14 Days That Changed France

A wind of madness has crossed France. After two weeks of unbelievable agitation, the country seemed to come back to itself. But between April 21 and May 5, France sounded as a brakeless train crossing an endless dark tunnel! We saw in the Parisian demonstrations black people dragging their suit bags behind them! And they were not necessarily Africans. A Martiniquais friend told me that he would certainly return to his remote island if Mr. Le pen were elected president! “What are you afraid of?” I asked him; ” you are a French citizen and Martinique is a French territory”. He replied: “Indeed I am. But you see, if this (asé) succeeds, we would all find ourselves in the same basket! People from the Dom Tom (French territories beyond the sea), along with Africans, Arabs, Jews, etcé For Le pen, we are all just good for the bin! Moreover, you can then bid farewell to freedom: no strikes, no demonstrations, and no pop-agitation anymore in the streets! My parents know what means such a regime; they have lived under the Nazi occupation. I was not born yet, but they told me about their plight. I do not wish to live under an extremist regime in this country.”

My friend was not necessarily expressing the doubts and the fears of the leftist people. I did not ask him for who he had voted on April 21, but I know that even those young people of the high schools who have not yet the right to vote, were actually feeling the same sensations, when during this last fateful couple of weeks, they invaded the streets of Paris and the main cities of the “province”, extemporaneously showing their anger and their shame after the first ballot raised Le pen to the level of main contender. Never before, the youth and the artists, the intellectuals, the political class (from the far left to the rightist parties of Mr. Chirac, Bayrou, Madelin, De villier, Pasqua, not omitting the hunters and the greens) have felt so motivated to fight for a single, common goal. All those people coming from quite different and even antagonist movements and sensibilities felt at that point the urgent need of alliance to “make a wall” before the Front National, thus barring the road to power. Popular figures of the French artistic, intellectual and sportive landscape gathered to make a short movie showing their rejection of Mr. Le pen’s ideology. We watched the singer Johnny Halliday, the football player Zinedine Zidane, the philosopher Andre Glucksman, and other renowned people calling their compatriots to vote for Jacques Chirac even if they don’t like him. The “call” was being projected along with the advertisement in the pictures houses and on the TV as well. And all along that week, demonstrations were being organized every day in the French cities. The political membership or inclination did not matter any more as long as you were against Le pen. Leftists and rightists walked together in the streets and held the same slogans. It was é du jamais vu ! é – i.e. never seen before- since perhaps the years of the fight against the Nazi occupation when communists, socialists, liberals and Gaullists embraced a common cause.

So, after all, my Martiniquais friend was perhaps not exaggerating: the extreme nationalism of the Front National, long underestimated by the intellectuals and the political class, while merging with the feelings of insecurity and the bitterness of the socially cast off, revealed to be a high explosive. Put in the hands of the former paratrooper, who never regretted his “four hundred hits” in Algeria and the French Vietnam, nor felt any guilt for the torture he had inflicted to those who fought for their freedom from the colonial yoke, it would drive France é the country of the enlightenment and the Human Rights- to the brink of complete schizophrenia. Indeed, the majority of the French, whatever their dissatisfaction with the double-headed government of Chirac-Jospin, could not recognize themselves in the first ballot that gave Le pen the unbelievable hope to enter the Elysée palace. How could this people who led since the 18th century the fight for freedom and Human Rights in Europe, and who sacrificed millions of people for the ultimate triumph of the democratic principles é included those who died during the great Revolution of 1789 and the two world wars- allow a little party of xenophobic rabid fanatics to take power and to drive the republic out of Europe and out of its mind as well?

“Do you imagine the nuclear bomb in the hands of Le pen?” Another French friend asked.

The least we can say so far is that we have escaped something nobody could ever imagine. To say that people were as frightened as if they were living a nightmare is perhaps not excessive.

Out of the blue, the French have discovered that all what they have acquired all along those years, could be put at stake. The 17% who had voted Le pen in the first ballot (and the 18% of the second, included his rivals and allies: Megret sympathizers) are not all necessarily fanatics of a “new order” led by the so-called “white supremacy”, though. Some of them- maybe more numerous than we fancy- could be likely far from imagining the real consequences of their vote. They might be simple-minded people, or jobless youth, or psychologically frail-constituted persons frightened by the multiplication of violent acts in their surroundings.

A few weeks before the first round of the French presidential election, a man burst into the Nanterre City Council building outside Paris and fired randomly with an automatic weapon, killing eight elected officials. The event shocked the country and highlighted the issue of crime and violence, which became the major theme of the presidential campaign.

Some analysts say the shootings helped far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen win a spot in the runoff. But there were also all those mysterious attacks against the Jews and some of their public places, which opened a debate about tolerance and coexistence between the different communities of the country. A theme particularly delicate and cherished to Mr. Le pen who made of it his Trojan horse. Who was behind those attacks? And to what extent Le pen profited of such an atmosphere? These are the questions!

