nationals in housing and employment. Quotas of immigrant children would be imposed on schools and their parents made to pay fees if they wanted the French state to educate their offspring. Immigrants would be denied access to certain basic social security payments including family allowance. The building of mosques would be banned, anti-racist legislation repealed and companies charged for employing immigrants. ‘Cosmopolitan references’ would be censored from schoolbooks. Nationality legislation would be revised and based on parentage rather than residency. Retrospective legislation, for the first time since Vichy, would be applied to all cases of French citizenship granted to immigrants since 1974. ‘Ethnic ghettos’ would be ‘dismantled’.

The response of the mainstream? A month later the Socialist government implemented point 46 of Mégret’s plan, setting up detention centres for asylum seekers. In future, Mégret asked, would government policy take its lead from Vichy? And so the dance went on. When the right returned to power in 1993 the targeting of France’s immigrant population formed the centrepiece of its legislative programme. Identity checks, the revision of nationality laws, further border controls – a whole series of racist measures collectively known as the Pasqua laws, many of them taken from Mégret’s 50-point plan, were introduced. In the summer of 1996 Chirac’s prime minister, Alain Juppé, opted to deal with the issue of the ‘sans papiers’, immigrants without residence papers, many of whom had been rendered ‘illegal’ by the Pasqua laws. Their plight became a cause célèbre and their occupation of the Saint Bernard church in central Paris a focus for a resurgent anti-racist movement. Juppé sent riot police to hack their way into the church with axes. Teargas was used on the children sheltering with their parents inside as the church was forcibly evacuated. Le Pen seized the moment to make public his belief in racial inequality. In turn interior minister Jean-Louis Debré decided to revive measures first introduced under Vichy requiring anyone offering hospitality to immigrants to inform the relevant authorities of their movements.

By the spring of 1998 the FN was in a position to conclude regional electoral alliances with the mainstream right. Leading figures in the French employers’ association urged alliances between the mainstream right and the FN; 15 years after its first electoral success, the FN looked to be on the verge of becoming France’s third political force.

The lesson of the FN’s rise is abundantly clear. The refusal of mainstream parties to contest the FN agenda, and their policy of echoing both its rhetoric and programme, utterly failed to stem the growth of the organisation. By the mid-1990s the FN had 11 MEPs, nearly 1,300 regional and municipal councillors and control of four towns. It won 15 percent of the vote in the 1995 presidential and 1997 parliamentary elections. Whenever immigration dominated public debate the FN vote rose and enabled Le Pen, once a fringe candidate of no significance, to declare himself at the centre of political debate.

When the FN made its first electoral breakthrough in 1983 Giscard d’Estaing concluded that ‘now the problem which is the root cause of the extreme right’s upsurge must be dealt with: immigration’. [46] This has essentially been the reaction of mainstream politicians and commentators throughout Europe when confronted with the rise of the far right. But what, apart from the far right’s insistence on the issue, led people to believe that immigration was the cause of their success? The first analyses of the FN vote in France attempted to show a correlation between the presence of immigrants and support for the FN. One academic even came up with an equation to show a mathematically proven link between the proportion of immigrants in a given area and the size of the FN vote, which would rise and fall depending on the number of immigrants nearby. [47] Later studies proved this was nonsense. One analysis of the FN vote in Paris between 1984 and 1986 exploded the myth of a causal link between immigration and the vote for the far right. In 1984 the FN won a significant share of the vote in the west of the city. In 1986 its vote was highest in the north-east of Paris. Both areas had a high concentration of immigrants, thus feeding the belief that this was behind the vote. All very logical, until a closer look revealed that the immigrant population of western Paris was predominantly Spanish and Portuguese. Was the electorate of the well-to-do 16th arrondissement casting a protest vote in the 1984 European elections against the presence of Portuguese gardeners and Spanish concierges? Far more likely was the possibility that these were right wing voters turning to Le Pen out of dissatisfaction with the pro-Europe campaign of the centre-right candidate who led the united right wing slate. Likewise, did it really take voters in the north-east of Paris until 1986 to realise that there was a substantial North African population living in their midst? Far more likely was the possibility that a section of the area’s working class electorate was turning to the FN out of frustration with the experience of the left in government.

More convincing correlations could be found between the FN vote and poor housing or economic deprivation. But why did studies focus on immigration in the first place? They did so because academics and the media, faced with the insistent line from the FN and the mainstream parties that there was an immigration ‘problem’, and confronted with FN voters who listed immigration as their highest priority when choosing a candidate, made uncritical assumptions based on such views. As one outstanding study of voting patterns put it, the decision to focus on immigration, rather than any number of other factors which would correlate with the FN vote, such as the proportion of illegitimate births in 1911 or average summer temperatures, only served to give credibility to the FN line that immigration was the central problem facing French society. [48] The straightforward and much more plausible explanation for the FN vote, that individuals from diverse backgrounds, frustrated at unemployment, falling living standards, economic insecurity and blocked social mobility, were finding a scapegoat for these problems in France’s immigrant population, was largely ignored. In a period when the credibility of traditional right wing and social democratic parties was declining under the impact of political corruption on the one hand, and the blurring of the left/right divide due to the emerging consensus over a neo-liberal agenda on the other, capitulation to the FN’s themes only boosted the organisation’s standing as an alternative to the mainstream.

