Shocked for the wrong reasons
Analysis By Bret Stephens
"I'll tell you why they vote for me: Because there is unemployment, crime; because too many foreigners live in France and make us feel like strangers in our own house. People are scared for themselves and for their children."
Thus spake Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1988, and 14 years later the song remains the same. The leader of France's National Front party has, over the course of four successive presidential elections, stood for exactly the same things, with no attempt to moderate his views or soften his tone. Over the same time, the breadth of his political appeal has also remained the same: between 15 percent and 20% of the electorate.
Yesterday was no different: Exit polls have him at between 17% and 18% in the first round of the French presidential system. The only thing that has changed is that the Socialist candidate, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, polled even less, making Le Pen the run-off candidate against incumbent President Jacques Chirac.
This will no doubt cause shock waves throughout Europe and beyond. Attention will be drawn, first, to Le Pen's anti-Semitism: He called the Holocaust "a detail of history"; reportedly spoke of Hitler as "Uncle Dolphie"; and shared a dais with former Nazis. Le Pen is also avowedly anti-Arab, anti-gay, and anti-Europe.
But this comes neither as a surprise nor, indeed, as an especially damning reflection on the French public. Le Pen's figures remain pretty much unchanged. In previous elections, more than half of those who voted for Le Pen admitted to having no desire to see him as president. He remains a protest candidate, not a serious contender. And he will be trounced by Chirac in next month's final round of voting.
What is surprising is the remarkably poor showing of Jospin, who until recently seemed to enjoy a slim but persistent lead over Chirac, and whose Socialist Party dominates the French Assembly. His swift fall from grace leaves the field to two right-of-center candidates, and raises serious questions about the long-term political viability of the French Left.
Part of the problem for the Socialists lay in Jospin's technocratic mien and a streak of Calvinist severity that left many French voters cold. The larger problem was his inability, while leading the government, to contend either with France's decade-long economic stagnation or the skyrocketing incidence of crime. Until the French Socialists are able to remold themselves in the style of Tony Blair's "New Labor" or Gerhard Schroeder's "Neue Mitte" (new middle), it's likely they will continue to suffer reverses.
At the same time, questions confront the Gaullist Right. Chirac has been hounded by allegations of corruption during his tenure as mayor of Paris - allegations substantially founded in fact. Though he will walk easily toward re-election, the French Right of Chirac is as ideologically moribund as its opponents on the Left, peddling largely the same economic and social nostrums. It, too, is vulnerable.
Two years ago, in Austria, Joerg Haider's Freedom Party succeeded in coming to power less on the strength of its own platform than on the weaknesses of the two dominant parties. In Belgium, the separatist Vlaams Blok threatens much the same, as does the Northern League in Italy.
Jean-Marie Le Pen is no threat to the European body politic. But someday, from the stagnant pool of European politics, something much fouler might emerge.
That last paragraph is quite a haunting thought.