Jean-Marie Le Pen’s success in the first round of France’s presidential election—he came in second and faced President Jacques Chirac in the final round-fell far short of a “revolution,” despite the right’s wishful thinking. The number of votes in his favor has risen only slightly since 1995, and the rout of the Socialists was primarily caused by the disunity of the left and by the arrogant odiousness of Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister and presidential candidate who has now retired from politics. Even with the votes of his former ally Bruno Megret, Le Pen could not come close to becoming France’s president on May 5.
Le Pen’s relative success nevertheless indicates that he has tapped into resonant sources of grievance and concern. Many Europeans worry about immigration, crime, and the loss of cultural identity, and they feel alienated from the dominant post-national establishment. France is ten-percent Muslim today, and one third of her newborn babies are Arab, not French. Her classrooms have been turned into laboratories for multicultural experimentation, and her working-class suburbs are ruled by immigrant gangs that are every bit as violent as their counterparts in East L.A. or Brixton.
Faced with such issues, mainstream politicians run for cover—either because they don’t have a view, or because they have politically correct opinions that they know are still largely unpopular among the ruled, or because they are in tune with the silent majority but fear appearing racist. They say nothing, they do even less, and they pay the price. The upset in France thus fits in with the backlash against the left’s near-monopoly of power in Europe that was cracked by Silvio Berlusconi’s victory in Italy last year. The resurgent CDU in Germany—and its sister CSU in Bavaria—makes the prospect of a massive center-right comeback across the Rhine almost imminent.
The reaction from the French establishment between the two rounds of voting was predictable: Le Pen became the latest Hitler-of-the-week, a grave threat to civilization as we know it, symbolized by the euro, multiculturalism, the Common Agricultural Policy, and “tolerance.” “Non!” screamed the front page of the leftist Libération. The talking heads agreed that Le Pen voters needed reeducation and therapy. Chirac even declared that he would refuse to take part in the traditional presidential campaign debate with Le Pen: “I do not want this election to be confiscated by obscurantism, hatred and contempt. I do not want the French nation to yield to the giddiness of fear. This has been a combat all my life, in the name of morality and a certain idea of France,” he declared with his usual bombast.
That “certain idea of France” is a phrase coined by Charles de Gaulle, and, in its original meaning, it would apply more aptly to Le Pen than any of his opponents. Chirac’s kidnapping of De Gaulle’s legacy was dishonest but essential to his strategy, which had to throw a bone to the old right. He could take support from the mainstream left for granted: the loathing of the hoary, old Front National leader and everything he stands for—authority, patriotism, self-reliance, discipline, law and order, traditional values—had scared the French ruling elite and forced it to gather around Chirac. Paradoxically, the resulting strong mandate for the president paved the way for another seven years of the soft, center-right presidency—and this outcome is least likely to favor the real right.
This is counterintuitive but unsurprising: Those described by Le Pen as belonging to the “corrupt, cosmopolitan oligarchy” that runs France have more in common with each other, regardless of their political affiliation, than with the rest of their countrymen.
The good news for America is that Europe’s shift to the right makes its opposition to U.S. “benevolent global hegemony” more likely than under the assorted “Third Way” apparatchiki; who have dominated Europe for a decade. Only by reasserting its independence in foreign affairs can Europe help President Bush resist the rampaging interventionists who have become far too powerful for anyone’s good.