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Far right and Le Pen – history and future

Published on February 20, 2012 by: in: Politics

The beginning of 2011 brought the end to one of the most startling political careers in post-war Europe. After over 50 years Jean-Marie Le Pen, a founder of the National Front, a doyen of the European extreme right wing, retired. A politician who did not leave the space for other than extreme emotions – was adored or hated. He personified nationalist, xenophobic and almost fascist sentiments. At the same time he astonished with  erudition, oratorical abilities and refined manners. Le Pen’s phenomenon grew out of French conservatism which at its beginning was not any different from the Polish one. Where did it come from and how it developed? Where do the roots of French extreme right wing lie and is it possible to notice resemblance to a Polish version?

photo: Xavier Buaillon

photo: Xavier Buaillon

Roots

The extreme right wing was born in France, similarly to other political movements, at the turn of the 19th and the 20th century. Its roots were at first in anti-Semitism movement with a religious background, and with time with a financial one. The wave of anti-Semitism reached its peak during the scandal of Dreyfus, when nationalist fighting groups carried out pogroms on Jews, and in the Parliament a parliamentary Group of Anti-Semites came into existence. Desire for the defence of the army’s honour, endangered allegedly by defenders of Dreyfus, was the second important component of the identity formed by nationalists. This element would play an important  role in the future political concept of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Right before the outbreak of the World War I anti-Semitic, monarchist and extremely Catholic movements grew in strength and had a common enemy – the parliamentary republic. They wanted to replace it with the social-Catholic system. The extreme right wing stated clearly that “the Roman Catholic Church was a foundation of the state and a patriotic defender of order and state’s values”.

In interwar years, nationalist tumult in France was not smaller than in other European countries. The climax came in 1934 when the nationalist revolt reached its height on the wave of  German fascism and the great financial scandal which led to the fall of the government in January. On February 6, thousands of nationalists gathered in  front of the French government’s seat. When the storm of government buildings was about to happen François de La Rocque, the leader of major nationalists organization Croix-de-feu, withdrew from the protest by rejecting the concept of overthrowing the political system by force.

The decision of de La Roque’s rescued the Republic, but it also designated an important feature of French nationalism, to which Le Pen would remain faithful. Not refraining from a brutal political rhetoric, he never decided to overthrow the legal government by force. Apart from de La Rocque’s riot, the second factor caused that events in France had not followed the German scenario. The Great Depression in France was clearly smaller than in Italy and in Germany, where it entirely ravaged the economy.

Events of February 6 shocked a large part of the society and led to mobilization of the left wring relegated to defense in the thirties. Socialists and Communists established common bloc named “Pact d’unité d’action” aimed at fascist threat which paved them the way for election victory in 1936. Leon Blum was appointed the Prime Minister, and his first decision was to make fascist organizations illegal.

It was not until World War II and  Marshal Pétain’s activity that amounted to power the extreme right wing which got the longed-for chance of ruling under the banners of fighting internal enemies: Jews, Freemasons and Communists. However, defeat of The Third Reich brought an extermination of the core of nationalists in France. About 1000 collaborators from Vichy were sentenced to capital punishment.

“We say loud what others whisper at the bottom”

Jean-Marie Le Pen turned up in Paris right after the war leaving his poor childhood behind in seaside Brittany. Having finished the Jesuit school he began law studies and immediately committed himself to activity of conservative populists conducted by the tribune of people- Pierre Poujade’s. Workers, craftsmen and small tradesmen were a core of this movement – these social groups supported Le Pen through his entire political career. With their support and on the political and economic wave of the post-war instability Le Pen achieved the first success in the election. In 1956, at the age of 27, he became the youngest deputy of the National Assembly.

Le Pen did not stay long in parliamentary benches. When the conflict broke out in Algeria he shouted from the podium to general de Gaulle’s: “Either Algeria would be French or France would start resembling Algeria!” and  he voluntarily enlisted in the army, in order to defend the Great France and the honour of the army, to fight against Communists and Islam. He fought in Algeria, and then took part in the military operation in the Suez channel. The shadow of  this war trailed behind him long. Some sources stated that Le Pen participated in tortures of Algerian rebels, although he denied it. When general de Gaulle ordered the retreat from France, Le Pen, even though extremely critical of his decision, did not support the Secret Army Organization (OAS) consisting of ex-servicemen aspiring to the maintenance of Algeria. Similarly, as de La Roque in 1936, Le Pen fiercely protested against the system, but at the decisive moment he stood behind it.

On his return to the country Le Pen was no longer able to return to the political arena and opened a small publishing house releasing records (including songs of German fascists) and was on a margin of politics.

Mitterand’s helping hand

In 1972 Le Pen set up the National Front grouping the various factions of the extreme right wing – fascists, nationalists, monarchists and collaborators from Vichy. From the beginning two political trends, deniers and so-called “new right wing” rejecting racism, clashed with each other. The first one, with Le Pen, won. The National Front recognized the homeland as the superlative form of solidarity between people.

In the mid-70s Jean-Marie Le Pen’s situation changed. At that time Hubert Lambert, a heir to a large fortune and a person regarded as not entirely mentally balanced, supported Le Pen. Lambert was famous for the fact that under his changeable mood he  bequeathed the wealth as an inheritance to different people. When Lambert suddenly died it turned out that Le Pen was a lucky man. The Lambert’s family was not able to prise off the last will and Le Pen with his family moved  to the palace near Paris. His publishing company was not needed to maintain his family.

