Newsreal: Goodbye, my toujours Provence

Hello, Jean-Marie Le Pen and his neo-fascist friends.

Published June 2, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

The good news about the French elections is that Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front didn't do better than it did in Sunday's runoff. The bad news, if the accelerating resurgence of neo-fascism in la belle France is a prospect you find troubling, is that it has hardly begun to march. When it does, get ready to kiss your toujours Provence dreams goodbye because the extreme rightists are well on their way to taking control of the region -- along with many others.

That the Front is a mere blip in the National Assembly is beside the point -- the party is not that concerned with national victories at this stage. Its real strategy is to conquer France piece by piece, town by town, region by region. During a year I spent with the Front in 1995-96, its cadres kept dropping references to the party's policy of "local implantation," and they weren't just referring to the fact that in June 1995, the Movement (as its militants call it) captured three major towns in Provence -- Orange, Marignane and Toulon -- to which they added a fourth, Vitrolles, in February. They meant that the Front knows it can never take France the way Hitler took Weimar, from the top down. It has a slower but surer plan.

The Front is banking on a recent major shift in France's governing institutions, something akin to allowing the Deep South, Northeast, Midwest and Pacific Coast to set up their own governments. It began in the early 1980s, when the Socialists, in the name of "decentralization," apportioned potent new powers to 22 regional councils, including Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur. The immediate, predictable result was an explosion of taxes -- in the midst of a deep recession -- and corruption, as local leaders on both the mainstream right and left milked their magnificent new fiefs. That played right into the hands of the Front, which quickly fastened on taxes and corruption as issues, right up there with getting rid of immigrants. The Front's mayor of Orange, Jacques Bompard, came in and cut his city's exploding tax rates, a singular rarity in France.

France's electoral system has also helped the Front locally. Representation in the regions (like the towns) is determined by a proportional voting system. When that system was devised, nobody figured the Front would benefit, because it was pulling barely 1 percent of the vote in national elections. But with the disciplined activism of the Front's militants, the number of National Front regional councilors grew from 139 in 1986 to 239 seats in 1992, including a gigantic bloc of 34 -- more than one-third of the total -- in sweet Provence.

What happens if the Front, as seems likely, captures Provence in the 1998 regional elections? It will settle in to cultivate crucial new electorates, according to an analysis prepared by the party's Secretariate for Elected Officials. It won't hurt that the roads and railroads are planned by the regions in concert with the national government. In Orange, one of Bompard's cadres told me that if they can swing a deal for a highway bypass, "We win the next elections in a walk."

And that's just a start, marveled the Secretariate: By 1998 "the regions will have complete control of the ensemble of professional training for the young under 26 years of age, (a power) previously exercised by the State." Provence will become the laboratory for the Front's "French first" employment policies, and a billboard to attract more working-class voters, the fastest-growing share of Le Pen's electorate. Nationwide, the Front now holds 30 percent of that demographic slice, more than any other party in France.

And last but hardly least, the Front will get control of construction, maintenance and support services in every institution of secondary education throughout Provence, from high schools to farm schools -- "a heavy budgetary power," as the Secretariate put it. It could eliminate pork-free school lunches for Muslims, as the Front's new mayor did in Marignane. It could hammer principals who allowed their professors to teach, for example, that racism is an abomination, as did teachers in Toulon after the Front conquered the city in 1995.

Provence will always be beautiful, its wines will always be heady -- I never had a better bottle than a '90 Chateauneuf-du-Pape that a Front winemaker uncorked for me in his cellar -- its sun will stay bright, its mistral bone-chilling, its girls and boys as pretty as any you've seen in Malibu. But with due respect to Peter Mayle, Provence in 1998 may be a replay of Munich in 1938. Once again, the democratic powers that be are getting ready to cede a large slice of territory to the folks who want to bury them, on the theory that it doesn't matter. It does -- it matters to the Front, and they're not as stupid as everyone likes to think. They have their own version of toujours Provence, and the next chapter is about to be written.

By Mark Hunter

Mark Hunter has written for the New York Times Magazine, Le Monde Diplomatique and Modern Maturity, among other publications. He has won numerous awards, including the H.L. Mencken Award.

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