International Socialist Review Issue 2, Fall 1997
Frances New Nazis: The Resistible Rise of Jean-Marie LePen
by Katherine Dwyer
The return of high levels of class struggle in France reveals one side of an emerging picture in Europeof growing polarization, anger, and disillusionment. The same period has also seen the growth of nazis across Europe, but most extensively in France. Katherine Dwyer looks at this new threat and shows how the nazi thugs can be defeated.
IN JULY 1996, the town council of Toulon organized a ceremony to celebrate the persecution of Jews under the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. Jewish students who attempted to organize a counter-demonstration were blocked by local authorities. In November of the same year, when the judges of the Toulon Book Fair decided to award their prize to Jewish author Marek Halter, the mayor personally intervened to award the prize to Brigitte Bardot instead. Both the mayor of Toulon and Bardots husband belong to Frances nazi party, the National Front (FN).
Toulon is one of four towns in the south of France currently controlled by the FN. The FN also controls town councils in Orange, Marignan and Vitrolles. They have set up satellite organizations across France including business associations, veterans groups, cultural groups, and a youth wing which claims to be the biggest independent political organization in the country.
In FN-controlled towns, local authorities have cut aid to immigrants and social programs, rerouting the money either directly into their own coffers or to fund their own initiatives like Christmas programs which give toys only to poor French children. The FN organization Fraternité Française requires homeless people to show identity cards proving French citizenship in exchange for food. FN officials have taken books on North Africa, left-wing politics, and even multiculturalism out of the public libraries and replaced them with books by FN ideologues. They have insisted that pork be put back on school lunch menus in areas populated by Muslims and, in one town, banned interracial marriage.
For years, mainstream politicians argued that the FN was a right-wing fringe group that no one should take seriously. Yet, the past several years have proven that the FN is growing and becoming more rooted. In addition to the four towns they control, the FN regularly gains around 14 percent of the vote in national elections. In the 1997 legislative elections, the FN won 15 percent of the vote in the first round and gained one seat in the legislature.
Yet, the rise of the FN is only one side of the massive polarization going on inside France today. In France, as elsewhere in Europe, economic decline has brought austerity measures and increased misery. The FN uses racism and nationalism to tap into peoples sense of despair. But the same crisis which sends a section of right-wingers into the fascist camp has also provoked a fightback from workers who are fed up with falling living standards, cuts in social spending, and government austerity plans. Since 1995when transit workers led a mass strike against government attackstruck drivers, postal workers, hospital workers, bank workers, and airline workers have all taken workplace actions. The new mood of militancy translated into a massive vote against the conservatives in the 1997 elections, when a coalition of Socialists, Communists, and Greens pushed the conservatives into a minority. At the same time, France has seen the rebirth of a new anti-nazi movement which is challenging the FN by shutting down FN meetings and public appearances, building mass counter-demonstrations, and working within the unions to build opposition to the nazis.
As terrifying as the FN is, the new shift to the left in France should give us optimism about possibilities for the future. However, the key to whether or not these struggles will succeed lies in the politics that shape and lead them. In order to stop the naziswhose growth is not limited to France alonewe must be clear about what they are, how they have been able to advance from a small, irrelevant sect in the 1970s to where they are today, and what kind of strategy it will take to destroy them once and for all.
The new nazis
Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the FN, ridicules people who call the FN "nazis," "racists," or even "extreme right-wingers." Unfortunately, many liberals and leftists who oppose the FN argue that although the FN are thoroughly racist, they are not "the real thing." But no one should be fooled by the FNs "respectable" electoral image. The FN has yet to build the mass base that brought fascism to power in Italy and Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. Yet the goals, ideology, and strategy of the FN place it in the same camp as their forerunners.
There is a clear link between the leadership of the FN today and the nazis of the past. The leadership of the organization that the FN came out of in 1972, Ordre Nouveau (New Order), included a former member of Hitlers Waffen SS, as well as members of the ultranationalist Organisation de LArmée Secrète (OAS).1 This legacy has continued into the current generation of FN members and candidates. One FN candidate, Paul Malaguti, who ran for office in central France, was a Gestapo agent in 1944 who reportedly "stood guard while the Gestapo shot resistance fighters."2
Le Pens own history exposes the politics which lie at the core of the FN today. In his youth, Le Pen spent his time beating up communists and other leftists in the streets of Paris. He was an open admirer of Marshal Petain, the fascist military leader responsible for murdering thousands of Jews during World War II under the Vichy regime.3 Le Pen proudly proclaimed, "Until 1945, I kept a photo of Marshall Petain and retained my admiration for him. Nor did I renounce the authors of my youth, just because they were in prison like Maurras, or among the executed like Robert Brasillach."4 Brasillach was a pro-Nazi intellectual who once said of Jews, "[O]ne must kill them all, even the children."5
During the Algerian war, Le Pen became an "intelligence" officer and spent his time brutally torturing Algerians who were fighting for independence from France. An official police record describes Le Pen torturing one young Algerian:
During the arrest, two electric wires were connected to his earlobes and Lieutenant Le Pen himself operated a hand-driven transformer. In the presence of the same officer, young Yahiaoui was struck with a blackjack; he was bound naked on a bench, feet and hands tied, where he was forced to ingest some water. Finally, he was imprisoned for five days in a tomb, a hole dug in the earth, with no amenities and closed in by barbed wire.6
During the 1960s, before the FN was formed, Le Pen put on a more "respectable" face to win elections. Yet, he made clear that his goal was to build a fascist movement. On a record sleeve of songs and speeches from "great men" like Marshall Petain and Adolph Hitler, Le Pen proudly wrote:
Here are the songs of the German revolution. The arrival of power of Adolph Hitler and the National Socialist Party was characterized by a powerful, popular and democratic mass movement which triumphed after regular electionscircumstances which are generally forgotten. In this, the oratorical propaganda of Hitlers chiefs, and the political songs expressing collective passions played an essential role
Like Hitler, Le Pen is attempting to build a movement capable of smashing workers organizations and bringing the FN to power. The FN talks about creating a strong state where "national capitalism" is given free reign within national borders and protected from foreign competition from without. They call for broader military power for the state, a professional military, and territorial expansion. The fascists make special efforts to reach out to potential supporters through numerous organizations which specifically target shopkeepers, retired military personnel, and small business people.
