BY AUBE REY LESCURE:
“I’m not racist, but under the current circumstances I cannot help but become racist.”
This phrase often comes as the preface to lengthy political discussions in the part of France I live in—the rural south. I have heard it a shocking number of times—from friends, neighbors and even my own family members. Truth be told, the concept of racism in Europe holds a very different place in public discourse than it does in America. While widely perceived as an immoral and undesirable quality, racism is discussed in frank and at times self-permissive ways that we have learned not to express in the States. I have encountered Frenchmen, Spaniards and Germans who have been so open about their racist sentiments that it sounded like they were admitting to some personal flaw they have learned to live with.
Take, for example, once instance when I heard the bombastic phrase in the paragraph above. It was a quiet afternoon in August, and my 86 year-old grandmother was receiving a visit from a sixty year-old friend who lived a few towns away. After being lectured that hiding in my room sleeping while guests are present is an act of barbarity, I joined the two ladies in the garden and listened as they first engaged in innocuous gossip about what old ladies usually talk about—children, grandchildren and neighbors. Suddenly, the discussion took a graver tone: Suzanne started complaining about no longer being able to go to the supermarket in her town because she feared aggression from the local Arab youths. She launched into an anecdote that went more or less as follows:
“The last two times I went to the supermarket in Bagnols, I was followed around by a group of young Arab hooligans. The first time I was with a friend who used a cane to walk—right there in the aisle, they pushed her, threw her cane away and called her obscene names. Then another time I was with a strong-tempered friend who told these young people to leave us alone when they started harassing us. They left, and I told her to wait and see until we got out of the supermarket. Sure enough, the whole gang was standing there waiting for us, ready to set things straight. We had to call the manager and have him get security in order to get back to our car. I used to get all my fruit and vegetables from an old Arab vendor not too far from that supermarket—so don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Arabs. But I told him that I couldn’t come anymore because I didn’t feel safe with all these gangs around. And he said he completely understood.”
This story, like so many I have heard in the past few years, contains a few structural elements that speak volumes about both personal psychology and the sociopolitical climate at large: guilt, self-justification, and a racialized fear that seemingly stems from a certain race’s correlation with poverty and criminal behavior.
The fact is that a certain segment of the population is becoming increasingly xenophobic and openly racist in France. This segment of the population has a few discernable characteristics—often above forty years old, often living in rural areas or medium-sized cities, and often disillusioned with the party in power. Moreover, they use their voting rights to concretely manifest their discontent—by voting for the National Front.
The National Front (NF) is an object of wonder. Perhaps vaguely comparable to the Tea Party in the U.S. but with much deeper historical roots, the NF firmly stands its ground at the far-right of the French political spectrum and is the third biggest party after the Socialist Party (PS) and the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). It has been run by somewhat of a dynastic family, Jean Marie Le Pen and now his daughter Marine Le Pen. The father, when holding the reins of this beast, made the party famous for being unapologetically racist and anti-Semitic. Though the entirety of the NF party doctrine is obviously more complex than these two adjectives, most of the French public and media have come to agree that even in the most reductive sense ‘racist’ and ‘anti-Semitic’ are accurate terms to describe the ‘qualities’ that set the NF apart.
And yes, it is France’s third largest party.
Marine Le Pen, since inheriting the crown of ‘most bigoted politician’ from her father, has tried to reshape the party image as “anti-crime” and “anti-immigration”—which is kind of the equivalent of Apple’s coming out with a new iPhone; i.e. selling essentially the same product with a slightly tweaked name and a prettier veneer. Marine Le Pen has no need to actually worry about rebranding, though—the NF will forever be viewed as the bastion of xenophobia and anti-immigration that once proposed for 3 million “non-Europeans” to be forcibly removed from France.
No wonder, then, that even major international news sources picked up on the results of recent municipal elections in the Var department of France, where a member of the National Front won 54% of the vote. Shockwaves of fear ran through the center-left and center-right coalitions. Big predictions were made about what the minor victory meant for France’s future. Alarmist? A bit. But the concern is not unfounded—any adult French citizen remembers the presidential elections of 2002, which provided dramatic reversals worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. French presidential elections consist of two rounds, where the second is a run-off between the two top candidates of the first round. The 2002 Socialist Party candidate was unpopular Prime Minister Lionel Jospin; in an élan of spite, the nation gave more votes to the NF’s Jean Marie Le Pen than to Jospin, who was squeezed out of the race by a narrow margin. It had been a national caprice, for never in French history had there been serious consideration that the National Front could one day run the government. The NF is a party that disgruntled citizens vote for as a fallback when they want to whip the ruling party back into shape—more or less like a defiant teenager telling his parents “fine, I’ll go join the local neo-Nazi chapter if you keep treating me this way”. It’s a bluff. So imagine the terror that seized France when it was announced that Le Pen had won a place to the run-offs with a 0.7% margin—frenzied citizens rushed to the polls to make sure they hadn’t made the biggest faux-pas in history, and as a result came the greatest landslide in French history (and the memorable “Vote for the Crook, not the Fascist” posters), with Jacques Chirac winning 82% of the votes.
The collective memory of the 2002 Le Pen Presidential Scare is still tender, so it is understandable that a departmental victory for the NF in the Var seems to some like the apocalyptic coming of the Four Horsemen. NF popularity is a thermometer for the level of French national malaise and racism over immigration and multiculturalism issues. And, as the two elderly women discussed on that peaceful summer afternoon, more and more municipalities in Southern France are staunchly voting for the National Front. Though this does not guarantee the advent of a French Ahmadinejad, it does send distressing signals about citizens ready to back a party renowned for its racism.
Aube Rey Lescure ’15 is in Davenport College. She writes on the European Union, particularly France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, focusing on both significant internal events and cross-Atlantic relations. Contact her at email@example.com.