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An American In the Front
On Campaign in France with Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front
In 1995 I went to meet "The Movement", as the National Front's people call themselves. For the next year I accompanied them on their "permanent campaign" as a journalist and as a participant in meetings of the Front's education board, the Movement for a National Instruction. Reviewers called the resulting portrait of extreme right activism "astonishing", and noted that I predicted the Front's next moves. My work on the extreme right continued through the end of 1999, with an investigation into the Front's growing alliances with nationalist movements in Eastern Europe. Here you'll find the first extracts in English from the book. For more of my work on the FN, see the Links page.
Chapter One: Meet the Movement
1995, thirteen years after my arrival in France, I finally stopped
avoiding a side of Europe it scared me to think about, and attended my
first Festival of the Blue-White-and-Red -- the annual fall gathering
of the National Front. I had heard plenty about these
parties, and not much good. Year after year, my colleagues in the
French press had been spat upon, vilified from the stage by the Front's
president Jean-Marie Le Pen, intimidated, and physically attacked. (The
natural result was more media coverage underlining the fascist roots of
the Front.) But I thought I would get better treatment this year.
Which meant that it had to make some effort to deal with reporters like me. So this was my idea: I was going to walk up to them, introduce myself, and start asking questions, politely. I had to start somewhere, and I didn't know anyone in or near the Front who could make the presentations for me.
On my way to the Festival, at the Vincennes park on the eastern outskirts of Paris, I saw a silent comment on my strategy. A tall young black man with a weary stride and an open can of beer in his hand was moving slowly down the avenue ahead of me, beside a long line of posters showing a grinning Le Pen. As he passed each poster, he stretched out his long arm and slowly, deliberately, tore it down. I wondered if he already knew more than I would ever learn.
covered what I thought was the entire spectrum of French political
parties, from the Greens to the Communists, Socialists and various
Gaullist movements, but I'd never seen anything like the Front.
Other parties do not mass heavyset security men with close haircuts (I
didn't see any earrings) to check you for weapons at the gate. Nor do
other parties make you pay to attend their rallies. While following the
FN, I never stopped paying. But that's fine, because I'd rather not eat
a free lunch with someone I may have to betray. I handed over my 70
francs (about $10), lifted my arms to be searched, and went in.
Something new was
entering the scene -- young
women. I saw them everywhere on the grounds, and it was obvious that
the Front's activists (“militants”, as we say in
France) were amazed by them, too. A writer for a Front youth bulletin
published in the Rhone Valley, just back from an August hike,
positively raved about the difference the females made: "The militantes
knew how to handle this weekend, and surprised us by their physical
qualities." I remembered something a New Wave rock star once said about
why punk rock never really caught on: "There weren't enough girls."
When a movement attracts young women, it is changing from no
future to a future home.
Le Pen's great
success -- unique in the history
of the French extreme right -- had been to federate the infinite,
querulous factions of the enemies of the Republic into a single,
cohesive force. That is what the militants of the Movement meant when
they told me, as they often did, "We're a collection of
individualists." And in a way, they were right. Like a family, its
members could claim and share a common name, but distinct identities.
And like a family, the Front provided them all with a place where they
could feel at home. Le Pen knew it, and counted on it. Later that
weekend, I heard him say: "We constitute a veritable family... We are
more united in the FN than the others are. We love our family, and our
Each stand offered its own literature for sale, along with tracts and promotional fliers – an unending flood of words. The subjects ran from pure political ideology, to adventure novels about the Foreign Legion and diet books whose paranoia about industrial food easily matched anything I ever saw in the New Age movement. Music wasn't overlooked – traditional Catholic chants, Breton folklore, and harder-than-hard rock. There was a kind of art, too – a Parisian gallery, "Art Shows Off," offered a selection of kitsch paintings, including sentimental still lives and grandiose portraits of warriors, all supposed to suggest a "renaissance" of European art. ( I did not ask the owners how they related to the fact that the Nazis sought to eradicate the “decadent” abstract modern art of Klee, Picasso, and other masters.) It wasn't the intrinsic quality of the thoughts and products on sale that was impressive, but the fact that together they formed a true counter-culture, at once coherent and closed on itself – like Woodstock in a funhouse mirror.