While they sometimes use anticapitalist rhetoric to appeal to sections of society that resent big capital, the FN looks to big capital for financial backing. At this point, the FN is too small and weak to attract support from a significant section of big business. But the FN has gained the backing of some huge companies like BIC. Le Pen is reported to have some tens of millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts donated by wealthy backers. As he told one reporter, "I would have never been able to earn this."8
The FN have tried consciously to create a new language that can thinly mask their fascism and at the same time reach out to hard-core racists. So, for example, rather than talking about a "Jewish conspiracy," the FN talks about "worldism" ("mondialism"). Nevertheless, Le Pen has never retracted his infamous statement that the gas chambers where millions of Jews and others were murdered during World War II are, in his view, "a mere detail of history."9
The main vehicle for the FNs racism is their long-standing attack on immigrants. Immigrants constitute only 6 percent of Frances population, and the proportion of immigrants has remained stable for twenty years.10 Yet, one of the major planks of the FNs program is to drive immigrants out of France. The FN calls for national preferences in housing, jobs, and social services. They have argued for virtual concentration camps to be built near airports and train stations to facilitate deporting immigrants and for all non-French nationals to be tested for AIDS before entering the country. Their official program proposes using the money current immigrants pay into social security to pay the costs of deporting them.11
Despite claims to the contrary, the FNs racism is underpinned by theories of racial superiority. Le Pen once claimed that "I
cant say that Bantus have the same ethnological aptitudes as Californians, because that is simply contrary to reality
Even if men have a right to be equally respected, it is evident that hierarchies exist."12 Le Pens second-in-command, Bruno Mégret, argued against "the disappearance of human races by general inter-breeding" in the FNs 1991 fifty-point program on immigration.
While the aims of the FN are the same as those of Hitler and Mussolini, the FN has not yet been able to build a mass movement on the scale of Hitlers Nazi Party. Not only did Hitler receive more than 18 percent of the presidential vote in 1931 and more than 36 percent in 1932, but also by 1932, the Nazi Party had 800,000 members and Hitler commanded 400,0000 battle-hardened storm troopers.13 So far, the FNs support remains mainly electoral. Whereas the FN regularly gets around 15 percent of the vote, their membership in the mid-1990s was estimated at between 50,000 and 75,000. The FNs security force includes skinheads and street-fighters, but they cannot compare to Hitlers paramilitary forces in terms of numbers or experience. Even in FN-controlled towns, the Front has not been able to build this kind of presence.
The FNs relative weakness compared to nazi movements of the past stems from the fact that the economic and political crisis in France is not as great as the crisis of the 1930s. In Germany during the 1930s, nearly one-third of the population was unemployed. Small shopkeepers and artisans lost their shops. Many professionals were driven to desperation as they saw their salaries fall to levels below that of skilled workers. The mainstream bourgeois parties were completely paralyzed in the face of deepening crisis. Big capitalists who had seen workers win concessions from the government turned to the fascists instead, who had shown that they could smash working-class organization in order to restore stability.
In France today the situation is not so severe that the capitalist class is looking for an alternative to politics as usual. Unemployment rates of 12.8 percent have certainly led to increased misery and insecurity. Yet, big business is continuing to make big profits, and the middle class has not been declassed as many were in the 1930s. Splits within the government over how to manage the crisis have contributed to a sense that the government is no longer able to manage its own system. But the divisions are not yet severe enough to draw most people away from mainstream alternatives and to the fascists.
This is not to say that we should be passive in the face of the FN. The crisis in France, as elsewhere in Europe, is growing. Moreover, the mainstream parties of both right and left have helped administer this crisis, each taking turns attacking living standards. The disillusionment caused by this has opened up a political vacuum in which the far right can gain a political foothold. The fact that the FN has been able to maintain around 14 percent of the vote in national elections despite the recent wave of protests against them is a testament to the fact that they have managed to consolidate their voting base.
