Front (FN) has provided shock after shock in recent months. First came a
runaway success in March's municipal elections, where the far-right party came in
second. Then came the European Union elections in late May, when the FN took 25 percent of the vote -- beating out the center-left and
center-right parties that have dominated the Republic since after World War II.
And since last week, a family spectacle pitting the party's unreconstructed
founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, against his reformist daughter Marine has
mesmerized the country. If the daughter wins this struggle, it may well mark
the climax of a story begun 125 years ago.
It was then,
in 1889, that a retired French general, Georges Boulanger, seemed on the cusp
of seizing power in France. That he failed to do so did not turn him into a
historical footnote. On the contrary, the dashing officer represents the beginning
of a movement, Bonapartism, that has ebbed and flowed through French politics
ever since. As it name suggests, Bonapartism calls for an authoritarian leader
who channels the will of the nation, controls the levers of a powerful state,
and whose legitimacy flows directly from the people (through referenda or
plebiscites) rather than the mechanisms of liberal democracy.
France could hardly wait for the start of a new century. The country (and much
of the world) was mired in an economic depression, its traditional industries
and shops fissuring under the pressures of global competition and mass
production. Their lot increasingly precarious, workers grew increasingly
hostile to immigrants who seemed to threaten their jobs. (Up to half a million foreigners
-- two-thirds of them Italians and Belgians -- were entering the country
annually around that time.) The era's technological triumphs, symbolized by Gustave Eiffel's 1,000-foot-high iron tower for the 1889 World Exposition, was
cause not just for enthusiasm, but anxiety: The great economic and scientific
churn improved many lives, but upended many others. "Nearly all centuries end
badly," the illustrator and writer Albert Robida wrote in 1889, "and ours
appears to follow the common law" as it expires "in an ingestion of iron and
steel and chemical products."
political parties, rather than defending an endangered Republic, instead
inflamed her condition. A long series of tawdry scams, including the selling of
Legion d'Honneur ribbons from the presidential palace, climaxed with the Panama
Canal Scandal of 1889, in which the company of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the
celebrated builder of the Suez Canal, began to hemorrhage money and bribed
hundreds of parliamentary deputies to facilitate government infusions. When the
company went bust in 1889, so too did the savings of countless small investors --
along with their trust in France's political class.
Jules Grévy, whose official residence, the Élysée, had become a souvenir stand, in 1887 was Sadi Carnot, whose most
important quality, one observer noted, was his "perfect insignificance." A
growing number of French, in search of a leader, turned to Boulanger, whose
bravery against the Germans during the Franco-Prussian War and sympathy for
striking French workers won him support across social classes. Though they hailed
from the left as well as the right, were rural and urban, blue- and white-collar workers,
his followers shared several important traits: distrust for political parties,
disenchantment with the great changes technology and commerce had wrought,
defiance of a powerful Germany, and the desire for an assertive and resurgent
swell of popular discontent swept Boulanger triumphantly through several
provincial by-elections, climaxing with a resounding victory over the
government's candidate for a parliamentary seat for Paris in early 1889.
Boulanger's moment disappeared, however, as quickly as it had appeared. Unwilling
to take power by force, as many of his supporters had hoped, the general fled
France when the government floated the rumor of his imminent arrest for
treason. Though Boulanger eventually committed suicide, his brief political
career revealed the power of Bonapartism, the movement whose subsequent
iterations have roiled French politics periodically ever since.
So much, yet
so little, has changed between late 19th- and early 21st-century France. Against
a bleak background of rising unemployment and declining industries, deepening
frustration over monetary constraints imposed by Berlin, and popular fears over
"uncontrolled" immigration, the mainstream parties appear not just impotent,
but impertinent. The Socialists, scarcely recovered from sexual assault
allegations involving former International Monetary Fund head and would-be president Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), were splattered soon after taking
power by the financial scandal involving their budget minister, Jérôme
Cahuzac, who had brazenly violated the tax laws his office enforced. As for the
conservative opposition party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), their
leader, Jean-François Copé, has just resigned amid revelations that his party
illegally funneled millions of euros into the 2012 presidential campaign of his
mentor Nicolas Sarkozy, who himself is juggling several court cases involving campaign
storm of DSK's rape charges and Sarkozy's bling-bling activities paved the way
to the Élysée for the mild-mannered François Hollande. Having given the
presidency to Hollande with his promise that he was "normal," the French now
find that normal, at least if it means "perfect insignificance," is not good
enough. A recently released Le Figaro
poll reveals that just 3 percent of respondents wish to see
Hollande run again. Clearly, he is not the "real leader" that, according to a Le Monde poll, 87 percent of
respondents seeks for France.