I picked up some tracts and read them as I strolled. Their apparent monotony – I did not yet know how to decode the language of each group – was matched only by their virulence. “Never has the assassin, the rapist and the torturer risked so little," proclaimed the General Alliance Against Racism and For the Respect of French and Christian Identity, or AGRIF. (I knew the name: It came to prominence in the early 1980s when it launched a campaign against Martin Scorsese's film, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” An American Christian fundamentalist group, Focus on the Family, had helped the AGRIF frame its themes. As it happened, French authorities finally intervened to calm tensions after a movie theatre in Paris was firebombed.) The March newsletter of the National Circle of Retirees and Pre-retirees, one of the busiest stands on the grounds, opened with a tirade: "Stuck in rotten scandals[,] our leaders invoke grand principles to anesthetize the voters. Yet these gentlemen are incapable of deporting all the bloodsuckers from everywhere else… Our money is thrown away on subsidies to homos and addicts...."
"This is really great stuff," a young man told me, showing me a book cover decorated with a crude drawing of a thug in a yarmulkah, the promise of an "explosive best seller," and the title The Warriors of Israel: Investigation of the Zionist Militias. It was priced at over $40, about twice what you'd pay for mainstream literature in France. The people around me were neither rich nor leisured. They would not buy this stuff lightly, or waste the money by not reading it.
And then, I made contact – or rather, the Front made contact with me. A woman in her sixties seized my arm at the stand of the Federation of the Loiret, one of France's hundred counties, and sold me a raffle ticket for $2. Every ticket won a prize. Mine was a pair of pale blue cowhide work gloves. I wore them all winter, rebuilding an apartment; they reminded me of the Front, not pretty but very sturdy. When I asked her to take me to her leader, she presented me to Bernard Chauvet, a barrel-chested veteran of the Algerian War with a deformed or wounded hand.I did not ask which, though it occurred to me later that nearly everyone I met in the Movement carried some kind of wound, and his was one of the few that was visible.
He told me he'd been an executive of the Banque Lazare – a Jewish company, he noted, to make the point that he had never been or done anything remotely anti-Semitic in his life – until his election as a city counsellor at Montargis, a town I'd never visited. He had been fired only days after the election, for belonging to the Front.
I said, "I'm sorry. No one should lose his job for belonging to a legal political party."
He regarded me warily. Then he gave me a tract full of excited typography:
Crime in Montargis, that's enough!
LET'S ORGANIZE THE
ANTENNAE OF VIGILANCE!
Receiving a document like this from an apparently normal person is a shock on the order of discovering his pornography collection. It was a strange combination of the obsessive (every detail foreseen), the puerile (a magic TELEPHONE NUMBER), and the sinister (just what were these “other actions”?). I didn't say that to Chauvet. We parted on good terms, and one day we met again, after his vigilante network was well underway.
A few steps away, I introduced myself to one Dr. Gouste, a devout Catholic and fervent opponent of abortion, and a city councillor in Vichy, the former capitol of the Collaboration. As soon as Gouste heard I was a journalist, he began to lecture me: "The newspapers aren't telling the truth. None of them do. Especially when it concerns crimes where immigrants are involved. But when a Frenchman is implicated...." He let the sentence trail off. A Frenchman must always pay for his sins. Foreigners never pay for their sins, or their crimes.
But I'd just read an article in the Parisian daily Libération, I said politely, which mentioned three North Africans who'd been arrested for some crime.
He suggested with
equal but firm politeness
that I must be wrong. The press would not, could not do such a thing.
And nothing could persuade him otherwise.
recounted how during the electoral
campaign, "We were demonized!" That was Movement shorthand for being
called a racist, fascist bastard. Outside the Movement they were
shopkeepers – which, they said, is why they won the
elections. A shopkeeper knows everyone, and everyone knows him. Besides
which, they "did the stairways" -- went out and knocked on doors
– instead of just sending tracts in the mail like their
opponents. (A shopkeeper doesn't waste money on stamps when he can
avoid it, either.) The reporters and politicians who opposed them said
these old guys were monsters. But they didn't scare me, the way they
were supposed to. They put me to sleep.