The immigration issue is politically constructed as part of a process of scapegoating. How otherwise can we explain the situation in a city like Marseille, where the proportion of immigrants in the city’s population did not change dramatically between the 1970s and 1980s, but where the electorate, immune to anti-immigrant propaganda in 1973, has voted in disproportionately high numbers for the FN since 1984? In this context David Blunkett’s remarks in the wake of Le Pen’s 2002 vote, just prior to the election of three BNP councillors in Burnley, about the ‘swamping’ of schools by the children of asylum seekers, are particularly sordid. The same can be said of Peter Hain’s decision to cross the line dividing the soft left from soft racism, announced via a Guardian interview about the inability of Muslims to become fully integrated in society. The intellectual colossus providing theoretical succour for such outbursts, Anthony Giddens, greeted news of the far right’s resurgence with a call for policies which are ‘tough on immigration, but tough on the causes of hostility to immigrants’. A useful translation of this kind of disingenuous nonsense can be found in Alisdair Beaton’s The Little Book of New Labour Bollocks: ‘In order to discourage unreasonable and intolerant people, we are going to become unreasonable and intolerant.’ Twenty years of the FN on the rise shows it just doesn’t work.

The FN strategy breaks down

Two things were necessary for fascism to achieve success in the post-war period. Firstly, it required a credible and structured organisation which could house the diverse, often competing, tendencies of the far right. Secondly, it required an environment in which its ideas could prosper. The experience of the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s proved that if neither the FN nor its ideas were opposed effectively and consistently, the organisation would grow. The experience of the mid- to late 1990s, however, was to prove that resolute opposition to the FN could tear the organisation apart. Two developments turned the situation around. Firstly the explosion of class struggle of November-December 1995, when millions demonstrated in support of striking public sector workers, transformed French politics and society. The solidarity and confidence generated by the strikes saw the mood of bitter demoralisation which had accompanied the FN’s rise begin to dissipate. There was, in particular, a change in attitudes towards the immigration question. This had two important consequences. Firstly, the scapegoating of immigrants began to be challenged. The sans papiers, for example, won a majority of public support for their campaign. Secondly, faced with the lamentable failure of either the Socialists or the Communists to take a principled stand against the racist drift in politics, combined with the right’s anti-immigrant offensive from 1993, anti-racists, led by two new organisations, the Manifeste contre le Front National and Ras l’Front began to wage a more combative and confrontational campaign against the FN.

The impact of the anti-racist revival on the FN has already been discussed in this journal. [49] The split which it helped bring about in the FN can be summarised as follows. The effect of the resurgence of labour militancy from 1995 and the subsequent shift in attitudes to racism hampered the FN’s ability to set the agenda. These developments, along with an anti-FN offensive which specifically targeted the organisation, brought the contradictory tendencies that made up the FN into focus and into conflict with each other. The result was a crisis of leadership. This went beyond a question of personalities. The debate tended to focus on strategic differences. Le Pen stressed the need for the FN to remain an anti-establishment force, Mégret argued that alliances with the traditional right would allow the FN to eliminate its weakest elements. This was partly a reflection of the FN’s twin quest for respectability within liberal democracy, and its desire to smash that democracy. One of the consequences of the FN’s success had been to intensify the tension between these two aims. We have already seen that the organisation had around 1,500 elected representatives by the mid-1990s. Between 1995 and 1997 the party’s annual budget had risen from £8.6 million to £14.5 million. The number of full-time party functionaries rose to nearly 100 and expenditure on salaries rose from £7.8 million to £17.8 million. [50] Since 1980 its membership had also increased from under 1,000 to as many as 40,000. Electoral success created the potential for the bureaucratisation of a large layer of the organisation’s cadre and generated a culture of managerialism which was at odds with the more anti-system attitudes of much of the membership. [51] Le Pen consciously attempted to combat bureaucratisation. He insisted that anyone elected on an FN ticket must pay a sizeable proportion of their salary to the organisation. When the FN won control of three towns in 1995 some in the organisation argued that this was a chance for the FN to prove its credentials as a party of government. Le Pen insisted that FN mayors implement the party policy of ‘national preference’. Mégret shared the same outlook as Le Pen but knew he could count on the support of party cadre who saw him as the most likely to be able to deliver the short term electoral gains which alliances with the mainstream would guarantee. (This despite the fact that the architect of the electoral agreements of spring 1998 had been the Le Pen loyalist Bruno Gollnisch.) Le Pen likewise won the backing of activists suspicious of Mégret’s background as a Gaullist and the danger of ‘parliamentarisation’ he appeared to represent.

