Jacques Chirac died a few days ago, a lifelong "statesman" and Gallic charmer with the usual French politician's taste for personal corruption and boundless greed, but an impressive sexual appetite even by the standards of his peers. In 2002, his nation and Europe were momentarily convulsed when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the soi-disant fascist, managed to make it into the final round of the presidential election. With hindsight, this supposed "freak" result was a forerunner of what was to come - not just in France, but in other parts of the Continent and beyond. Fifteen years later, Jean-Marie's daughter, Marine Le Pen, gave the "respectable" candidate a far closer run for his money, and after the spring Euro-elections her party remains geographically dominant throughout France with M Macron's support confined to the large cities. Much of what I wrote in this column, published in April 2002 (or about six months after 9/11), foreshadows the changing political landscape in the European Union, and the rise of an economically protectionist/culturally nationalist "right":
On Sunday, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the alleged extreme right-wing madman, managed to place second in the first round of the French Presidential election. Since then, many Europhile commentators in the English-speaking world have been attempting to reassure us that the significance of this event has been much overplayed -- Le Pen only got a little more than he usually gets, pure fluke he came second, nothing to see here, move along. The best response to this line of thinking was by the shrewd Internet commentatrix Megan McArdle: "They're completely missing the point, which is that it's hilarious."
Absolutely. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be weeping with laughter at the scenes of France's snot-nosed political elite huffily denouncing Sunday's result as an insult to the honour of the Republic. I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago and I well remember the retired French diplomat who assured me that "a man like George W Bush is simply not possible in our politics. For a creature of such crude, simplistic and extreme views to be one of the two principal candidates in a presidential election would be inconceivable here. Inconceivable!"
Please, no giggling. Somehow events have so arranged themselves that French electors now face a choice, as the papers see it, between "la droite" et "l'extrÃªme droite." The French people have taken to the streets in angry protests against ... the French people! Which must be a relief to the operators of McDonald's franchises, British lorry drivers and other more traditional targets of their ire, but is still a little weird. Meanwhile, the only thing that stands between M Le Pen and the ElysÃ©e Palace, President Chirac, has declared himself the representative of "the soul of the Republic." In the sense that he's a shifty dissembler with a long history of financial scandal and no political principles, he may be on to something.
While M Chirac has cast himself as the defender of France, M Le Pen is apparently the defender of the Jews. While I was over there, he was the only candidate who was seriously affronted by the epidemic of anti-Jew assaults by French Muslims. The Eurosnots told me this was "cynical," given that M Le Pen is notoriously anti-Jew and not above doing oven jokes in public. But that doesn't necessarily make him cynical. Maybe he just loathes Arabs even more than Jews (which, for linguistic pedants, would make him technically a perfect anti-Semite). Maybe he just resents the Muslims muscling in on his turf: "We strongly object to the Arab attacks on the Jews. That's our job." But, given that Chirac and Jospin brushed off the Jew-bashing epidemic like a speck of dust on their elegant suits, Le Pen's ability to co-opt it into his general tough-on-crime/tough-on-immigrants approach showed at the least a certain political savvy.
Still, despite the racism and bigotry, I resent the characterization of M Le Pen as "extreme right." I'm an extreme right-wing madman myself, and it takes one to know one. M Le Pen is an economic protectionist in favour of the minimum wage, lavish subsidies for France's incompetent industries and inefficient agriculture; he's anti-American and fiercely opposed to globalization. In other words, he's got far more in common with Naomi Klein than with me. He would fit right in as a guest host on the CBC's "CounterSpin". Even the antipathy toward Jews is more of a left-wing thing these days -- see the EU, UN, Svend and Mary Robinson, etc. Insofar as anyone speaks up for Jews in the West, it's only a few right-wing columnists, Newt Gingrich, Christian conservatives and Mrs. Thatcher -- or, as a reader e-mailed the other day, "all you Hebraic assholes on the right." M Le Pen is a nationalist and a socialist -- or, if you prefer, a nationalist socialist. Hmm. A bit long but, if you lost a syllable, you might be in business.
But terms like "left" and "right" are irrelevant in French politics. In an advanced technocratic state, where almost any issue worth talking about has been ruled beyond the scope of partisan politics, you might as well throw away the compass. The presidential election was meant to be a contest between the supposedly conservative Chirac and his supposedly socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. In practice, this boils down to a candidate who's left of right of left of centre, and a candidate who's right of left of right of left of centre. Chirac and Jospin ran on identical platforms -- they're both in favour of high taxes, high unemployment and high crime. So, with no significant policy differences between them, the two candidates were relying on their personal appeal, which, given that one's a fraud and the other's a dullard, was asking rather too much of French voters. Faced with a choice between Eurodee and Eurodum, you can't blame electors for choosing to make it a real race by voting for the one guy running on an openly stated, clearly defined manifesto.
M Le Pen wants to restrict immigration; Chirac and Jospin think this subject is beneath discussion. Le Pen thinks the euro is a "currency of occupation"; Chospin and Jirac think this subject is beneath discussion. Le Pen wants to pull out of the EU; Chipin and Josrac think this subject is beneath discussion. Le Pen wants to get tough on crime; Chispac and Jorin think this, too, is beneath discussion, and that may have been their mistake. European union and even immigration are lofty, philosophical issues. But crime is personal. The French are undergoing a terrible wave of criminality, in which thousands of cars are routinely torched for fun, and more and more immigrant suburbs are no-go areas for the police. Chirac and Jospin's unwillingness even to address this issue only confirmed their image as the arrogant co-regents of a remote, insulated elite.
Europe's ruling class has effortlessly refined Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death my right not to have to listen to you say it. You might disapprove of what Le Pen says on immigration, but to declare that the subject cannot even be raised is profoundly unhealthy for a democracy. The problem with the old one-party states of Africa and Latin America was that they criminalized dissent: You could no longer criticize the President, you could only kill him. In the two-party one-party states of Europe, a similar process is under way: If the political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising certain topics, then the electorate will turn to unrespectable politicians -- as they're doing in France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere. Le Pen is not an aberration but the logical consequence.
The Eurosnots, of course, learn nothing. President Chirac, for his part, has announced that he will not deign to debate his opponent during the remaining two weeks of the campaign. M Le Pen beat M. Chirac in nine of France's 22 districts. Unlovely he may be, but he is the legitimate standard-bearer for democratic opposition to Chirac. By refusing to engage, the President is doing a grave disservice to French democracy. Similarly, Gerhard Schroeder, facing difficult electoral prospects this fall, is now warning German conservatives that he will decline to participate in a "campaign of fear" -- i.e., on touchy issues. But the way you defeat poisonous ideas is to expose them to the bracing air of open debate. In Marseilles, they're burning synagogues. In Berlin, the police advise Jews not to leave their homes in skullcaps or other identifying marks of their faith. But Europe's political establishments insist that, on immigration and crime, there's nothing to talk about.
A century and a half ago, Tsar Nicholas I described Turkey as "the sick man of Europe." Today, the sick man of Europe is the European -- the urbane Continental princelings like Chirac and Michel, gliding from capital to capital building their Eutopia, oblivious to the popular will except on those rare occasions, such as Sunday, when the people do something so impertinent they finally catch the eye of their haughty maÃ®tre d'. I've said before that September 11th will prove to be like the Archduke's assassination in Sarajevo -- one of those events that shatters the known world. To the list of polities destined to slip down the Eurinal of history, we must add the European Union and France's Fifth Republic. The only question is how messy their disintegration will be.
~from The National Post of Canada, April 25th 2002
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