It is thus not
a surprise that more than a third of those same respondents now support the National
Front, even if it feels shocking. The party's recent successes have revived an
old debate over the nature of the FN. Since assuming the party's leadership, Marine
Le Pen has portrayed the FN as the nation's last bulwark against supranational
institutions, like the EU, and free market forces that have overwhelmed its
frontiers. According to Le Pen, the barbarians at the gates are not just finance
capitalists and Brussels-based bureaucrats, but the legal and illegal
immigrants from East Europe and North Africa who threaten her certain idea of
France. Hence her vow to withdraw France from the eurozone, close the country's
borders, and revitalize a strong state that would protect endangered industries.
program the FN's many critics glimpse a fascist, even neo-Nazi movement. To be
sure, a number of the party's founding members in the late 1970s hailed from
this fringe of the French ideological spectrum, their presence comforted by Jean-Marie Le Pen's many anti-Semitic provocations and forays into historical
revisionism. The party's origins have not been forgotten. In late May, German
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble declared the FN a "fascist party." Le Pen's
recent efforts to criminalize the use of this label have fizzled. Her case
against Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left-wing firebrand who savors the term, was tossed out of a French court earlier this year.
the historian Zeev Sternhell have also insisted that there is a variety of fascism
specific to France. The cult of the leader, embrace of violence, distrust of
reason, and emphasis on the nation rather than the individual -- these same
beliefs, carried by similar social forces, mark not just the Boulangist
phenomenon, but also anti-parliamentary movements like Action Française at the
turn of the 20th century, the Vichy regime during World War II, and the
National Front today. There is, as well, the crucial issue of anti-Semitism. While
not a necessary element to fascism -- Italy's Mussolini, the inventor of
fascism, adopted anti-Semitism only under pressure from Nazi Germany -- Sternhell
and his camp insist upon its centrality to fascism à la française.
historians, however, fault Sternhell for confusing ideal categories with
historical particularities. The political scientist Jean-Yves Camus, among
others, places the FN in the same tradition as Boulanger's movement.
Rather than fascist, he says, the FN is "plebiscitary": a movement calling for
direct democracy, an authoritarian presidency, and a "sovereign" nation free of
supranational institutions like the EU. While neo-Nazi ideologues helped launch
the FN in 1978, they were long ago purged from the party, a feat that the younger Le Pen has touted, replaced by a new generation of leaders, like Florian Philippot,
who hail from the same elite schools that shaped Hollande and Copé.
Pen's impatience with the recent anti-Semitic and racist provocations of her father,
the party's octogenarian founder, and her desire to change the party's name -- and
thus mark a rupture with its past -- are well known.
debate among specialists can slide into scholasticism, the stakes are serious.
Joël Gombin, a polling expert, believes the FN, unlike its earlier iterations,
has reached "bedrock" status in French political life and that Le Pen's
presidential ambitions are realistic. For this reason, semantics have political
consequences. By labeling the FN as "fascist" or "neo-Nazi," opponents only
alienate the party's growing base that is appalled by such a description.
Moreover, the fascist label blinkers the FN's opponents to the changing
political landscape, undermining their ability to map an effective response. One of the FN's most determined
opponents, the historian Pierre-André Taguieff, makes
this case in a recently published
manifesto. Both the French left and right, he argues, have benefitted
enormously by demonizing the FN. By forming "republican fronts" against the
"fascist threat," neither socialists nor conservatives have ever had to make
positive cases for their own parties. And now, it may be too late.
In the end, Marine
Le Pen's party is not fascist -- and this is exactly why it is so dangerous. The
FN's emphasis on national and social values -- which, of course, makes no place
for most immigrants -- appeals to those French voters who, as in 1889, were
shocked by a cascade of political scandals and living under the shadow of a
resurgent Germany. The aims of the FN differ little from those of its
Bonapartist ancestors. As a result, for those who wish to defend the Republic
and the values of 1789, getting names right, rather than name-calling, is the
necessary first step.
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