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The Mysterious Rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen

BY CHRISTOPHER LORD
05.21.2002 | POLITICS

The rise of the nationalist right in Western Europe is certainly a shock to the system. In France, the system was simply unable to deal with the fact that 16.95% of the population -- rising to 25% in some departments -- voted for the Front National and Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the Presidential elections. Ready for a nice safe run-off between two candidates with almost identical policies -- which is increasingly the norm in European politics as in America -- the apparatus of press, television and party representation just could not assimilate this stream of public opinion. It remains paralyzed, unable to explain what happened in any but apocalyptic terms. French politicians are supposed to be brainy, smooth administrators: super-efficient civil servants at the service of the Republic. A former paratrooper with a neo-Nazi past and a populist style based on ridiculing the whole set-up does not fit into this at all.

The best the French establishment has been able to come up with is dire warnings about the rise of Hitler. Le Pen laughs off the comparison with the 1930s and its movements, and nasty though his own movement certainly is, in this his laughter is justified. There are a few old SS men waiting in the wings, but lepÚnisme is not about Munich or Vichy or any of that. It is about now.

The reason for the comparison with Hitler is that it is the only parallel we can find in our collective memory. Trying to find some hateful image to scare off potential voters for the radical nationalist right, this is all we can come up with, even though we know -- surely we know -- that it misses the point. We should be looking elsewhere and to another time for parallels: not to Western Europe but to Eastern Europe, and not to the 1930s but to the 1990s. Though the style is different -- and of course nationalist movements all cultivate a distinctive national style -- Le Pen's nationalist program is no different from the nationalist revivals we applauded so loudly in the former satellites of the Soviet Union. It simply scares us when we see that this same revolutionary weapon is now aimed at us.

Ask a Czech or an Estonian or a Kosovo Albanian whether they believe that their own people should come first in their respective states. If preference should be given to them in employment and education and social services policies. If illegal immigrants should be expelled. Indeed, if you get them on to the subject of Ukrainians, Gypsies, Serbs or whoever their local pet hate happens to be, you will probably find them going a lot further than any of Mr. Le Pen's supporters. These are not fringe fascists we are talking about: these are the heroes of democracy. The casual racism and xenophobia of Eastern Europeans comes as a shock at first. It is not just directed against the predictable targets of yesteryear (Jews and Russians, for instance); it is at its most vehement when close neighbors are involved. It was this energy above all that powered the revolt against Soviet domination (with obvious caveats, such as Catholic feeling in Poland, and resentment against domestic tyranny in Romania), and it is an accident of history that it was labeled "democratic." It was democratic in the sense that it was pro-American and anti-Soviet, but what was proposed and enacted was not the vaguely-defined inclusive democracy of multi-racial and multi-cultural Western Europe: it was a democracy that was above all national. Minorities have been excluded from power everywhere (apart from Bulgaria, oddly enough, where the Movement for Rights and Freedoms of the ethnic Turks has played a disproportionately significant role in a succession of coalitions), and the idea that "foreigners" should have political rights at all is alien to such thinking. "Foreigners" in this context more often than not means people who have been there for several hundred years, by the way. The 90s shook us with the horror of ethnic cleansing. What we did not remember is that the other countries of the region had mostly resolved their own potential conflicts of this type by ethnic cleansing programs of their own long before 1989, which allowed them to stand on the sidelines and shake their heads over Yugoslavia with the rest of us.

We see from the results how infantile this is. While a few countries are edging towards the West, at least in their capital cities, the Eastern insistence on the national principle, and our endorsement of it by our policies, has left existing countries like Romania, Bulgaria and Albania in a spiral of poverty, crime and social collapse that should make us thoroughly ashamed, and, even more shamefully, has allowed the creation of a slew of hopeless abortive mini-states that have never quite got off the ground. Kosovo is on the way to becoming one of these, and Moldova is a dreadful example of how useless this kind of thinking is. I hesitate to name other failed states like this, since it always produces some outraged letters of protest from convinced nationalists of the place in question, but on another tack, the same logic sabotages Ukraine and Belarus, where this same "European" national principle has been elevated to the sanctity of state dogma, without a corresponding change in the reality of the population structure. The analysis slips away, though, as we get into the problems of the former USSR, since a different continental dynamic begins to apply.

In Europe what would be produced by a consistent application of this kind of nationalism is the Europe envisaged by Johann Gottfried von Herder in the 18th century: ethnically cleansed micro-states, operating as extended families, with every language boundary turned into a national border. For a Latvian or a Croat, this has a certain immediate appeal, given their historical experience of what it means not to have a border like that to protect them, but a moment's reflection shows us how meaningless this is as a plan for the Europe of the 21st century. England, for instance, could be divided into -- what? 10? 20? -- different statelets, if the dialectological methods used to justify the division of Yugoslavia were applied. A few dictionaries of pure Manchester and Liverpool English and a national epic for Northumberland and we could start thinking about dividing the army up according to traditional "ethnic" regimental ties.

Well, this is where Le Pen would lead us. It is what J÷rg Haider is after in Austria. Not that Le Pen wants to divide France up, of course. A Breton himself, he is happy with the cultural unification enforced by the French Revolution. It is that national principle, that poisonous Herderism that has led us charging over the brink of so many abysses already. It should not be necessary to spell out what is wrong with it, but to put it succinctly, the idea that the European national cultures are closed cells, independent from each other and proud of it, is the opposite of the truth. All the successful countries of Europe, including France and Austria, are products of a parallel cultures dynamic, with different or foreign people co-existing, though not necessarily happily or even voluntarily, and making a characteristic cultural mix. That is what gives European cities their life and sparkle. What has changed is the range of peoples, of parallel cultures, involved in these structures. The French national culture is the product of interactions among Romans, Jews, Normans, Franks, Germans, Italians, Bretons, Provenšal heretics and many others -- and now, yes, of Francophone Arabs, Berbers and black Africans too. Up to the First World War, Austria was part of an Empire with 17 recognised languages.

So in the end there is a parallel with the Nazi project. It is not the parallel of storm troopers and concentration camps. It is the parallel of cultural suicide. The German high culture, universally accepted as the best anywhere before the Second World War, was subjected to a nationalistic reorganization that in the end relied on the same Herderist thinking, and the same refusal to see the truth of the European social structure. It rapidly collapsed into a sad parody of its glorious past. It is not necessary to believe that parallel cultures will always live happily ever after. Coexistence necessarily involves some friction. But the path of cultural exclusion that this worthless nationalism involves ends up in every case by excluding the fantasists responsible for the vandalism in the first place. Franco's Spain, the nationalist paradise, was a complete backwater, intellectually and culturally, until his death. The famous New Democracies of Eastern Europe have more or less painted themselves into the same corner, with only the older generation of dissidents still making any contribution to the mainstream of Western culture -- and there are not so many of those. There is no question of choice or political orientation. It is a matter of plain fact that European civilization is a multi-cultural structure. There is a long and depressing list of political leaders who have told their followers to believe that the only true culture is national culture, and the smiling faces at Mr. Le Pen's headquarters on election night showed that there is still one born every minute. The French will now be punished for their complacency in the face of this nonsense by five more slippery years with Jacques Chirac, and unfortunately it is no more than they deserve.

About the Author
Christopher Lord's new book, Parallel Cultures, has just been published by Ashgate.
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