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Confronting the menace of France's Nazi National Front
How can Le Pen be stopped?

May 17, 2002 | Page 8

NAZIS ARE at the center of political attention in Europe following Jean-Marie Le Pen's stunning showing in France's presidential election and the assassination of Netherlands anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn.

Fortuyn was gunned down a week before an election where his party was expected to score the best showing for the far right in the Netherlands since the Second World War. The group will probably get a big sympathy vote this week--and may be represented in the next government.

This would be only the latest success for Europe's far right. In Italy, a "reformed" fascist party is part of the government. Anti-immigrant parties are in ruling coalitions in Austria, Denmark and Portugal.

Often, the mainstream media accept the respectable front that this bunch puts on for voters. But no one should be fooled by sheep's clothing--or underestimate the threat that the Nazis represent, not just to immigrants, who are the main targets of their scapegoating, but to all working people.

KATHERINE DWYER and ALAN MAASS explain the factors that fueled the rise of Le Pen in France.

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JEAN-MARIE Le Pen ridicules people who call his National Front (FN) "Nazis," and unfortunately, many liberals and left-wingers who oppose the FN believe that, although the group is thoroughly racist, it isn't "the real thing."

But no one should be fooled by Le Pen's "respectable" image. His own history exposes the politics of the FN. In his youth, Le Pen was an admirer of Marshal Petain, Hitler's fascist ally in France during the Second World War. During Algeria's war for independence from French colonial rule, Le Pen was an "intelligence" officer who supervised the torture of liberation fighters.

Le Pen has tried--especially in the most recent presidential election--to pose as a defender of ordinary people against the menace of globalization. But he has always looked to big capital for financial backing--and is reported to have Swiss bank accounts holding tens of millions of dollars donated by wealthy backers.

The main vehicle for the FN's racism is anti-immigrant bigotry. One of the group's favorite slogans has been: "One million immigrants equals one million jobless." This is a conscious echo of Hitler's slogan: "500,000 unemployed, 400,000 Jews. The solution is simple."

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THE FN has yet to build the mass base that brought fascism to power in Italy and Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. But its goals, ideology and strategy place it in the same camp as its fascist forerunners.

And Le Pen's relative weakness compared to Hitler's Nazis isn't an excuse to be passive. After all, despite massive anti-Le Pen mobilizations between the two rounds of presidential voting, Le Pen still got the votes of nearly one in every five people who went to the polls earlier this month.

Plus, France's mainstream political parties--of both the right and left--have helped to prepare the ground for the far right to gain a foothold. Until the mid-1980s, Le Pen and the FN were stuck on the political margins in France. But the onset of recession in the early 1980s, combined with the lousy record of the Socialist Party--which ran France's government for most of the decade under the leadership of François Mitterand--gave the Nazis an opening.

Mitterand campaigned to be prime minister in 1981 with the promise that his government would represent a "break with capitalism." And upon taking office, he implemented popular reforms and nationalized some industries. But Mitterand's plans backfired when France's bosses counterattacked--by sending their capital out of the country.

Faced with growing unemployment and pressures from international business, Mitterand caved--just one year after his election. This opened the door to the right, and the FN responded to the growing mood.

The centerpiece of the FN's push was the issue of immigration--and the mainstream right picked up on the Nazis' rhetoric at every step. But it wasn't the right alone that tried to steal Le Pen's thunder.

While Mitterand had campaigned on the promise to give immigrants the right to vote in local elections, by 1982, he had changed his mind--and cracked down. Within a few months, the Socialist Party government rounded up and deported 16,000 illegal immigrants.

Even the French Communist Party--a significant force in French politics to the left of the Socialist Party, though it accepted a similar vision of change coming through the ballot box--failed to defend immigrant rights.

Far from countering the Nazis, this only fueled the spread of racism. A 1983 poll published by Le Monde newspaper, for example, found that 51 percent of people thought the best solution to unemployment was to send immigrant workers "back to where they came from." And the racism didn't stop at opinions. Between 1980 and 1990, more than 200 North African men living in France were killed in racist attacks.

Yet the politicians only continued to feed anti-immigrant hysteria. In 1991, future President Jacques Chirac declared that France was suffering from an "overdose" of immigrants--and said that he felt sorry for people who had to live with their "noise and smell."

Le Pen thrived with every lurch rightward by the mainstream parties--improving the FN's share of the vote to a steady 15 percent with every election.

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FORTUNATELY, NOT everyone was complacent about Le Pen's growing support. Beginning in the mid-1990s, a series of demonstrations and actions began to challenge the FN specifically--and anti-immigrant politics generally.

In February 1997, when the conservative government tried to institute new anti-immigrant laws, activists organized a 100,000-strong march through Paris that forced the government to back down. The next month, 70,000 people marched on an FN conference in Strasbourg--a massive turnout that was especially important after years of the French left failing to confront the fascists. The Strasbourg protest was followed by rallies and marches that took the fight to southern cities where FN politicians held office.

It was no coincidence that this anti-Nazi organizing came in the wake of a huge strike wave against the conservative government that culminated in a general strike of public-sector workers in December 1995.

Some of the strongest strikes took place in FN strongholds like Toulon and Marseilles. In Dreux, the city where the FN made its first 1983 breakthrough, immigrant and native-born workers struck and marched side by side.

This rising struggle--both on economic and political issues--marginalized Le Pen and propelled a Socialist Party government to power under Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. But Jospin once again disappointed those who put their hopes in the Socialist Party--setting the stage for Le Pen's shocking success in the presidential election.

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THE RUSSIAN revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued in the 1930s that the rise of fascism represented the emergence of society's most backward prejudices and superstitions in response to a deep crisis.

"Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner," Trotsky wrote. "Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism."

Across the world, the same system that is puking up fascism is causing civil wars, famine and mass poverty. The key to fighting fascism is the same today as it was in the 1930s--confronting the Nazis with mass action to stop them from building up their forces.

But the only way to ensure that Nazis never gain a hearing is to offer a real solution to the problems that they exploit. When the FN scapegoats immigrants for causing unemployment, anti-Nazi activists need to counter by fighting for more jobs and better social services for all workers, regardless of where they were born or the color of their skin.

Ultimately, we need to offer an alternative of hope to the Nazis' politics of despair--a socialist alternative of a future society based on workers' power.

This story was excerpted and updated from an article that appeared in the International Socialist Review in 1997. To read more of the ISR's analysis, go to on the Web.

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