These tensions, kept in check when the FN was on the up, were stretched to breaking point by the anti-racist backlash. Mégret was expelled at the end of 1998 and the organisation split soon after. Le Pen, until now the unassailable leader of the FN, now found the cult of leadership around him beginning to disintegrate. Revelations began to emerge about the corrupt and dictatorial way he had led the party. Further embarrassment came when a newspaper printed a report drawn up and circulated (by a Megrétiste member of the FN’s bureau politique) on Le Pen’s state of mind following a meeting with a Parisian psychiatrist:

He [Doctor Grandpierre] does not find the diagnoses of senile paranoia offered by numerous doctors very convincing ... Le Pen is affected not by a psychosis (illness) but by a neurosis (handicap) ... Jean-Marie Le Pen is a clinically very pure example of a subject affected by a failure complex. The failure complex means the subject, consciously or otherwise (usually unconsciously), provokes his own failure through fear of the insurmountable responsibilities which too great a success would engender ... The handicap has affective origins, and it is all the more uncontrollable by the subject as it is unconscious. That does not prevent Jean-Marie Le Pen from brilliantly playing a role as an orator in opposition without real responsibilities ... His mental handicap renders him incapable of leading a very large organisation in a rational manner. [52]

The split weakened the whole of the extreme right. A significant proportion of FN cadre left Le Pen to join Mégret, including one of his own daughters, the editor of the FN newspaper, over 50 district federation secretaries, the head of the organisation’s security force, half the FN’s regional councillors, and many of those responsible for drawing up the FN programme over the previous decade. Much of the skinhead fringe also went with Mégret. But Mégret’s organisation, denied state funding, had serious financial problems. He was forced to request reinstatement in his former post as a civil servant. The far right press was also affected. One weekly magazine went bankrupt, another halved its number of pages, while the FN newspaper experienced serious financial difficulties. When Le Pen spoke to a rally of FN members in April 1999 he chose the song adopted in the 1998 World Cup by the French football team, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, to accompany his appearance on the platform. Le Pen might have thought he was being clever. But a few months earlier he was addressing thousands of supporters to the grandiloquent sounds of Verdi’s Nabucco. The sight of him speaking to an ageing crowd of faithful cronies to the tune of a kitsch disco anthem spoke volumes for the state of his organisation, particularly when he went on to beg those present each to lend the FN £500 to help it out of its financial difficulties. [53]

The crisis of the FN was underlined later that year. In the European elections Mégret lost his deposit and the FN score fell below 6 percent, although the far right vote as a whole bore comparison with previous scores. Exit polls revealed that the electorate as a whole considered immigration to be the least significant of all issues influencing their choice of candidate. When the FN came to discuss its programme in the autumn the confusion into which the new situation had thrown the organisation was revealed by the attempt by Le Pen’s son-in-law to convince the membership that it needed to recognise that France was a multi-faith society and that people could be Muslim and French. Debates were also aired the following spring about whether the organisation should continue to advocate the mass repatriation of immigrants or call for a ban on abortion.

Such episodes are an indication of the turmoil experienced by the far right in 1999–2000. Had the anti-racist mobilisations continued no doubt this turmoil would have intensified, but they did not. The Manifeste contre le Front National, linked to the Socialist Party but for a time one of the most dynamic of France’s anti-racist groups, decided that the FN was finished, that the Manifeste had therefore become obsolete itself and should fold. This gave Le Pen a breathing space. In repairing the damage to the organisation he remained faithful to the strategy outlined by Ordre Nouveau 30 years earlier. On the one hand, he strove to bind the membership together, organising a series of dinner debates, activist meetings and rallies across France. He also sent out very clear messages to those who had remained with the FN, reminding them that the role of the FN was not confined to electoralism: ‘The national right will be called to power like firefighters or paramedics, when there’s nobody else around. It’s probably our mission.’ [54] When he was suspended from seeking public office after attacking a Socialist Party candidate he gave an interview with Le Parisien in which he told how he had been responsible for breaking the far right from its long-held belief that power would be won via a coup d’état: ‘I said, "There is no other useful, efficient and legitimate means of winning power than the democratic route."’ Now, however, he was bitter: ‘I’m aware that the democratic route that I’ve always followed and advocated has led to us being boxed in.’ [55] At the same time he attempted to regain the organisation’s legitimacy all over again, recruiting De Gaulle’s grandson from the traditional right to play a leading role in the party’s European election campaign, toning down his attacks on immigrants and Jews and unveiling a 50-point plan of law and order measures in the spring of 1999.

