Racism In Europe: France: Tough action deflates far right

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The Independent Online
WHEN 100 Jewish graves were defiled by unknown vandals in Perpignan last week, it was a sad reminder that anti-Semitism and, presumably, all other forms of prejudice persist in modern France.

For the far-right National Front, the effect was catastrophic. On Sunday, citizens of the Pyrenean city were voting for a new mayor and Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front had been boasting that it might take its first important city hall.

In the event, Jean-Claude Martinez, a law professor and one of Mr Le Pen's senior lieutenants, came a bad third in the mayoral race. The fall was even more spectacular when measured against the National Front's score in regional elections in March last year when a record one third of voters backed Mr Martinez.

With the new conservative government pushing through tough laws against illegal immigration, some of the steam seemed to be going out of National Front arguments, leading to the beginning of a decline of one of Europe's biggest far-right parties.

In France, the 'extreme right' is a virtual synonym for the National Front, which plays a strange role in French politics as almost the respectable face of extremism. In the 21 years since Mr Le Pen founded the unashamedly racist anti-immigration movement, it has moved from the 2 per cent traditionally reserved for the far right in French elections to 14 per cent in last year's regional elections and 12.5 in parliamentary elections three months ago.

Publicly, it is anything but neo- Nazi or rough. Although there are minuscule neo-Nazi groups with a penchant for violence, the National Front denies any links with them.

The denials of links with criminal elements fool only some of the people. When Mr Le Pen held his election- night meeting in Nice in March 1992 after the regional poll, his blazer-clad middle-class stewards received some impressive reinforcements. After dark, cars unloaded shaven-headed young men in rolled-up jeans and carrying baseball bats. They were hurriedly hidden in the hotel where the reception was held to protect their leader in case of trouble.

Guy Birenbaum, a political scientist at the Sorbonne, calls Le Pen's party 'a sub-society' of extreme right-wing organisations. Mr Le Pen denies any sympathy for Hitler or the Nazis, but he questions the extent of the Holocaust and has published Nazi books. A court in Nancy ruled this week, in a case brought by Mr Le Pen, that it was not a libel to describe him as 'the spiritual son of Hitler'.

Although the National Front is virulently opposed to immigration, its rise has not been accompanied by any appreciable increase in racist violence in France. There has been violence, but nothing like the organised attacks on immigrants in Germany, and its causes in France have been as much social as racist.

Mostly, the problems were between immigrants and police, usually in the warm summer months in the under- privileged dormitory towns around the big cities which have become a byword for drug-trafficking and muggings. Depending on who told the story, police were attacked or over-reacted, resulting in fights or riots which sometimes ended in death.

The problem was acute in 1991 but abated last summer after programmes were organised to bus youngsters to the countryside for holidays, provide sports facilities or organise pop concerts. In some suburbs, youths have taken the law into their own hands, conducting their own pursuit of drug- dealers and petty criminals, but many predict the situation will get worse.