I tensed, thinking he was trying to test me, and then I saw that he was just trying to tell me something he believed, something too exciting to keep to himself. Something similar happened when I was speaking with a building contractor from the rich Paris suburb of Neuilly. "I was in Istanbul in '65, and there were three million Turks," he said. "Now there are 14 million, and they're ready to go anywhere they can. How many can we take?" Suddenly he was shouting, and white foam appeared at both corners of his mouth.
In a matter of minutes, I had twice seen ordinary folks pass from reasoned conversation to a state of hysteria. In every conversation I ever had in the Front, every speech I ever heard its leaders make, there arrived such a moment, when the speaker cut through the torpor induced by endless banalities, and exploded. It was what we were all waiting for – me, because I wanted something shocking to report, until I realized that the banalities were what realy counted, and them because it was what made them feel alive.
It happened thus in March 1996, at Montargis, where I heard Roger Holeindre, a regional councillor (that is, a pretty high elected official) and president of the Front's veterans' group, the National Circle of Combattants, deliver an hours-long improvised speech of such tedium that a child started wailing and his mother had to drag him out of the room. And then, finally, without warning, Holeindre exploded:
"There are, in this government and its back alleys, people who should be in prison for pe-do-phi-lia [sic]. You hear me? You hear me? You can say Roger Holeindre told you that! You can give the hour! It's a quarter to five, I think! YOU HEAR ME? Well, I was saying the other night, I said we should hang all these crooks, and a lady in the room said, 'Ah, Mr. Holeindre, that isn't nice, why do you want to hang them?' And I replied [his voice became sad and deep]: 'Yes, Madame, do you know what it is, pedophilia?' 'Ah, no, I don't know.' 'Well, it's men who profit from their positions... TO RAPE LITTLE CHILDREN OF THREE, FOUR OR FIVE YEARS OF AGE!' 'Oh, if that's what it is, we have to hang them!' 'You said it, Madame!'"
A thunder of applause broke over the room.
The women of the FN fascinated me, because most of them lacked any trace of coquetterie, that characteristic French female attention to amplifying charm. Their faces were stern, their hair clipped short. Michèle Bonnot was one of them, her expression split between a pleasant smile and watchful eyes, tired and tireless in her long tweed skirt, a simple sweater and blouse. This was the uniform of the matrons of the Movement family.
When I asked how she came into the Movement, she explained that she had lost one of her sons – I didn't ask how, because her voice became so dark – but not before he converted her. "He made me understand that the Front is the only party that can do something for France right now." The others refused to recognize that the Revolution of 1789 was a "disaster," she explained. She was a royalist herself. She thought people were better off under a good king. Of course she agreed there were bad kings, too, but they didn't last forever, like so-called "democratic" leaders. (I'd always thought it was the other way around, but Madame Bonnot took a longer view.)
But the Republic has been good for France, I said. It created the national educational system, and with it an administration of intelligent, honest people. (I wasn't joking. I was thinking of what can happen in places where the administration exists only to rob the nation, like, say, the Soviet Union.)
"I'm not so sure," she replied somberly.
She was interrupted by an ear-splitting squeal. Someone was trying to make a sound system work, and as we looked toward the source of the racket, we saw Jean-Marie Le Pen. He was walking toward us through the noise, completely untroubled by it, surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards in dark blazers. On television he usually wore a scowl, but here his long, rectangular face seemed softer and sunnier. He smiled like a man bathing in love, which he was. At every stand he stopped to greet someone he knew. His Movement was big enough to fill the grounds, and small enough for him to recognize nearly everyone who lived for it.
"Look at that handsome young Black in his entourage," said Madame Bonnot pointedly. "He must be from Martinique." That is a former Caribbean colony which became an overseas county of France. She was trying to explain to me that the Movement isn't racist, and trying to explain to herself what can make a Black man French.
Le Pen was a few yards away. Over my confused protest, Madame Bonnot insisted on introducing me to him. I have sometimes wondered whose hand, and under what conditions, I might refuse to shake. I was thinking that Le Pen had at various times refused to condemn the torturing of France's prisoners in Algeria, and that according to a man I know who often shared his table, it amused him to dine with men dressed in SS uniforms.
