It Might Not Be Best of Times for French, but Le Pen’s Racism Will Not Hold Sway : France: Despite increased anti-Semitic and racist incidents, the right-wing Nationalist Party does not have mass appeal for the French.

<i> Walter Russell Mead is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin)</i>

“T ouche pas a pote " is the slogan of SOS Racisme, a French anti-racism education and advocacy group. It means, roughly, “Don’t mess with my buddy.” Lately, SOS Racisme has had plenty to do.

Swastikas on headstones; teachers assaulted; Jewish corpses disinterred and mutilated--the latest rash of attacks have stirred up fear in a community already nervous. German reunification; rising anti-Semitism across the Soviet Union; increasing Israeli isolation--1990 has not been an easy year for Europe’s, or America’s, Jews.

The National Front, a party whose delegates in the European Parliament voted against a resolution condemning the desecration of the cemetery at Carpentras, currently stands at about 15% in the polls. Some National Front supporters endorsed views disseminated by a small school of “revisionists” who claim that there wasn’t a Holocaust, and that, anyway, it wasn’t Hitler’s fault. Spokesmen for the National Front deny the group is revisionist or anti-Semitic, and say the Jewish community is part of the traditional France they wish to protect.

Whatever the real feelings of front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and his close associates about the Jews, however, it is clear that any “Jewish problem” in France is a secondary issue for the National Front. It is Arabs the front really hates, and it calls for the expulsion of all but a handful of the 9 million Arabs it claims are in France. The front wants an end to legal immigration, and reforms of French law to make citizenship far harder for foreign-born residents to get.


The anti-immigrant tactics of the front expose it, legitimately, to charges of racism. Ugly caricatures of Arab families riding magic carpets to France adorn its leaflets. The front’s view of the Arab mentality would probably find echoes on the lunatic fringe of Israeli politics: All Arabs are Muslims, all Muslims are anti-Western extremists and any person of Arab descent is presumed guilty of harboring sentiments hostile to Western culture and France. For National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, this struggle over immigration is but the latest stage in a confrontation that began when the 8th-Century French King Charles Martel defeated a Muslim invasion.

This talk sounds strange to American ears, but resounds in France, where defeat in the Algerian War of Independence divided the nation. A million or so French settlers who fled Algeria after the defeat constitute a still-powerful lobby in French politics. For these anti-Arab, anti-communist veterans, even Charles de Gaulle wasn’t enough of a patriot.

Le Pen isn’t the Hitler of France: He is more like its Jesse Helms. But he is now the beneficiary of a powerful wave of unrest that could create enormous difficulties for the mainstream parties.

From the French Revolution until recently, French politics have been both bitter and ideological. Now they are just bitter. France’s powerful and political and intellectual elites have moved toward ideological consensus since Francois Mitterrand became president. The Socialists have, in effect, given up Socialism and become moderate free-marketeers; the conservatives have also accepted the market--a big step. One other cause unites the fractious elites: 1992. The construction of a united Europe under the cultural and, to some degree, the political leadership of France helps satisfy a perpetual appetite for grandeur and glory.


This would be fine if the market were working in France, and if 1992 was working out as planned--but neither is turning out as projected. The French economy has been doing moderately well, but unemployment remains high and the real income of the poorest 25% of French households has actually declined since 1985.

As for 1992, the new Europe is looking less French and more German every day. 1989 was supposed to be the Year of France: The bicentennial of the French Revolution would witness the triumph of French policies in the Common Market. But the Germans stole the show when the Berlin Wall came down; since November, Bonn has been the real motor of Europe. Neither the French Socialists nor the mainstream conservatives have figured out how to respond.

The French Communists--still hard-line after all these years--are the traditional party of protest. They offer no real alternative to the mainstream.

This is where the National Front comes in. Social protest doesn’t disappear when old religions and ideologies die; the protests endure, but take different forms. In post-communist France, this means a return to “national fundamentalism.” For those without jobs, Le Pen has a scapegoat: immigrants. For those left unmoved by the bland liberal Eurovision that now shapes the French consensus, he offers something more exciting. For those who fear the economic and social changes sweeping Europe in the countdown to 1992, he offers a return to old verities and a promise that the purpose of the French state is to defend French interests like farmers and auto workers from the insidious designs of foreigners ever jealous of the glory and the greatness of France.


It is always a danger sign when the French are bored with their leaders, and at the moment they seem faintly bored with the whole political circus. Even so, Le Pen will probably not succeed in his long-term strategy to take power in France--unless the economy should turn sour and neither the Socialists nor the moderate conservatives have any solutions. In that case it is conceivable, though by no means certain, that the French would forget their long and painfully built democratic traditions to vote for the front.

But even if that should happen, hatred of the Jews is not a popular cause here. The principles of decency and the lessons of the Holocaust have sunk far too deeply into French culture. Of the French polled, 96% were shocked at the outrage at Carpentras; if evidence were to link Le Pen to anti-Semitic violence, his political career would almost certainly be finished.

The French have not yet accepted their Arab immigrants as buddies, but from everywhere in France the message about Jews has been loud and clear. To skinheads, neo-Nazis and thugs of every kind, the French people have sent a clear message: touche pas a ‘pote-- leave my buddy alone. Anti-Semitism remains a political liability in contemporary France; one can only hope it remains so in the struggles ahead.