Now that communism is dead, a new specter is haunting much of Europe—the specter of nationalism. In several countries, for the first time since World War II, what may be conveniently termed nationalist, right-wing, populist parties are on the verge of coming to power, or at least of gaining respectable numbers of seats in government. In Slovakia, for example, the Slovak National Party controls the ministries of education and transport as part of a six-party coalition.
What is more remarkable is the upsurge in populist nationalism in prosperous Western European countries. In Austria, Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party now has a solid 29 percent of the vote, and Haider is widely expected to be the next chancellor. In Belgium, the Flemish separatist Vlaams Blok has about 12.3 percent of the Flemish vote and is the largest party in Antwerp. In Norway, Carl Hagen’s Progress Party gained a surprising 15 percent of the vote in the recent general election, on a platform of immigration restriction and economic liberalization. In Denmark, the People’s Party achieved a remarkable 6.8 percent nationwide vote in its first electoral outing. In Italy, despite a recent slight decline in the votes of the National Alliance to about 24 percent, parties of the nationalist right probably have majority support. (The only things that stand in the way of a right-wing government in Italy are bad memories of the rightist Forza Italia government and the profound ideological differences between the National Alliance, which wants to retain Italy’s national unity, and the Northern League, which wants greater autonomy or even independence for the northern part of the country.) Even in Germany, that most angst-ridden of countries, small parties like the Bund Freier Bürger and the Republicans (now under new leadership) are expected to do reasonably well in the May elections. But the most significant example of resurgent European nationalism is in France, where Jean Marie Le Pen’s National Front (FN) has recently enjoyed phenomenal success.
The FN was founded in 1972 by Le Pen, a former soldier who had fought gallantly in Algeria and Indochina and who, in 1956, was the youngest deputy in France at the age of 27. For a long time the FN only obtained around one percent of the vote. In 1984, however, the FN captured 12 percent of the vote in the European elections. In 1986, the Socialist government introduced proportional representation, and the FN’s 11 percent national vote was translated into 3 5 seats in parliament. The establishment parties then combined against the FN (not for the last time) to reintroduce the “first-past-the-post” system, and the FN was reduced to one seat in 1988. As Commandant Jacques Dore, the distinguished ex-naval officer who is the FN’s Chief of Cabinet for Foreign Affairs, says justifiably: “France now has a National Assembly in which the Communists have 38 Deputies to represent 2,440,951 voters, whereas the FN, with 5,812,797 voters, has only one Deputy. It seems France is no longer a democratic country.” For several years after that, the FN consistently polled between 12 and 14 percent of the vote, an important percentage which ensured that the mainstream parties were compelled to display at least token interest in the FN’s central themes of national identity and independence.
The momentum really began to build when the FN scored 15 percent in the 1995 presidential elections. In 1996, the FN scored over 30 percent of the vote in municipal elections in 14 of France’s biggest towns and cities, and won control of three councils: Orange, Marignane, and Toulon. In February 1997, they added to these three the southern town of Vitrolles, with 52.5 percent of the vote—despite the creation of an anti-FN “Republican Front.” In September 1997, at the FN’s annual festival, Le Pen announced to 70,000 FN faithful their convincing victory in the cantonal elections at Mulhouse, near Strasbourg. The FN had obtained 53 percent of the vote, and that in the first round. In the May 1998 elections “all the signs arc that the party will deepen its implantation within the French political structure,” as the British far-left magazine Searchlight has gloomily concluded.
The FN has been cautious and effective at the local level. For example, the first act of Vitrolles’ new mayor, the Cambridge- educated Catherine Megret, was to reduce all councilors’ salaries, including her own, by 30 percent. More recently, the council’s rechristening of Vitrolles streets (named by leftist councilors after sundry anti-apartheid activists and revolutionaries) has been welcomed as well. For instance, Vitrolles’ Place Mandela has been renamed Place de Provence. Although centralist by instinct, in the French tradition, the partyis keen on preserving local identities. There is no sign of the FN’s popularity receding at the local level, and this is certain to translate sooner or later into national power, either as part of a coalition or on its own. Prominent Gaullists like ex-President Giscard d’Estaing, former government advisor Robert Pantraud, and political analyst Alain Griotteray are now arguing that “L’ennemi, c’est la gauche,” and that an alliance with the FN is now a necessity. The FN might even be able to make it on its own if it had to and if its present level of support only slightly increased.
The FN is fortunate to have highly intelligent national leaders, such as the Orientalist Bruno Collnisch (the FN’s Secretary General), former Chirac speechwriter Bruno Megret (husband of the Mayoress of Vitrolles), economist Jean-Claude Martinez, and Yvan Blot (formerly head of the academic think tank, Le Club d’Horloge). There are several equally capable possible successors to Le Pen (who will be 69 in 1998). This fact alone shows how broad-based the FN has become.
