THIS Easter weekend, France's extreme-right neo-fascist party, the Front Nationale (FN), held its annual political convention in Strasbourg, the capital of France's eastern province of Alsace, bordering Germany. Against the benign backdrop of shops festively decorated with chocolate Easter bunnies, the FN promoted its message of nationalism and hatred.
Founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen almost 20 years ago, the FN has until recently held a relatively minor position in French politics—attracting between 5 and 10 per cent of the vote—with supporters, who include skinheads and neo-Nazi party members, best known for giving vent to their anger over high unemployment by assaulting immigrants. For instance, in 1995, FN supporters pushed a young Moroccan boy off a dock to his death during one of their political rallies in Paris.
More recently, as part of a strategy to raise their public profile, the FN has been courting publicity. Last fall, the FN Mayor of Toulon protested when the town's annual bookfair awarded the prestigious literary Goncourt prize to a French Jewish author, arguing that the author was not sufficiently 'French'. In August, Le Pen drew national headlines by repeatedly proclaiming the "inequality of the races", because black athletes continued to outrun white athletes during the Atlanta Olympics. In an interview with journalists, Le Pen alleged that President Chirac was under the control of Jewish advisors who took directions from the international Jewish organisation, B'nai Brith.
The popularity of the FN and its demagogic leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been steadily on the rise. Le Pen, who won 15 per cent of the vote in the 1995 Presidential elections, continues to attract voters to the FN by arguing that foreign immigrants, mostly North Africans, are the main cause of problems such as rising unemployment (over 12 per cent now) and increasing crime. Le Pen stays in the spotlight by preaching a message of rabid intolerance.
In Strasbourg, the French Left, long quiet in the face of mounting FN gains, finally decided to counter-attack. As many as 50,000 people from all over France altered their Easter plans to arrive on 'liberty trains', to demonstrate their solidarity against the FN and its 'anti-republican' ideals. With heavy security and police manning the streets to prevent violence, the leftist demonstrators shouted for "liberty, equality, brotherhood and solidarity against the FN and the extreme right in France".
The city government of Strasbourg, led by Socialist Mayor Catherine Trautman, organised activities to diminish the Front's presence and to make clear Strasbourg's anti-Front stance. In addition to the all-day-long march against the FN, the city organized a ceremony to celebrate the launch of the EU's Year Against Racism. A two-day colloquium of Jewish students was held and a dinner debate was sponsored by the Jewish organisation, B'nai Brith. Mayor Trautman, who banned an NF rally in Strasbourg in 1992, told the International Herald Tribune that she realised she could not legally ban the FN but wanted to "make clear why we disapprove of the National Front trampling French republic values underfoot".
The FN has also been building its strength by cultivating grassroots organisations and establishing a presence in local communities. For example, the FN actively recruits supporters in the local police, prison guards and transportation workers. As a result, it has made the strongest gains among France's blue-collar workers, attracting as much support as 25 per cent in recent polls.
Despite holding no seats in France's National Assembly, the FN is becoming an increasingly important political force, with a broadening support base among sections of the French public. France's main political parties appear to be at a loss on how to contend with the rise of the FN. Until the recent show of force last weekend in Strasbourg, France's Socialist Party has been internally divided on what strategiesto adopt, leaving them too paralysed to take any action. As one disgruntled observer put it in Paris' Left-leaning newspaper, La Liberation: "We are always condemned to respond to Le Pen. In 15 years, this is all the Left has managed to do." A similar frustration is felt by the governing conservative RPR (Rally for the Republic), who admit their efforts to undermine the FN have been ineffective and that the problem will not just disappear. Last September, in a moment of high emotion after Le Pen's public remarks on 'racial inequality', Prime Minister Alain Juppe lashed out, calling Le Pen "a racist, xenophobic and anti-semitic".
In response to the FN, and in anticipation of next year's elections, last month Chirac's RPR party passed the Debre immigration bill. The bill was hailed as a tough measure against illegal immigration and introduced the idea of "accommodation certificates". This certificate allows a foreigner to stay in France only at the invitation of a person with right of residence in France. It also requires the resident to report the exact date of departure of the visitor.
The bill caused an uproar among French artists and intellectuals who took to the streets calling the bill reminiscent of Vichy France and Nazi rule. (Under German occupation during World War II, the French Vichy Government obliged French citizens to report all information on the whereabouts of Jews.) Several days later, the bill was modified and the provision on accommodation certificates was scrapped.
Despite these efforts, the FN has made significant gains in the past year. It has won mayoral elections in four southern cities, with the most recent victory last month in Vitrolles, where the new FN Mayor, Catherine Megret, won 52 per cent of the vote. The victory in Vitrolles allows the FN to consolidate its strength in southeastern France and makes it possible to set its sights on the 1998 legislative elections, with the hope of electing deputies to the National Assembly.
Vitrolles is a vital case study of the FN's rising appeal. With high unemployment made worse by the failure of a local steel plant, a large, relatively poor North African immigrant community and municipal corruption, Vitrolles was ripe for FN's message. Bruno Megret, NF's deputy head, who delivered the mayoral victory in Vitrolles for his wife, presented the NF as the party with the right solutions. Capitalising on insecurities about job losses, and pointing to the Muslim immigrant community as the cause of the town's social and economic problems, Megret told the Inte -rnational Herald Tribune: "If we want to send the Africans and Asians back to where they came from, it's not because we hate them, it's because they pollute our national identity and take our jobs."
Experts agree that as long as France's economy remains sluggish, the FN's nationalistic, anti-immigrant platform will continue to attract voters. The FN's propagandist rallying cry of "Neither right nor left but French!" has a strong emotional appeal with voters who are fed up with France's mainstream political parties, finding them ineffective and corrupt. There is also the more practical appeal of the FN's tough stance on law and order, which, studies showed, attract the average French citizen as much as the FN's policy on immigration. In the FN-controlled town of Mariganane, where immigrants are under constant scrutiny, a voter felt: "Life is better, hooliganism has stopped." But as the Strasbourg rally showed, there may be renewed determination among many citizens of France—the home of the republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity—to mobilise against the growing spectre of the NF's neo-fascism.