The key to stopping the nazis lies in cutting off their support before they have a chance to deepen their local roots, expand their cadre, and build up a committed fighting force. In order to drive the nazis back to the margins of society, people who hate the FN need to provide a political alternative to the system which creates the problems of insecurity, unemployment, and misery on which the FN feeds.
Fascism after World War II
The conditions of postwar France provided nazis with few opportunities to gain a hearing. Overwhelming disgust with the Nazi occupation of France during the war forced open fascists to run for cover. During the 1950s and 1960s, the French economy grew into the fourth largest in the world.14 Workers living standards rose overall, bosses prospered, and the middle class remained relatively stable. In this kind of environment, fascist ideas had little appeal. Fascist ideas were confined to small numbers of right wingers disaffected by DeGaulles defeat by Frances colony Algeria in 1962.
The events of May 1968when 10 million workers engaged in what was the largest general strike in European historymarginalized the fascists even further. The mass action of students, followed by workers, pulled behind it whole sections of the middle classand for a brief moment knocked DeGaulles regime back on its heels. In the end, the movement was contained by trade union leaders and the Communist Party, which enthusiastically backed DeGaulles call for new elections. The movement ended in modest economic gains for workersand the re-election of DeGaulle.
During the next decade, Le Pens forces remained on the political margins. During the 1981 elections, Le Pen was so unpopular that he could not even collect the 500 signatures required to get his name on the ballot. (He called on supporters to vote for Joan of Arc instead.) But while the FN would not gain any real hearing until the mid-1980s, the late 1970s saw the onset of conditions that would aid the FN. Areas like the city of Vitrolles, which had seen massive expansion in terms of industry and population during the 1960s, were now hit by recession.15 It was these new crisis conditions, combined with the disillusionment caused by the failures of Francois Mitterands Socialist Party (SP) in office, that would create the basis for Le Pens rise.
The Mitterand years
As the 1970s brought recession, higher levels of unemployment, and a failing economy, the conservatives who had run France for twenty-three years were hard-pressed to come up with a solution to the crisis. When Socialist President Mitterand was elected in 1981, people danced in the streets and champagne flowed as workers celebrated what they hoped would represent a complete shift of government.
Mitterand claimed that his government represented a "break with capitalism," and he immediately initiated a series of reforms and an economic policy intended to placate workers while bringing France back to the top of the world economy. Once in office, he raised public spending by 27 percent, raised the minimum wage by 10 percent, and created new jobs in the public sector. Workers remained hopeful as the Socialist government nationalized a series of industries and increased subsidies for pensioners, children, and housing.
But Mitterands grand plans backfired. While French workers celebrated Mitterands program of reforms, big business was not so jubilant. The capitalist class quickly moved to reign him in by withdrawing capital from France. Capital flight only aggravated the effects of Mitterands reflationary economic policies, leading to a massive devaluation of the currency. Unemployment skyrocketed, increasing by over 17 percent from 1980 to 1982. Over 2 million people were unemployed just six months after Mitterands election. Within a year, inflation was up to an annual rate of 14 percent, causing food prices to rise by 16 percent.
Faced with high inflation, growing unemployment, and pressures from international business, Mitterand did a complete turnaround in 1982, just one year after his election. The workers president became the bosses president, imposing a four-month wage freeze, increasing taxes, and cutting health services.
Mitterands turnaround, which was celebrated by the business press, only aggravated the effects of the crisis. Unemployment in France continued to climb at an alarming rate, growing by more than 16 percent between 1983 and 1984. Straining under the effects of the crisis, many workers continued to put their hopes in Mitterand. Yet, it became increasingly clear that whatever Mitterands original intentions had been, there was no way he could stand up to the pressures of international capital.
Mitterands failures opened the door to the right. During 1982 and 1983, tens of thousands of shopkeepers, middle-class professionals, employers, and right-wing students demonstrated in the streets against the government.16 The FN responded to the growing mood by joining in some of the demonstrations, raising their presence in local elections, and running on a campaign which blamed the crisis on the twin "evils" of immigration and the left. Seeing that the FN was gaining a hearing, the mainstream right began to echo many of the same positions.
Opposition to the SP crystallized around the issue of immigration. When Mitterand was elected in 1981, he had proposed that resident immigrants should have the right to vote in local elections. The proposal created divisions over the issue of immigration in general which the FN quickly moved in to exploit. As the FN poured gas on the fires of racism, the mainstream right fanned the flames.
In 1982, conservative leader Alain Juppé came out with the statement that there was a link between "clandestine immigration, delinquency, and criminality," and his party signed on to a pamphlet claiming, "It is necessary to stop this invasion." The right-wing mayor of Toulon took it a step further, saying that the city would "refuse to be the trash can of Europe."17
The mainstream right showed that they were willing to leap onto any bandwagon that would get them back into office when, in 1983, the two main conservative parties, the Rassemblement pour le Républic (RPR) and the Union pour la Démocratie Française (UDF), agreed to run on a joint list with FN candidate Jean-Pierre Stirbois in the town of Dreux. While conservative President Chirac has more recently described the alliance as "unnatural,"18 at the time he quoted from another political theorist who had commented, "Four National Front members on the opposition list in Dreux is not the same as four Communists in the Cabinet,"19 suggesting that he would rather do a deal with the devil than risk continued control over the town by the left.