Then he was standing in front of me, and Madame Bonnot introduced me as an American journalist, and I said, "Bonjour, Monsieur le Président," and shook Le Pen's outstretched hand.
Le Pen moved on, and Madame Bonnot began asking me personal questions. Was I married? I had been, for ten years. Did I have children? No, I did not.
"That's sad," she said. Her sympathy was tinged with disapproval.
By French standards, she had gone stunningly far beyond the bounds of politeness. The French do not ask about, much less comment upon, the intimate lives of strangers. I was furious. But later I realized that Madame Bonnot was simply speaking the language of the Movement, in which childlessness is no longer a merely personal sorrow, or a purely personal choice. "The persistent demographic decline in Europe is incompatible with the survival of our nations," warned the tracts of the National Circle of Women of Europe, not far from where I met Mme. Bonnot. "Especially because it coexists with a demographic explosion of the Islamic nations... in Black Africa, the fecundity is superior to 8 children per woman." Thus abortion, which the Circle angrily denounced, must be recognized for what it is: A crime against the family, the race, and the Nation which is their political expression. And thus every infant is a soldier in a desperate battle, the last tiny hope of a race that is being overwhelmed.
Madame Bonnot was right: This is sad if it's true, and even sadder if it's not.
In the alley as I walked away, I saw Yves Mourousi, a slight, athletic man in his fifties, who only a decade ago had been the biggest star of French television news. At the time, all France's networks were owned by the state, and TV news was basically its master's voice. Mourousi had hosted a show that was cheerily called That interests us, Mr. President!, in which he questioned, flattered and teased his ultimate superior, President François Mitterrand. Around the same time, on Mitterrand's orders, Mourousi had also twice interviewed Jean-Marie Le Pen. The President of France and his intimates openly considered the Front "an historic chance" to divide and conquer the mainstream Right once and for all, either by sapping its electorate or by forcing it into a dishonoring alliance with the heirs of fascism. It was thus decided to promote the Front by all available means, notably by offering Le Pen repeated and prominent access to French voters through the state-owned media. Not everyone gained from the bargain. The Front came back to haunt the Socialists, long before Mitterrand died in 1995. As for Mourousi, he lost his job after he was convicted of a petty crime. But here he was, grinning and shaking hands as if he were still a star. Like Christ, the Movement opens its arms to losers.
I went home that night with The Creation of France by Henri Charlier, a gift from a handsome, straight-backed young man at the stand of Présent. This is the only daily journal of the Movement, fierce about the fact that it does not depend financially on the Front, but owing part of its readership to its unique practice of printing Le Pen's daily communiqués to the Nation. The young man told me that The Creation of France was the key to understanding the coming 1500th anniversary of the country's founding act, the Baptism of Clovis – a Frankish warlord whose conversion to Christianity was the payoff on a deal he made with God, in exchange for victory over the Moors. Six months later, French President Jacques Chirac would make a similarly big deal over the baptism of Clovis, perhaps to co-opt the same public that Présent and Charlier were trying to reach.
Reading the book,
I discovered for the first tme
what the the Front refers to as the essentials – not just
the real facts of life,
but a coherent, conscious and voluntary way of looking at
them. Taken far enough, a belief in the essentials can change
the way you see the world -- or more exactly, change the world you see,
beginning with the notion that everyone you see on the street is in
some sense your equal.
Only through ruin came redemption – the rise of kings, the patrons and protectors of "this artistic flowering which... is the true glory of Western civilization," restorers of "the hierarchy of honor and knowledge [and] the family, eternal basis of all human societies." In that golden time, "Moral force was thus on the side of order. Today, moral decomposition can count on the force of States." As for the Church, sneered Charlier, it has been overrun by "clerics who secretly want to get married."
These are the classic themes of the extreme right – the decadence of the present, a Paradise Lost in the past, and a future stolen by "the evil inherent in the system of universal suffrage." Democracy is a lie, a way for clever liars to manipulate the sheeplike masses by stirring up their "momentary passions.” The proof that the masses are stupid is that they are slaves who believe they are free. They are better off withiout elections. Charlier dreamed of the "young saints” who would see to that. In the stern face of the handsome young man who offered me this book, I recognized one of those holy warriors.
