Too late, the French left have a cause

Right-wing president Jaques Chirac is now embraced as the candidate of 'human rights' against Jean-Marie Le Pen.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

It was an election that ought to have gone down in France’s history as a non-event.

But thanks to a low turnout, and the disintegration of the left, the far-right veteran Jean-Marie Le Pen (16.91 percent) (1) won through to the second round against the incumbent Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac (19.83 percent).

With a record 28 percent abstention, the Front National (FN) leader came second, beating the stiff-necked Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin (16.14 percent) into third place. As with the US election, only when the vote was over did the real battle begin: across the country, French men and women protested against the FN vote.

With both presumed frontrunners, Jospin and Chirac, in their sixties, and precious little political difference between them, the press reported the contest as Tweedledum v Tweedledee. But it was always the Parti Socialiste (PS) that was in the weaker position.

In 1997, Jospin led the PS to take the assembly from the Gaullists, who were mired in corruption scandals. The underlying weakness of Jospin’s position was that his election did not reflect a political struggle to win over the voters. Instead he was the lucky winner due to public dissatisfaction with Chirac’s party. The School Ma’am-ish Jospin’s evident distaste for engaging the public showed through the election, making even America’s presidential candidate Al Gore look passionate.

Jospin is on record rejecting UK prime minister Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ – but this time he outdid Blair in rejecting any ideological commitment whatsoever. His only substantial achievement in office – the 35-hour week – is wholly uncontentious, matching similar commitments across Europe. It was hardly surprising that Jospin’s support would fragment. The exotic range of radical protest candidates included former PS cabinet minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement (Radical Nationalist, 5.3 percent of the vote), two environmentalists (seven percent), and three Trotskyists, led by election veteran Arlette Laguiller, splitting more than 11 percent of the vote between them.

The political fragmentation of the left is long preceded by its social disintegration. French trade-union density is among the lowest in Europe, and a Communist Party that could once command a quarter of the vote has all but disappeared. The PS has had no distinctive policy since its state-spending welfare policy was reversed 20 years ago, sheltering ever since under the reputation of its most famous leader, the late President Mitterand. Instead it made itself available as the alternative party of government when the Gaullists fell from grace in the 90s.

In the campaign, Gaullist Jacques Chirac scored against Jospin by playing upon fears of social disintegration, responding to outrage at a village shooting, when a mentally deranged environmentalist opened fire on his local council assembly. In turn, crime stories picked up by a press bored by the non-contest election fed Chirac’s improvised theme of ‘security’. Politicised anxiety about crime froze Jospin in Chirac’s headlights, but one candidate that understood the language of insecurity was Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Le Pen has been playing upon the insecurities of the French petit bourgeoisie since he first stood as a deputy for the Poujadists during the war in Algeria. In the 1980s he broadened his appeal to the losers in France’s declining industrial belt, playing up fears of immigrants.

When the election turned to crime, Le Pen was well placed to take advantage. His mixture of slighted French pride and get-tough policies on immigration and against Europe spoke to an alienated minority who feel they are losing out. But most of all, Le Pen is prepared to take his case to the streets, while Jospin and Chirac were seen to be avoiding the argument.

Now, ironically, Chirac, last week denounced by the intelligentsia as France’s Silvio Berlusconi, is to be embraced as the candidate of ‘human rights’ against Le Pen. Having failed to raise a pulse over their own candidate, the left is rallying to Chirac in the election run-offs to keep Le Pen out. With the vote now apparently a choice between democracy and fascism, all differences with Chirac are to be submerged in a patriotic defence of French values of liberal democracy – except that the second round will be as devoid of political debate as the first, only disguised with a superficial sense of urgency.

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

Read on:

The myth of the far right, by Brendan O’Neill

Who’s afraid of the far right?, by Mick Hume

Continental drift, by James Heartfield

Defending democracy – against the voters, by Josie Appleton

Where are Le Pen friends now?, by Dominic Standish

spiked-issue: Race

(1) National results, Libération, 22 April 2002

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Topics Politics


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