Saturday, May 4, 2002

Alan Freeman

p. F1.

The next French Revolution

Why is the font of republican ideals choosing between a Super-fascist and a Super-liar when it elects its next president tomorrow? ALAN FREEMAN visits Paris, Marseilles and Toulouse and discovers a deeply divided nation scarred by racial hatred and class warfare. To some, Jean-Marie Le Pen is a bigot and a bully. To others, he is France's only hope

For a moment, the young couple could have been mistaken for tourists as they posed for a photo in front of the gilded statue of Joan of Arc just around the corner from the Louvre.

Except that the blond and handsome Philibert was holding a French tricolour in one hand and a poster that read "La France aux Francais" (France for the French) in the other. At the base of the statue lay piles of garlands from National Front members across France, paying a May Day homage to their heroine, the 15th-century peasant girl who saved France from the English invaders and paid with her life.

"I voted for Le Pen for the defence of homeland, family and the inalienable right to life," Philibert said. At 18, he is in his final year of high school and has already learned to mimic the ideas of National Front Leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, including his frequent references to the values of the Vichy France of the 1940s.

France's 40 million voters go back to the polls tomorrow to settle a presidential showdown that pits Le Pen, a 73-year-old former paratrooper and far-right demagogue, against Jacques Chirac, the centre-right incumbent who has spent most of the past few years ducking allegations that he has devoted his career to lining his pockets with taxpayers' money.

For jaded French voters, it's the unappetizing choice between what student demonstrators call Superfacho (Super-fascist) and Supermenteur (Super-liar).

How could this happen? How could a well-known Holocaust denier, a man who once suggested he would have to marry an African woman with AIDS to prove he is not a racist and nearly lost his seat in the European parliament for a fistfight with a rival, get this far?

After the initial vote on April 21, political pundits scrambled for an explanation. They pointed to the low turnout and to a splintering of left-wing votes among the 16 presidential candidates. But the fact remains that fear and hatred, with Le Pen's active encouragement, are everywhere.

France is a profoundly divided society. With five million to eight million Muslims and Europe's largest Jewish population (about 600,000), it immediately felt the impact of the recent fighting in the Middle East.

The nation is also increasingly violent. There has been a wave of anti-Semitic incidents, including the burning of synagogues and dozens of attacks on Jewish citizens. Police and firefighters now refuse to enter at least 100 "no-go zones" and the burning of automobiles has become a form of public entertainment.

Young Philibert knows where to place the blame for all this "insecurity," the euphemism the French use for fear of everything from crime to unemployment. "We have to stop immigration and the reverse the migratory flow," the resident of Neuilly, a prosperous Paris suburb, says matter-of-factly. "If people want family reunification, they should be reunified in their own countries. And if they commit crimes, we should send them home."

His friend Cécile, another marcher, has even more radical views. She is 21 and a university philosophy student who dresses well and carries a small black handbag with a National Front sticker. France, she says, is on the road to self-destruction because of immigration.

"We're mixing their families with our families. In a few years, there won't be any Frenchmen left." Immigrants, she says, don't abide by the law, set up their own ghettos and rape young girls. "There's a moral problem here."

And perhaps worse. "If there is a war," Cécile adds, "it won't be between France and the United States, or France and Russia. It will be a civil war, between different peoples in France, but it will still be a war."

Le Pen is France's only hope of avoiding it, she declares.

Cécile admits that her idol has little chance of winning tomorrow's presidential election, but he wasn't even supposed to get this far. Journalists, politicians and pollsters all glibly predicted that Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a socialist, would be the ones to survive the first round of voting. Instead, Le Pen attracted 16.9 per cent of the vote, not all that far behind the leader, Chirac (19.9), and ahead of the dour Jospin (16.2), whose political career has come to an end.

Now, the massive forces of left and right have reluctantly joined together to back Chirac, but Cécile thinks the National Front has already scored a victory. "Even if Le Pen loses, he'll have frightened the other side, which is very good."

France is a land of many divisions — between left and right, between whites and immigrants from the Maghreb and black Africa, between the political and bureaucratic elite and average Frenchmen in the dying industrial towns and the bleak housing projects that circle its cities.

Immigration is a huge issue, but the country isn't exactly drowning in newcomers. According to the French statistics office, 4.3 million people living in France in 1999 were born outside the country. The proportion has been stable for the past 25 years at about 7.4 per cent. But many of these immigrants have families, meaning that 12 million people in France — one-fifth of the population — now have at least one foreign-born parent or grandparent.

Many of their neighbours, often lower-paid workers who traditionally vote socialist or communist, now feel threatened.

The crowd heading to hear Le Pen at the Place de l'Opéra looks uncomfortable as it passes through a chic part of central Paris with its haute couture shops and five-star hotels. The marchers are overwhelmingly male, many of them have travelled by bus from Alsace in the east and Marseilles in the south, areas where their candidate gathered as much as 25 per cent of the vote.

