Halley Knigge (Griffin)

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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.

Front National supporters parading in Paris:

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.

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Being at Sciences Po between the two rounds of the French presidential election is like being thrust into a hub of political hyperactivity. The dueling Sarko and Ségo camps have hung up jeunes pour Ségolène Royal/Nicolas Sarkozy flags in penîche (main hall) and spend every free moment trying to turn another young French voter and professors have cancelled classes to go off and debate or campaign for their preferred candidates.

Actually, the mood has been electric since mid-February, when François Bayrou crept up from behind to challenge to two main contenders for the Élysée (the Palais de l’Élysée is the presidential residence – basically the French White House) and turned the fairly predictable election into something much more interesting.

The way the French présidentielle works is by a run-off system. Each political party has the option to present a candidate who must gather 500 signatures from elected officials in at least 30 French departments (regions). The only other requirements to be a candidate are to be of French nationality and be at least 23 years old. After the official candidate list is announced, the candidates enter an official campaign period, the rules of which are strictly enforced – each candidate must be allotted the exact same amount of television time, whether through commercials, interviews or debates. The day before the elections campaigning is forbidden – no speeches, appearances or ads are allowed in order to give voters a “day of reflection.” Citizens vote on all candidates in the prémier tour of elections (which took place here on Sunday, April 22nd). If no candidate receives an absolute majority, there’s a run-off election between the top two two weeks later.

This year 12 offical candidates were announced, the favorites of which have long been Ségolène Royal from the Socialist Party and Nicolas Sarkozy of Jacques Chirac’s party the UMP. A run-off between Ségo and Sarko as they’re popularly called, has long been the expectation, but the emergence of the centrist candidate François Bayrou in the polls in February and March threw a serious wrench into the predictability of the election. As the first voting round drew closer, France was mainly concerned with four candidates – Ségo, Sarko, Bayrou and Jean-Marie Le Pen, a racist, fascist, holocaust-denying, extreme right-wing candidate with one eye, who shocked the country and the international scene when he made it into the second round of voting in the 2002 présidentielle. As extreme and offensive as Le Pen may be, he consistently manages to garner a hefty percentage of votes. Last Sunday he received around 11 percent of votes, compared to the inoffensive Green Party candidate’s 1.5 percent.

Polling stations opened at 8 am Sunday morning and officially closed at 6 pm. Unlike the U.S. elections, where voters watch the slow roll of blue or red across the country as polling stations close in each state and see the votes mounting up as they’re counted, the estimated results are not allowed to be announced until 8 pm the night of the first round. At 7:50 Sunday evening, Rachael, our friend Tom and I arrived at a friend’s parents’ Moroccan restaurant, which had opened early for the election results. Faris (the Moroccan friend) and a few other people had set up a projector and speakers so the news was playing 10 feet tall against the wall of the restaurant when we arrived.

The scene reminded me of New Year’s eve, with a countdown clock ticking away the seconds in the corner of the screen, and the camera views alternating between the different candidate’s headquarters. When the clock reached 7:59:30, a collective “SHHHH” rolled around the restaurant and everyone began counting down with the ticker, clutching wine or beer in one hand and frantically silencing cell phones with the other. At precisely 8:00:00, the screen was filled with two headshots – those of Ségo and Sarko before switching once more to the headquarters of each candidate. The whole scene was almost ridiculously theatrical – from the countdown to the winners’ pictures to the photo montages set to inspirational music that played homage to each candidate. I was reminded more of the Academy Awards or New Year’s with Dick Clark more than a serious political event – but I guess the French are used to doing it with flair.

The restaurant where we were was smack in the middle of the 11ème arrondissment, not too far from place de la Bastille – an area that is distinctly left-wing. When Ségo’s picture flashed on the screen the restaurant erupted in cheers – which shortly turned into boos and irritated Sarko insults when the percentages of votes tipped less and less in her favor. Over in the 2ème arrondissement, on the other hand, Sarko’s advance is being celebrated. As I find myself surrounded by some of the most politically aware kids I’ve ever met, I didn’t bat an eyelid when Paul (7) told me that he was “so happy” that Sarko made it, and was only mildly surprised when Ella (10) went off into a tirade about how “everyone wants Ségolène because they think she’ll give money to poor people, but really she’ll make everything more expensive for every one else with too many taxes!” Even 2-year old Georges knows, in direct accordance with the politics of his parents, that “Ségolène bad.”

While I’m sure 99 percent of what I hear from the kids is regurgitated straight back from their parents, it still amuses me to no end when Paul tells me he can’t wait for May 6th to find out who will win. Though Sarkozy came out of the first round with 31.18 percent and a clear lead over Royal’s 25.87 percent (numbers that three of my four nannying charges had memorized to the 100th), nobody knows where Bayrou’s 18 percent will go. At the moment, he’s endorsing neither candidate, and has instead declared that he’ll be founding a new political party – the Parti démocrate. The rest of the votes are easy to assign – Le Pen’s extremist votes will most likely go to the immigration-unfriendly Sarkozy, while most of the little leftist parties will be casting their votes for Ségolène. It’s the middle 18 percent that has everybody aflutter – and while my personal prediction is Sarkozy in the Élysée, we won’t know for sure until next weekend.

Meanwhile, Paul and I are counting down the days.