It could not have happened to a nicer party. You can almost smell the beer hall and hear the smack of knuckle on flesh. The lurid self-destruction of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France leaves one wondering how anyone could have voted for such a gang in the first place. And whether there is something special about the French that leaves them open to this sort of thing.
It is not just a matter of few deluded people. Fifteen per cent is a sizeable chunk of the electorate in any political language. As Europe’s most successful far-right movement, the Front has encouraged extremist imitators beyond France’s frontiers. It has a bunch of deputies in the European Parliament. Most of all, it has managed to hold an otherwise sophisticated nation, over 20 years, to political ransom.
Le Pen’s masterstroke has been to present the Front as a resistance movement, with all that implies in France. This is nonsense, if only because the party idolises Marshal Petain, the pro-Hitler leader whose wartime role was to crush an authentic resistance. I recall Le Pen in the 1970s as a jocular Paris lounge lizard sporting a black eye-patch which was said to be a badge of martial honour dating from France’s war in Algeria.
Since the mid-1980s, high unemployment and the inexorable advance of European integration have been Le Pen’s dearest allies, accompanied by the shrinkage of the now impotent French Communist Party. The first allowed the Front to target Arab immigrants from former French North Africa, who were handy for accusations of job-stealing, street crime and the adulteration of French blood; the second permitted an assault on Europe as destroyer of France’s sovereign culture. As for the demise of the Communist Party, it provided a rich vein of contentious recruits seeking a new home.
To hardcore nationalists, fundamentalist Catholics, shirty shopkeepers and the like was added a slab of the working class. Le Pen’s massaging of the 10 per cent who are part of France’s permanent proto-fascist rump into 15 per cent of electoral support has induced paranoia in France’s mainstream right.
The Front became the perfect vehicle for French gripers. In France, good grousing rates with good wine. However daft the philosophy behind it, bellyaching is looked up to as high entertainment. He who bitches best is top dog in the local cafe. The propensity for griping explains, I think, the propensity for extremist politics in France. And at the age of 70, Le Pen himself is the clown prince of gripers.
The result, for President Jacques Chirac’s Gaullists and the rest of the right, is that they have been paralysed by the contortion of the national vote. Not merely paralysed but morally rent, since some conservatives have proposed a deal with the Front to save their political skins – and have indeed struck one in important regions of the country. This serves the left. It bolsters Lionel Jospin, the Socialist premier, as France’s real boss ahead of Chirac.
The Front’s lethal hold on French politics might have been sustainable if it hadn’t given some thinkers in the movement ideas. Why, they asked themselves, don’t we use our muscle to seek power? The deals with wavering conservative provincial leaders led them to envisage a share in national government. All they needed to do was to look more respectable.
The strategy was not Le Pen’s but that of his long-time deputy, Bruno Megret, a diminutive intellectual who has passed through France’s most elite schools and is in all superficial respects the opposite of the choleric Le Pen. It would be a mistake, however, to see the prim Megret as civiliser of the Front: his basic message is identical to Le Pen’s, the more sinister for being bureaucratically parsed.
The enmity between the two has been growing. Le Pen, who believes the party is himself, hated the idea of Megret quietly snatching the administrative reins and the loyalty of party workers. This, as Le Pen saw it, was the pounding heart of France being surgically removed by a bloodless technocrat.
Having constantly landed himself in court for anti-Semitic and racist outbursts, then for physically roughing up a female Socialist candidate during a suburban Paris election campaign, Le Pen was ruled ineligible to stand for election for two years. This meant he could not contest France’s next presidential race nor could he head the National Front list in the 1999 European elections.
Megret saw his chance to shine in the boss’s place. Forestalling him, Le Pen immediately announced that he was placing at the head of the Front’s European list his new wife, Jany, an attractive blonde without political experience. As it happened, Le Pen then gained leave to appeal his ineligibility and put himself at the head of the list.
But by then bombs were shattering the Front’s camp: in the face of Le Pen’s megalomania, Megret demanded an emergency party congress to reunify the movement (read “oust the founder”). Within a few days, expulsions and suspensions decimated the leadership. Charges of plots and treason echo through the party. With characteristic restraint Le Pen is calling Megret’s putative putsch “a crime against France”and branding his ex-deputy a racist.
The mainstream right cannot believe its luck. France, it seems, is back to normal. It is worth remembering, though, that one in six French voters supported Le Pen, fully aware of his contempt for democracy. In this hour of political relief, it seems unkind to remind the French it is only a matter of time before the next extremist swell.