Plenty of them also have shaved heads and wear bomber jackets, and parade in little packs, eyeing outsiders with distrust. They include first-time voters such as 18-year-old Antony Pierrat from the Lorraine region. He dreams of entering the army and has no use for Arabs: "They don't work. We have to work for them."

Then there are such veteran Le Penistes as 62-year-old Michele Barrat, a "pied-noir" (former colonial) who fled Algeria to France after independence in 1962 and still hasn't got over it. "They wanted Algeria and they got it, so why do they want to take France as well?"

Barrat, a bleached-blond telephone company employee who travelled overnight by bus from her home in Aubagne, near Marseilles, wants to see immigrants from North Africa sent back. "The black Africans are quieter. It's especially those from the Maghreb, the Algerians.

"Le Pen is my idol. He's the only person who can deliver France from this immigration that nobody can stand."

Martial Monfort stops his bicycle and watches the National Front backers parade by, chanting: "France, Le Pen, Liberté." The 36-year-old engineer, who voted for Jospin in the first round, says he has a friend who voted for Le Pen after his son was attacked at school. "I had my bike stolen recently. I could have blamed insecurity and voted for Le Pen too."

Monfort insists that crime is no worse than ever. He blames sensationalist reporting on incidents like the shooting rampage that led to the deaths of eight municipal councillors in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.

But it's not just media scare stories that are causing insecurity. Despite what he says, the number of criminal offences recorded jumped 8 per cent last year to four million, and more important still, violent crime is multiplying. In 1994, there were fewer than 100,000 incidents, says Alain Bauer, a criminology professor at the Sorbonne, versus 400,000 last year.

In many cities, car-burning has become a favourite pastime. The New Year's Eve destruction of vehicles by the hundreds has replaced traditional fireworks displays in cities such as Strasbourg, where the Le Pen vote was strong. Perpetrators are seldom caught because police and firefighters rarely venture into the many "no-go areas" in tough neighbourhoods for fear they'll be pelted with stones, and worse.

It is in inner-city areas such as Le Canet in Marseilles, with its rundown rowhouses, old warehouses and concrete high-rises filled with people originally from North Africa and black Africa, that Le Pen did best, garnering 28 per cent of the vote to Chirac's 13 per cent.

"I didn't vote Le Pen, but I understand why there was a strong vote for him," said Joe, a taxi driver who is having lunch at the working-class Restaurant-Bar Tranquille in the centre of Le Canet. "It's the immigrant kids who are born in France and who are French citizens who are creating the problem. It's them who hissed at the playing of the Marseillaise at the Stade de France."

That incident, in which fans of Arab descent booed the national anthem — in front of Jospin — during a friendly soccer match with Algeria last fall, has come to epitomize the lack of respect in French society.

Samis Younes, who works at a used-appliance shop down the road, doesn't believe that all Le Pen voters are racist. "Le Pen voters are everywhere, but they're not monsters. They're people who voted to express their disenchantment with the system. Nothing is being done about delinquency. A young person who attacks an elderly woman will get a maximum of a year in prison."

Younes, a Muslim of Syrian origin and was born in Marseilles 41 years ago, says he wouldn't be surprised if some Muslims actually voted Le Pen. "I see old Arabs who tell me that Le Pen would be good for Arabs. There's no more racism in France than anywhere else."

And yet, Le Pen treated his May Day crowd to an 80-minute harangue on the mendacity of Chirac and the "treachery" of the nation's ruling classes who have sacrificed France to the dual evils of immigration and globalization.

Afterward, as his supporters begin to disperse along the Avenue de l'Opéra, African-born student Christian M'Bamba listens as an elderly National Front supporter says Le Pen can't be a racist because he backs Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Studying to become a denture technician, M'Bamba doesn't have a vote. He arrived from the Congo more than 15 years ago, and yet he still is not a citizen. "These people don't think before they speak," he says of Le Pen backers, blaming the media for a distorted image of immigrants in the bleak, concrete housing projects that ring French cities. "All they show is clichés about young people in the cities. Many of us are studying and working. … But they only show young people who rob and steal."

M'Bamba feels attached to France, but isn't sure the feeling is mutual. "It's my country. It's where I grew up and was educated." Yet he envies his relatives who have moved to Montreal. "They're happy there. They don't want to return to France. They work. They have apartments. They have a situation. Here, it's harder to be a foreigner."

That may be true, but it's also clear that a great many French people have been profoundly embarrassed by the resurrection of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Almost every day since the initial vote, protesters have marched through the centre of Paris to register their disgust. They bang drums and carry homemade placards that read: "We're all the children of immigrants." They chant, "putés, pêdés, drogués, immigrés. Solidarité. Les minorités." (Prostitutes, gays, drug addicts, immigrants. Solidarity with minorities."

Paul-Henri Ndour, 18, voted for the first time ever on April 21 and chose the Green Party's Noel Mamere, one of the leftist candidates who helped to push Jospin off the second ballot. Ndour, who is training to be a marble cutter, has no doubts about what to do tomorrow. "This time, I have to vote Chirac," he says. "Le Pen and Hitler, for me they're the same. When I see Le Pen on TV, I listen to him for two seconds and then zap the station. I can't stand to hear him speak."

