Issue 82 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published March 1999 Copyright © International Socialism
'Mobilisation against the Front provokes internal ructions, as the example of the Strasbourg congress clearly illustrates, when tensions between Le Pen and Mégret over the party's elections strategy emerged in public for the first time... These words are being written at a time of renewed hope about the prospects of blocking the fascist revival'.1
These are the conclusions of Peter Fysh and Jim Wolfreys' excellent book, whose central theme is the rise of and fight against Europe's biggest Nazi party, France's National Front. The book was published at the end 1998. It was barely off the presses before the authors' judgement on the possible effects of protests against the Front was confirmed in spectacular fashion. In the last weeks of 1998 the party was ripped apart by internal warfare, and split into two rival groups, one headed by the party's leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the other by his deputy, Bruno Mégret.
This infighting often took on bizarre forms. Le Pen denounced Mégret as an 'extremist, racist', while Mégret labelled Le Pen a 'guardian of Nazi ideas'.2 Physical clashes between supporters of the rival Nazi leaders erupted. In Marseilles, a Mégret stronghold, Le Pen supporters ransacked the local party headquarters.3 It certainly wasn't a happy Christmas in the Le Pen household. One of his daughters is married to a key Mégret ally and supported the revolt against her father, who publicly railed against this 'family treason'.4 Le Pen's other daughter backed her father and played a key role in organising the physical eviction of Mégret supporters from the party's national headquarters.5 The clashes culminated in Le Pen expelling Mégret and a number of his key backers, who—-at the time of writing-—were in the process of forming a rival party.6
These developments are marvellous news for every anti-Nazi. For over a decade now France's National Front has been the biggest and most important Nazi party in Europe, and one to which Nazis elsewhere have looked for inspiration. The fundamental reasons for the rift lie in the two key characteristics that have marked France in recent years. One is the revival of class struggle on a scale bigger than anywhere else in Europe. Beginning with the revolt of Air France workers in 1993, then through a revolt of youth against plans to impose a lower minimum wage, and culminating in the great public sector workers' strikes at the end of 1995, mass struggle and strikes broke the back of the country's right wing government.7 In 1997 this movement resulted in the election of a left wing coalition government dominated by the Socialist Party, the rough equivalent of Britain's Labour Party. That election has not ended the struggle. Rather, there have been repeated eruptions of struggle—-of lorry drivers, the unemployed, a general level of strike action far higher than in other European countries, and, in late 1998, the 500,000 strong revolt by high school students.8 All this has led to a marked and general shift to the left in France which has posed enormous problems for the National Front, an organisation with little to say when confronted with such struggles.
The second key factor is the upsurge, on a far bigger scale than ever before, of anti-racist and anti-Nazi mobilisations from late 1996 onwards. In the summer of 1996 the Tory government's barbaric treatment of the sans papiers (immigrants who had been made 'illegal' by a series of Tory laws) produced a wave of anti-racist mobilisations.9 Le Pen then sparked new outrage by explicitly saying that he believed in the 'inequality of races'.10 The anti-racist and anti-Nazi mobilisations began to grow in the wake of these events.11 By the end of the year virtually every public appearance by a National Front leader was met by impressive mobilisations, such as the one involving 20,000 people protesting against Le Pen in Grenoble in December 1996.
Initially this did not check the growth of the Front. A key turning point came, however, in February 1997, when the National Front won control of the town council in Vitrolles, an overspill town of around 40,000 people just outside Marseilles. This event had an electrifying effect on the atmosphere in the country. For the first time ever the Front won against a single opposition candidate, whereas previously whenever all the established parties had lined up behind a single candidate the Nazis had always been defeated.
