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Issue 37, April 1999

The end of the French National Front?

ONE YEAR ago, the Front National (FN), led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, was occupying the centre of the French political stage.
Following on the regional elections of March 1998, sections of the traditional right had accepted the support of the FN in order to win the presidencies of four regions. Elsewhere, many other traditional right-wing politicians had been tempted to do the same. In general, the right was becoming increasingly divided between those who wanted to keep a cordon sanitaire around the FN and those who were willing to ally with it, as discreetly as possible for the moment. The latter policy was gaining ground and was popular with many of the rank and file of the right-wing parties. The FN had the wind in its sails and was licking its lips at the prospect of a slice of power.

Ten months later, the FN split from top to bottom. The party's clever and ambitious number two, Bruno M?gret, took the majority of the party apparatus, which he had largely built up, as well as a narrow majority of the FN's elected representatives. The crisis has been brewing since last summer. Le Pen was being threatened with ineligibility for having assaulted a woman candidate of the Parti Socialiste (PS) in 1997. He announced that if he was banned from standing, his wife would take his place as head of the FN list for the European elections. M?gret declared publicly that he would be a better candidate, whereupon Le Pen went on an offensive to isolate his lieutenant, announcing that in the FN there was 'only one number - Number One'. In December, Le Pen started suspending and expelling M?gret and his supporters. The split was consummated in January when the 'M?gretistes' held their own party congress.

How can we explain this acute crisis, only months after a seeming triumph? To start with, the FN did not really emerge strengthened from last year's elections. It progressed in its bastions but actually lost ground in some areas. Its king-maker role came above all from the weakness and divisions of the traditional right. In fact, since the FN's breakthrough in the European elections of 1984, when it got around 10% of the vote, the party has never got much more than 15% on a national level. That is a substantial vote, but it is not enough to bring the FN in from the wilderness on a national level. At a local level, of course, the FN controls four towns and has numerous municipal and regional councillors.

  A conflict arose inside the FN on how to break out of this relative isolation. The FN is widely described on the French left as 'fascist'. This is a serious oversimplification. If a real fascist party was getting 15% of the vote, and up to 30% in some towns, the left, workers and immigrants would know all about it. Measures of self-defence would be on the agenda. In fact, the level of fascist-type violence is lower in France than in Germany, Belgium or other European countries. In France, it is the police who are responsible for most racist murders.

The FN has a fascist potential: many of its leaders and cadres are fascists and fascist ideas are widespread in the party. What has stopped the FN developing into a real fascist party is the relationship of class forces: the level of working-class combativity, the resistance to the bosses' and government's attacks, and also the strong anti-racist and anti-fascist consciousness among youth. When the working class moves into action, as in 1995, the FN simply disappears from view. It is because of this inability to develop as a mass fascist force that the debates within the FN have centred around the question of coming to power by the electoral road in alliance with sectors of the right. The M?gret wing is in a hurry to conclude such alliances, with the aim of rapidly becoming the leadership of a new 'hard right'. The post-regional election alliances were thus a personal triumph for M?gret. The Le Pen wing sticks more to the line of 'neither left nor right - French', banking on the slow decomposition of the parties of the right to attract its electors, while periodically making overtures to certain right-wing politicians.

The opposition between M?gret and Le Pen is not a division between a current that is simply 'far right' (M?gret) and a current that is really fascist (Le Pen). Under whatever leadership, the FN has the potential to become a real fascist party under certain conditions - the backing of sections of big capital, the capacity to mobilise petty-bourgeois layers and the most backward sections of the working class against the workers' movement. That is not the situation today.

  The disagreement between Le Pen and M?gret, over and above the strong element of personal rivalry, is a difference over how, not whether, to intervene in the crisis of the traditional right. It is not M?gret but Le Pen who recently called on the right to present a candidate that he could support to take control of the key Provence-C?te d'Azur region, currently run by a minority PS executive. And it is M?gret not Le Pen who took with him in the split such elements as Pierre Vial, the openly fascist and anti-Semitic leader of the 'pagan' wing of the FN; the GUD - a group of young thugs which engages in sporadic physical violence against the left; and the leader of many of the cadres of the FN's paramilitary security force, the DPS.

For the moment, the split has weakened the FN. But it would be unwise to celebrate too soon. The causes of the FN's rise over the last 15 years still exist - rising unemployment, poverty and insecurity. And a part of the base of the traditional right is still radicalising rightwards. The reactionary racist current which the FN represents will continue to be a factor in French politics.

Both wings are running lists for the European elections. They have no alternative: not to do so would be an admission of weakness. But compared to the previous scores of the FN, neither wing has any cause to rejoice. Le Pen, better known as a public figure, is running at 7-8% in the opinion polls. M?gret has never gone above 6% and has usually hovered around 4%. Le Pen is obviously hoping that M?gret will not clear the 5% hurdle needed to win seats (and have election expenses reimbursed), and that he will make up the lost ground, with M?gret simply disappearing from the political scene.

M?gret is, of course, aiming to get over 5%, banking on the fact that his more professional party machine will gradually enable him to gain the edge over Le Pen and his redneck supporters. For M?gret, this election comes too soon. No-one on the right is ready yet to conclude an open alliance with him on a national level. But M?gret aims to survive the European elections and then prepare for the next municipal and parliamentary elections, where all sorts of deals and 'undestandings' are possible.

For all those youth and workers who have consistently mobilised against the FN this is not the time to let up on the offensive against the FN and its allies. With Le Pen or M?gret, in alliance with the traditional right or not, the FN remains a mortal enemy of the workers' movement, of youth and immigrants. And, as the election campaign gets under way, both Le Pen and M?gret are facing determined demonstrators wherever they go.

David Cameron

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