Like many veterans of the Great War’s western front, Jacques Doriot was disgusted with the political leadership that had condoned, as he saw it, the four years of slaughter. The feeling was surely understandable; France had lost 1.8 million men in the trenches and battlefields of the north and east, including, this is a seldom-remembered fact, an overwhelming majority of its male peasant population. In a country whose economic power was still largely agricultural, this, and the destruction under the shells and bombs and mines of vast amounts of farm land, represented a disaster that would mark the French imagination for the rest of the century.
However, the conclusion Doriot drew — he went to war against parliamentary democracy — was by no means universal. The first post-war elections, held in 1919, were won by an overwhelmingly conservative majority of whom many were, like Doriot, veterans; hence the term “chambre bleue horizon,” from the grayish-blue tint used for the infantry’s uniforms: “blue waves,” since then, have been applied in press accounts of big conservative electoral wins.
France’s National Front, a xenophobic party which made some gains in the recent municipal elections on the coat-tails of the mainstream conservative UMP party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, used the term “bleu marine,” navy blue, to identify its lists, well aware that French voters, especially ones on the margins who vote for parties of the radical left and right, go for this sort of historical reference. The name, Front National, also harks back to the “Bloc National” that united several right-of-center parties for the 1919 campaign. The Bloc’s platform was unabashedly revanchist; Germany must be made to pay for the huge costs of the war, including a stratospheric debt. The human costs could never be repaired.
Not entirely by accident, the name also refers to the federation of anti-German resistance organizations the Communist Party led, controlled would be more accurate, during World War II. The Front National did not outlive the ’40s, as the Party emerged under its own colors as one of the major political forces in the country, for a brief time even its biggest vote getter. But the point here is that the neo-National Front, put together in the early 1970s by Jean-Marie Le Pen, ex-Foreign Legion veteran of the colonial wars of the 1950s and, since then, political gadfly specializing in anti-Semitic provocation, bears a striking resemblance to the earlier, post-WWI and II, versions. And this brings us back to Jacques Doriot, who in some ways is the emblematic French radical of the past century. (Radical, upper case, refers to a centrist French political current.)
Doriot, born in a small town northeast of Paris at the end of the 1890s, went to work in a working-class Paris suburb and joined the Socialist movement, enlisted in 1917 (at 19), won the Croix de Guerre, finished the war as a POW, returned to political activism and was among those who split the Socialist party to form the PCF, French section of the Comintern.
A powerful, crowd-haranguing orator, Doriot quickly rose to leadership in the Party but broke in the early 1930s and founded a national socialist party, the PPF, French people’s party, which took a virulently anti-capitalist, anti-Semitic line coupled with a pacifist position on the coming third round against Germany.
Doriot, a leader of the French legion of the Waffen SS that fought in Russia, was more extreme than many of the other “neo-Socialists” as they were called who “moved right” in the 1930s, but it is important to understand the moving was not as profound as it was made out to be at the time and which the standard historical version still does. This becomes startlingly clear when looking at the traveling from one extreme to another in current French politics.
Although the Front National, under Jean-Marie Le Pen, always had a core of “extreme right” types, it soon began collecting frustrated voters who all their lives had cast ballots for the Communists. What the two extremes had in common was an intensely parochial view of the world, a “small France” view, in which devotion to a foreign power (the Soviet Union or Germany) played a perverse and fetishistic part.
The other common denominator was to demonize a category without reference to sociological reality — “the Jews,” “the bourgeois,” and so forth. You believe you, as an ordinary Frenchman, are being persecuted by large, mysterious forces or classes or “systems.” So you have to believe in something bigger, better, stronger than yourself, that will come to the rescue. This is well documented in the history of Communism. Stalin, Mao, Trotsky, Guevara, many others — objects of a kind of worship that bespeaks mental illness. And, note, totally heretical if you have a monotheist faith. However, if politics can sometimes benefit from psychopathological analysis, it scarcely helps when it is a matter of keeping mad men — or bad men — out of power.
In the case of Doriot and the other French fascists of the 1930s, power could only arrive at the barrel of a German gun; they never came close to winning an election. The Communists came closer in the late ’40s, and again (arguably) in the ’70s and early ’80s when they operated in alliance with a Socialist Party that, at least in theory, rejected the social-democratic reformism of the 1950s in favor of revolutionary change in the cursed “system.” And of course there was in those years the believable threat of Soviet guns that might carry them, or their masters, to power.
Nonetheless, there are periods when radicals have a nuisance value that outweighs their electoral strength. They set the agenda. They influence people. They appear to be clearer, more determined, than “bourgeois” parties whose business consists of compromise, partial solutions, muddling through.
In neither half of the 20th century does it seem possible, in retrospect, that the totalitarian movements, as these were, could have taken France over on their own (as they did in Russia, Italy, and Germany.) But here is something striking: in France, as in Germany and Russia, these movements found it easy to attract support by making use of anti-Semitism. On the fascist side, the motif was vicious, murderous, and explicit. On the communist side — which included many Jews or comrades from Jewish families — it was covert, going under dishonest rubrics such as “Zionism” or “cosmopolitanism” or “international money” and all manners of “doctors’ plots” and the all-purpose “decadence,” a category that usually turns out to reflect a perversion or failing that characterizes its users.
