Commentary: Le Pen's Win May Be Just What France Needs

The country must confront the largely taboo subject of assuring racial and religious minorities a seat at the national table

By John Rossant

Shock. Shame. Or simply, Non! These are the words being tossed across the French political landscape in the wake of the first-round electoral triumph of extreme right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen on Apr. 21. Never before has the French Hard Right drawn such a high percentage of the vote, and never has one of its leaders made it to the runoff in a Presidential election. "Yes, alas," lamented the editor-in-chief of the influential French daily Le Monde in a post-election front-page editorial, "times are changing for the worse for France."

But are they? More than anything else, Le Pen's showing must be interpreted as an urgently overdue wake-up call--a prise de conscience, as they say in Paris--for a country that has long prided itself on being in the vanguard of so many political, economic, and cultural trends in Europe and the world. That's why this all could have a happy ending. In fact, if French leaders summon the courage and determination, they can make this a positive turning point for modern France and for Europe.

That means movement--right now--in the two vital areas that make France an anomaly in Europe. One is the pressing need for younger, fresher faces among the lineup of France's sclerotic political leaders. The other is the urgent necessity to recognize that today's France is a vibrant, multiethnic, multireligious reality.

The two issues are closely related, and much, in fact, is brewing beneath the surface. In both the Center Right and Center Left, a new generation of forward-looking thirty- and fortysomethings has been waiting impatiently in the wings, crowded out by political barons such as President Jacques Chirac, who was appointed to his first government position in 1969. Now, things could start to change. On the Right, a potential new prime minister is 46-year-old Neuilly Mayor Nicolas Sarkozy. On the Left, the decision by vanquished 65-year-old Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to leave political life opens the door to younger leaders.

France also must confront the largely taboo subject of assuring the country's racial and religious minorities, particularly the roughly 10% of the population with a North African Muslim background, a seat at the national table. Misguided social planning led to vast, government-built suburban ghettos ringing French cities. The inward-looking political elite has never reached out to these minorities. "Unlike Britain and Germany, there is simply no representation in the main French political parties of people with African and Arab origins," says Paris banker Omar Benderra, who was born in Algeria. "There is just a total lack of visibility."

This blindness has bred stupidity. France's Center Left government, for example, too scared to stir up the social pot, has looked the other way during recent anti-Semitic violence. Politicians also ignored early signs of social disturbance in the housing projects. The first vandals arrested for torching synagogues, seriously criminal acts in other civilized countries, got off with minor suspended sentences. Instead, Paris should have sent a firm message that such behavior is totally unacceptable.

The political turbulence of the France of 2002 is in some ways reminiscent of the brutal jolt America received in the late 1960s, when race riots devastated inner cities in the U.S. Then, a traumatized America began to come to terms with the destructiveness of racial exclusion. It was something that the white Republican and Democratic establishments of the time had ignored for far too long.

Just as Le Pen is shocking France's conscience today, George C. Wallace and his segregationist American Independent Party shocked the U.S. by picking up some 10 million votes, or 14% of the electorate, in the 1968 Presidential election. In some ways, the U.S. is still working out the repercussions. France may be only just beginning.

Rossant covers European politics.

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