Menu JTA Search

BEHIND THE HEADLINES French elections fail to dispel fears over extreme-right party

PARIS, June 3 (JTA) — French Jews are applauding the weak showing of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in this week’s parliamentary election run-off, but they worry that the extreme-right party could continue to gain influence. Sunday’s vote gave France its sixth prime minister in as many years, a clear indication of the French people’s frustration with the mainstream political parties and their inability to remedy a 12.8 percent unemployment rate. Although Jean-Marie Le Chevallier, mayor of the southern town of Toulon, was the only National Front candidate who won a seat in the 577-member National Assembly, the party tallied 15 percent of the vote in the first round. High unemployment has been a major factor contributing to the anti- immigrant party’s growing popularity. “The National Front’s 15 percent score is a sign of a social malaise,” Meir Waintrater, editor of the Jewish weekly review l’Arche, said in an interview. “The people who vote for the National Front are not necessarily all fascists and anti-Semites, but they are not put off by voting for a party whose leaders are fascists and anti-Semites.” The question is “how can we prevent the current disarray in the political system from becoming a springboard for the extreme right,” he said. As a result of Sunday’s poll, conservative President Jacques Chirac will be forced to share power with the Socialist Lionel Jospin as prime minister and a left-wing parliament. The left won 279 seats to the center-right coalition’s 242 seats. But the Socialists will have to form an alliance with the Communist Party to govern with an absolute majority. During the monthlong election campaign, Le Pen had called on his supporters to vote for the opposition Socialists in constituencies where the National Front candidate was eliminated in the first round of voting on May 25. Le Pen himself did not stand in the election, saying that he was preparing to run in the next presidential contest.
, Le Pen has been quoted as saying that he wanted to create gridlock between Chirac and the parliament, hoping that it would force the president to call for new elections within the next two years. “The National Front’s strategy was to go for the worst-case scenario,” said Chaim Musikant, director of CRIF, France’s umbrella group for secular Jewish organizations. “Le Pen wanted the Socialists to win because he was sure they would fail,” he said. “Then French voters would see that things weren’t good” with either mainstream party in power “and they would turn to the National Front.” Le Pen was also betting that the conservatives, fragmented and traumatized by their stinging defeat, would eventually turn to his party for an alliance to ensure their own return to power in the next election. Some members of the moderate right have already called for such an alliance. “The fear exists that in this period of division and settling accounts, part of the right may be tempted by such appeals,” said Musikant. Another concern is that the moderate right, as it reorganizes to recover from its humiliating setback, may move farther rightward, which could also push it into the arms of the National Front. In a misguided gamble, Chirac had called the election 10 months early in the hope of winning a vote of confidence for his next five years in power. It is the first time a right-wing president will have to rule with a hostile government in what will be the third period of “cohabitation” in 11 years. In the last two periods of “cohabitation,” the late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand shared power with a conservative premier. The National Front’s showing aside, the election results are not likely to herald much change for France’s Jews, who vote along the same lines as the rest of the country. Even Chirac’s pro-Arab policy in the Middle East, which had disturbed Jewish leaders in recent years, will not be tempered by a Socialist prime minister because foreign affairs are the prerogative of the president.