The elections in Dreux were the first major breakthrough for the FN. In the 1984 European Parliament elections, the FN ran on an anti-immigrant platform and took over 11 percent of the vote; in the first round of the presidential elections of 1984, Le Pen won over 14 percent.
But it was not the right wing alone that attempted to gain votes by stealing Le Pens thunder. Mitterand increasingly took his signal from the right. In 1983, Mitterands minister of the interior and mayor of Marseilles campaigned under the slogan: "The right means illegal immigration; the left means controlled immigration." Hardly a resounding defense of immigrants. While Mitterand originally promised to grant immigrants the right to vote in local elections, by 1982 he had changed his mind. The Socialists went so far as to withhold a brochure they had prepared on immigrants.
Similarly, when it came to electoral maneuvers, the Socialists were just as willing as the conservatives to see (and even to promote) some gains for the FN in order to further divide the right and maintain electoral power. When Le Pen claimed he was being discriminated against in 1982, Mitterand allowed the FN to gain access to television programsthus helping to legitimize the fascists as part of the "respectable" mainstream.
While the French Communist Party (PCF) was in no position to pursue the same kinds of maneuvers, their record on failing to challenge racism is nearly as bad. As Stalinism went into decline internationally, the PCF adapted to Eurocommunism and became almost indistinguishable from the SP. Purged from government in 1947, the PCF spent much of the postwar period trying to get back into office. When the Algerian war broke out, the PCF supported the war effort and did everything in its power to lend a hand to De Gaulle. Similarly, when the debates about immigration developed in the 1980s, the PCF fell right into step with the conservatives and the Socialists in the hopes of gaining votes.
While the official line of the PCF and the PCF-controlled General Confederation of Workers (CGT) in the 1960s was against immigration controls, by the early 1980s they had reversed their position. In November of 1980, the PCF called for a complete stop to all immigration.20 Taking a lead from the heads of the party, one local PCF mayor decided to take matters into his own hands, personally overseeing the bulldozing of buildings where immigrant workers lived. Robert Hue, who became the head of the PCF in 1994, organized a demonstration outside the apartment of a Moroccan family accused of dealing drugs in 1981. The family had to barricade themselves in their home while demonstrators threatened them from the street.21 It was not until 1990 that the PCF finally introduced an antiracism bill in response to growing incidences of racist violence which had become increasingly embarrassing to the government.
Mitterand put his anti-immigrant words into practice. Simmons describes, "By December 1982 the socialist government had rounded up and deported sixteen thousand illegal immigrants."22 Given the absolute complicity of the Socialists in the right-wing attack on immigrants, it is not surprising that a poll published by Le Monde in 1983 showed 51percent saying that the best solution to unemployment was to send immigrant workers "back to where they came from."23
Far from countering the nazis who were growing in numbers and influence, the SPs pandering to the right only fueled their growth. The fact that the SP lost votes to the conservatives anyway, combined with the fact that the FN won more votes than the UDF and only slightly fewer than the RPR in the first round of the 1995 elections, shows the disastrous consequences of this approach.
Despite the shift to the right throughout the 1980s on the level of mainstream politics, workers in France mounted some very important challenges. The early to mid-1980s saw strikes in the auto industry and, later, in rail and transport. The fact that immigrants played a key role in strikes at Citroen and Talbot during the period of mounting racism cut against the rightward political shift. Yet, the CGTanxious to contain these struggles because they began to raise more political demandsquickly moved in to settle them.
Taking his cue from the right, Socialist Prime Minister Mauroy claimed that workers in auto were under the influence of "Ayatollahs" and other "religious extremists."24 The bosses leapt on the bandwagon in other sections of the auto industry by specifically targeting immigrants and "encouraging" them to leave France. The results were terrible. As one author noted, immigrant workers began returning home "in the tens of thousands for immigrant workers as a whole, and by tens per day for the car industry."25 The role immigrants played in the strike had opened up the possibility of linking workers economic demands with those for immigrant rights. The problem was that the mainstream forces on the left were more interested in winning elections by whipping up racism than they were in building any kind of opposition.
The crisis deepens
The impact of the turn to the right on French society was enormous. A Le Monde poll from February of 1990 in the wake of the murder of three young North Africans showed 76 percent of respondents agreeing that "the behavior of some of them can justify racist reactions against them."26 Just one month later, polls reported in Le Monde and Libération showed even more startling levels of racism. Seventy-six percent of those polled said that there were too many Arabs in France; 46 percent said there were too many Blacks; 40 percent said there were too many Asians; and 24 percent claimed there were too many Jews.27
The racism did not stop at opinions. The rightward swing and the FNs gains in polls opened the door to a rash of racist attacks and murders. Between 1980 and 1990, over 200 North African men living in France were killed by racists.28
This atmosphere only gave encouragement to the notoriously racist French police force as well, who throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s went on a rampage against Algerians living in France. In one case, a young French-Algerian was shot three times in the back at close range while handcuffed. The cop (who had his partner with him at the time) claimed to be "threatened" by the youth. In another case, a Black doctor trying to respond to an emergency call was brutally beaten by police.
