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Is France facing a "second April 21?" Will the regional elections due to take place this Sunday be a kind of replay of April 21, 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen stunned France, and the world, by beating out the socialist candidate, then prime minister Lionel Jospin, to enter the presidential runoff race?

An editorial published recently in Le Monde warns of such an eventuality.

Many factors are liable to contribute to its realization - the scandals in which President Jacques Chirac's administration is currently enmeshed, the internal battles in the ruling party, unemployment that refuses to fall, the unpopular pension reforms, the public's sense of declining security, and, of course, the issue of Muslim women wearing head scarves in public institutions.

Surveys predict either a massive protest vote or a massive protest boycott of the polls, either of which would benefit the extremist parties.

Nevertheless, not all the experts are worried. In conversations with Haaretz, some predicted that the extreme right will not emerge strengthened. Experience, they said, taught that the extreme right could climb high, but that it could also fall far. Others predicted that the extreme right would do well (perhaps even winning some 20 percent of the votes) and would advance to the runoffs in most regions of France. But in the end, they said, it would not gain power in any of these regions.

Jewish-French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut identifies the problem in an entirely different place - on the extreme left of the map. "Anti-Semitism on the extreme right has ended," he said. "Today, it is bubbling up on the extreme left. That is where the new anti-Semites are recruited, the ones who claim that Jews are racist, that they are crucifying the Palestinian people."

Finkielkraut believes that Le Pen's National Front is currently incapable of penetrating France's intellectual, media and political elite. The dominant ideological spectrum in France is all arrayed against the Front. This is not because it is more dangerous, but because it carries a historic mark of Cain. The extreme left, in contrast, has adopted for itself a simplistic narrative that distances it from any connection with the crimes of Communism. It enjoys a sort of immunity - and that is precisely what makes it dangerous.

Other experts stressed the meeting of minds that has occurred between the two extremes of left and right - the growing "proletarianism" of the extreme right's electorate. "Just like at the end of the nineteenth century, today as well, the ideas of the extreme right are supported by former adherents of Communism," said commentator Dominique Moisi.

The neo-liberals who made up the extreme right in the sixties, seventies and eighties have been replaced by critics of globalization and supporters of economic protectionism. The distinctions between the extreme right and the extreme left have thus become blurred.

Pierre-Andre Taguieff, author of the book, "The Return of Populism: A Challenge to European Democracies," said that the metamorphosis the National Front had undergone over the past 20 years had turned it into a nationalist-populist party that aimed to be a unifying factor. Therefore, it no longer meets the precise definition of the old extreme right - the fascist or neo-fascist right.

According to Dietmar Loch of Grenoble University, who researches the extreme right in Europe, an extreme right party that seeks survival must undergo a process of modernization. That is how one should interpret the rhetoric of the National Front, which focuses on issues of domestic security and immigration - rhetoric that has been adopted by many European interior ministries. That is also how one should interpret the fact that the anti-Semitism card no longer plays a role in the Front's rhetoric.

Nevertheless, one should not be misled: A new label, if one can indeed justifiably pin one on the National Front, does not make it any less extremist or dangerous.

According to most of the experts, the party's "populization" has not eliminated its basic worldview. That remains radical and anti-democratic, and includes many of the elements of the extreme right's historic ideology - political authoritarianism, extreme nationalist views, a hatred for foreigners and Euro-phobia.

The party's talk has perhaps become more "social welfare" oriented, but it is wrapped in the term "national preference" - the principle that Frenchmen must be given priority on a number of economic and social issues.

As Loch explained, the National Front has moved from a fundamentally racist ideology that seeks to assimilate foreigners and force "ethnic homogeneity" upon them, to a new type of "differential" racism, which accepts the uniqueness of each individual by forcing him into a kind of cultural ghetto.

As for anti-Semitism, according to one analysis, Le Pen no longer needs it. The "new anti-Semites," the "real" ones - that is, "the Arabs" - are doing the work for him. Another view, supported by several leaders of the Jewish community, holds that in France - which some in Israel define as the "champion of anti-Semitism" - it simply no longer pays to be anti-Semitic.