PARIS — For an outsider, it is sometimes hard to see why so many Frenchmen are upset and frightened by the extreme right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. He follows the rules of democratic electioneering. His speeches do not brim with hate. He tries, in fact, to sound like Ronald Reagan. But history hangs over right- wing politics in France--a sullied and humiliating history. For the French, Le Pen evokes too many memories.
France suffered a strong anti-democratic, racist strain in political life from the turn of the century through World War II, culminating in the war years, when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany and administered by the collaborationist Vichy government of Marshal Philippe Petain. Many would like to feel this can never happen again. But when a politician like Le Pen comes along, there are enough lingering doubts to make the French worry about the future.
In France's recent cantonal elections, Le Pen's National Front won 9% of the popular vote and only one of the 2,042 seats at stake. Yet, for a month of campaigning, for a week between the two rounds of voting, and for days of post-mortem analysis, television commentators and newspaper editorialists spoke and wrote about little else in French politics besides what they called "the Le Pen phenomenon."
In one television debate on the second election night, Jean Poperen, a high official of the ruling Socialist Party, bitterly accused a National Front candidate in the southern city of Montepellier of campaigning with the slogan, "Work, Family, Nation." That was Petain's slogan during the Vichy years.
Le Pen did not deny the accusation but denounced the Socialists for their electoral alliance with the Communist Party. In the elections, Socialist and Communist candidates, following a long tradition, withdrew from the second round in favor of the leftist candidate who had won the most votes in the first round.
For Le Pen, the Communists are the real enemy of French democracy. Yet many French are obviously more worried about the threat from the extreme right. The Communists, after all, have served in French governments without endangering democracy. But democracy was squelched under Vichy.
This attitude is reflected in the way Le Pen is treated by the regular conservative parties, the Gaullist Rally for the Republic of former Premier Jacques Chirac and the center-right Union for the French Democracy of former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
While attacking the Socialists for associating with the Communists, the leaders of these conservative parties have not used the leftist alliance as an excuse to try to woo support from Le Pen. Instead, faced with accusations from the left that they and Le Pen are as alike as Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the conservatives try hard to persuade voters that they will have nothing to do with him.
Le Pen, 56, is a former deputy in the National Assembly and former officer in the Foreign Legion. He is direct in his message to the French electorate. While insisting that he is not a racist, he paints immigration as the main cause of unemployment in France and promises to expel illegal immigrants if the National Front comes to power. His slogan is "France first of all." He preaches nationalism, patriotism and free enterprise, denouncing Communists and bureaucrats.
Critics hear too many echoes of the past. Intense patriotism and virulent anti-Semitism were two of the most significant forces that powered the French extreme right at the turn of this century.
French Action, an organization founded during the Dreyfus case, has been the source of much of the extreme right philosophy, with Charles Maurras its most influential spokesman. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was falsely accused and convicted of spying. The case polarized France into leftist Dreyfusards and rightist anti-Dreyfusards; French Action emerged from the latter.
Maurras often used the same words as Le Pen--"France first of all"--as he preached the need to protect a center of classical civilization from what he regarded as foreign barbarians.
Monarchist Maurras held that France had been weakened, by democracy and by the Jews, Protestants and naturalized immigrants. Maurras insisted that he was not an anti-Semite for racial reasons--only for reasons of nationalism. The Jew, he said, could never be assimilated fully and so would always remain a foreign threat to France.
When he was sentenced to life in prison in 1945 for his role in the Vichy government, the 77-year-old Maurras called out: "It is the revenge of Dreyfus."