During the 1990s, the pressures within the capitalist system became more severe. Between 1995 and 1997, unemployment grew from 11.5 percent to 12.8 percent. As growth rates continued to slow, the government continued its strategy of scapegoating immigrants for unemployment and social problems while implementing austerity measures to lower labor costs and ensure profits for the rich. This process accelerated as the deadline for France to meet the requirements of the Maastricht Treatythe plan for further economic and political union within Europeapproached in the late 1990s.
Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, conservatives adopted many of the key FN proposals on immigration. In 1986 Charles Pasqua, who was minister of the interior under Chiracs government (1986-88), changed immigration policies to increase deportations and police powers to stop and search. Pasqua made it quite clear that his policies were borrowed from the FN. As he said in 1988, "Yes, there are a few extremists in the National Front, but basically, the National Front has the same preoccupations, the same values, as the majority."29 In 1991, attempting to steal Le Pens thunder, Chirac claimed that France was suffering from an "overdose" of immigrants and went on to say that he felt sorry for workers who had to live with their "noise and smell."30 In 1990, the government passed a series of laws to restrict immigrants from seeking citizenship for their children and family members. These laws have only been toughened under Debré, who became minister of the interior in 1995. During the first half of 1996, Debré increased deportations by 25 percent. In 1996 alone, 23,000 immigrants were deported.31
When liberals raised criticism of the conservatives adaptation to the FN, some conservatives claimed that the only way to stave off the worst racism represented by the FN was to offer a softer version. But as Le Pen himself is fond of saying, "[P]eople always prefer the original to the copy." Rather than diminishing support for the FN, the rightward shift on the part of all the parties only fueled the FNs growth.32
In the 1988 presidential elections, Le Pen won 4.3 million votes (14.39 percent), the biggest vote for a fascist since 1945.33 In 1995, the FN took 15 percent in the presidential elections. In the first round of the most recent elections, the FN won nearly 15 percent of the votemore than the UDF (14.3 percent) and only slightly less than the RPR (15.6 percent). As the New York Times commented, "In effect, the Front has become the second party of the French right, a remarkable development."34
Who supports the National Front?
The 1995 presidential elections set off alarm bells among French intellectuals and activists when exit polls revealed that 30 percent of workers had voted for Le Pen. While support for the FN among workers declined in the first round of the last elections to around 24 percent, the consensus after 1995 was that the FN had become a cross-class party. The fact that the FN had gained in the working-class suburb of Dreux and later in the Communist-dominated "red belt" around Paris seemed to back up this view. The French media proclaimed the FN "the first party of workers," and Pascal Perrineau, a sociologist who has done considerable research on the FN, coined the term "gauche lepenism" (left-wing Le Penism) to explain the phenomenon of French workers who had identified with the left suddenly moving into the fascist camp.
While the electoral numbers are a shocking indication of the danger the FN poses, there is no real evidence to back up the claim that the FN has suddenly become a primarily working-class party, or even a cross-class party. In a society as racist as France, some workers will be attracted to right-wing ideas. But workers have never formed the base of the FN. The FN is still, as it always has been, a middle-class party with profoundly anti-working class politics.
The core of the FN, in terms of its membership, leadership, and extended cadre, is middle class. A survey done on the class base of FN candidates showed that only 1 percent of them claimed to be workers, whereas the majority were industrialists, large merchants, artisans, skilled professionals, or independently wealthy.35
The idea that the FN is bleeding support from traditional organizations of the left is also wrong. First, its important to point out that the elections where the FN has gained its highest votes are ones with low voter turnout overall. Workers who do vote for the FN are not left-wingers gone astray. In 1994 and 1995 respectively, 3 percent and 9 percent of all FN voters claimed to have voted left in the past, whereas 42 percent and 36 percent associated themselves with the "extreme right."36
It is also important to look at exactly who these workers were. Studies show that the majority of workers who supported Le Pen are on the margins of the political process, usually isolated in dead-end jobs and living in the most devastated industrial areas. The working-class district of Seine-St. Denise in the historic "red belt" is a prime example. Referring to a study on FN support in St. Denise, Simmons explains,
[W]ithin the department, NF support varied from city to city. Where the Communist Party was able to maintain a network of political and community organizations, support for the NF was low. But in those quarters that Platone and Rey [the authors of the study] described...as "no mans land," areas without industry or equipment and crisscrossed with roads and highways, "where nothing has come to create a new industrial dynamic, the extreme right made headway."37
Polls have shown that the majority of workers who do vote for the FN do so on the bases of fear of immigrants and general anxiety about their futuresnot out of any hardened allegiance to fascist ideas.38 This means the support that exists for the FN among workers is shallow.
Most important, at the same time that electoral support for the FN grew overall, opposition to the nazis has grown as well, both on the level of ideas and activity. Polls taken from the mid-1980s on which asked, "Do you think Le Pen and his party represent a danger to democracy in France?" have shown a continual growth of opposition. While in 1984 the opinion was split down the middle, by March of 1997, 75 percent of those polled agreed that the FN was a threat.39 These polls are just one indication that the FNs electoral success in past years reflects an increased polarization in French society, not of workers marching steadily into the fascist camp or even to the right.