I wanted to go
back the next day with a family
of my own. Two students from the American University of Paris accepted
my invitation, but only one showed up -- a pretty blonde who arrived
with her blouse's top two buttons undone, took a look around and saw
that she wasn't in line with any other woman on the grounds, and
buttoned them back up.
"Without money," he said, staring at the girl, "the woman leaves."
He absolutely believed that feminists were leading a gigantic conspiracy to destroy the world's happiness and his own. I doubted he knew any, and I said something to that effect.
He replied: "We want simple ideas."
Before we parted he offered me a cassette. It contained phone messages from anonymous enemies, threatening him, because he was in the Front. To me, to a pretty girl he could not help desiring and despising on sight, to the world and to his wife, he might look like a demented loser. But in the Movement he was a heroic warrior engaged in deadly battle against a legion of enemies.
Under a tent where we took refuge from the rain, I met a retired pharmacist and FN city councillor from Normandy. Several days later, he sent me the story of his life.
"Your presence at the Festival proves your absence of hostility toward this party and its president, which honors your profession, " his letter began. "You probably know that the FN is the most attacked, and above all the most defamed party in France. You could see Sunday that the atmosphere was rather gay and peaceful..."
Rather. A journalist with a video camera had been assaulted, his machine broken. A spokesman for the Front justified it to me later by saying that the reporter was pushing his camera into people's faces, bothering them. I was learning how the Movement responds to aggression, real or perceived: A face for an eye, a jaw for a tooth.
The letter continued: "I'm from a modest social origin -- finished university studies in July 1939. I was in the exodus of 1940.” That was when Hitler's troops smashed through Belgium and France. He had seen “civil populations and soldiers in a terrifying disorder... I was taken prisoner at Poitiers after a more or less solitary retreat from Compiègne" – a long way to run -- “and liberated at the end of a few days by the German authorities."
As I plowed through three pages of tiny, close text, I realized where I had seen this prose style before. It was exactly like the police interviews you find in a French criminal case file, reading more like a schoolbook text than a personal style, with every date and event transcribed. This was a confession. What was he confessing to?
"Thus I lived in Paris under the Occupation." Well, so had a lot of other people. He was married in 1940, he wrote, but "I was alone at the moment of the Liberation -- a very troubled period -- much debated...." He was alone and troubled, while the rest of France rejoiced and hunted down Collaborators.
Now came the inevitable explosion, the spasmic moment of release: "The general situation in France and the decadence that's sinking us in every domain, political, economic, moral, led me to join the FN where I have several local reponsibilities."
Twice he had spoken of solitude, and twice he had hinted that he trusted and admired his Nazi conquerors more than his own countrymen. He had waited, alone, for four decades before he found a place where such things as defeat, disorder and decadence were, at last, debated, and where he could admit that he had felt more liberated by the Germans than by the Resistance.
"Believe in my friendship," he concluded. This is not a merely polite phrase in French; it is an invitation. I put the letter aside, meaning to call him again, but I never did. I did not need to. I was going to hear more than my dose of sorrow in the Front, and get other offers of friendship.
The grand finale was Le Pen's speech, the first I had ever seen in person. He is reputed to be the greatest orator among living French politicians, and he is certainly the most expert I ever saw. The music that opened his show was Verdi's anthem from Nabucco, "The Hymn of the Slaves," but the spectacle reminded me of rock 'n' roll, at once calculated, grandiose and silly. Le Pen had learned such tricks in the U.S. during the 1980s, when the Republican Party invited him to its conventions, and sent consultants to help Le Pen strategize his campaigns in France. Among his American friends were Paul Gann, the architect of Ronald Reagan's tax-cut policies, and former Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada. It was astonishing how many different people, for different reasons – French leftists, American rightists, and others I would discover – had believed they could use Le Pen for their own ends.
The foreground of the immense stage, perhaps twenty feet from the ground, was guarded by a row of aged veterans, wearing their medals and service berets and carrying tricolored flags. Among them were the new Mayors of Marignan, Orange and Toulon, soldiers in the Front's battle for France.
