France Self-Destructs

Jean-Marie Le Pen
Jean-Marie Le Pen; drawing by David Levine


Writers on France are used to stressing French distinctiveness. Indeed, the two features that the French and American political traditions have been alleged to share are a belief in each country’s being an “exception,” and the claim that each is a blend of races and peoples, a melting pot. What the regional and local elections in late March have shown, in the French case, is that the melting pot is not melting smoothly, while France seems less of an exception to European trends than ever.

If one compares the French results to those of the recent elections in Germany, Italy, Great Britain, and the US, one finds that England was the exceptional case—the only country in which the incumbents won and the shifts from right to left, or vice-versa, were very limited (the Conservative percentage was the same as in 1989, and Labour gained mainly at the expense of the Liberal Democrats). In France, in Germany, in Italy, and in the US, most of the voters are in a mood of protest, annoyed both with the politicians in office and with what could be called the usual opposition. Those who have habitually managed or are managing public affairs are increasingly unpopular. In the German states of Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein, the new extreme right and, to a lesser extent, the ecological parties benefited from this mood. In Italy, the neo-Fascists made some progress, but the triumph was the regionalist Lombard League’s, which won more than a third of the votes in northern Italy.

In France, the parties that have governed since 1984—the Socialists and the coalition of the two moderate right parties, Chirac’s RPR (Rally for the Republic) and Giscard d’Estaing’s UDF (Union for French Democracy)—won only 52 percent of the votes; the rest went mainly to the Communists (9 percent), the ecologists, divided into two factions (14 percent), and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front (14 percent). In Germany, France, and Italy, the issue of immigration had a large part in whipping up public discontent, although the Lombard League was original in calling for a halt of Italian “immigration” from the poor South to the wealthier North. In Germany and France, the protest parties benefited from growing public anxiety about the pace and direction of European integration.

One result was common to France, Germany, Italy, and England: the plight of the Socialists. In England they fell far short of their goal—a return to power. In Italy, Benito Craxi’s Socialist Party failed to gain from the decline of both the Christian Democrats and the divided and largely discredited Communists. In Germany, the Social Democrats did no better in Schleswig-Holstein, where the extreme right-wing Republican Party made gains, than the Christian Democrats in Baden-Württemberg, where the Republicans also gained.

The decline of the French Socialists was the most spectacular. In the elections to regional councils, the Socialist Party’s vote was cut nearly…

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