It also has considerable support from both traditionalist Catholics and Protestants, as well as a not insignificant pagan fringe influenced by “New Right” philosophers like Alain de Benoist. However, the FN emphatically does not enjoy support from most Jews or Muslims. On the one hand, many believe that the FN is anti-Semitic, although several prominent members are Jewish, such as Captain Robert Hemmerdinger, a Free French captain and vice-president of the national committee of French Jews. The media tried to blame the FN for the desecration of the Jewish cemetery at Carpentras despite a complete lack of evidence, and their charges of anti-Semitism are lent credence, so far as the left is concerned, by Le Pen’s refusal to apologize for saying that the holocaust was “a detail of history.” Greater Jewish support for the FN is likely in the longer term, given Le Pen’s support for Israel and detestation of the large-scale Muslim immigration which has un-Frenched whole urban areas. Jews are understandably disturbed by racial nationalism, but the FN is a cultural nationalist party.
The FN’s relations with Muslims are strained because of its position on immigration and on Muslim mores, such as women wearing the chador in France’s fiercely secular schools. Even this aspect of the FN’s philosophy is not as simple as it might seem—the FN has been one of very few Western political parties willing to speak up for the sanction-hurt Iraqi people, in opposition to U.S.-inspired United Nations meddling in the region. The FN also has supporters of North African origin, such as Sid-Ahmed Yahiaoui, an FN councillor in the He de France.
The recent political success of parties like the FN was preceded—and has been accompanied by—an upsurge in discussion of previously forbidden (or at least unfashionable) topics, most obviously immigration and national identity. There is widespread, if inchoate, dissatisfaction with the conventional pieties. The intellectual climate is changing fast. The national consciousness, long the preserve of taxi-drivers and road-sweepers, has become respectable again, and found powerful new champions. The old ideals of the left are at last being held up to sustained, penetrating, and devastating criticism. To take just one example, six respected French scholars brought out a weight)- tome called The Black Book of Communism, which purports to list all the communist atrocities that Western liberals do not like to have discussed. Furthermore, the authors accuse Lenin of being equivalent in his brutishness to Stalin. One of the justificatory myths of French communism (and other national brands of communism) is that Stalin was a cynical adventurer, not really left-wing in fact, who unscrupulously capitalized on the work of well-meaning idealists like Lenin and Trotsky.
The FN takes this intellectual battle seriously, unlike most Anglo-American rightists, who seem to believe that “freedom of choice” and market competition are all that a healthy society really needs. The part)’ helps to fund publishing enterprises, such as the Institute of Social History (which produced The Black Book). Even the FN’s youth wing takes intellectualism seriously; the most recent issue of Agir, the Front National de la Jeunesse‘s magazine, featured a perceptive piece on Charles Maurras, atheist leader of the influential Catholic, nationalist, and royalist Action Française, founded in 1899, which lasted until 1945. FN publications are packed full of advertisements for books, tapes, CDs, videos, and even furniture and works of art.
Arguably the most important contributory factor to the FN’s progress, however, has been the failure of the established parties, especially those of the left, to provide civilized and comfortable living. Unemployment is 12.7 percent and rising; privatization is causing considerable pain in what is fundamentally a corporatist country; the economic burden of the planned single currency gets ever heavier; crime does not decrease; French power is indubitably on the wane. The cumulative effect of the depressing statistics is that the old myths of the left have become unbelievable, like stories of Santa Claus to six-year-olds. The collapse in France of the old left-wing ideology (if not yet the left-wing political parties—the French Communist Party is still the largest and most Marxist in Western Europe) has utterly changed the political landscape for the better. Even the FN does not arouse the old leftist spleen; only the Communists and various immigrant organizations bother to demonstrate these days, and they can only muster small numbers.
The leftist intellectual preeminence of the decades since World War II is founded on selective memories of wartime. As Rene de Chateaubriand once observed in disgust, “They [the French people] must be led by dreams.” The French left has certainly been led by dreams. Just as in other countries that were occupied by the Nazis during World War II, the postwar left was long sustained by an heroic myth of resistance to fascism. The romantic image created by leftist intellectuals, of gallant communist maquisards resisting whole Panzer columns of uncivilized, snarling Teutons, became an escapist reverie, serving to disguise the inconvenient fact that most French people had collaborated in order to eat, just as most British or Americans would have just got on with their lives had Britain or America been occupied by the Nazis. Tito got away with a similar trick in Yugoslavia, taking the credit for all the gallant work of the royalist Chetniks.
Because a very large number of conservatives had supported the regime of Petain, who for them had personified French endurance in adversity, it became easy for Charles Maurras and Maurice Barres to be bracketed with out-and-out National Socialists like Deat, Doriot, and Celine (who thought the Nazis were too moderate). “The Liberation had been largely a revolution against the Right, extreme or conservative,” as Eugen Weber notes in The European Right (1966). The right became associated with the horrors of Belsen, the left with freedom and patriotism. The left ended the war with an enormous moral advantage, upon which it capitalized by associating itself with the cause of the nation. Just as Stalin evoked “Mother Russia” for Bolshevik ends, the nationalist iconography of the tall man in the kepi was taken up by the French left, members of which were predisposed anyway because of the 1789 links between revolution and nationalism. It was this nationalist pose of the French left which made it so successful in the postwar period. As one astute French observer has noted, the French electorate is like an Edam cheese, red outside but white inside—revolutionary to obtain a pension and conservative to preserve it. The French people of all classes and opinions are deeply patriotic and protective of their national culture.