The effect was immediate, galvanising a new burst of anti-racist and anti-Nazi activity. Within days of the Vitrolles result a huge movement against the Tory government's proposed new anti-foreigner laws erupted. A march in Paris against the laws attracted 100,000 people, though the real target was as much the National Front as the government's laws. Soon afterwards, at Easter, for the first time ever a national demonstration was called against the National Front when it held its annual congress in Strasbourg. A magnificent 70,000 people (very impressive, given the size and location of the city) marched through Strasbourg. What marked these protests was above all the optimistic feeling and the surge of participation by young people, going way beyond the traditional groups who joined such protests in the years before.12
The mobilisations began to crack the Front open, leading to the first signs of a rift between Le Pen and Mégret. The anti-racist and anti-Nazi mobilisations have continued to develop since the election of the Socialist Party government. For example, in the spring of 1998 some 200,000 people, overwhelmingly young, joined anti-Nazi marches around the country when some Tories, facing defeat in important regional council elections, tried to save their skins by making electoral deals with the Front.13 Even when the French football team won the 1998 World Cup the effect was to reinforce the already developing anti-racist, anti-Nazi mood. Le Pen had earlier attacked the proportion of black and Arab players in the multi-racial French team. Now that rebounded on him, especially as the team's star player, Zinedine Zidane, was the son of an Algerian immigrant and from the northern suburbs of Marseilles (an area which French racists find particularly objectionable). When one million people surged down the Champs Elysées in Paris calling for 'Zidane for President' it helped marginalise the Front further.14
Such large scale protests have been mirrored by the development of lively, young and confident local anti-racist and anti-Nazi movements, grouped in various organisations, the most important of which are SOS Racisme, Le Manifeste contre le Front National, and Ras l'Front.15 But many more people are involved in various other local groupings, and even in the towns where the National Front runs the councils the resistance has grown and is lively and confident.16 The social revolts, strikes and the like on the one hand, and the anti-racist and anti-Nazi mobilisations on the other are linked, but are not the same movement and there are important differences in composition and dynamic.17 But the combined effect has been to hem in and confront the National Front with bigger problems than it has faced for many years, and finally to provoke the internal rift which marked the end of 1998. That rift provides a marvellous opportunity to step up the pressure and begin not only to check, but to start to roll back the Nazi threat in France, a task which if done would be a major blow to their counterparts everywhere.
Whether that happens remains to be seen. It would certainly be foolish to conclude that the Nazi split on its own is sufficient to achieve that end. The history of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s shows that both Hitler and Mussolini survived important splits in their parties in the years before they took power. The National Front is not the threat that either of these were, but it is strong enough and well enough rooted in France to recover from the rift and make further progress, if it is allowed to. A warning came in the first opinion poll taken in France after the split between Le Pen and Mégret.18 In November 1998, before the split, the Front was running at 16 percent in polls. After the split it was still getting 14 percent, with 10 percent backing Le Pen and 4 percent Mégret.
Thus, despite the internal ructions, the Front remains a worryingly powerful force in France. It has repeatedly won double figures in percentage terms, often over 14 percent, in elections for many years (amounting to some four or five million votes on occasion). It has over 1,000 town councillors around the country, with significant numbers of councillors on every one of the country's important regional councils. It runs the council in four towns, all in the south: Toulon, one of the country's biggest cities, the smaller towns of Vitrolles and Marignane outside Marseilles, as well as the town of Orange. In short, a lot remains to be done in order to take advantage of the setback the Front suffered at the close of 1998.
In successfully doing that it is crucial both to understand what kind of party the National Front is and how it has built, and to overcome some of the weaknesses which have so far marked the opposition to it. Peter Fysh and Jim Wolfreys' book aims to tackle all of these questions, and for anyone wanting to learn and understand these issues and debates there is no better account.
The authors begin by tackling head on one of the central myths of French society, one shared by most of the left and anti-racist organisations and one which has hampered the fight against racism and the National Front. This is the notion that, in the country which gave the world the Declaration of the Rights of Man in the 1789 French Revolution, the traditions of a republic founded on such principles guarantee immigrants fair and equal treatment. In practice this myth has led to serious weaknesses in the anti-racist movement. These include a tendency to talk of the need to defend 'republican values' shared by all 'citizens' against the threat of the National Front. This leads to a political rhetoric and practice which do not correspond to the reality of what the 'republic' has meted out to immigrants and ethnic minorities.
It also leads to a tendency towards alliances involving the right wing which, so the argument runs, can be relied on to rally to 'republican values' against the Front. This wishful thinking is mirrored by a damaging refusal to take up a clear anti-racist stance on several key issues on the grounds that any expression of ethnic or cultural difference threatened the uniformity of France's supposedly democratic republican traditions and institutions.
A glimpse of what this kind of thinking leads to can be seen in the way that much of the left and the anti-racist movement has routinely united behind Tory candidates, and withdrawn their own candidates, to try and electorally check the National Front. This disastrous strategy had a long and terrible history in the 1930s. And in France today such a strategy ignores that Tories have repeatedly been prepared to make deals with the National Front (most notably in helping the Front achieve its first electoral breakthrough in Dreux in 1983 and most recently in the 1998 regional council elections).