After changes in private life it was time for political transformations. In 1984  help came from the least expected side. President François Mitterand appealed to the government for the admission of all political powers to media. Mitterand explained this request with a wish to guarantee pluralism, but many could see underneath Machiavellian’s desire to undermine the right wing by leading the next political player to this part of the political scene. “The die is cast”. The leader of the extreme right wing was invited to the leading, journalistic television program “Hour of the truth” (L’Heure de vérité). During the program Le Pan suddenly interrupted the emission and announced a minute of silence to pay homage to killed under Communist dictatorships. Millions of viewers were astonished. The FN rating went up, and media could not  ignore Le Pena any longer.

Le Pen noticed the chance. He introduced new topics to public debate: immigrants were the cause of rising unemployment, and the revolution of 1968  would cause slow, moral decline of the nation. The effects were soon visible. In 1988 Le Pen won 14% in presidential elections, while in 1981 he could not start at all, and in 1974 he received  0.75%.

The party is me

Over the course of time, the National Front became a private enterprise of Le Pen and his family. Le Pen received the party activists in his palace near Paris bewitching them by his wealth, in his environment one of his three daughters Marie-Caroline played the leading role. The family-political idyll finished in 1998. The putsch within the party organised by Bruno Mégret deprived Le Pen of more than a half of the party members. What is even worse, also Marie-Caroline joined the rebels. The National Front found itself on the rocks and the end of Le Pen’s carrier seemed to be near.

Too soon – it was Le Pen who was dominating when sneering in television “The thing that makes me different from Julius Caesar is the fact that it is me who will kill Brutus.” Le Pen was right, Mégret was not able to function independently in the political arena, the voters of the extreme right wing identified themselves only with Jean-Marie Le Pen. And he, deprived of the party troops and humiliated by his own daughter, did not know yet that in a moment he will achieve the biggest success in his long carrier.

The shock of 2002

During the presidential election in 2002 nobody believed in Jacques Chirac who was strained with investigations conducted by prosecutor’s office after governing in the Parisian mayoralty. Hardly anyone was interested in the first round of the campaign waiting for the second one, where Chirac was to meet with the socialist premier Lionel Jospin, obviously, the last one being the favourite.

However, the rest of the left wing candidates gave self-confident Jospin a blow – as many as six of them took part in the first round and took away the necessary support from the Prime Minister. The dumbfounded majority of the public opinion and commentators observed when on 21st April 2002 Le Pen outdistanced Jospin by gaining nearly 17 percent of votes. Even though in the second round Le Pen enlarged his electorate only slightly and Chirac gained more than 80 percent of votes, it was the leader of the right wing who was in the centre of attention of everybody. Le Pen could finally enjoy the results of his consequent political agenda – criticism of establishment and ‘ultraliberal’ economic policy, defence of the values and the nation as well as fierce criticism of anything that is foreign, especially the immigrants.

The Le Pen’s victory started the series of political crises – soon after this France rejected the project of the European Constitution and was contending with the outbreak of a rebellion in the outskirts.

The goal: dedemonisation

The elections of 2002 were also Marine Le Pen’s political debut, who is another Jean-Marie’s daughter (born in 1968). It was her who, during the election night, was speaking on her father’s behalf during the television discussion. The test appeared to be successful, the voters saw new, sort of upgraded version of Le Pen’s – on the vision, instead of the 80-year-old veteran of politics, there appeared a comely blonde, with oratorical talent not worse than her father’s and with a similar passion to attack the ‘UMPS system’ (UMP + PS – are the two most important parties of French politics).

Marine’s carrier gained momentum – soon she became the head of the legal office of the National Front, in 2004 she was elected to the European Parliament and several years later to the regional parliament Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Within the structure of the Front, Marine found herself closer to the group which distanced itself from the post-fascist tendencies. It is also the only difference between the father and the daughter, Marine publicly dissociated herself from assessments of the Second World War expressed by her father, including his opinion from the 80’s when he stated that gas chambers where ‘a detail in the history’. With two divorces on her scorecard, Marine also resembles the actual model of the French society more than her father’s strict morals.

In January 2011 Marine Le Pen stepped into the breach of her father when she became the head of the National Front and, de facto, began her presidential campaign for the election in 2012. The campaign which she will most probably base on two pillars: anti-immigrant (she recently compared public Muslim prayers to the Hitler’s occupation) and anti-European (with the leading slogan of leaving the eurozone). Its long-term aim will be introducing the National Front to the main stream of the politics by means of dissociating from the post-fascist elements and dedemonisation of the party.

The end of the ideology?

Polish and French radical right wing, despite similar roots – religious-economic anti-Semitism, perceiving Catholicism as an anchor for nation and country and the clear march towards fascism in the interwar period – are recently very different. Because both forces have a different enemy – the French nationalists aim against immigrants, people ‘from the outside’, whereas the Polish had to find it, above all, in their own backyard (the liberals). In France the radical right wing slowly gives up the ideology and concentrates on immigration and the decrease of living standards. In Poland, the question if its leaders and sympathisers go regularly to church still plays a very important role.

Regardless of these differences, both versions remain to be equally repugnant.

Translation: Joanna Brodowska, Małgorzata Wilińska

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About Wojciech Bialozyt

Graduate of Ecole Internationale des Sciences Politiques. He was an intern in the office of the European Parliament member Miquel Mayol and Raynal (ERC) and a consultant of the Regional Centre of European Information in Katowice. He took part in the observatory mission of the OSCE during the presidential elections in Ukraine in 2004, in 2006 he represented Poland on the UN conference ‘European youth Leadership Summit’. He works in the consulting company in Warsaw.

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