The crisis of social democracy

The issue of security, or law and order, was to play a major part in the FN’s revival. But, like the immigration issue, it did not fall from the sky. When they were elected in June 1997 the Socialists claimed to have three priorities: jobs, health and education. Three weeks after their victory, when Jospin introduced his programme to the new parliament, these had been reduced to two: jobs and law and order, at that time fifth in the list of voter priorities, behind unemployment, poverty, heath and road accidents. It has been largely thanks to the Socialists’ constant focus on the issue that law and order is at the centre of political debate.

What linked the left’s part in creating the immigration issue in the 1980s and its attempt to push security up the political agenda after Jospin’s election was that both issues were used to detract from the left’s failure to deliver social reform. Those who elected Jospin in 1997 wanted to see a reduction in the working week and an end to long-term unemployment and job insecurity. The main plank of Jospin’s reform programme was the reduction of the working week to 35 hours. This, it was promised, would create jobs and give people more time to do other things. The reality proved a bitter disappointment for many workers. It is estimated that by 2004 the 35-hour week will have created around 400,000 jobs. But those who feel they have benefited from the reform are generally those who were better off in the first place: middle managers, technicians, qualified (male) workers, and those working in big companies. Their long working days have not changed, but they now get more days off. Those who do not feel they have benefited are manual workers, many of whom have had to accept a wage freeze and the scrapping of overtime payments. Often their workload has increased and they no longer feel in control of their time. One of the principal effects of the reform has been to allow employers to impose flexibility on workers, creating irregular working patterns and the sense that work time is increasingly eating into private time. The variance in the implementation of the reform for different groups of workers, and the growing tendency to draw up working schedules on an individual basis, has increased inequalities between groups of workers and potential antagonisms between individuals. [56] As one Citroën worker remarked after Jospin’s defeat:

The 35 hours have swindled everyone. The 35 hours gave too many advantages to management; it aggravated exploitation. Me, I’ve worked here for over 30 years so I’m not going to start slagging it off. But before, when I worked on Saturdays I got a bonus. Now they’re always asking me to work at the weekend, and I get nothing. [57]

Jospin’s problem was not simply that his claim to want a ‘market economy but not a market society’ proved illusory. He also had to do something about it. In this light, the insistence on the problem of ‘urban violence’ by his government, as Loïc Wacquant has underlined, has little to do with any new developments concerning juvenile delinquence. What is at stake is a redefinition of the role of the state:

A Keynesian state, vector of solidarity, whose role was to thwart the cycles and ravages of the market, to ensure collective ‘well-being’ and reduce inequalities, is succeeded by a Darwinist state which makes a fetish of competition and celebrates individual responsibility, whose flipside is collective irresponsibility, and which withdraws into its hypertrophied regal functions of maintaining order. [58]

The left coalition’s refusal to intervene to stop the closure of the Renault-Vilvarde factory in Belgium immediately after its election in 1997 or the 7,500 job losses announced by Michelin in September 1999 is an indication of this shift. One woman affected by the LU closure in Calais summed up the mood:

I always voted Jospin or Socialist before the restructuring plan. For me, it’s normal: socialism has always defended the worker. This I’ve not understood. When Danone said they were closing Calais, the government dumped us. That’s why I voted for Madame Laguiller, mostly to put Jospin in the shit. [59]

Interviewed on television about Michelin’s sackings, planned over three years despite a 17.3 percent rise in the company’s profits, Jospin was blunt: ‘I do not think we can administer the economy.’ In one sentence he turned his back on the Socialists’ electoral promises to step in when such situations arose. It was down to the unions to do something about it. [60]

Where the state could play a role was in ensuring that law and order prevailed. Jospin and his interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, along with the former left winger turned security adviser Julien Dray, repeatedly tried to convince the left that law and order was a republican issue, that ‘insecurity was also an inequality’. [61] Security, argued Chevènement, was a left wing concept because the Declaration of the Rights of Man put ‘safety’ on a par with liberty. In the same breath he provided a concrete example of how these rights were to be applied by the Socialists: the entire basis upon which post-war France had dealt with juvenile delinquency, emphasising education rather than repression, was to be turned on its head. Chevènement’s republican wish was that children who committed crimes would now be rounded up and locked away. [62]

