PARIS -- France's extremist right-wing party, the National Front, has exploded because of the ambitions and the vanities of its leaders. Bruno Megret, a young challenger to the party's founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has provoked a split in the movement that guarantees to end the National Front as it now exists.
The party receives 12 to 15 percent of the vote in French elections. Mr. Megret's ambition is to move it into the political mainstream. From there, it can only act as a spoiler.
Mr. Megret is an educated man, a product of two elite French schools; he attended graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley.
Politically ambitious, he joined the National Front to make use of it. Because he was not a typical recruit to far-right politics (his first political allegiance was to President Jacques Chirac's ex-Gaullist party), he was rapidly promoted as a potential successor to the National Front's founder.
He soon found, however, that Jean-Marie Le Pen wanted followers, not successors, and even though he is now in his 70s, he displays no willingness to step aside for a new leader. The crisis began last summer when Mr. Le Pen, whom the courts have temporarily barred from public office because of a violent incident in a 1997 election, revealed that he intended to put his wife at the head of the National Front list in the European Parliament elections, due next spring.
He refused to allow Mr. Megret to lead the list, and tried to exclude the latter's sympathizers as well. The result was that Mr. Megret, with other ambitious young men in the movement, organized what Mr. Le Pen has accurately described as a putsch.
The party now is split. There undoubtedly will be two rival lists of right-wing candidates in the European Parliament race, whose outcome will decide whether the aging but pugnacious Mr. Le Pen or the ambitious Mr. Megret leads France's far right into the future.
The latter would seem a more dangerous threat to the conservative parties than Mr. Le Pen. Until now, the major French parties have refused any electoral cooperation with the National Front. Mr. Megret's tactic in recent months of having the National Front vote with mainstream conservatives to block the left in several regional councils has produced some success in breaking that quarantine.
He makes a plausible contrast to Mr. Le Pen, a rabble rouser. One might think him likely to attract mainstream voters who share the National Front's preoccupation with African immigrants in France but have been put off by the party's "skinhead" image.
This is misleading. Mr. Megret is a fascist. I say that dispassionately, not as a polemical statement. He is the product of an intellectual movement that for a number of years has been attempting to re-establish in France a commitment to elitism, eugenics, paganism and an ethnologically rationalized racism. This intellectual "new right" is also against the European Union and is profoundly anti-American.
The movement argues that France (and Europe) suffer from tTC having abandoned the warrior values of the North European "man of the forest" and substituted the ideas of submission and renunciation taught by Judaism and Christianity, monotheist religions of the "peoples of the desert." Mr. Megret believes in racial elites and opposes "cosmopolitanism" and racial interbreeding.
These, historically speaking, are fascist ideas, indeed specifically Nazi ideas. They are not ideas that are likely to win a warm response from mainstream French voters. Even the voter who until now has backed the National Front because it promised a defense against the violence of immigrant ghettos, or out of disgust with the corruption or broken promises of the mainstream parties, is likely to balk at the notion that his struggle is really that of the Aryan warrior against "cosmopolitanism."
Traditionalist Catholics -- members of the breakaway movement, condemned by Rome, which defends the Latin Mass and thinks the church in the hands of subversives -- have been very important to the National Front. Recommendations of a virile paganism will not please them.
The National Front until now has been a populist movement of social and political protest directed against immigrants and the disruptions produced in France by the social changes of recent decades. Mr. Megret is attempting to take it over in the interest of ideas that the mass of its members would find strange, and which many would repudiate. There is a contradiction here that seems likely to undermine whatever Mr. Megret might do to modernize the movement's style and stance.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 12/15/98