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Huge protests shake France
Outrage erupts at Nazi Le Pen

By Eric Ruder | May 3, 2002 | Page 12

AS MANY as 1 million people are expected to take to the streets in France on May Day to show their disgust and horror at Nazi Jean-Marie Le Pen. The mass demonstrations will come after a week and a half of protests that have involved hundreds of thousands of people.

Le Pen touched off a political earthquake when he placed second in the first round of France's presidential election--winning the right to face incumbent President Jacques Chirac in a runoff May 5.

France exploded with outrage. Spontaneous anti-Le Pen demonstrations took place in major cities that very night. Throughout the following week, the protests continued--often fueled by students who walked out of schools, usually with the support of their teachers, and sometimes even school administrators. Last Thursday alone, the streets of Paris were filled with 100,000 protesters--students, workers, members of antiracist groups, and artists carrying banners that proclaimed, "Nowhere for Nazis" and "We're stronger than hatred."

Le Pen and his National Front have also called for a rally on May 1, claiming that they will bring out 100,000 supporters. This will be a crucial test for opponents of the Nazis. They have the numbers to challenge the fascists and drive them off the streets--sending a message that workers, students and immigrants can make common cause against the threat of Le Pen.

Le Pen toned down his fascist rhetoric to appeal to a wider layer of voters in the first round of voting April 21. But his call last week for "transit camps" for illegal immigrants and a "special train" to deport them was a return to his roots.

"It's totally obnoxious," said Mouloud Aounit, head of the antiracist group MRAP. "It shows the true face of his National Front...He didn't use the word 'camp' by chance. He knows it conjures up what the Nazis did to the Jews."

Le Pen campaigned on promises to crack down on immigration and to get tough on crime. He also appealed to workers, portraying himself as the champion of what he called "the miners, the steelworkers, workers of all those industries ruined by...Euro-globalization." In reality, the multimillionaire Le Pen is a vicious opponent of workers and their unions. But he was able to win 16.9 percent of the vote--trailing Chirac at 19.8 percent, and ahead of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin at 16.2 percent.

The outcome isn't evidence of mass support for Nazism. Rather, it shows the widespread disgust with mainstream politicians like Chirac and Jospin. The clearest sign of this was a 28 percent abstention rate--the highest since 1958--which ran even higher in heavily working-class areas hit hard by factory closures. What's more, revolutionary socialist candidates also did well in the election, taking a combined 11 percent of the vote.

In fact, the election represents a polarization between right and left--driven above all by disillusionment with Jospin's record in office.

Jospin was elected prime minister in the aftermath of the massive December 1995 general strike of public-sector workers against the previous right-wing government's campaign of privatizations and attacks on workers' pensions.

But as prime minister, Jospin privatized more state enterprises than the previous five governments combined. He did honor his campaign promise to implement a 35-hour workweek, but the legislation weakened on-the-job protections, and employers used the measure to implement speedups.

During the campaign, neither Jospin nor Chirac talked about real issues like unemployment--choosing instead to compete with each other over who could demand harsher sentences for petty criminals and youth. This opened the way for Le Pen by legitimating his views. The Nazi leader himself quipped that Chirac was contributing to the "Le Pen-ization" of the campaign.

Le Pen's election success is an urgent threat--not only in France, but as the latest and most significant showing by far right and Nazi parties across Europe. In February 2000 in Austria, Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party joined a coalition government with a center-right party after winning more than a quarter of the vote. In Italy, supporters of fascist dictator Mussolini are part of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government. In the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Norway, far-right parties have made advances.

But the left is also growing--and has the power to defeat the Nazis. In Italy, for example, some 2 million people took to the streets in March to protest Berlusconi's attack on labor rights--a massive protest that was followed up with a 13 million-strong general strike last month. French workers, too, have the power to stop Le Pen--and challenge the corrupt system that puts corporate profits first.

France's top Nazi

LE PEN has a long and violent history of Nazi organizing. He started the National Front in 1972. Since 1974, he increased his share of the presidential vote from less than 1 percent to 15 percent in 1995 by warning of the "mortal threat" to French culture posed by immigrants.

Before becoming a politician, Le Pen served in the French Foreign Legion, participating in France's brutal colonial war against Algeria. To this day, he praises France's colonial empire for its "positive influence on the development of the populations that were subject to its authority." In the same interview, Le Pen called for the reinstatement of the death penalty in France and said that the Muslim veil "protects us from ugly women." In 1987, he described the Nazi gas chambers of the Holocaust as "a detail of history."

His rhetoric has had deadly consequences. In 1995, a Moroccan immigrant drowned after being pushed into the River Seine by a group of skinheads who had just attended a National Front rally. That same year, National Front supporters putting up posters in Marseilles shot a 17-year-old immigrant in the back, killing him.

Though Le Pen has tried to appear more "respectable," a supporter at his election victory rally in April talked about "irrigating our fields with [immigrants'] polluted blood."

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