Le Pen skilfully stokes the nationalist fire

French politicians, of both left and right, don't know what to do about the racist appeal of the 'Front National'; 'We are going straight towards an ethnic war'
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While the European football competition was generating a wave of irrational anti-German feeling in the British tabloid press last week, France was having a similar but more serious experience. Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front National, laid into the national football team, saying it was artificial to get players from abroad and baptise them as French, particularly as most of them either failed to sing the Marseillaise or appeared to mouth words that didn't accord with the actual text.

Indeed, while the players are all French citizens, one was born in Ghana, another has dual Portuguese/ French nationality and others have Italian, Algerian or Tunisian parents or can claim Spanish or even Armenian grandparents. As for singing, the captain said that he preferred humming; a second disapproved of the Marseillaise because it was a war song; and a third said that as he was only capable of singing Basque ditties in the team bus.

Football in France has been like boxing in the US - the newest immigrant group uses it as a method of climbing the ladder. By 1940, 25 players of foreign origin had represented France. Football was so weakly rooted that it needed an infusion of talent from abroad. Since 1945 this foreign legion has grown and accounts for 15 per cent of French professional players. The inflow into French teams has mirrored successive waves of immigration: Polish, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and African. With this history, football is less the national game in France than it is in England, Italy or Spain. The French establishment sees it, along with other sports, as a powerful instrument of integration. M. Le Pen, therefore, was not criticising a new turn of events but a familiar situation. Mainstream political leaders, each one of whom fears him and his party, unanimously condemned him.

M Le Pen made his comments within a few days of having obtained a signal victory over the French press. Using the courts, he forced Le Monde and others to give him a "right of reply" in response to its description of the Front National as a political party of the "extreme right". M. Le Pen objected; he was anxious to tell readers of Le Monde that the Front National was neither racist, nor xenophobic nor fascist. It was neither of the right nor of the left; it was le parti de la France. In fact, the difference between plain right wing and the extreme or far right does lie in attitudes to race. John Redwood recently defined Conservative ideology as believing that the state should be at once limited in its role and duty and yet strong in its chosen tasks, particularly in enforcing a strict moral law. Mr Redwood's formulation made no mention of preserving Britishness as an objective. When ethnic issues are brought into consideration, right wing becomes extreme right. Strong nationalistic sentiments such as Michael Portillo expresses are a step along the path. Then as nationalism becomes racism, it becomes far right or extreme right.

In his right of reply, M. Le Pen was engaging in a great pretence. Since 1973, the programme of the Front National has centred on the survival of a French identity refined, as it believes, through 4,000 years of European culture, 20 centuries of Christianity, 40 kings and two centuries of the Republic. One enters into French nationality, says Le Pen, by "blood received, or blood spilt" - chauvinism, after all, goes back to the blind admiration for his country shown by Napoleon's soldier, Nicolas Chauvin.

In practice, the Front National has been ambiguous in its public statements, being, in Alexander Pope's words, "willing to wound and yet afraid to strike". Thus M. Le Pen last March: "Only the people is capable of sensing, by a sort of biological intuition, the mortal danger that blights its future." In this context, "biological" is a word from a racist vocabulary. Or a colleague of M. Le Pen: "We are going straight towards an ethnic war and that war will be total." In Bosnia or in France? Or another who scarcely fudges at all: "The nationalists are treated like dogs or pariahs. One will only be done with this situation by reacting vigorously. One must kill one's enemy. The Israeli right has killed Rabin and won the elections. I don't mean that it is necessary to kill Chirac, but we must stop having a position of respect or of consideration."

These are alarming sentiments, all the more so in light of M. Le Pen's success in the recent presidential election, when he attracted 15 per cent of the votes. The mainstream parties fear that if this share of the poll were to be repeated in the 1998 elections for the National Assembly, where the Front National is unrepresented, then M. Le Pen could hold the balance in a hung Parliament. As a result, some French politicians, led by Francois Leotard, met last month to attempt the construction of a "republican front", in which the mainstream parties, both of left and right, would put forward only one candidate in contests where the Front National has a chance of winning. These proposals have been met with scepticism. One reaction is that one should not diabolise the Front National because only a small proportion of its electors are extreme and because, anyway, its very weight already gives it a legitimacy.

Thus we see how the clever, aggressive, dangerous M. Le Pen makes progress. I wonder what he would he reply if he was asked about the prospects for a party similar to his in the UK. Would he say: "A hopeless case: not enough social distress, too little ethnic tension, only sporadic hatred of foreigners, tradition of tolerance too strong? Or would he respond, "Yes, promising situation"?