PARIS -- Since French President Jacques Chirac's calamitously miscalculated dissolution of a conservative-dominated government little more than a year ago, putting the left into unexpected power, the French right has exploded.
It has divided into factions, each centered on some (usually, to the public, overly familiar) politician thought a plausible eventual candidate to succeed Mr. Chirac's presidency. Existing parties have split or been renamed, but they no longer consistently connect to the divisions of conservative opinion.
There is, for example, a nationalist and popular right, but one can no longer speak seriously of a Gaullist party. These nationalists criticize federalist programs for Europe and believe in a "Europe of Nations." They also are firmly committed to the egalitarian values of the French Republic and oppose discrimination against immigrants.
That sets them off from the traditionalist right, issued from older monarchist and Petainist circles, and from Catholic groups hostile to the modern church's liberal social ideas and new liturgy. It is a "France-first" right, fearful of the consequences of immigration. Although the political weight of the traditionalist right is not large, many other voters are also concerned about immigration.
There is a center-right, whose roots are in the Christian Democratic and Radical parties of the Fourth Republic (the latter grouping a variety of regional, pro-business and small-government interests). It is pro-European but tends to be ideologically heterodox on social and immigration issues.
Finally there is the racist right, which would send immigrants home, even those who are in the country legally, and possibly even those already naturalized. Its support comes largely from the ordinary working people most affected by the presence and competition of immigrants, but the crucial element in its leadership today is radical, not populist and reactionary (as in the past, under the leadership of the aging Jean-Marie Le Pen).
Many of these new leaders are avowedly pagan and make a cult of French "blood" and earth. They hold that "Aryan" Europeans are mankind's highest form, threatened by other "races," notably Jews, Arabs and Africans. Its members fight the cultural "degradation" and promiscuity represented by the United States, and by the "weak" and assimilationist ideas of Christianity and secular liberalism. They can correctly be described as fascists.
Until this year, the mainstream parties of both right and left refused to have anything to do with the National Front. They treated the party -- and by implication its voters -- as pariahs.
This spring, however, some politicians of the center-right went into coalitions with the National Front in regional councils so as to keep the Socialists out of power. This has been interpreted as a success for the National Front's effort to escape from the political margin.
Now there has been a dramatic initiative by a former Gaullist prime minister and presidential candidate, Edouard Balladur. He has proposed a national commission to examine the question of "national preference." It would hear the arguments of representatives of the National Front together with everyone else.
Mr. Balladur concedes that France's mainstream parties are unlikely to agree to this, but he argues that it deserves to be done at a European level since the European Union is moving toward a common policy on immigration. He therefore proposes to organize such a commission or study himself to compare the (( status of foreigners throughout the EU and propose common solutions.
National preference means reserving certain jobs, social benefits and legal rights to citizens of the nation, to the disadvantage of foreign residents -- even those with legal residence and work privileges in the country, who pay taxes and social charges like citizens.
Every country does this in some way. Even France reserves government posts to citizens. Polls say that 69 percent of the French agree with that, but that 68 percent say there should be no other job discrimination between French nationals and legal immigrants.
In allocating public housing, 67 percent of the French are against any discrimination. The same percentage is against the idea of sending unemployed legal immigrants back to their original countries. But 52 percent are against a debate on national
preference, no doubt apprehensive about its possible consequences.
It is this inhibition which Mr. Balladur has challenged. He is attempting to internationalize the debate on immigrants -- a real issue, which has to be discussed, even if some of the people most anxious to discuss it are racists.
By legitimating such a discussion, he is inviting National Front voters who are not racists to come out of the pariah-status that has been imposed on them.
The effect could be to split the National Front, isolate its fascists and recuperate for the democratic right a part of its electorate.
In the present disarray and confusion of the right, Mr. Balladur is bidding to transcend the immigration issue by raising it to a nonpartisan and international level to realign the French right along a line that divides conservative but democratic voters from those who oppose the Republic and its egalitarian values.
It is an audacious step -- and possibly more dangerous than he realizes. But it is the most interesting development in French, and possibly in European, politics in many months.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 6/26/98