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Jewish World Review May 1, 2002 / 19 Iyar, 5762

Barbara Amiel

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Why has it taken Le Pen to ask the awkward questions? -- LONDON They're marching in Paris, throwing pies in Brussels and the Guardian continues in apoplexy. Still, I think the most astute reaction to the success of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his anti-EU, anti-immigration campaign came from the writer Stephen Vizinczey.

"There is no way," he said, "you can kill off people's desire to belong to a group which speaks their own language and has the same historic and cultural background, however low that culture and background is.

The idea that the Germans and the British are just as much your family as your fellow Frenchmen - and vice versa - can be popular only among the talented, young, preferably multi-lingual people who can find ["partners"] everywhere. And they are in the minority."

Le Pen's core appeal has always been this: he understands the notion of "nationhood", a concept especially revered by the French in spite of all modern attempts to extinguish it. Le Pen probably feels what Vizinczey is able to articulate so well: that ordinary people without any special qualities to make them alluring beyond their identity as Frenchmen (English, Italians etc etc) need the nation state.

Today, Le Pen sees two dire threats to that: first, France's large number of unassimilated, undigested Muslim immigrants; and second, the usurping of French sovereignty by the European Union.

The reaction to Le Pen's success in knocking out Jospin has been extreme. Le Pen has been labelled fascist (or "racist" by Tony Blair). Though the chances of Le Pen winning the run-off are very slim, the vote for him could easily be 20 per cent or more, in spite of the "pas d'ennemi a la gauche" attitude that is now supposedly cementing the French Left against him.

Could more than 20 per cent of French electors be fascists? And how should those of us who regard the two questions Le Pen is raising to be absolutely fundamental feel in the unlikely event that he wins? Pleased? Horrified?

As Martin Sieff, political analyst for UPI and a three-times Pulitzer Prize nominee, put it in his win scenario: "Let us think the unthinkable Le Pen can win." What then?

A Le Pen victory would certainly throw a wrench into the spokes of the EU and all the problems it represents: its systematic erosion of national powers over taxation, jurisprudence and legislation, and the growing threat of the statist, Left-wing European Parliament that is now destroying every economic reform Europe needs.

Le Pen's coming to power would also finally raise the question we all ought to have debated decades ago, namely the difficulties of our thoughtless approach to immigration policies with happy-clappy euphemisms like "diversity" and "multiculturalism".

Is this more important than the fact that it is Le Pen outing these issues? In extremis, we make common cause with disreputable people, as we did with Stalin and so on, but that doesn't mean we should view the entrance of Stalin into the conference room with unbridled joy.

I don't know what to make of Le Pen. What the Left today characterises as fascist or racist simply cannot be taken at face value. "Fascist" is the adjective of first choice by the Left for anyone who disagrees with any aspect of their policies, especially if the disagreement is over immigration.

That doesn't mean that there are no fascists - a thing may, as Orwell pointed out, be true even though Lord Beaverbrook said so. But when men from Enoch Powell, who didn't have a fascist bone in his body, to Berlusconi, a politician well within the moderate Right spectrum, are libelled this way, one has to wonder about the hysteria over Le Pen.

Europe is awash with new parties, solely because these major issues of immigration and the EU have been swept under the carpet and abandoned by the mainstream body politic. To discuss unassimilated immigrants who are encouraged to maintain their own "roots" in the name of "diversity" has been regarded as beneath contempt by conventional political parties.

In Britain, to challenge the value of the EU is to lose your licence as a thoughtful commentator and be exiled to a large field far away, peopled with cranks.

Meanwhile, in Holland, the strong showing in Rotterdam's March municipal elections of Pim Fortuyn's new "Liveable Netherlands" party presents the chattering classes with a slightly different dilemma. Fortuyn's platform is also anti-immigration. He has described Holland as "full" and Islam as a "backward religion", and called for the scrapping of a constitutional clause banning discrimination.