A roar went up as Le Pen strode to his place at the summit of the pyramidal stage set. He spoke without notes or podium, using a tiny, invisible microphone that created the bizarre impression of a human figure with a world-filling voice. He began on a roar of complaint, reminding the faithful of what they had suffered together, himself most of all: "We are permanently defamed... they call my daughter 'the bitch'... they don't bother with details when they've got hatred in the heart and slobber on the lips!"
The Front was not a violent movement, he insisted, and had never been: "We don't smash Blacks, Arabs, foreigners! They still believe it!"
Yes, because only five months ago, on May 1, three skinheads had stepped out of the FN's annual May Day parade in Paris, grabbed a peaceable Moroccan named Brahim Bouraad and threw him in the River Seine, where he drowned. The Front had admitted that the killers arrived in Paris on a bus rented by the Movement, but denied that they were members of the party, and handed them over to the police. A party leader explained: "I'm not going to lose five percent in the elections for the sake of three assholes." I'd learn more about them later, too.
"Demonization," Le Pen continued, "is a technique... which violates all moral and esthetic rules." A strange Byronic note: Truth is beauty, beauty truth; that is all you know, or need to know. Truth was Le Pen's real theme, truth and who owned it: "Everywhere in France I've seen it written on the walls, 'Le Pen was right!' And he is still right, along with you!"
Yes, that was what the French were beginning to say. Only a decade earlier, when the Socialist Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, allowed that "Le Pen poses the wrong answers to the right questions," he created a scandal. But now people at dinner parties, in chic restaurants, in working-class bars, everywhere, were saying that Le Pen had the answers to a lot of questions, period.
Le Pen had said the government was corrupt, and corruption had destroyed the Socialists, then ravaged their successors on the Right. Le Pen had said the government would raise, not lower taxes, as President Jacques Chirac promised during his 1995 campaign, and Chirac had again proven his point. When would someone prove Le Pen wrong?
He demanded "the truth about immigration -- this mortal peril for our country, and even our continent, the most important phenomenon of the last half of the 20th century." They must resist this tidal wave! And he told them how: "The right to work must be reserved, as a matter of priority, to our own people, like during the War of '39-44!” Thus he avoided pronouncing the terrible word his enemies were waiting to hear, Vichy, while reminding us that the war against fascism had never ended, and promising that its losers could still reclaim history.
A war was underway, he said, in the rotting suburbs of French cities, where battalions of the State's paramilitary troops patrolled the streets, looking for the terrorists whose bombs had recently ripped through the Paris subways. "A crime policy can't be improvised in a few hours! It's not by promenading the riot police in the streets that they'll give the French a sense of safety!" And yet, he complained, "our demands for authority and safety have led to our being called fascists...."
There was "a sole alternative" to "the weakening of the Nation," he concluded, and it was the Movement -- "the rallying of all patriotic and lucid Frenchmen." And then he began to sing the natioal anthem, La Marseillaise, in a clear, strong voice – he is a much-admired singer among his troops – reclaiming it from the Révolution so despised by the Madame Bonnots of his family. Around me everyone else raised their voices. And the music stirred me, and frightened me. I felt this knowing perfectly well that I was meant to feel it, and that fascism, as Walter Benjamin said, is an esthetic phenomenon, a particular vision of what is beautiful. But what I knew did not entirely stop what I felt.
On my way out I saw an old woman, painfully stooping to gather up the torn posters the young African had left behind him, and stopped to help her. She wore a pin – a little rectangle divided down the middle, with a fleur de lys, the royal Capetian emblem, on a blue field on the left, and the name Le Pen over the Front's signature flame symbol on the right. The origin of the flame is incontestably fascist. The Front adopted it from the survivors of Mussolini's debacle, the Italian Social Movement (MSI), less by design than because the Italians sent their spare promotional materials to Le Pen in the early 1970s, when the Front was at its impoverished beginnings. The badge identified the woman as a 20-year member of the Front, the same way a little red lapel pin marks its wearer as a member of the French Republic's Legion of Honor. Another funhouse version of the reality I knew.
"Why are the media against Le Pen?" she begged me to explain. "I can tell you, he's so warm, so nice! So I said to myself, 'They're all against him, so I'm with him!'"
Yes, and he was
with her. For the next year I
would be with her Movement, too.