The myth of widespread, specifically anti-fascist national resistance allowed the French to save face in the age of America, that barbaric Anglo-Saxon backwater (as many Frenchmen saw it). The defeated Axis countries had their own myths to invent, but Italian Foreign Minister Count Carlo Sforza explained the postwar differences between his country and France this way: “The Italians must forget a defeat. The French must invent a victory.” In the interest of inventing such a victory, there sprang up folk memories of De Gaulle, the aquiline man of destiny, broadcasting to his enslaved nation from just across the English Channel and walking through the bullets of German snipers hiding in the rafters to celebrate High Mass in Notre Dame in August 1944. De Caulle deliberately associated himself with the powerfully symbolic Cross of Lorraine, the ancient emblem of national freedom once borne by Joan of Arc. His influence remains powerful even now. The Gaullist spell was summed up neatly by Luigi Barzini in The Impossible Europeans (1983): “Even those . . . who had feared and fought [De Gaulle] when he was alive, suddenly discovered they could not help but consider it sacrilegious to reject or betray his political heritage, his idea of France.”
However, leftist aims and priorities changed, as a new generation of leftists came to the fore and wartime memories began to fade. The Nazis were gradually transmuted into the “establishment” and the “police”—although they still survive as a potent psychological warfare symbol of both absolute evil and absolute banality. To the more stupid leftists, there was actually no difference between the Third Reich and the Fifth Republic—an idea reinforced in their minds by the relative ease with which most ex-collaborators, like Maurice Papon, faded into the bureaucratic wallpaper after 1945 (although Robert Aron has estimated that as many as 40,000 may have been summarily executed during the Liberation). “We are all German Jews now!” shouted the middle-class students across the barricades of’68.
Such patriotic aspects of the French anti-fascist myth as existed were slowly forgotten, superseded by the revolutionary aspects. The cult of De Gaulle fell into disrepair. Liberty was dropped in favor of equality. Exclusiveness was excluded and Frenchness deconstructed. Nationalism became fascism, the preserve of warmongers and the far right. Instead, the left turned fully towards revolutionary internationalism and multiculturalism, in accordance with its instincts. This turn has helped to accelerate both France’s drive towards European union and the reckless policy of admitting millions of immigrants. It has also fatally weakened the left.
The left is now increasingly—and quite correctly—viewed as the enemy of France and of Frenchness. The FN’s latest recruits are very often ex-communist voters, who have been encouraged by the FN’s recent shift away from Pelagian free marketeering towards a compromise between private and public ownership, in effect a move away from the recent Anglo-Saxon tradition. This shift has caused some trouble within FN ranks. A professor of economics told me at the FN festival that he thought the new line was “economically illiterate,” and that there was murmuring—but then he smiled fondly and said: “No doubt Le Pen will find some way around that, too!” The French are beginning to realize that European union will be extremely expensive and that serious social problems have been caused by immigration and multiculturalism. Only the FN is willing to address these topics seriously.
If an FN government, or a government strongly influenced by the FN, comes to power in France (as now seems likely), the effects will be incalculable. Europe’s political elite could easily ignore any of the Eastern European countries, Austria, or even Belgium if any of them were to elect an FN-style government, but they could not ignore France, a C7 nation with her own nuclear deterrent, the home of one of the world’s great civilizations. If a country like France, sophisticated and even cynical, can adopt a doctrine of national preference, there would be nothing to stop the same thing from happening in other G7 countries. If France, which has often led opinion before, adopts a radical new philosophy such as that espoused by Le Pen, then that new philosophy will be granted a degree of “respectability,” maybe even a certain radical chic.
Outside France, the effects would be felt most strongly in Brussels. Victory for an FN-style government would boost the forces of Euro-skepticism in every country, and encourage the further growth of FN-style parties. The effects would be immediately apparent in other parts of Europe, as the FN is organizing a European Nationalist Alliance (EURONAT). Recently, Le Pen or senior colleagues have visited Belgium, Germany, Rumania, and Slovakia, among other countries, and FN representatives have been regularly addressing crowds of 60,000 or more. There would doubtless be material help for parties in these countries if the FN came to power. In countries like Britain, where there is less scope for small parties, the Conservative Party would undoubtedly move closer to the British “The Impossible Europeans” that many Conservatives privately avow. The Canadian situation would be altered in the long term, with the Quebecois separatists heartened by such a result.
In 1831, Heinrich Heine aptly described France as “the Gascon of Europe,” alluding to the traditional virtues—and vices—of the colorful inhabitants of Gascony. The word has passed into English as the disapproving “gasconade.” But d’Artagnan was a Gascon, and so was Cyrano de Bergerac. Gascons, wrote Rostand, creator of Cyrano de Bergerac, are “free fighters, free lovers, free spenders, defenders of old homes, old names and old splendours.” What better way to describe the essential France —and her new defenders?
Leave a Reply