The French Give Le Pen the Bird While Looking Inward
By Grant Rosenberg

With seemingly half of Paris rallying in the streets on the first of May, chomping at the bit to vote in the runoff ("I’ll take Jacques Chirac to block, please"), it is clear that Jean-Marie Le Pen’s day in the sun is coming to an end. Or is it? Some make the cynical prediction that all these rallies around the country just mean that a few million are opposed to Le Pen, but an untold number of others might be reluctant to admit their support for him. Which is why there have been marches and demonstrations every day since the preliminary voting round when Le Pen received 17 percent of the votes, shocking everyone and knocking Lionel Jospin out of the running; to demonstrate that Le Pen and his Front National party is not an acceptable choice for the leader of the nation. These demonstrations will culminate with the runoff election on Sunday, though they may have very well peaked on Wednesday, when somewhere around 400,000 people lined the streets of Paris alone and over a million more around the rest of the country.

There has been no shortage of theories on how Le Pen even got this far. Is it a sign that the entire country is turning to the right? Or is it simply a fluke? With the combination of a record number of abstaining voters, (28%), and a record number of candidates (16) that split the vote, it seems that the overriding factor was miscalculation on the part of leftists. There is a saying here: "First round, vote with your heart, the second round, vote with your head." But, as it did in the U.S. last time around, the system failed. There do seem to be some similarities between our 2000 election and the present one in France. Though Chirac is the incumbent, Jospin has been the prime minister, with both sharing power and giving the campaign a sense of bickering, separated spouses rather than president vs. candidate. At least it would have, had they had an invigorated campaign of ideas. Lionel Jospin, like Al Gore, seems an able, intelligent man on the left who nevertheless, due to his dry, intellectual approach did not excite the electorate. Both Chirac and Jospin played it safe, never really making anything but predictable, innocuous comments so as not to risk alienating voters. With such a lack of specifics and dialogue, the perennial firebrand candidate Le Pen who always says what he thinks, the world be damned is the only taking a stand with any kind of conviction. This results in people being attracted to someone with an opinion and voting for him. And he is capitalizing on the single-issue voters who fear rising crime, even those in the small towns and in the countryside where there is little crime and hardly any non-white inhabitants. The problem is that these people are presently content to repeat the mantra of "Le Pen will do something about crime," without thinking through what that means when put into practice. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear how unhappy and shocked they are when they realize how much of their own civil liberties are infringed upon under a "Le Penian" system of justice. Ultimately though, Le Pen garnered only three more percentage points than in the last election in 1995. Having said that, to have 18 percent of voters choose him remains something to worry about, in terms of what a Le Pen presidency would mean to the daily French life, of what his already alarming success looks like to the rest of the world and what it means to the millions living in France who do not fit his and his supporters ideas of what France should be. Which is what brought the hordes of people to the streets on May 1st, the traditional day of labor celebrations.

People often joke about French arrogance, but it is no small thing for scores of French people to hold up signs—intended for international attention—that read "I’m ashamed to be French." Those came the day after the shockwave; by May 1st, the people had gone through requisite stages of grief, and have come out empowered, full of piss and vinegar.

On Sunday, we kill the pig

The demonstration was also an informal poster contest, a competition of who could create the most clever and/or heartfelt anti-Le Pen sign. One man put a sign on his dog that read "I eat fascists." "On Sunday, we kill the Pig,’ reads one placard. Many signs equate Le Pen with Hitler as did his campaign signs before the election which were commonly tagged with the requisite little black square mustache. Another sign at the rally stated: "The earthquake: 16.9 percent on the Hitler Scale. These people are marching to be sure that everyone votes for Chirac, not only so that Le Pen will lose on Sunday, but to minimize the Front National’s success in the upcoming legislative election. They are marching to protest his supporters, and did it without violence.

Regardless of what the rest of the country thinks of all this, it seems undeniable that such a sustained rally, of so many people over so many days would not happen in the U.S. Were Pat Buchanan to qualify for a runoff against Bush, people would be outraged, but there might not be a sustained reaction like this. As it was with the Gore/Bush election debacle, people were outraged, and even though many still think that the Bush is not a legitimately elected president, they went back to their lives soon after. In France, active political response in the streets is just as much a part of daily life as wine and cheese. If the French were the citizens of the U.S. in November and December of 2000, Bush may still have taken office, though it is certain that the people would not have gone gently into that good night.


The rally on May Day pushed the street capacity to its limit. Soon there was no movement of the crowd, and it became evident to me that there were no speeches to be made, that this was not a march on Washington. It was simply a demonstration, literally, of the sheer number of people that could congregate together. A mass of bodies surging forward and back flooding the street, content to just be there and knowing how beautiful it would look on the news beamed all over the world that evening. Periodically a vocal version of "The Wave" would wash over us. It would begin somewhere further up, people yelling with exhilaration, just a prolonged battle cry that arrived at oneself, and continued past it, much like the physical version long practiced at sporting events the world over. After a half hour within the swelling mass of people, it became too much.

It was impossible to get closer to the Place de la Republique itself, and then came the crush, when we found ourselves uncomfortably compressed and being moved within the crowd, a little panicked, not knowing where we would end up, but feeling that it might not end good and it wasn’t your fault or the fault of the people immediately around you. In short, a contrived but accurate model for the figurative political position these protesters have found themselves in since April 21st.

A spirit of victory and unity and strength permeated the crowd, but a laid back one, essentially because rather than being a defiant group protesting against the state, the streets of France were lined with people who, albeit reluctantly, were supporting the present president. To be flippant for a moment, 1.5 million people took to the streets to support the status quo, those powers that be. But to focus on that is to miss the point. There has been much talk about Europe as a whole drifting to the right, caused by rising crime and prejudicial views that the influx of "darker" immigrants is the sole cause of it on this continent. Growing sympathy for extreme right candidates is the continental equivalent of White Flight. And then there is the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks here in France and other parts of Europe all met with a less than satisfying condemnation from the leaders. One thing is certain; there is a national identity crisis, a struggle in the countries of this continent of fixed cultural identities, as those identities shape and shift. But it has been going on under the rug, not talked about enough, not enough illumination of what needs to be in the open. That has ended. This has been a wakeup call, many are fond of saying, and perhaps it is true. The shades have been raised. The people squint in the bright light because it stings the eyes a bit, but they can’t afford to go back to sleep.