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Le Pen's Upset Was Rooted in Fear of Crime

April 23, 2002|EDWARD N. LUTTWAK | Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Over the past few years, there has been an explosion of crime in France. While tourists who visit central Paris and Nice experience conditions that are safer than in most American cities, people who live in the suburban areas around Paris, Marseilles, Lyon, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Lille and a hundred other cities and towns have been exposed to frequent brawls, car thefts, burglaries, vandalism of public facilities, street robberies and acts of gratuitous violence. Accompanying all this was the virtual abandonment of entire urban areas by the police, especially poor areas where casual crime is most frequent and where many police stations are closed at 6 p.m.

Under the French Constitution, the president is responsible only for foreign affairs while the prime minister and his government are responsible for the economy, social policy and everything else--including law and order.

That was the problem for Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, the Socialist who finished third in Sunday's presidential election. Jospin was upset by Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right National Front, whose campaign stressed France's rising crime rate. Le Pen will face President Jacques Chirac, the top candidate, in a runoff May 5.

Le Pen's campaign not only targeted crime but also blamed immigrants for much of it. France now has more than 4 million Muslims. Most are law-abiding, but the teenage children of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants often are disaffected by low education levels, high unemployment and cultural confusion. Even when not violent in a criminal sense, they keep people awake with loud music, , they stay out in large, intimidating groups in public places and they have turned many urban areas into places where most people stay at home behind locked doors after dark, too afraid to go out.

Both politicians and the media--who usually live in high-rent central areas--have tended to ignore the increasing fear and bitterness of the general population. Crime victims, their relatives and neighbors saw hardly any mention of their acute distress on television or in the newspapers, while politicians (except for Le Pen) talked little about crime or the need for more public order. In recent weeks especially, it was infuriating for ordinary French people to see nonstop TV reporting of Palestinians complaining about their suffering at the hands of the Israelis, while there was little if any reporting of "Arab" crimes in their own streets and towns.

Moreover, when Jospin and other politicians did recognize the crime issue, they mostly talked about the need for more social programs and more help for the disadvantaged, without saying anything about the need for more police, safety in urban areas and protection for ordinary people.

The result of all this was the huge vote for the "anti-Arab" Le Pen in spite of his nationalist extremism, which most voters do not like, and for Chirac, mainly because as president he is not responsible for law and order.

Jospin has announced that he will resign after the runoff. But that leaves the government in the hands of the Socialists until the June elections for the National Assembly, or Parliament. If they want to survive politically, they will have to become a law and order party. That has fiscal implications, because it would require that French police forces be expanded.

Le Pen's showing has wider implications as well. The rise of the extreme right in Western Europe--including, besides Le Pen, Joerg Haider in Austria and populists in Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland--and of the right wing in Italy is shifting the political balance, with a direct impact on the European Commission, which is still dominated by the center-left. Although Germany has not seen the street violence that France has, German voters are likely to come down hard on the governing Social Democrats, who are also perceived as "soft" on crime, in September's national elections.

And a general turn to the right would certainly narrow the political gap between the Bush administration and Western Europe.

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