Why the French shouldn't relax after Chirac's win.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 6 2002 1:55 PM

He'll Be Back

M. Le Pen is down but not out.

"Vous votez Chirac, eh?" It wasn't quite a question, but rather a statement, addressed to myself and a friend as we walked through the Goutte d'Or, one of Paris's immigrant quartiers: "You are voting for Chirac, no?" Among other things, the Goutte d'Or boasts a hidden synagogue—it is inside a courtyard, invisible from the street—and a mosque, as well as a church festooned with posters proclaiming "Peace" in many languages. Yesterday the polling booths in the Goutte d'Or were packed, as they were across the rest of the city, and the posters put up all around them matched the words spoken to us in the street.

"Erase the Shame of France," read one. "No room for Nazis," read another. The anarchists had put up yet another: "Immigrants, please don't leave us here alone with the French." Posters of a suave Jean-Marie Le Pen, placed, according to the regulations, outside the polling booths, had all been destroyed, whereas those featuring Jacques Chirac and his anodyne campaign slogan ("All of France, France Together") were marvelously undefaced.

And Paris responded: The city gave the sitting French president more than 90 percent of its votes, a higher percentage than did the rest of the country, which gave him 82 percent. Chirac, and just about everyone else, proclaimed a massive victory. "L'immense victoire," read the headline in Le Figaro. "Ouf!" was the headline in Libération, an expression which translates roughly as "Phew!" The paper's lead editorial wrote that democracy had triumphed, as had "liberty, equality, fraternity." What was less clear, the morning after, was whether France's political class had learned anything from the brief shock it had received from the far-right's surprise success in the first round of the French presidential elections, and whether anything will change as a result. 

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From the coverage of the campaign, one would guess not. In the speech he made to his supporters last night, Le Pen spoke of the media's campaign against him as "hysterical" while another National Front leader complained Le Pen had been caricatured as a cross between "Frankenstein and Adolf Hitler." Neither was entirely wrong. Although the Goutte d'Or is an unusual French neighborhood, its Election Day atmosphere of total support for Chirac was not.

For the past two weeks, there has been relatively little national discussion of the issues that were supposedly at stake in this election: immigration, Frenchness, the European Union. Instead, there were many emotional calls—from philosophers, actresses, journalists, school children—for the French to "unite" against the mortal danger of fascism and the international embarrassment of having such a large and popular far-right political party. There was also coverage that was either neutral or blatantly biased in Chirac's favor. When pro- and anti-Le Pen rallies were held simultaneously on May 1, for example, the anti-Le Pen rally received far more coverage while the pro-Le Pen rally wasn't even mentioned until rather late in that evening's news programs.

Chirac encouraged this attitude, perhaps not surprisingly. He refused point blank to debate Le Pen, who was in turn given relatively few opportunities to state his case—leaving some feeling a touch uneasy. Le Pen's case may be repugnant, or at least some aspects of it may be, but it would have been nice to hear it soundly and frequently defeated nevertheless. "I know they're preposterous," a Parisian friend confessed to me, speaking of the National Front, "but I would have liked to see them squirm."

Strangest of all, the touchy issue of France's large immigrant population, their alleged failure to assimilate, and their supposed responsibility for France's huge crime wave has received relatively few mentions in public. Even the postelection TV coverage on French state television—at least the first few hours of it—included virtually no mention of immigrants or immigration. Strangely, to my American eye, no Arab or black leaders had even been invited into the studio to offer instant comment on the results.

At home, people are talking, however—and one hopes that France's politicians know it. I overheard one woman's comment in a restaurant on Election Day in another part of Paris—the Left Bank— that voted overwhelmingly for Chirac:

… and sometimes their children don't speak French either. …

She was speaking, of course, of immigrants in Marseilles. It made me think of a passage in a recent, much-lauded book by Larry Seidentop, Democracy in Europe:

Here we come again upon the pattern which has haunted French history since the Revolution, a pattern in which the political class or elite loses touch with popular opinion, only finally to be called to account by widespread civil unrest, if not revolution.

My worry is this: If people's fears about immigration, crime, and national identity are not addressed in the next few years of President's Chirac's tenure, there may not be "widespread civil unrest," but there may well be an even larger vote for Le Pen next time around. There is no reason France's politicians shouldn't be relieved by Chirac's triumph—but the events of the past two weeks are no excuse for renewed complacency either.

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