It wasn’t easy to get close to Jean Marie Le Pen. The thugs surrounding him used lots of force, to his obvious satisfaction. One time, at a May 1 nationalist rally at Paris' Joan of Arc statue, I saw his gorillas knock an old man to the ground after he got too close with a bunch of May lilies in his hand – an old French custom. Le Pen looked on with a wide grin.
Another time I saw him at the National Front convention. I happened to find myself surrounded by a group of his followers from the days when France still had Algeria. They thought that since I was Israeli I’d surely appreciate their contribution to the slaughter of Muslims while they were in the OAS, the underground group responsible for terror attacks and endless attempts on Charles de Gaulle’s life.
Around me I saw France’s deep radical right wing. These were the supporters of the Vichy government and Marshal Pétain, anti-Semitic groups and a host of neo-Nazis who had arrived from neighboring countries.
The current rallies of the National Front, headed by Le Pen’s daughter Marine, look different, but nothing really has changed. It’s the same benighted radical right wing, a murky and deep undercurrent that always threatens the republic, raising its head during a national crisis.
The terror attack on Paris created such a moment, a golden political opportunity in the form of regional elections. The fact that Le Pen was a contender to lead the northern region and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen the southern region focused the challenge. It turned these elections into a referendum on Marine: yes or no.
Judging by the headlines in Israel, Le Pen was expected to win big. Terror was supposed to open France’s eyes and make it finally understand the dangers lurking among migrants and in human rights, democracy and other ills afflicting nave Europeans.
It’s hard to overstress the importance of the voting in the second round of the elections Sunday. The National Front didn’t win in any region.
Analysts called it a strategic vote. People didn’t vote in complete accordance with their views but made a cold calculation and gave their vote to someone who could ensure victory over a common enemy. According to this analysis, millions of socialist supporters held their noses and voted for moderate right-wing candidates as a way to block the fascists.
But actually, this wasn’t a strategic vote but a vote based on values. This was a choice between the values of the republic and those who seek to destroy it. In another system, say, first past the post, there is no strategic voting, only ideological. But any other approach Sunday would have been petty and destructively blind.
Undoubtedly the extreme right wing has many supporters in France. It always has. Anyone who ignores this and sees only the enlightened France is lying to himself. But the democratic camp is much larger and has just proved it. And increased turnout, especially among young people who are supposedly indifferent to politics, ended up benefiting the moderate camp.
There is one more interesting lesson: The right doesn’t necessarily have to become more radical and emulate the extreme right; it should distance itself from it. There is a democratic and liberal right and it helped win the day.
Once there was such a right wing in Israel, but it let the left take over support for human rights and liberalism, leaving itself vulnerable to the claws of the extreme right. This is the tragedy of Israeli politics that France has managed to avoid so far.
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