Any doubts about the fact that the FNs growth is a result of increased divisions within society were put to rest by the 1997 legislative elections, when both the FN and the parties of the left won large sections of the vote. Not only did the Socialists win 253 seats, but the PCF staged a major electoral comeback, winning 38 seats. But even the last elections, as important as they are, only give one indication of the sea-change that has occurred over the last several years. On the one hand, the FN has clearly consolidated its vote, but on the other, the past two years have seen the sharpest rise in class struggle within France since 1968.
Frances winter of discontent
Like the revolt of 1968, no one anticipated the explosion that would break out in the winter of 1995. Just a few months earlier, the FN had gained 15 percent, its biggest vote ever in the first round of the presidential elections. Many people in France were terrified in the face of the nazis electoral advances and concluded that France was swinging irrevocably to the right.
Prime Minster Juppés attacks on workers pension plans, benefits, and wages, which spurred the strike wave, came on the back of decades of decline in the labor movement. Employers attacks from the 1970s on, combined with deep divisions within the trade union movement, had left unionization rates at less than 10 percent of the total workforce. Many workers felt deeply alienated from both the SP and the PCF. Some had even turned to the fascists during the 1995 elections. Yet, as Chris Harman explains,
Such bitterness and volatility meant that the moment serious action began in defense of working-class interests, very large numbers of people identified with it, seeing it as offering a solution to their own problems.40
When 500,000 workers mobilized in response to Juppés attacks, they quickly gained the attention of workers across France. The strike wave, which started with rail and transport workers, soon spread to other parts of the public sector. Paris and other cities ground to a halt as transportation workers struck and were joined by others in mass demonstrations. Within weeks, 2 million workers would strike across France, and many others would join in demonstrations.
The strikes challenged the sectionalism and racism that had seemed so firmly entrenched in French society. Members from competing trade union federations marched side by side for the first time in years. FN strongholds like Toulon and Marseilles saw some of the strongest strikes, as an estimated quarter of the total population joined in strikes and demonstrations. In Dreux, the city where the FN had made its first major breakthrough in 1983 on an anti-immigrant platform, immigrant and native born workers struck and marched side by side.
The strikes became more political as workers began to take matters into their own hands, organizing rank-and-file committees to mobilize other sections of the workforce and build solidarity. But the CGT and other union federations moved quickly to wind down the movement:
The CGT faxed a circular to all its railway branches on the Friday morning after the biggest demonstration and the most widespread strike action yet, as workers were boasting they had topped the 2 million figure which Juppe had said would cause him to resign. It urged them to call off the strike and "continue the struggle by other means."41
The events of 1995 were a significant break with the past. The strikes and demonstrations were smaller and more limited in scope than those of 1968the strike wave never really spread far beyond the public sector, and they did not raise as many political demands. But a larger proportion of the workers involved actively participated in the strike movement than had in 1968. Like the events of May 1968, the winter of 1995 showed once again that despite years of attacks and weak trade union organization and leadership, workers could fight back on a massive scale. Yet this time, rather than the wave of militancy being followed by a wave of reaction as in 1936 and 1968, what followed in 1995 was a growing radicalization and sentiment for change across France.
The strike wave exposed the shallowness of the FNs electoral support and forced them into temporary retreat. The FN had always been rabidly anti-union. Their first electoral platform in 1973 had called for restrictions on strikes in the public sector.42 Le Pen called trade unions "parasites" and argued that union leaders should be arrested during the 1995 strikes. Yet, Le Pen was forced to moderate his tone when it became clear that the majority of people in France supported the strikes and demonstrations, including a full 65 percent of FN voters. In the aftermath, Le Pen was forced to backtrack on his anti-union position, saying he sympathized with the reason French workers had struck.43
The winter of 1995 showed that given the alternative of working-class struggle for real change, most people would move away from the fascists. And 1995 was not simply a flash in the pan. After a brief lull, truck drivers in France began a series of slowdowns aptly named "operation escargot," where truckers would drive at a snails pace down major highways, holding up traffic in the process. The strikes that followed in the airlines, banks, hospitals, and printers in 1996 and into 1997 have certainly not been as big as the strikes of 1995 or even of the 1980s, but they have continued to build a renewed sense of confidence among workers.
Yet, strike action alone wont ensure the demise of Le Pen. The FN can re-emerge
just as a wreck rises above the water as the tide falls. And the French ruling class will take them into consideration, seeking to manipulate them for its own ends, as it prepares for the next round of confrontations.44
Since the strikes, Le Pen and Mégret have stepped up their efforts to "implant" the FN inside the union movementby trying to build fascist-controlled unions among the police, security guards, railworkers, teachers, and postal workers. These initiatives have gone hand in hand with a program of intimidation within existing unions. When layoffs were announced at Molinex, a company that manufactures washing machines, Mégret leafletted at the gates of the factory with a flyer claiming "the institutional unions are complicit in this process of destruction."45 In the teachers union where the FN is attempting to build a caucus, anonymous leaflets have been issued against teachers who oppose the FN, and teachers have reported receiving death threats.46
The success of future strugglesagainst the ruling class offensive as well as the FNwill require the building of a socialist movement with politics that can challenge the weaknesses of the trade union bureaucracy, as well as the complicity of the Socialist and Communist parties in the attack on workers and immigrants.
