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It was May 1, 1988 in Paris, and I watched as Jean-Marie Le Pen, a young girl dressed as Joan d’Arc, a line of sash-wearing dignitaries, and 40,000 Front National supporters marched through the streets in a May Day parade. It was the moment that the Front National’s racist nationalism broke into the middle of French politics, after years (decades) on the margins. Le Pen won 4.4 million votes, about 14.7% of the total, in the first round of the presidential elections that year. At the time, I was used to monitoring Klan rallies in the American South, which never approximated the size and power of the rally that day. The Front National’s fortunes have waxed and waned over the next two-plus decades since. Now, with a stunning six million votes (17.9% of the total) in the in the first round of the French presidential elections, Marine Le Pen has re-established the Front National as a leading voice for racist, anti-immigrant politics in Continental Europe. The most immediate consequence of Le Pen’s showing, as others have noted, has been a sharp racist appeal by President Sarkozy to Le Pen’s constituents in the second round of campaigning. Sarkozy, heretofore an establishment conservative from the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), has in effect become a bull horn for the Front National’s anti-immigrant, Islamophobic politics. The received wisdom is that Sarkozy will fail, and Socialist Francois Hollande is expected to be elected France’s next president on May 6.

In June, however, the Front National will likely win seats in the national assembly in two rounds of voting. And if the party maintains its current strength into the 2014 elections to the European Parliament, it is certain to increase its representation in that body. If that happens, the net effect will be an increase in the power of the racist far right, even as the soft-core socialist left holds on to the presidency. At the same time, the Left Bloc, an amalgamation of a Socialist Party breakaway faction, the Communist Party and other smaller parties, which captured 11.1% of the vote in the first round, has made its first significant showing after a number of years of decline for the hard left.

Marine Le Pen in the USA

Marine Le Pen, the daughter of FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, rose to the top of the Front National in 2011. In the process, she defeated a challenge from Bruno Golnisch on the farthest right-wing edge of the party, and promised a kinder, gentler racism and xenophobia, unencumbered by her father’s ill-tempered anti-Semitism. Indeed, in order to improve her “mainstream” appeal, Marine Le Pen traveled to the United States last November, with many from the Francophone media in tow.

Declaring her affinity for Ron Paul’s positions on central banks, she finally finagled a meeting with the Texas congressman after he spent days dodging her overtures. She had less difficulty securing a meeting with Rep. Joe Walsh (R.-ILL.), a freshman congressman elected with Tea Party support. While in D.C., she had breakfast with lobbyist Richard Hines, former editor of Southern Partisan magazine, according to Ed Sebesta, an expert on the neo-Confederates. During the New York leg of the trip, Le Pen made noises about meeting Occupy Wall Street protestors, but did not go to Zuccotti Park and did not apparently meet with any Occupy activists as she walked around southern Manhattan. In New York and D.C., her attempt to appear like a visiting dignitary basically failed.

Marine Le Pen had better luck in Florida. According to press reports, she met with William Diamond in Palm Beach. Diamond, active in Republican Party circles, was supporting the candidacy of Herman Cain at the time of Le Pen’s visit. He also claims to be big-time donor to the American-Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC). Le Pen’s visit with Diamond was obviously aimed at helping her wash off the stink from her father’s anti-Semitism, and also to assist her effort to find support among French Jews for her Moslem-bashing campaign. She largely failed in that effort.

Jean-Marie and Marine La PenDuring her father’s tenure, the Front National received continual and significantly favorable coverage from The Spotlight, the now defunct weekly tabloid published by the Liberty Lobby; founded and minutely managed by Willis Carto. (Carto, a long-time Holocaust denier, now publishes a different weekly tabloid with a smaller subscriber base, The American Free Press.) And Bruno Golnisch, Marine Le Pen’s challenger for control of the party, has been an invited speaker to Jared Taylor’s white nationalist American Renaissance conferences on multiple occasions, the most recent in February 2008. (Taylor, a Francophile, has repeatedly had speakers from France at his Renaissance gatherings and spoke this March to 700 racial nationalists at a conference held in Paris.)

Marine Le Pen’s attempt to find American friends among the Republicans, rather than hard-core white nationalists, is part of her larger effort to “normalize” the Front National. According to an analysis written by French anti-fascists for the June 2011 edition of Searchlight magazine, much of the key activist base has now left the party (most going to organizations even further to the right). Nevertheless, “the FN is able to function better” with an influx of “thousands of inexperienced new members.”

This change in the Front National does not alter the fact, that France has a solidly built and devoutly ideological racist and nationalist movement in its bowels. This is not a movement that gelled in opposition to President Sarkozy, but in opposition to the immigrants in its midst and the European Union that envelopes them. The anger that Front National voters feel towards Sarkozy has only served to accelerate the nationalism and racism that motivates them.

Finding a Response to the Front National’s Racism

The left has had principally two different types of responses to this racist nationalist movement. The Socialist Party has virtually ignored the Front National’s success, apparently hoping to build an alternative to the racists without directly confronting them. And anti-racist critics of the Socialist Party have for years noted that the organization SOS Racisme acts mainly as a campaign mechanism for the Socialist Party.

The Left Front, which won 11.1% of the vote, by contrast, decided to “organize a very front-on opposition to the Front National,” according to Raquel Garrido, who quit the Socialist Party along with Jean Luc Melenchon, the Left Front’s presidential candidate. Garrido said, “That’s something no one will forget, that we were the ones that started the process of trying to strike back against the Front National…The Socialist Party doesn’t do that. Even now, they are barely speaking about the Front’s high score.”

The Left Front obviously wants to both confront the Front National’s entire program, as well as build an alternative to it. It is a lesson American anti-racists should not ignore.

Leonard Zeskind

Author Leonard Zeskind

is founder of IREHR. For almost four decades, he has been a leading authority on white nationalist political and social movements. He is the author of Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in May 2009. [more..]

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