Trotsky was full of scorn for the attitude of the Radical party in 1930s France, faced with the big bourgeoisie’s attempts to cower it with the threat of fascism: ‘If you do not stop flirting with the socialists and coyly promising the people mountains and miracles, I will call in the fascists! ... After which the Radical camel gets down on his four knees. There is nothing else he can do.’ [63] Jospin’s defeat, his clearly shell-shocked state as he announced his withdrawal from politics on 21 April, evoked sympathy in some quarters. Leading the tributes was the Financial Times, which saw tragedy in his ‘leaving the stage like Shakespeare’s King Lear – "a man more sinned against than sinning".’ What was Jospin’s great achievement? Naturally, the 35-hour week was mentioned, but not in the context of any significant improvement it had brought to the lives of the Socialists’ electorate. No, as far as the Financial Times was concerned the measure instead ‘provided a convenient smokescreen behind which more pragmatic policies, such as privatisation, could be introduced’. [64] This was a fitting epitaph to Jospin’s political career. It had taken off when, as Socialist Party secretary, he had reconciled the membership to the abandonment of its reform programme of 1981 in favour of austerity measures, and now it had ended with him impotent in the face of a market economy running roughshod over society. In different circumstances and with different results, he found that like Salvador Allende in Chile his government was enduring ‘all of the disadvantages of capitalism, but none of the advantages of socialism’. [65] Unlike Allende, however, there was nothing tragic in Jospin’s fate. He had not been forced to his knees by the threat of fascism or by a military coup. His desire for ‘balance’, as one critique put it, ‘required other interests – those of the world of work – to be taken into account’. [66] Over time, as workers at Michelin and LU were to learn, ‘balance’ ceased to mean anything. As the slogan from May 1968 put it, ‘To give way a little is to capitulate a lot’. The sorry figure cut by Jospin on 21 April evoked less Shakespeare’s Lear than Trotsky’s camel.

Anti-capitalism and the revolutionary left

Despite Le Pen’s success the situation in France today is vastly different to that which accompanied the FN’s initial rise to prominence. Although, as we have seen, two decades of neo-liberal attacks have left their mark on sections of French society, the demoralisation and bitterness of the 1980s have given way to renewed combativity and confidence. The tremendous wave of anti-fascist demonstrations which took place on a daily basis nationwide from the moment the presidential results were announced on 21 April 2002 represented the biggest wave of protests to hit France since 1995. On May Day 2002 around 3 million marched across France, with huge demonstrations not just in Paris, Marseille (100,000) or Lyon, where 50,000 marched in torrential rain, but also in many smaller towns – Perpignan (15,000), Caen (35,000), Rennes (20,000) and Clermont-Ferrand (20,000) – which experienced their biggest demonstrations since 1968 and at the same time experienced something of Seattle, Genoa and Barcelona.

The demonstrations mixed anger, humour, solemnity and irreverence and were characterised above all by their verve and spontaneity. Schools, universities, workplaces, housing estates, associations and trade unions held meetings and mobilised for the protests. Thousands turned up with slogans written on anything they could find: bits of cardboard, pieces of carpet, old sheets and scraps of paper. ‘Vote for the crook not the fascist’, ‘I’d rather be screwed by Chirac than raped by Le Pen’, ‘You don’t discuss cookery with cannibals’, ‘Zero tolerance for fascists’. Students were particularly active, with entire schools turning up to march. In Paris a group of young demonstrators went into the streets to protest on the night of Sunday 21 April. The following evening they bumped into each other at another demonstration at the Place de la République. By Wednesday’s protest at the Bastille they were calling themselves the ‘Mouvement spontané du peuple’ (Spontaneous movement of the people) and writing the name on placards and banners. By the Friday afternoon they were meeting up with activists from the DAL homeless association to organise a street forum and drawing up leaflets to hand out to school students with the independent SUD trade union. [67] This was a pattern repeated all over the country. Small groups of people threw themselves into the movement against Le Pen and found themselves joining up with others and suddenly addressing issues which went far beyond the question of the FN. This is not an inward looking, defensive reaction against fascism but a vigorous, confident movement which is spontaneously seeking political alternatives. It is this movement which is posing the question of unity on the revolutionary left and the possibility of building a new anti-capitalist organisation.

Such mobilisations underline the extent to which things have changed since the 1980s. But they have also changed since 21 April. In August 1998 the fear of being co-opted by a political party led to a public statement by representatives of many of the groups associated with the so-called ‘social movement’. Their appeal ‘for the autonomy of the social movement’ declared that the movement would strive for a society based on solidarity and equality through action which bypassed political parties. Since then, however, groups and associations which set out with a deliberately narrow focus have found themselves confronted with questions that require a much more general response and a much broader base from which to act. Groups organising homeless or unemployed workers, for example, find themselves drawn into anti-fascist activity with groups like Ras l’Front, alongside other associations like the AIDS awareness group Act-Up or Attac. The Attac leadership in turn finds itself called upon by its associations to draw up a response to events like the presidential election or finds it position on the war on terror challenged by more radical sections of the membership. This means, on the one hand, that autonomy is not really feasible, and on the other that that associations like Attac are not just actors in struggles, they are also themselves arenas where the shape and direction of these struggles will to a certain extent be determined. [68] The experience of Attac is a good example of how the crisis of social democracy is opening up a space for groups and associations which exist somewhere between the status of an association and a political party. Increasingly, however, Attac is being forced to confront situations which can only truly be resolved through the application of the general politics and strategic orientation of a party. Under pressure from the right, which would prefer Attac to operate in the orbit of mainstream parties as a pressure group, and from the left, which would like to see it engage more decisively in the struggle against capitalism, fascism and war, the organisation is prey to paralysis. Its ability to play a full role either in mobilising for anti-capitalist protests, for example in Genoa or Barcelona, or in building an anti-war movement has already been put to the test (with the association found wanting) and is likely to come under further strain.