Smashing the nazi menace
The renewed sense of confidence among workers has spurred the growth of a new antifascist movement in France. In early 1997, when Interior Minister Debré tried to institute new laws which called for French citizens to report the comings and goings of non-French visitors, activists mounted a campaign to stop them. In February, 100,000 people marched through Paris to protest attacks on immigrants, forcing the government to back down. The demonstrations around the Debré laws helped build momentum for the growth of a different kind of opposition to Le Pen. For the first time, people are beginning to call the nazis by their real name and organize against them on a much broader scale.
The 70,000-strong demonstration against the fascists annual conference in Strasbourg in March 1997 marked a shift in the anti-nazi movement. The town was virtually shut down as activists marched through the streets chanting "Never Again" and "F for Fascist, N for Nazi, Stop the National Front!" Trade union contingents marched with banners alongside students and other activists. Following the demonstrations, the CGT launched a series of discussions on racism within the unions.
The Strasbourg demonstration helped build confidence among antiracists, resulting in a whole string of rallies and marches against the FN throughout the spring. In Vitrolles, Ras LFront has organized an anti-FN rally every weekend.47 Many of the protests are becoming more confrontational. At one rally outside Lyon, protesters forced Bruno Mégret to give up on his meeting. And in April, when Le Pen came out to campaign for his daughter, a spontaneous demonstration forced him to take refuge in a café to escape the angry crowds.
This shift to a more confrontational strategy has had a direct impact on the FNs ability to organize and gain a hearing. As a result of the demonstrations, support for the FN has fallen. Whereas a poll from a year ago showed that 28 percent of people said they shared some of Le Pens ideas, during the month of the Strasbourg demonstration, the figure had dropped to 20 percent. In the area around Strasbourg itself, the FNs vote fell after March 1997 as a direct response to the demonstration. This change marks a significant step forward in fighting the FN.
The new anti-nazi movement is vital because it is giving confidence to activists who want to stop the FN. But in order to move forward, the movement will require political ideas of that are capable of providing both a principled stand on the main issues of the day and a strategy for stopping the nazis completely.
For years, opposition to the FN was limited by an abstentionist approach on the part of the hard left and a liberal approach on the part of antiracist activists. Until very recently, the main antiracist organizations that mobilized people against the FN, including SOS Racisme, Manifeste, and Ras lFront, did so on a humanitarian, antiracist basis. While activists were right to point to the racism of the FN, they refused to recognize them as nazis and so did not have a strategy that could effectively shut them down. SOS Racisme, for example, for years used the slogan "Keep your hands off my buddy"a perfectly friendly slogan clearly meant to show the FN that activists wouldnt put up with racist violence, but one that did not really raise the idea of how dangerous the FN actually is. SOS Racisme also refused to make the question of mobilizing against the FN its central one, arguing that a movement must be built around agreement on a whole host of anti-racist demands. But this strategy actually misses the point:
[B]y insisting on agreement on such a list of demands as a precondition of any action, it defuses, divides and weakens the possibility of united action against the Nazis. Long discussions and negotiations about the precise platform for demonstrations replace building the maximum mobilization around a single demand.48
Because the liberal groups saw the FN as a racist rather than a fascist organization, they argued that the best way to take them on was by countering their ideas. This attitude has led the groups to argue against openly confronting the nazis at meetings and demonstrations. They claimed that the nazis have a right to "free speech," no matter how dangerous they are. So, for example, at the demonstration in Strasbourg which clearly had the strength and will to shut down the nazi conference, SOS Racisme argued against open confrontation. But the nazi FN are not like any other political party. Allowing nazis to spew their filth means in practice murderous violence against immigrants, workers, gays, and leftists. Ultimately, it means the violent suppression of free speechindeed of all freedomsfor the mass of the population.
The revolutionary organization Lutte Ouvrièr (LO), which is the biggest far-left organization in France, has taken a completely abstentionist and ultraleft approach to the nazis. It has won the respect of a significant minority of workers through its campaigns and shop-floor activities, but LOs workerist approach of simply focusing on shop floor issues while trying to gain a hearing through elections has lead them to refuse to take on the FN, which they claim "does not exist in the workplace." This extremely rigid approach not only denies that the FN can have an impact on workers consciousness, but also translates into a wasted opportunity to help mobilize workers against the nazis in demonstrations. In another illustration of their criminally ultraleft position, LO refused to take part in the Strasbourg demonstration because, they claimed, the fact that Jospin attended made it a "reformist" event.
In addition, the leadership of LO sees no difference between the FN and Islamic fundamentalism. For LO, both are far-right, ultranationalist movements. In January of 1992, LOs newspaper included an editorial under the headline "Whether it is in the name of the FIS or Le Pen it is the same evil."49 This approach not only says nothing about what is distinctive about the FN, but is also a criminal comparison in a country where anti-immigrant racism is a key component of the right-wing ideological attack.