Ndour was born in Senegal and came to France when he was 8, yet he still doesn't feel entirely at home. "I feel Senegalese, but I'm French, according to my papers." Even so, he isn't particularly bitter. He has never been the victim of overt racism and doesn't consider France particularly biased. "Everywhere you go, there are good people and assholes."

Yet France hardly makes integration easy. Sociologist Philippe Bataille has studied the integration of immigrants into French society, and says discrimination is rampant across France, in the workplace and in housing. Black and North African young people regularly get shut out of jobs and apprenticeships, even when they have better qualifications than other immigrants, like the Portuguese.

In fact, Bataille says, liberty, equality and fraternity — the "republican" values associated with France for more than 200 years and to which anti-Le Pen backers constantly refer — are what has made integration such a flop.

"The notion of race doesn't exist in the republic, but racism exists. An immigrant is supposed to arrive at Charles De Gaulle Airport and take a shower that washes away all his roots. He adheres to the ideals of France, but abolishes all of his past."

The result is a colour blindness that ignores the social reality of France. There are no statistics on ethnic origin or religion and the political system makes no special effort to recruit ethnic minorities into the system. Only one member of the national assembly from mainland France is of African origin and there are very few North African or black Africans in town councils, even in communities with large ethnic minorities.

So perhaps it should have come as no surprise that there was not a single brown or black face among the 100 or so business and community representatives who met Chirac on Tuesday during a televised round-table discussion in Toulouse. The event looked like something from an idealized France of the 1950s, where everyone is bourgeois and white and wears well-tailored suits.

Toulouse is a French success story, home of Airbus Industrie, the aircraft manufacturer that employs thousands of highly paid, highly regarded workers. Airbus is a European venture, but the French prefer to see it as an example of French ingenuity doing battle with those dastardly Americans and winning. The city also has a Chirac-friendly right-wing mayor, who has even been touted as a possible interim replacement for Jospin as prime minister.

So it was a natural place for Chirac, at 69 a seasoned campaigner who likes to make people feel good but tries to dodge the tough issues, to squeeze some flesh and talk about the economy in Toulouse's sparkling new convention centre.

Philippe Rateau, a 25-year-old marketing student who had come to shake Chirac's hand, said he was pleased with the first-round result. "It's very good because it means Chirac will be president."

He agreed that crime was a major factor in Le Pen's success and that firmer action had to be taken. "You have to be more severe and Draconian and give more powers to justice officials and the police."

For two hours, owners of small business, industrial bosses of Toulouse's aerospace industry and researchers at the local university shared their secrets of success and lobbed soft questions at Chirac. It was like a giant TV talk show with multiple guests and no real point, just the kind of late-night program the French will watch for hours on end.

And not once were the words "election" or "Le Pen" ever uttered. It was as if the first round of the presidential election had never taken place. There were polite complaints — that the 35-hour work week imposed by the government was unworkable, that payroll taxes were too high and entrepreneurship wasn't appreciated enough. One businessman said he had been to Quebec and it cost half as much to hire a well-qualified employee there as it did in France.

Chirac listened and agreed with everyone, saying that there were too many bureaucratic obstacles to creating new businesses in France, that he favoured lower taxes and that more had to be done to favour research and development.

It was as if someone else has been president for the past seven years. Then again, in the strange world of French political "cohabitation," Chirac has often been little more than a figurehead with the real policies set by the leftist government of the departed Jospin.

Asked afterward how many of his fellow Toulouse councillors are from the immigrant communities, Serp Bertrand, a dapper 36-year-old professional communications specialist, doesn't even understand the question. "All the councillors have to be French citizens," he responds.

In fact, none of his colleagues have immigrant roots, but there are some success stories among France's second-generation immigrants.

Dallal Bouchareb, a 26-year-old engineer, turns up at the massive May Day demonstration against Le Pen in Paris wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an Algerian flag superimposed on the French tricolour. "I'm both," the caption reads, "and I'm proud of it."

Her parents are Algerian, but Bouchareb was born in France and feels totally French. "I'm here because the republic is in danger," she explains. "France is an open and multicultural country, and we feel threatened. Le Pen has to be stopped."

With her are a half-dozen friends of varied ethnic backgrounds. All in their twenties, they work as computer programmers and Internet consultants — and they want to build a tolerant, multicultural France.

Josephine Seror, a citizen of both France and Israel, says she believes many French voters turned to the National Front because they were fed up. "The problem is that we don't have any decent leaders — Chirac doesn't do anything but line his pockets."

So, for much of the electorate, tomorrow's battle boils down to choosing the lesser of two evils — either Super-fascist or Super-liar. Interest in politics may have been rekindled, but for how long and to what end? It's no way to heal a nation torn by so much bitterness and strife.

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Created: May 7, 2002
Last modified: July 9, 2002
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