The thirst for political solutions generated by 21 April is likely to accentuate this tendency. All political parties have experienced a huge demand for membership since the election. This is an expression of the growing understanding of the need for political solutions. All this, then, places an even greater responsibility on the parties of the far left.

All this then, places an even greater responsibility on the parties of the far left, Lutte Ouvrière and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR). The two organisations have until now adopted different perspectives. LO’s primary focus has always been on building in the workplace. This means it has been able to play an active part in a number of important strikes over the years, but LO has never played a leading role in the struggle against the FN and has refused to engage with the anti-capitalist movement on the pretext that it wants to ‘file the nails of finance capital, but without destroying big capital’. [69] This means that LO has been able to build an organisation which is stable but wedded to its routine. In contrast the LCR has been a much more prominent actor when it comes to anti-fascism and anti-capitalism. But the organisation’s diverse membership, much of it forged in movements where the LCR’s politics have not been to the fore, shares different views on the role of the party, with some tempted by a radical ‘left of the left’ coalition with elements of the plural left and others a more revolutionary anti-capitalist formation.

In 1995 Arlette Laguiller, Lutte Ouvrière’s presidential candidate, launched a call for a big party of the revolutionary left, only for the organisation to withdraw back to the comfort of small-scale activity. LO therefore failed to capitalise on its electoral success of 1995, when Laguiller won around 1.5 million votes. Prior to this year’s poll she revealed that only if LO doubled its 1995 score might the conditions be right to build such a party. Whatever the organisation may declare, however, it is not LO which is setting the conditions, but the urgency of the situation in the factories and streets and offices where its electorate live and work. Lutte Ouvrière chose not to take responsibility for its 1995 vote and lived to fight another day. The present situation will be less forgiving. Already some of the dynamic of its recent election success has been lost. Between the two rounds of the election LO took a formally correct position of calling on voters to reject Le Pen but not to give credence to the idea that a republican front could stop him by voting Chirac. At the same time the organisation called on people to demonstrate against the FN. But the present situation demands much more than adopting formally correct positions and waiting for conditions to mature.

Although most of those who demonstrated against Le Pen also voted Chirac, there were a number of problems with this ‘republican front’. France, as we have seen, was not about to turn to fascism. The mobilisation of the mainstream right’s electorate alone was enough to outnumber Le Pen’s vote by two to one. The left, moreover, in advocating electoral unity with the mainstream right has increased the pressure on itself to withdraw in future elections when faced with FN candidates. Le Pen, meanwhile, opposed by an alliance stretching from the employers’ association to the Communist Party, was able to present himself as ‘the only opposition to the system’. [70] The LCR’s decision to effectively call for a vote for Chirac was a concession to this republican front myth, championed so aggressively by the entire establishment between the two rounds of the election. The Ligue eventually bowed to this pressure because of its engagement with the movement, in which it played a significant part, reflecting its own difficulties in holding to an independent line within a mass movement. LO, by contrast, did not play a leading role in building the mobilisations. In the absence of such an engagement with the living, active alternative to the republican front, its trenchant rejection of the Chirac vote struck a discordant note with many activists and opened the door to some disgraceful attacks by mainstream politicians insinuating collusion between LO and the far right.

But instead of using the mobilisations as a springboard to launch a united organisation of the revolutionary anti-capitalist left, LO chose instead to attack the LCR for backing a vote for Chirac. The Ligue, argued LO, had ‘prostituted itself’. Worse still, the organisation then used this as a pretext for rejecting the LCR’s call for an electoral agreement in the June 2002 parliamentary elections. In April 2002 the total score of the far left represented twice the number of votes won by LO in 1995. To use Laguiller’s own words, this vote underlines the fact that ‘something has changed and large numbers of people are aware that workers need an instrument for their defence and that the Communist Party has shown it is no longer that instrument’. [71] Faced with the urgency of the present situation – the decline of social democracy, the resurgence of fascism and the demand from below for a left alternative – LO’s rejection of the call for unity is not just sectarian; it represents an outrageous abdication of responsibility. Given the opportunity of engaging with the hundreds of thousands of individuals looking for political solutions to the present crisis and of offering them practical leadership, LO has chosen instead to abstain. A minority within the organisation, no doubt aware that LO is scuppering its chances of playing a political role of any real consequence, has challenged the leadership’s stance, and it is to be hoped that others follow. The LCR’s response to the election and its aftermath has been incomparably better, calling for forums to be held in the autumn to build a new anti-capitalist left. Meanwhile, those who want to salvage something from the experience of the plural left have moved quickly to attempt to recreate a left reformist current of Greens, Socialists and Communists. [72] There is a battle under way, then, for the future of the left. At stake is the chance to go beyond the existing framework of the left and offer a political home to the many thousands of radicalising voters of 21 April, who are actively seeking one today. Failure to act decisively will allow other forces to regain the initiative. In the coming weeks and months there will inevitably be attempts to revive social democracy with calls for a new ‘radical’ coalition. Revolutionaries have an unprecedented opportunity to build a viable alternative. This means fighting for a new party which is unflinching and principled in its opposition to fascism, capitalism and war.