That is why, in such conditions, the discourse of Le pen; made out of simplistic phraseology, show off slogans and demagogic arguments, sounded so attractive to some people. To be Le penist in nowadays France, you are not asked to show your membership card in a French Ku Klux Klan. It seems certainly easier to join the Front National than to find a decent job for a lot of forsaken folks, who probably thought they were punishing Jospin and Chirac in voting Le pen! They might even have figured out that they were thus having their revenge against the establishment, which they held for utterly corrupted and irredeemably deaf towards their claims. Many of them did not even have the courage of their own opinions. When they demonstrated on May 1 in Paris, a lot of them were masked!

Asked about his mask, one of them said that he was going to marry soon, and he did not want to get in trouble neither in his work nor with his family!

Let’s notice by the way that among them we can find some Arabs and blacks of the suburbs, albeit they could not be numerous. The latter might have merely thought that since the Chirac-Jospin government did nothing for them, they would try a radical change with Le pen! The assumption that they might be manipulated by some people from the chancelleries may sound shocking, but it is not unlikely. Although some African and Arab countries have thousands of workers in France, who are helping them with hard currency, some of them- particularly those ruled by the police and the unique party- could be hardly dissatisfied if Le pen has won the elections:

First, he would have deported all the illegal immigrants, among whom there are dozens and dozens of opponents who succeeded to escape the police and the prisons of their countries. Second, he would have tightened the cooperation between political organizations from the two shores of the Mediterranean Sea who, despite their ethnical and religious differences, share the same affinities, which means: fascist-like movements and parties, some of which are already in power. Third, the mere fact that someone like Le pen could reach the top of power in France would be the good justification of any dictatorship in the former colonies. For if a great country like France, with a well rooted long tradition of democracy, may allow the Front National to hold power, then who would blame dictatorship and/or Human Rights violations in Africa and the Middle East?

Of course, this scenario might have sounded enough attractive to some sinister partisans of the “unique party” and the “unique leader” in those countries, as to try corrupting the poor youth of the suburbs in order to exaggerate or to factitiously inflate Le pen’s electors. That was not really hard to do, given the fact that some embassies are actually controlling not only their immigrants, but also their offspring up to the third generation. And since many of them have acquired the French nationality é sometimes while keeping their original one- they may be easily manipulated if they are not among the well-educated elite of the French universities.

To persuade these potential electors, known to be rather vagarious in their choices, that he is not a racist, Mr. Le pen posed before the cameras in the company of one of them: a French Arab, who boasted proudly that he was the appointed Minister of Sports of the future government, if Le pen was elected President.

“L’Arabe de service”, would say the é bad tongues é!

Not at all, would reply Le pen. In the Front National, “we are not the bad guys” as people believe! Here’s the evidence! Then, the “Arab of the service” would display his best smile and tell us how, without the generosity and the compassion of Mr. Le pen, he would have very badly ended! In Fact, Le pen is his “savior”, and he quite logically expected that he would be also the savior of France! “After all”, he added, ” we, the Arabs, have always preferred a unique and strong leader; and Mr. Le pen represents precisely that kind of leadership we are so fond of!”

The sequence was on the French TV.

I wondered whether the man was really thinking himself the dignified representative of 250 million Arabs, a lot of them is é alas! – crushed by some irredeemable dictators, or merely talking on behalf of the latter! As to the Arabs living in France, it is highly doubtful that he could pretend to express their position. Then, who was he exactly in the French spectrum? The answer is: nobody! For nobody has ever heard of him, before he “entered history” in these two fateful weeks of madness and hope. But not to be unfair, I vainly sought his name or his photo after May 5 elections on the site of the Front National. He was nowhere! How could a whole Minister of sports disappear so rapidly? I tried another search in the last dispatches of AFP related to “the men of Le pen”. He was nowhere! What happened to him? I don’t know.

To this point, the story would perhaps miss something if I don’t add that a few days prior to the first ballot, I have watched a movie in the Quartier Latin that was going to be almost prophetic!

It was about a French Arab of the Parisian suburbs who, to avenge his buddy assassinated by a far right political organization, decides to infiltrate it posing as the bodyguard of its leader in order to kill him. The movie -: FEROCE – is signed by Gilles de Maistre, with Jean-Marc Thibault as the leader of the extremist party, and Samy Nacery as the “Arab of the service”. It has focused during 1 hour and half on the detailed description of the far right practices vis-é-vis the immigrants, the Arabs, the blacks, etc. Indeed, nothing to do with the reality, since it is a fiction!!! Yet, that did not deter Jean-Marie Le pen from attempting to postpone the public projection of the movie until after the elections! But it did not work for him. The court rejected his complaint, as it seems. Yet, I regretted that such a good movie é notwithstanding its political message- was being projected just in a very few pictures houses in Paris (6) and was not programmed by any of the pictures houses which usually attract a great public.

It is up to my readers to draw their own conclusions from what preceded, to be sure. However, we are not going to forget easily the last fortnight in France, if not because the sudden arrival of Le pen sounded like an upsetting slap on the face of democracy, showing how frail it might be sometimes, then because something in the political landscape has perhaps irremediably changed.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.