Another glimpse of what this kind of thinking has led to can be seen in the disastrous response of much of the left and the anti-racist movement to the question of the right of muslim schoolgirls to wear headscarves at school. For any anti-racist in Britain it would be axiomatic that one defends this right. In France, however, much of the left and anti-racist movement has attacked and campaigned against it, on the spurious grounds that it somehow threatens the secular nature of the democratic, French republican education system. This has led to the grotesque spectacle of would be anti-racists lining up with racists. At the time of writing teachers in the town of Flers were striking to prevent a 12 year old schoolgirl being allowed into school wearing a headscarf. This strike saw the sickening spectacle of left wingers and Nazis like Mégret taking the same stance.20
Peter Fysh and Jim Wolfreys spend the first part of their book looking at the real history of the French state's treatment of immigrants. They utterly demolish the myth of the equal and welcoming republic. They chart how successive waves of immigrants have been subject to barbaric racism. They describe how in the 1880s and 1890s Belgian miners were 'attacked and forced to flee' from France. They chart the savage anti-Semitism which reached a high point in the notorious Dreyfus affair of the late 19th century. Poles, Italians and, since the second world war, Arabs and blacks have all been subject in their turn to savage racism.
The authors then turn to examine in detail how in the 1980s the previously marginal National Front made its first breakthrough. In 1981 'the National Front's motley band of a few hundred fascists, racists and ex-collaborators had failed even to get a presidential campaign off the ground, their leader [Le Pen], a verbose former paratrooper, unable to find 500 councillors or parliamentarians to sign his nomination'.21
The 1981 election saw the ending of 23 years of Tory rule and the victory of the Socialists under president François Mitterrand. But the hopes for real change millions had in the wake of that election soon turned to bitter disillusion, as Mitterrand bowed to the bosses and the bankers. His government pushed through savage cuts, and presided over soaring unemployment. The Socialists, and shamefully on occasion the powerful Communist Party too,22 sought to head off discontent by the well worn tactic of scapegoating and so whipping up racism.
In 1983 in Dreux, west of Paris, the Tories invited the National Front to join its electoral list to defeat the Socialists.23 The authors then chart in detail the way the Front was able to build on this breakthrough throughout the following years. It was helped by the appaling reaction of all mainstream politicians, President Mitterrand even deliberately changing the electoral system in the mid-1980s, hoping to help his party to hang on to power by 'dividing' the right and allowing the Front to enter parliament. The authors go through a detailed and informative discussion of the nature of the National Front vote, demolishing several myths as they go.24
They then turn to look at how Le Pen and his party emerged from a long standing racist and fascist tradition in France. This section has fascinating and informative description and analysis of movements from the Dreyfus affair to the 1930s rise of fascism in France, as well as the important phenomenon of the Vichy regime which collaborated with the Nazis in the Second World War. From this the authors move on to describe in detail the origins and emergence of the National Front from the fragmented Nazi groups in France in the 1970s.
The following chapters, among the best, examine in detail the ideology, strategy and organisation of the Front, and argue polemically and convincingly that the party is not simply a 'right wing' formation but a fascist, Nazi party. The authors also chart the various thinkers who have played a key role in forming the Front's ideas and so they provide a useful warning to those who think Nazis are simply about skinhead thugs. To be sure, such thugs are important, but mass parties can only be built on the basis of some, at least semi-coherent, ideology which, however filthy, can motivate and attract supporters. The authors also chart how the Front has had to weld together various strands, which often sit uneasily with each other inside the party—and which at points have been and can again be a source of internal tension and splits when the party is put under pressure.
An important part of the argument focuses on how the Front is not simply about racism, but provides, or attempts to, a global analysis of society and offers solutions-—from unemployment to housing, from the world situation to the environment. The way the Front draws in part on a bastardised version of the 'Marxist' ideology which the French Communist Party espoused, when in the post-war years it was by far the largest political formation in France, is particularly interesting. The Front's leaders understood that to build they had to fight on every issue, and try and achieve hegemony for their ideas. This certainly has been one of their major successes, one boasted about by Bruno Mégret,25 with mainstream politicians of all hues, including the Socialists, adopting much of the Front's 'discourse'.
'By the early 1990s, references to 'levels of tolerance', the 'invasion' of immigrants, and the 'noise and smell' of foreigners, were no longer the vocabulary of an isolated racist minority. they had become the language of statesmen'.26 Indeed the three expressions mentioned were used respectively by François Mitterrand, former Tory president Valéry Giscard D'Estaing, and current Tory president Jacques Chirac. This evolution to respectability of many of the Front's ideas and language has been one of the most depressing features of French politics of the last decade and a half.