Le Pen’s presidential score reflects both the FN’s organisational durability and the volatility of the context within which it is operating. The organisation’s ability to revive after the 1999 split is a product of the deep-seated nature of the crisis of mainstream politics. Le Pen’s success, the credibility and prestige which it has brought, will strengthen the organisation in the short term. In the week following the first round results the party claimed to be recruiting between 700 and 1,000 people a day. One striking consequence of Le Pen’s success was the willingness of FN voters to express publicly their reasons for voting FN. In contrast, before the first round pollsters had been obliged to double the numbers of people indicating support for the FN because of the sense of shame felt by those making such an admission. The fact that he maintained the support of over 5.5 million people in the second round, in spite of the biggest wave of anti-racist mobilisations ever seen in France, is an indication of how the polarisation of politics in France is intensifying.

There comes a point, then, when pinning the label fascist on Le Pen and denouncing his racism in not enough. Millions of people have shown that they are willing to stomach all this in the hope that Le Pen will bring a strong-arm solution to their problems. Many of these people will only be won away from the FN if they feel another credible alternative is on offer. Countless recent examples show that increasingly combative movements are developing internationally against global capital, neo-liberalism and war: the 3 million strong demonstration in March 2002 against Berlusconi, the biggest in Italy since the war, and the subsequent general strike; the 500,000 who demonstrated against capitalism and war at the European Union summit last spring; and the Argentinian uprising at the turn of the year. In Buenos Aires one of the protesters watched wave upon wave of demonstrators streaming into the city centre. The thought which occured to him – ‘This is like the fall of the wall. This is the fall of the neo-liberal wall’ [73] – expresses a widespread sense that an old order is fading. The polarisation dealt with here is one of the consequences. Those who want to replace that order with something better are increasingly being confronted with situations which require the broadest possible unity in action to deal with an immediate threat – fascism, war, neo-liberal reforms – and the sharpest possible clarity in order that such action is as effective as possible. For those engaged in such struggles, the question of political organisation, how to build unity and offer leadership, is therefore being posed with increasing urgency – and nowhere more so than in France.


I am grateful to Antoine Boulangé, Sebastian Budgen, Denis Godard, Paul McGarr, Megan Trudell and Helen Wolfreys for their help in the preparation of this article.

1. S. Beaud and M. Pialoux, Emeutes urbaines, violence sociale, Le Monde Diplomatique, July 2001.

2. G. Filoche, Le travail jetable non, les 35 heures oui (Paris 1999), ch. 5.

3. L’Humanité, 3 May 2002.

4. Le Monde, 28 April 2002.

5. See P. Fysh and J. Wolfreys, The Politics of Racism in France (Macmillan 1998), ch. 3.

6. The Guardian, 13 May 2002.

7. Le Figaro, 23 April 2002.

8. J. Wolfreys, Shoes, Lies and Videotape: Corruption and the French State, in Modern and Contemporary France, November 2001.

9. G. Dufoix, cited in J. Wolfreys, Protecting Democracy? State Crime by France and its Control, in J.I. Ross (ed.), Controlling State Crime in Advanced Industrialized Democracies (New York 2000).

10. France 2, 21 February 2002.

11. P. Mauroy, cited in Le Monde, 24 April 2002.

12. Yves Mény, La Double Mort de la Ve République, Le Monde, 23 April 2002.

13. On the period opened up by the 1995 strikes see J. Wolfreys, Class Struggles in France, International Socialism 84 (Autumn 1999).

14. P. Poujade, cited in A. Rollat, Les hommes de l’extrême droite (Paris 1985) p. 25.

15. Police report made out by acting chief superintendent of the police district of Algiers, cited ibid., p. 26.

16. Ibid..

17. See M. Abdelbaki in Libération, 12 February 1985, and H. Kéfamané, La Pacification, cited in J. Lorien, K. Criton and S. Dumont, Le Système Le Pen (Brussels, 1985), p. 43.