The lessons of the anti-nazi movement
Despite these weaknesses, the antiracist movement has taken steps forward. But the key to stopping the FN lies not only in challenging their ideas, but in challenging their movement as well. The key for those who want to smash the nazis today is to draw out some of the lessons from past fights against nazi movements:
1. Call the nazis by their real name: For years, people from across the political spectrum refused to recognize the very real threat posed by the nazis. Until recently, very few peopleincluding intellectuals who write about the NF, politicians, media, and even antiracist activistswere unwilling to call Le Pen or other members of the NF "nazis." Most people who talk about the NF have consistently argued that Le Pen is certainly an extreme racist and xenophobe, but that he is not a nazi. Harvey Simmons, who has written one of the best and most comprehensive books on the FN to date, concludes that Le Pen is a "threat to democracy," but that the FN is not a fascist (or even a "protofascist") organization.
Calling the nazis by their real name is vital because it is only by understanding what makes fascism different from other kinds of racist or reactionary movements that activists can take up the strategies to stop them.
2. Confront the nazis: The FN has grown because they have not been systematically challenged. Even people who did recognize the FN as a nazi organization became paralyzed in the face of their electoral success. The key to challenging the nazis is to understand their strengths and weaknesses.
In the face of nazi movements in the 1930s, Trotsky realized that electoral victories go hand in hand with the fundamental weakness inside the nazi movement:
the main strength of the fascists is their strength in numbers. Yes, they have received many votes. But in the social struggle, votes are not decisive.
On the scales of election statistics a thousand fascist votes weigh as much as a thousand Communist votes. But on the scales of revolutionary struggle, a thousand workers in one big factory represent a force a hundred times greater than a thousand petty officials, their wives, and their mothers-in-law. The great bulk of the fascists consists in human dust.50
Unlike workers who share a common interest and have collective strength through organization inside the workplace, nazis bind their movement together through racism, nationalism, and rallies which give people a false sense of power. As Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, "Mass demonstrations must burn into the little mans soul the conviction that though a little worm he is part of a great dragon."
The FN can be stopped by confronting and splitting their movement. The fascists build by organizing soft support around a hard-core following. Direct, physical confrontation can break them by driving a wedge between the people who may agree with some of their ideaslike the idea that immigrants will take away jobsand the murderous thugs who form the hard core of their organization.
Many antiracist activists argue that open confrontation only leads to more violence. Actually, the opposite is true. The rise of the FN has gone hand in hand with more racist attacks and murders. Studies have shown that the highest proportion of racist murders occur in areas where the FN has support.51 Allowing the nazis to organize and demonstrate gives them more confidence to attack immigrants.
Hitler himself recognized that fascist movements could be broken if they were actively confronted. As he said in 1933, "Only one thing could have stopped our movementif our adversaries had understood its principle from the first day and had smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement."
One of the most instructive examples of a movement successfully confronting the nazis was the Battle of Lewisham in London in 1977. On August 13, the main British fascist organization, the National Front (NF), planned a march through Lewisham, a Black neighborhood in London. Two demonstrations were organized: one planned to march away from the nazis, and another, called by the Socialist Workers Party and a local Lewisham defense committee for Black Lewisham youths framed by the police, planned to stop the NF from marching into Lewisham. The fascists were protected by thousands of police.
The 5,000-strong demonstrationuniting local Black youth, trade-unionists, rastafarians, punk rockers and socialistsnot only prevented the nazis from gathering at their intended rendezvous, but physically blocked their path into Lewisham. The police tried to disperse the anti-nazis, but they regrouped and pelted the fascists with sticks, smoke bombs, and bottles. The victory elated the anti-nazis and gave their confidence a tremendous boost.
Lewisham completely demoralized the hard-core nazis and completely alienated their soft supporta blow from which they have yet to recover. In the words of an anti-nazi activist whose father participated in the NFs abortive march: "I remember him coming home that night battered and saying that he would never march again."52
3. Dont rely on politicians or the state to stop the fascists: The politicians who govern France have actually contributed to an environment which breeds fascism. By scapegoating immigrants and whipping up racism, conservative and social-democratic politicians alike have made many of the FNs claims seem legitimate. Moreover, laws which prevent the nazis from demonstrating or which grant the state greater powers, will be used not on the fascists, whom the police protect, but against the left and workers organizations. The demonstration in Strasbourg exposed the nazis, but it also showed that police and nazis would stand side by side to protect the FN.
Reliance on politicians to stop the nazisthe idea that electoral support for "lesser evil" candidates can defeat fascismactually produces the opposite effect. As Hal Draper wrote about Hitlers rise to power:
In the 1932 presidential election the Nazis ran Hitler, and the main bourgeois parties ran Von Hindenburg, the Junker general who represented the right wing of the Weimar republic but not fascism. The Social-Democrats, leading a mass workers movement, had no doubt about what was practical, realist, hard-headed politics and what was "utopian fantasy": so they supported Hindenburg as the obvious Lesser Evil. So the Lesser Evil, Hidenburg, won; and Hitler was defeated. Whereupon President Hindenburg appointed Hitler to the chancellorship, and the Nazis started taking over.53