France may have just plumped for another dose of President Emmanuel Macron and turned its back on Marine Le Pen’s far-right offering but the respite may yet prove temporary. The millions who voted for Le Pen seem proof of a changed French mood. In a piece from 1992, Denis MacShane, not yet a Labour MP, reported from Lyon on the state of French politics during the regional elections of 1992 when Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, led what was then the Front National. What was most remarkable, writes MacShane, was that Le Pen was treated with respect by newspapers and commentators on both sides of the Channel, as if he were just any other political leader rather than an unrepentant anti-Semite.
Forget Ivan Demjanjuk and other relics of the Nazi era now facing trial, or in the case of the plucky freedom-loving Baltic states, being amnestied from ever facing trial. In France, they go one step further. An ex-Gestapo agent, whose life has been spent in the service of the extreme right, is poised to emerge as head of a key French regional government after the regional elections on 22 March .
His name is Paul Malaguti and he heads the ticket for the neo-Nazi National Front party in the region around Bourges in the centre of France. As a 17-year-old, Malaguti enrolled as a Gestapo agent in 1944 in Cannes and stood guard while the Gestapo shot resistance fighters. One victim escaped and later provided the vital eye-witness evidence linking the National Front candidate with his Gestapo youth.
Malaguti’s defenders pooh-pooh his wartime Nazism as a youthful error, and France is, in any case, riddled with Nazi collaborators, but in Monsieur Malaguti’s case his love-affair with the extreme right is a life-long fixation. He was imprisoned for participating in the OAS, the white supremacist terrorist outfit that wanted to keep Algeria French, and which tried to assassinate De Gaulle. Malaguti acted for a time as [Jean-Marie] Le Pen’s bodyguard and is one of the faithful who stayed close to Le Pen during the years in the wilderness for the National Front leader.
By placing him to head the list in one of his strongest electoral areas, Le Pen is not only rewarding a faithful follower, but giving what the French call un bras d’honneur (put your left hand on your biceps and jerk your forearm and fist sharply upwards) to all those who denounce the neo-Nazism of the National Front.
Le Pen is now cocky. His opinion poll support and the extent to which he is setting the political agenda in having French conservatives like Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing run behind him make him feel he can slip an ex-Gestapo agent into power without too much of a fuss being made.
His gamble is not that risky. The most extraordinary aspect of the rise of Le Pen and the National Front is the extent to which French society, and especially the television and press, accept this raving Jew-baiter as a normal, if regrettably extreme right-wing politician.
It is a problem that goes beyond French borders. Writing in the NSS [New Statesman and Society, as this magazine then was], there is no problem describing the National Front as “neo-Nazi” but, in the press generally, there has been a marked shift to a respectable treatment of France’s fascist party and its anti-Semitic leader. Three newspapers, the Financial Times, the Sunday Times, and the Guardian, have recently produced profile-interviews of Le Pen in which he has had gentler treatment than say, David Duke, the Ku-Klux-Klan Nazi who ran for governor of Louisiana, or even Pat Buchanan, the anti-Semitic isolationist who is crusading against President Bush in the Republican primaries.
Le Pen came to London recently and welcomed journalists in an exclusive suite at the Savoy Hotel just like any other president-in-waiting. In France, the leading paper, Figaro, despite having as editor Franz-Olivier Giesbert, long a youthful star of left journalism in France, allows its widely-read weekend magazine to trumpet National Front ideas and extol its personalities and fellow-travellers. Yet to attend Le Pen’s meetings is to confront an anti-Semitism unheard in mainstream public discourse in Europe since the 1930s.
Le Pen has a steady turn of hate against those who sold out French values, ranging from Pierre Mendès France (Jewish), who gave Tunisia independence in 1954, to Laurent Fabius (Jewish), who is the French Socialist leader most identified with anti-National Front politics. Outside the National Front meeting halls, Jew-baiting posters of hook-nosed figures are on sale. Le Pen does not explicitly denounce someone as Jewish. He simply pauses dramatically in his speech as his lips curl round a Jewish name, and waits for the jeers and hisses to emerge from his audience. To journalists who come to sit at his feet he dismisses such points with a quip: “Just because I like Wagner, it doesn’t mean I’m anti-Semitic.” But he finds it difficult to keep the beast under control.
In 1990, he dismissed the Holocaust as a minor detail and last year his wordplay linking a Jewish Minister’s name to gas ovens popped out spontaneously at a televised meeting. The advantage that Le Pen has is that he speaks for more than just a lunatic fringe. When four people were killed in an Arab bombing outside a Jewish restaurant in Paris in 1980, the then prime minister, Raymond Barre, hurried to the scene. He expressed deep regrets, all the more so as “one of the victims was French”. The other three had French citizenship but were Jews, you see. In French, far more than in English or German, someone is comfortably identified in daily conversation as Jewish. C’est un Juif. C’est un Israelite.
The French establishment, like its English equivalent, is happier with the Arab world, and the money to be made from it, and has never been at ease with the existence of Israel. The French diplomatic service has always had a soft spot for the PLO and its leaders. Heads rolled recently when top diplomats allowed the terrorist leader, George Habash, into France for medical treatment (it later turned out there was nothing wrong with him) without informing ministers. But ever since De Gaulle’s putdown of the Jewish people and Israel – un peuple sur de lui et dominant – in 1967, it has been acceptable to hide a deep-rooted anti-Semitism in France behind a fashionable enmity towards Israel.
François Mitterrand, on the other hand, has made no secret of his penchant for Israel. He is the only Western head of state to have made a state visit there and, even while scornfully critical of Shamir and Likud policy, he has never hidden his admiration for Jewish cultural, intellectual and political tradition.
For the Anglo-Saxon left intelligentsia worldwide, Mitterrand has been presented as another betrayer of the faith, a closet Thatcherite draped in the tatters of French sold-out socialism. In fact, the European mainstream right, especially in England, hate him because his rule in the 1980s stopped a complete take-over of Europe by Reagan and Thatcher’s economic and social ideas. The mass nationalisations ordered by Mitterrand in 1981 were at odds with all “correct” economic thinking, and although many turned out to be lemons, centrally administered mixed economy France has turned out to be far more successful than free market privatised England in the past decade.
Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).