Chirac Should Debate Le Pen

26 April 2002

By Stentor Danielson

Europeís shift toward the political right was illustrated dramatically last week as right-wing French presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen beat socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin for the right to face incumbent Jacques Chirac in the second-round runoff. The result was widely hailed as a travesty -- the New York Times threw objectivity to the wind to paint Le Pen as a racist wacko who stole a spot in the runoff from poor Jospin, who has retired from politics as a result of this election. Protesters have filled the streets of Franceís cities for days, railing against the success of a candidate they believe is a threat to the future of the nation.

Chiracís response, meanwhile, has been to write off Le Pen. Clearly shaken by Le Penís success and his own poor showing, he initially declined to predict victory. But he has since gained confidence, and this week refused to debate Le Pen, as is traditional for the two runoff candidates, dismissing his challenger as professing "extremism, racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia." Chirac told supporters, "Faced with intolerance and hatred, no debate is possible." This head-in-the-sand attitude is exactly the wrong way to handle Le Penís success. Though he does not represent the will of the French people, Le Pen represents a challenge that must be dealt with head-on.

Chiracís ability to dismiss Le Pen is in part based on the rational assessment that he will easily grab another seven-year term. Though France was among the first to condemn the American Electoral College after the mess of a Presidential election in 2000, its own Presidential voting system leaves plenty of room for the will of the people to be subverted by technicalities. Two key factors distorted the French first-round vote in favor of Le Pen: fragmentation of the left and low turnout.

Expectations were that the second round of the election would pit socialist Jospin against center-left Chirac. Franceís left hoped that Jospin could lead them into the presidential office. However, lackluster campaigning by Jospin led several other left-wing candidates to challenge him successfully. No leftist candidate alone could muster the votes to overcome Le Pen, who dominated the right wing. The fragmentation of the political field in this yearís election was the worst in recent memory, leading to a vote in which no candidate got even 20 percent.

Low turnout further helped Le Pen get votes. Though the voting rate -- around 70 percent -- which would be astronomical in the United States, it was unusually low for France. Low voter turnout allows energized minority groups -- such as the people upset over crime and immigration who backed Le Pen -- to dominate an election. The average voter stays home, while the extremist makes sure he and all his friends get to the polls. It is likely that Jospinís base of support, even taking into account those who would prefer other leftist candidates, was significantly greater than Le Penís. The trouble is, Jospinís people did not vote. Following the election, George Rullier told the Washington Post, "Iím really ashamed I didnít vote yesterday -- Itís a big problem with the left-wing people. The right wing doesnít forget to vote."

Following the first-round results, Franceís leftist parties threw their support behind Chirac, out of horror at the prospect of a President Le Pen rather than a desire to help the man they hoped to oust. Opinion polls show Chirac winning the election with 75 percent of the vote, as the left and center coalesce behind him. Anger brought Le Penís supporters to the polls in the first round, and anger will likely bring his opponents in the second.

All of this gives Chirac good reason to believe he will win next month. But it does not give him good reason to ignore what Le Penís candidacy represents. Though his supporters are a minority, Le Pen has struck a chord with Franceís working class and rural voters. If his message is not confronted by the parties in power, his National Front could make big gains in the Parliamentary elections in June.

It is easy for those not in the far right to dismiss Le Penís platform. He is unabashedly nationalist and anti-immigration. He has said one of his priorities as president would be to get France out of the European Union and reinstate its former currency, the franc. He has also called for a halt to immigration -- which he says is causing unemployment and crime -- and an end to social services for those who are not French nationals.

But these positions have struck a chord for many French voters worried about crime and immigration. A barman identified only as "Jean" summed up the sentiment behind Le Penís support in the British newspaper The Independent: "He was the first to talk frankly about crime, and thatís what everyoneís worried about -- Women, foreigners, canít walk in these streets back here even in the afternoon without getting harassed and attacked. Theyíll cut the straps of your bag before youíve even turned around. Not a day goes by without one incident or other." Crime has jumped by nine percent in the last year, and a series of shootings has grabbed headlines and focused French attention on the issue.

On immigration, Jean said "There are 5,000 of them back there -- And theyíre none of them working, theyíre all on benefits -- some claim twice or three times."

Le Penís base of support has broadened since he last sought the presidency. His traditional base of support has expanded out of its center in the southeast, picking up new voters from the working class and rural areas. Le Pen beat Chirac in the traditionally leftist Pas-de-Calais region.

There is also a Naderesque protest vote underlying Le Penís success. Allegations of corruption in the French government abound, and Chirac has invoked presidential privilege to avoid answering questions as ordered by a French judge. Le Penís assessment of Chirac rings true for many voters: "If he was a company chairman, he would leave his companyís annual meeting in handcuffs."

Many voters who would not support Le Penís policies were motivated to vote for him as a show of disapproval for Chiracís government. Often these votes were cast in the expectation that Le Pen would certainly not win. These voters wanted to scare Chirac straight, not replace him with an ultra-nationalist.

Ignoring these issues will not make them go away. Simply denouncing Le Pen as a racist will only confirm the image his supporters have of a government out of touch with the concerns of real people. If Chirac can face the issues Le Pen raises in a mature and intelligent manner, he can show the French people that they do not have to look to the right wing to find answers to their problems.

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