Issue 227 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
How did the split happen?
France has recently seen a series of different movements and struggles--among high school students, strikes in the public sector, on the railways, demos for Pinochet's extradition. All of them had very wide public support. At the same time there has been continued resistance against the French National Front (FN). In Lyons there was a demo against the alliance between one part of the Tories and the FN. This has put a lot of pressure on the fascists. Secondly, over the last year the FN has made electoral gains, mainly in the regional elections, and is having more and more say in local politics.
Mégret is the most prominent figure amongst the local FN politicians--he controls the southern town of Vitrolles. People have been saying, 'Mégret is the one who has the strategy to take power... Mégret is the leader of the FN for the future. Le Pen is too old. He's had it.'
The final straw came when Le Pen was convicted in court for physically attacking a Socialist Party candidate during the general election. This sparked off the debate about who would be top of the FN list in the forthcoming European elections--Le Pen or Mégret. Everyone thought Le Pen would be barred, but the appeal court reduced his sentence to one year ineligibility, which gives him enough time to stand as number one on the FN list.
Le Pen was aware that Mégret was becoming more and more popular, getting a stronger base, particularly inside the FN apparatus. So Le Pen precipitated the split. He reorganised the order of the main candidates. This provoked a reaction from Mégret pushing his supporters into coming out in open opposition to Le Pen in the last two months of 1998.
So Le Pen expelled Mégret on Christmas; Eve?
Yes. As soon as Mégret's supporters started openly criticising him, Le Pen's reaction was to up the stakes against Mégret and his supporters. He called them criminals, traitors, racists, Trotskyists. Mégret's background is not the same as Le Pen's. He comes from what was called the 'New Right' in the 1970s. These people tried to give a new basis for modern fascism, developing theories about the fundamental differences between people. Mégret is a very ideological leader, putting on a more respectable face for the FN at the same time as developing racist theories and putting them into practice as well. It was Mégret who in Vitrolles introduced the special payments for 'European' children.
So now there are two fascist parties. What is the difference between them? Does the split represent a personal feud?
There is an element of feud. Mégret and Le Pen clearly now detest each other. Ambition is a factor too, over who will be the leader of the fascists, with all the financial and material benefits that go with the position. But the important thing that has coincided with this rivalry is a split on political strategy. In the 1980s it was Le Pen who formed alliances with the mainstream Tory parties, but now Mégret has become the symbol of this strategy since the electoral victory in Vitrolles. Mégret wants the fascists to ally with the right in elections in order to get into power and put into practice the fascist programme. It is similar to what happened in Italy three or four years ago. Le Pen on the other hand has been coming out as the 'pure' fascist, with the FN as a 'third way', against everybody--against the left and the right.
Mégret talks about winning the 30 percent of people who have voted at some point for the FN. Does he want to use the deals with the Tories to make the FN more respectable?
In the run up to the pro-Mégret FN conference in Marignane at the end of January, Mégret had to offer an incentive to FN supporters to break with Le Pen. But it will take a lot more than this split to undermine the position of Le Pen. There is a difference between what has happened inside the party machine and among its supporters. Of the 272 FN regional councillors, more than 140 support Mégret but two thirds of FN voters are sticking with Le Pen. The political battle is not over.
For the last few years every time the FN has had a meeting there have been protests and opposition. What impact has this had?
We can see now the impact of the protests. Even in the smallest towns or villages, there is always some kind of counter-demonstration against FN electoral meetings. This makes it very difficult for ordinary FN members to carry people with them.
The turning point was the public sector strikes in November-December 1995, where for the first time we saw clearly how the FN's politics could be out of phase with the anger expressed by potential FN voters. So 70 percent of people who voted for Le Pen in the 1995 elections in fact supported the strikes to defend the welfare state. Since then this has continued to create problems for the FN whose members have less things to say to people when they are looking towards struggle.
The other important point is the size of the anti-fascist movement. In 1997 there was a march of 70,000 people in Strasbourg. After the 1998 regional elections there was outrage when the fascists won control of four out of France's 22 regions, which it managed to do by forming alliances with sections of the Tories. The reaction was enormous. More than 150,000 people demonstrated against fascism.
These two factors mean it is more difficult today for a fascist to win the people around him than it would have been four or five years ago. The leaders of the FN know this, and both Le Pen and Mégret are looking for a way to resist this pressure, and to try to keep on building.
What has been the response of the left and the
anti-fascist groups to the split?
There has been no serious analysis of what is happening. When the split started, people said, 'This is normal. This happens to all extremist, totalitarian parties. There is no debate, so sooner or later they split and then they disappear back into the margins.' The general idea is that this is inevitable and that all you need to do to stop the development of the FN is to stay within parliamentary politics.
There are three main organisations fighting against the fascists. One of them, the Manifeste against the FN (which is run by the Socialist Party), thinks that the danger is over, so its members are talking about changing their name so there is no reference to the FN.
Another example is what happened in the Rhône-Alpes region which centres on Lyons at the beginning of January. This region was run by Charles Millon--a Tory elected thanks to support from the FN. There were huge mobilisations against Millon. On 3 October; for example, there was probably the biggest ever demonstration against fascism in the history of Lyons.
Millon's election was invalidated on a technical point, so the regional council had to elect a new president. The Tories were split. One section supported another candidate backed by the FN. The other Tory candidate won the vote, but only because of the support of the left--of her 75 votes, 60 came from the left wing parties.
What effect has the split had on support for the FN?
It will be weakened numerically, but the way that Le Pen has pushed the split will harden up the fascists. Le Pen has compared it to the fight between Caesar and Brutus in ancient Rome, with himself as Caesar and Mégret as Brutus who betrayed the emperor Caesar. Le Pen said that unlike Caesar he will put the sword in first, and get rid of the dead wood. I think those who stay with Le Pen will come out hardened ideologically and even more determined than before. They can still represent a real danger.
Recently them was a strike by teachers at a school in Normandy against young Muslim women being allowed to wear headscarves. What was the response?
Neither the trade unions nor the main parties did anything. This left the door wide open to the fascists. Mégret went to the school, supposedly to support the striking teachers. The only response came from the youth in the housing estates around the school. As soon as they heard that Mégret was coming there was a spontaneous demonstration. They tried physically to stop him from getting into the hotel where he was giving a press conference and bombarded him with tomatoes. The fascists had to move from the first hotel, and even in the second one during the press conference you could hear people shouting outside. This shows how many people are conscious of the danger that Le Pen and Mégret represent.
As well as the strikes, a large movement has grown in defence of the 'sans papiers'--immigrants who have been denied residence permits by the state. How does this fit into the
It is linked to the other movements, and shows the growing confidence of anti-racists. Recently, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the Green Party list in the coming European elections, said that all immigrants should be given permission to stay. The Socialist government under Lionel Jospin has consistently refused to do this, but an opinion poll published a few days later showed the polarisation over the question. While 48 percent thought they should not get permission to stay, 45 percent said they should. This is a very high level of support, which reflects the change in ideas.
Do you think the split can be a turning point in the struggle against the Nazis?
It can be, but we do not know which way it is going to go. It has been a testimony not just to the resistance but also to the growing feeling that things have to change. People are actually fighting for changes. There have been an astonishing number of small strikes over the last two or three months in the most unlikely places--museums, even the staff on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Small numbers of workers have gone on strike and have won victories such as more jobs.
At the same time it is a challenge for the left. What is likely to come out of the FN split is a hardened fascist core in France, even if it is momentarily weakened in number. If the hopes which are building up are dashed, the fascists could take advantage to make a breakthrough in the future. The left must build to ensure they do not get that chance.