But he is an engaging sociology professor, a homosexual and an advocate of Holland's "cool" approach to sexuality and drugs. In a word, a perfect contributor for any BBC programme or ubercolumnist at the Independent.

This put BBC News Online's Clare Murphy in a fix. Her solution was to hold off the "f--cist" word and deep-six the usual charge of "xenophobic" to give Fortuyn her warmer label of "maverick".

Raising questions about unassimilated immigration and the consequent crime problems is no more "racist" or "xenophobic" than discussing whether the undeniable loss of national sovereignty to the European Union is a good thing. The questions are perfectly legitimate ones.

What matters are the solutions offered and the tone of the debate. Studying Le Pen doesn't give a definitive answer. His party is said to have both Muslim and black members. In person, he is affable. Even the Guardian profile described him as "blessed with a rare intoxicating charisma" and "softer" than expected.

John Laughland, a former lecturer at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris and the Sorbonne, interviewed Le Pen for The London Spectator and concluded he was no racist, but an engaging man "with wit, kindness and an amusing irreverence". Laughland's assessment counts, for he is too astute to be taken in by the fact that Hitler liked animals and Stalin was nice to little children.

It may be that we don't know what Le Pen will do because Le Pen himself might not know. A fringe politician riding a wave of resentment has the luxury of not even having to contemplate what to do with the levers of power.

This is something journalists and commentators ought to understand. We also belong to a group that can be critical as hell because we don't run the risk of one day actually having to administer or do something. Politics is the art, after all, of the possible, and in power even Le Pen may have to modify and compromise.

One thing, though, is clear from reading Le Pen. His views can veer off into the completely loony. Some quotes from his European Manifesto:

"Is the United States spying on a grand scale on the Europeans thanks to the Echelon satellite network? The [European] Council and the Commission are not saying a word. The parliament 'protests'."

"The mad cow wasn't sufficient. Hormonally modified meat. Chlorinated meat-packing, genetically modified organisms with the uncontrolled acceptance of genetically modified organisms, French agriculture, already having submitted to successive directives, will soon align itself along the American model. France will buy seeds from the great Anglo-Saxon groups which render them sterile by genetic manipulation after use so that farmers will have to buy them again next year. And if the US ceases to furnish them to us, the French will starve."

"With the Common Market of 1957, it was claimed that we were creating an economic Europe today the result is an ultra-globalised economy under the influence of the US which functions for the profit of anonymous financial powers and sometimes criminal ones. The drug dollars turn up in the clean economy thanks to financial institutions. We recall that the Englishman Leon Brittan, negotiator of the Gatt Accords when he quit the Commission, next day rejoined one of the most powerful multinationals."

There are shades in that last sentence of Le Pen's one epater le bourgeois anti-Semitic throwaway about gas chambers being "a detail in history".

Given Le Pen's anti-globalisation, anti-genetic food, anti-Americanism etc, it is easier to see what he shares with Noam Chomsky or a protester throwing stones at a WTO conference than with admirers such as Zhironovsky or Taki.

What may be present in his ludicrous conspiracy notions is the sort of mindset that lay behind slightly silly groups like Real Caouette's Social Credit party in Quebec or even William Jennings Bryan's "bimetallism" movement.

Le Pen's disengagement from reality, like theirs, may also be the battle fatigue that can set in after decades of running against the wind: the ideas initially held may be valuable, but the long exile from acceptance often leads to great lapses of sense, a riotous confusion in the mind and, very often, dark conspiracy notions.

If Le Pen is defeated and the mainstream political classes refuse to discuss the questions he poses, Europe may once again give birth to something far worse than his National Front.

In the meantime, I can't help thinking that the Left is really enjoying itself. All those marches: the presses at Libération and L'Humanité rolling out the urgent screeds; the students in springtime with the prospect of arms linked at the barricades. The Left needs a monster these days to give it some focus. But the stakes are high for us all.

JWR contributor Barbara Amiel is a columnist with London's Daily Telegraph, where this column originated. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Barbara Amiel