18. Le Monde, 4 May 2002.

19. J.-M. Le Pen, Combat, 9 November 1962.

20. Le Pen, cited in G. Pons, Les Rats Noirs (Paris 1977), p. 150.

21. F. Gaucher, Le Fascisme est-il Actuel? (Paris 1961), pp. 115–116.

22. L. Gaultier, cited in L’Evénement du Jeudi, 15–21 February 1990.

23. Ibid..

24. Ordre Nouveau, Pour une Ordre Nouveau (Paris 1972), p. 153.

25. Ordre Nouveau Hebdo, 12 October 1972.

26. Pour une Ordre Nouveau, op. cit., p. 166.

27. Ibid., p. 160.

28. Ibid., p. 100.

29. A. Hitler, Mein Kampf, cited in F. Neumann, Behemoth (New York 1972), p. 358.

30. Ordre Nouveau, Third Congress, 9–11 June 1973. Cited in A Rollat, op. cit., pp. 58–59.

31. Ordre Nouveau Hebdo, 18 October 1972.

32. Cahiers Européens, May 1974.

33. F. Duprat, Pour une Théorie Nationaliste, in Dossier Nationaliste 1, 1979

34. Le National, April 1978.

35. Ibid..

36. Le Pen, interview in Europe 1, not dated. Cited in J. Lorien et al., op. cit., p. 135.

37. F. Duprat, Cahiers Européens Hebdo: Notre Europe 18, 18 April 1974.

38. F. Duprat, Pour une Théorie Nationaliste, op. cit..

39. Le National 14, September–October 1980.

40. Ibid..

41. See in particular the role of the ‘Nouvelle Droite’ in P. Fysh and J. Wolfreys, op. cit., ch. 5.

42. P. Mauroy, interview with Nord-Eclair, cited in Le Monde, 29 January 1983.

43. A. Bihr, La Farce Tranquille, Normalisation à la Française (Paris 1986), p. 39.

44. Cited in F. Gaspard, Une Petite Ville en France (Paris 1990), p. 182.

45. J. Chirac, cited in E. Plenel and A. Rollat, La République Menacée, Dix Ans De l’Effet Le Pen (Paris 1992), pp. 331–333.

46. Cited in E. Plenel and A. Rollat, op. cit., p. 99.

47. FN vote (%) = 6 + [1.7 × foreigners] + trace element, H. Le Bras, Les Trois France (Paris 1986), p. 216).

48. C. Husbands, The Support for the Front National: Analyses and Findings, Ethnic and Racial Studies (July 1991), p. 392. Any number of other correlations are also possible. One demonstrator turned up to the May Day protest against Le Pen with a banner showing two maps – one highlighting areas where the FN achieved its highest scores, another with the same areas marked showing contamination from the Chernobyl disaster. ‘Is this a coincidence?’ read the banner.

49. J. Wolfreys, Class Struggles in France, op. cit..

50. Libération, 3 May 1999.

51. P. Perrineau, Le FN Saisi par la "Debauche Democratique", Le Monde des Débats, March 1999.

52. Document drawn up by Y. Blot, Le Canard Enchaine, 17 February 1999. Blot later switched back to Le Pen before withdrawing from active politics.

53. Libération, 3 May 1999.

54. Le Monde, 28 May 1999.

55. Le Parisien, 29 April 2000.

56. C. Bloch-London and T. Coutrot, La réduction du temps de travail a-t-elle encore un avenir?, in Fondation Copernic, Un Social Libéralisme à la Française (Paris 2001).

57. Libération, 24 April 2002.

58. L Wacquant, Pénalisation de la Misère et Projet Politique Néolibéral, in Collectif Contre la Répression, Répressions, la Cagnotte et le Bâton (Paris 2000). See also L Wacquant, Les Prisons de la Misère (Paris 1999).

59. Libération, 24 April 2002.

60. Le Monde, 15 September 1999.

61. Le Monde, 27 October 1997.

62. Le Monde, 28 October 1997.

63. L. Trotsky, Whither France? (London 1974), p. 9.

64. Financial Times, 6 May 2002.

65. S. Allende, cited in C Marker (dir.), Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge (1973).

66. Fondation Copernic, Un Social Libéralisme à la Française, op. cit., p. 23.

67. Les Inrockuptibles, 1–7 May 2002.

68. On this and other questions relating to social movements, see C. Barker and G. Dale, Class Will Out? Some Remarks on Social Movements in Europe, paper for the European Sociological Association Conference, University of Essex, August 1997.

69. L’ Économie Capitaliste Mondiale, Lutte de Classe, December 2001.

70. Le Monde, 6 May 2002.

71. Arlette Laguiller, Lyon, 18 April 2002.

72. See the appeal for the reconstruction of the left launched by, among others, the Communists Patrick Braouezec and Geneviève Fraisse, Marie-Noëlle Lienneman of the Gauche Socialiste, the Greens Noël Mamère and Dominique Voynet (a former minister in the Jospin government) and a host of other ‘personalities’ (Libération, 29 May 2002).

73. R. Carcova, cited in C. Harman, Argentina: Rebellion at the Sharp End, International Socialism 94 (Spring 2002), p. 4.

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 19.6.2012