PARIS (Mar. 5)
The governing Socialist Party, resigned to stunning defeats in the regional elections two weeks away, has launched an all-out campaign to block advances by the extreme right-wing National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a party many Frenchmen consider anti-democratic and anti-Semitic.
The latest polls show the Socialists getting a meager 18 percent of the vote for local and regional council members while the National Front would receive 15.5 percent, a major improvement over its past performances.
The Socialist campaign, led by Prime Minister Edith Cresson, is aimed at diverting as many votes as possible away from Le Pen.
But the traditional right-wing Gaullist opposition, led by former Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, will not gain much from Socialist losses, the polls say.
The chief beneficiaries may well be the National Front and two environmentalist parties.
The appeal Le Pen’s xenophobic, nativist, blatantly racist messages have for large numbers of voters is rooted in deteriorating social and economic conditions in France.
Unemployment has spread to over 10 percent of the labor force, with younger workers hardest hit. It is the highest jobless rate in two years, which the government seems helpless to reverse.
At the same time, illegal immigration from North African and black African countries continues to be an issue that French governments, past and present, avoid confronting.
It fell into the lap of Le Pen, who has gotten considerable mileage from his slogan: “3 million unemployed, 3 million immigrants.”
Crime is a related problem that allows Le Pen to play on the fears of voters. For decades, immigrants have been parked in “dormitory suburbs” far from city centers, without proper schools and with limited job opportunities.
The lower middle classes have long since fled from those areas.
RHETORIC REMINISCENT OF VICHY REGIME
Since the onset of the recession, crime has skyrocketed, ranging from petty thefts to serious assaults. The drab suburbs have become off-limits, even for the police.
Finally, there is the issue of corruption. The mainstream French political parties have been unable to keep pace with the soaring costs of campaigning. An illegal solution has been to have bogus companies pay kickbacks to the parties at taxpayer expense.
Both the Socialists and the traditional right have been exposed by the press. Le Pen has leaped into the fray to denounce their “crimes and misdemeanors.”
In tones reminiscent of the Vichy regime, the National Front campaigns for job preference for French citizens, a total halt to immigration, expulsion of all illegal immigrants and a “review” of the status of immigrants granted French citizenship since 1974.
Although such programs are contrary to French law and tradition, they have drawn tens of thousands of voters to support Le Pen.
But the Socialists, apparently unable to come up with a coherent, constructive campaign to counter the National Front’s rising popularity, have resorted to crude tactics that have been counterproductive.
National Front election rallies in the provinces are banned on grounds they are “liable to provoke public disorder.” Planes bringing National Front leaders to certain cities have been prevented from landing by “anti-fascist” demonstrators staging sit-ins on the runways.
In Lyon, right-wing Mayor Michel Noir denied the National Front use of a public hall. The mayor said he preferred to “lose an election rather than his soul,” meaning he would rather see a Socialist elected than compromise with the National Front.
But these tactics have only served to make martyrs of Le Pen and his associates and give them much greater public exposure than they might have had otherwise.