Although Le Pen’s Front National gained notoriety as an anti-immigrant party, making use of such slogans as “deport a million immigrants, create a million French jobs,” and although his daughter Marine has continued in this vein with such gimmicks as soup kitchens in hard-up de-industrialized zones where her party makes a huge deal of serving pork (France’s immigrants are by no means all from predominantly Islamic countries of North and West Africa, but many are), the truth is that Jews represent the deep and lasting phobia of this movement.
You could take some cold comfort in the notion that the Front’s anti-Semitism belong to a bygone era and must die out of actuarial necessity. This turns out to be wistful thinking. From about the mid-1990s, French Jews began to notice with dismay that currents within the Socialist Party were advancing the thesis that, given demographic trends, the left’s advantage was to seek votes in a new immigrant (and largely Muslim) class than among a small Jewish one (albeit the largest in Europe) that, notwithstanding its own recent immigrants (Sephardi Jews from North Africa, troublemakers who were prone to vote for conservatives), could be taken for granted. Pleasing Muslim leaders by kowtowing to demands for halal food in school cafeterias, revising school curricula at their directives, excusing girls from phys. ed., could be justified in the name of multiculturalism; it quickly became a form of political correctness as tyrannical and suicidal as anything in American culture.
This cynical calculation had been prepared for over two decades by “third-worldist” notions on the left and “France’s Arab policy” on the right, both concepts, the one supposedly based on universalism and generosity and the other on the realpolitik of national interest, utterly delusional, as events demonstrated.
Michel Gurfinkiel, retired editor of the Paris newsweekly Valeurs Actuelles and a keen observer of the French scene, points out that the practical convergence of left and right anti-Semitism (by any other name) renews with the anti-Semitic, pro-Arab policies of the Nazi era. It is well known, Gurfinkiel writes, that the Nazis made use of anti-Zionist Arabs in the Middle East, most notoriously the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Less well remembered is that in organizing and leading French Gestapos and Waffen SS auxiliaries, Doriot and his comrades recruited North Africans, chiefly from Algeria and Tunisia, who already had established immigrant communities in France (they also recruited in North Africa proper before the U.S. Army landed there).
At present, with the Front National confined to a few small towns, the anti-Semitic current in France is again finding rich soil among the very groups that Le Pen’s core followers always were told represented the uninvited guests to the French table — the same who were supposed to become more enthusiastic about France due to multicultural toadying, to which they responded with an epidemic of riots in 2005. Already in the 1990s, Jean-Marie Le Pen showed off his support for Saddam Hussein, threatened by “cosmopolitan” (American and Jewish) imperialism; more recently his daughter objects to French interventions in Sahelian Africa, which is to say against the forces of Islamic aggression.
Anti-Semitic clichés, along with a spike in aggressions against individuals recognizably Jewish (students wearing kippot, for example) as well as synagogues, kosher butcher stores, and other locales, became increasingly ordinary in the 1990s, notwithstanding hate-crime laws which in France as throughout the European Union can include speech. Not surprisingly, Jewish emigration, chiefly toward Israel, the U.S., and Canada, has reached unprecedented levels. As Gurfinkiel reported recently, “In 2013, more than 20 thousand people formally applied to the Jewish Agency in Paris for aliyah — emigration to Israel.” This does not mean 20 thousand people eventually will move to Israel, far from it; and, as Gurfinkiel also reports, emigration in general rose substantially in recent years (young entrepreneurs are making London and New York, as well as California, lands of French immigration). It is an index, however, that a great many are reconsidering the old Yiddish adage, “Wie Gott in Frankreich wir leben.”
As in the 1930s, the new anti-Jewish currents are fueled by haters who have traveled the totalitarian route. A ex-Communist named Alain Soral has turned anti-Semitic rants into a cottage industry to promote himself (he is a novelist and filmmaker who also rants against the damage done to culture by self-promoting celebrities…) A French comedian of Cameroonian background by the name of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala repeatedly has been fined for breaking hate crime laws and has seen his one man shows shut down by the Interior Minister, Manuel Valls, who last week was promoted to prime minister in the wake of the Socialists’ poor showing in local elections.
Soral joined the National Front following his career in the Communist Party; he left the National Front to promote French-Muslim reconciliation. Gurfinkiel suggests that the anti-Semitic polemics of Soral and the pathological anti-Semitic tirades Dieudonné gives vent to under the cover of satire represent an attempt to steer opinion in an anti-republican direction (republicanism in France refers to the tradition of Jacobin equality before the law, epitomized in the slogan “For the Jews as individual Frenchmen, everything, for the Jews as a community, nothing.”)
Opinion in certain classes of French society, such as the neglected inner city zones (which geographically are broken-down suburbs), scarcely require steering; the kinds of outrages that Dieudonné uses to “shock the bourgeoisie” are commonplaces there. This is due, in turn, in good part to the inability of the Jacobin tradition to uphold its own values; in many places it has simply given up completely. In an effort to accommodate a multicultural society, the French elites may have failed to see that such a society could be turned against them.
As France’s top cop, Manuel Valls won broad approval for his no-nonsense approach to law and order issues. In his inaugural speech the other day as President Hollande’s new prime minister, he stressed patriotism and the hope incarnated in the French Republic. There is little doubting his desire to take on the forces that have enfeebled the republican left’s faith in its own traditions; the degree to which anti-Semitism is suppressed under his watch will be a measure of his success.