Jean-Marie Le Pen is a sensitive subject for the French. To most of the population, he’s a dinosaur – a racist xenophobic extremist whose existence on the political scene is a disgrace to the country. But for a shocking 11 percent of the voting population, he’s a revolutionary – a martyr whose destiny is to make France French again.
Le Pen founded the Front National in 1972, a far-right political party that wants to return France to its traditional roots, distance the country from the European Union, reinstate the death penalty and basically deport all immigrants. Le Pen’s daughter Marine is a party executive and the popular pick for the FN’s candidate for the présidentielle once Jean-Marie leaves the scene. Because Jean-Marie is such a polarizing figure, Marine is seen as the hope for the future of the party. According to my vie politique professor, Marine is a much more dangerous figure than Jean-Marie, for just that reason. She’s softer, less extreme and was never convicted of negationism or accused of torturing POWs – and could potentially gain a lot of votes for the party.
As a political figure, Le Pen is a frightening extremist – and as a person, he is no less colorful. As a young man he was convicted of assault several times – mostly through membership in a group of law students whose main activity was beating up Communists. He’s been accused of using torture as an intelligence officer in the Algerian War by the newspaper Le Monde, but was unable to be tried because of an amnesty agreement and expired statutes of limitations. He was prosecuted and fined in 1999 for historical revisionism and Holocaust denial for statements about the supposed insignificance of the concentration camps in terms of World War II and for claiming that the Nazi occupation of France wasn’t actually so bad.
Le Pen is the black sheep of the French political family. He’s the butt of every joke, but behind the laughter is real fear – because he continues to gather enough support to be a real political power. The highlight of his political career was the 2002 présidentielle, in which he managed to defeat the Socialist party candidate (Lionel Jospin) who was expected to be a main contender, and go on to the second round of elections against Jacques Chirac. Although Le Pen’s short-lived success was due more in part to divisions among the leftist parties than to his own popularity, the two weeks between the first and second rounds of elections were filled with demonstrations, marches, protests, graffiti and posters against Le Pen. A popular slogan was “Vote for the crook, not the fascist.” Chirac went on to defeat Le Pen by a landslide in the second round, but France learned its lesson in 2002 and voter turn-out for the first round of the 2007 présidentielle was an impressive 85 percent.
May Day in France is both a national holiday and the date of the annual parade and rally of the Front National. Le Pen supporters from all over France were bussed into Paris this morning to participate in the parade, which took two hours to wind its way from St. Augustin in the 8ème to place de l’Opéra where Le Pen was to speak. Anna and I met at place de l’Opéra about half an hour before Le Pen was to appear, mainly out of morbid curiousity – we couldn’t wait to see “what kind of people” support Jean-Marie Le Pen. Based on his political platform, our general expectation was skinheads and rednecks – but the most frightening thing about the rally was just how many completely normal-looking people were present. There were adorable French moms with pearl earrings, YSL shirts and Longchamp purses pushing babies in strollers that had been decorated with FN and Le Pen signs and banners. There were cute old ladies perched on fold-up camping chairs wearing FN baseball caps. There were groups of attractive young guys wearing armbands and French flags as superhero capes. There were fluffy poodles wearing tricolor cocardes (cockades, or rosettes – these were a symbol of the French Revolution) and doggy tee shirts that read “Vite Le Pen, Vite!” The whole atmosphere was rather unsettling – there were hot dogs and balloons and tee shirts for sale, and the scene felt like a fun festival – except that we were all there to celebrate (or observe) a racist Holocaust-denying torturer.
We felt a little awkward standing in the middle of this fascist rally – on the one hand, we did not want anyone to think we’d ever support this lunatic, but on the other hand, we really didn’t want to get beat up by crazed FN supporters. Grateful that neither of us had accidentally dressed in red, white and blue, we opted to wander casually through the crowd taking pictures and gawking at Le Pen as he made his speech from the stage that had been set up for him in front of the Palais Garnier.
For reasons not completely clear to me or Anna, Jeanne d’Arc is a special symbol for Le Pen and the FN – the parade doubles as a celebration of both the FN and the exploits of Joan of Arc. From what we could gather, Le Pen sees himself as a kind of martyr as well, fighting for his beliefs as she did. It may also have something to do with the fact that she was persecuted by the English, and Le Pen, fighting to return France to its Frenchiest roots, is very wary of Anglo-Saxon intervention. In addition to the pro-FN and Le Pen tee shirts for sale all around the place, there was also quite a bit of anti-Sarkozy and anti-U.S. paraphernalia available for purchase. One red tee shirt featured an outline of the U.S. with the words état criminel (criminal state) written inside of it. Another one read simply, “Yankee go home.”
Sprinkled throughout his impassioned tribute to dear Jeanne d’Arc (who, by the way, I really don’t feel would be comfortable being associated with a fascist extremist) were tirades against each of the other presidential candidates. He led the crowd in loud booing of Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, and started a cheer of Chirac en prison! Chirac en prison! He also spent a significant amount of time bemoaning the 2002 elections before moving on to rail against the results of the présidentielle 2007. After an hour of FN rallying, parading and speeches, Anna and I were ready to escape the chants of “LE PEN – LE PEN – LE PEN.” We snuck off down rue du Quatre Septembre feeling rather ill, but satisfied – curiosity-wise, at least.