I lived in France for a little over a year in the early 90s, and Jean-Marie LePen and the Front National had started to emerge as more than just a fringe group. In some elections (mostly local), they were starting to attract 10-15% of the ballots. If memory serves, when I lived there they only had one elected official at the national level.
But LePen’s shocking victory over Lionel Jospin is certainly a new phase in France’s perilous journey to a frightening place. While I’ve always admired France’s eagerness to aggressively defend its culture, it now appears that a fair number in the country are aggressively attacking others. This article in The Economist is blunt, calling the results of the election “disgusting.” I wasn’t surprised at the amount of press the election was receiving in the U.K. this week – every time you turned on the TV, radio or walked past a newstand, someone else was ridiculing the French or bemoaning those crazy Europeans on the continent. (Is it any surprise that this election is being used to reinforce the U.K.‘s lack of enthusiasm for committing whole-heartedly to a “one Europe” policy?)
What is surprising is the amount of press it’s getting here in the States. As I e-mailed a friend in France yesterday, I think the last big story in the U.S. about France was EuroDisney.
The bottom line is that Chirac will win, but this will leave a stain on the French electorate for some time. The lesson here is not that the extreme right is growing in France – the 16% of the vote LePen received isn’t that much more than his F.N. has garnered in many past elections. The lesson is that the left – long considered a pillar of French government – completely destroyed itself during this election. Jospin (and the fractured parties who so divided the left vote) should be embarassed that they let this happen.
For those who are interested, check out this NPR story from last month (RealAudio required). Chirac has been lampooned by Les Guignols (“The puppets”) as “Super Menteur” (super liar) for his frequent turns of phrase (ahem). You’ll have to speak French, but you can watch some of the episodes where Super Menteur comes to the rescue. It’s great stuff.