The authors also explain well how the Front has a conscious technique for cementing its softer periphery to its core ideas:
This was exactly the purpose of Le Pen's infamous reference to the Nazi genocide as a 'detail' of history. It 'was no slip of the tongue but a calculated raising of the tension between the NF hard core and the periphery. The remark was bound to provoke condemnations and resignations from the party, but everyone who stayed in had jumped an important hurdle. Some supporters were lost, but others were moulded in the Front's image'.28
Although the Front has laid great stress on winning electoral support, the authors argue that ultimately the party sees great social upheaval and possibly violent revolution as the way to power. Le Pen himself argued to the party's youth wing as recently as 1996:
The authors also show how the Front uses 'front' organisations to systematically implant the party in various sections of society. All this is extremely useful and provides indispensable information and analysis for anyone wanting to understood what the National Front is and how it has been built.
In the following sections of the book the authors turn to look at the development of the anti-racist movement. Particularly useful is their account of the development of organisation and protest among young beurs, young people of Arab immigrant origin. They also chart how sections of the established left have sought to manipulate such movements, for instance the Socialist Party in the 1980s, through organisations such as SOS Racisme. The book reveals how many of the established left wing and anti-racist organisations failed to seriously build on these movements of young people of immigrant origin and so failed to weld the resistance to racism and the National Front into an effective force in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The book concludes with an examination of the recent developments discussed earlier, both the success of the National Front in winning control of four councils, and the renewed and more hopeful rise of resistance to the Front and racism more generally. Here the authors are rightly particularly critical of the failure of the leaders of most of the left and the main anti-racist organisations either to correctly understand the nature of the Front or to take a clear stance on anti-racist issues such as the wearing of the headscarf by young muslim women.
On all these questions Peter Fysh and Jim Wolfreys have provided the clearest, most detailed and sharpest analysis yet, and in that sense I can wholeheartedly recommend this book. There are, however, some criticisms which I feel obliged to make, most of which are, it should be said, not primarily the authors' responsibility.
One is simply the price. At £45 the book is way out of the reach of most people. That of course is the publishers' fault, and one can only hope that they see fit to produce a paperback version at a more affordable price. The price reflects the audience the publishers have in mind—-essentially an academic one. They obviously see the book as one for university level politics courses. That aim has imposed certain restrictions on the authors too. In general they work hard, and with success, to avoid falling into the kind of style and language of academicism, and of treating the subject in terms of differing 'models' and 'discourses' that can characterise such sterile discussions. There are some, thankfully few, occasions where this does happen though. And at times one feels a tension in the book between the differing audiences the authors have in mind, or have been obliged to keep in mind.
More important is another problem. In part this is one which confronts anyone writing about contemporary French society. This is how to integrate the various aspects of a total picture-—from the social struggles, strikes and the like to the rise of and resistance to the National Front. Naturally in this book the authors focus on racism and anti-racism, the National Front and its opponents. The authors do constantly link their subject to the wider developments in France, but in a way which is sometimes less than satisfactory. So for instance the great public sector workers' strikes of 1995 are there, but only for two paragraphs. Of course the rise of and resistance to racism and the National Front cannot be reduced to a reflex of the wider class struggle. Nevertheless the underlying class struggle is the key factor in understanding the totality of French society and politics. it is the feature which colours and shapes, even if it does not explain, all others.
One example is the impact of the 1995 public sector workers' strikes for the fight against racism. While Le Pen denounced the union leaders at the head of the strikes, and at one point even called for their jailing, an opinion poll showed that a majority of those who had voted for the Front earlier that year supported the strikes. The lesson for how the Front's base could be ripped apart and the party crushed are clear.30
Another example is the simple fact that in the waves of struggle and protest of recent years people of whatever colour and ethnic origin have been repeatedly fighting together to defend their common interests. This ranges from white rail workers marching proudly behind a woman of Arab origin at the head of one of the biggest protests in 1995, to the profoundly multi-racial character of the school students' protests in 1998.31 This struggle on its own does not determine whether the National Front grows or declines, still less how the fight against it and racism more generally develops. But it is a reality that has huge implications for that fight and which shapes the entire society within which that fight takes place.
I feel that the excellent account given in the book would be only strengthened by spending a little more time on linking and relating the issue of racism and the wider struggle. Of course the remit imposed by the publishers no doubt placed sharp limits on how much this would have been possible. One can only hope that the authors, who clearly have the understanding and knowledge to do so, get a chance to round out their analysis in future writings. These few criticisms certainly should not deter anyone from reading what is without doubt the best and clearest account of the politics of racism, the rise of the National Front and the development and weaknesses of the resistance to it I have yet read.