The triumph of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the French presidential elections is the price France has paid for the refusal of its “respectable” politicians to discuss the problem of a large, undigested, and growing immigrant population from North Africa that congregates—unwanted by the bulk of the population—in huge and soulless modern housing projects that surround French cities, as if besieging them. There are now Muslim ghettos in France so crime-ridden that the police will not enter, except in armored convoys.
Le Pen is an authentically nasty, though intelligent and witty, demagogue, anti-Semitic and xenophobic. He has taken advantage of widespread anxieties that such “respectable” politicians as Jacques Chirac and the defeated Lionel Jospin have preferred to ignore, for fear of appearing illiberal and unenlightened. In the process, Le Pen has reactivated memories of France’s dark Vichyite past, rather as the famous madeleine reactivated Proust’s memories of childhood.
Le Pen has dared to say on the subject of mass immigration what many Frenchmen—including many who did not vote for him—think and feel. A problem as essential to France’s future as how 5 million North African Muslims are to be integrated successfully into French society has been left unexamined, obscured behind a cloud of wishful thinking and politically correct platitudes. By espousing the banalities of multiculturalism, the respectable politicians left those with a desire to conserve something of traditional French identity with nowhere to go but Le Pen. By declaring that realities as obvious as the high immigrant crime rate and the resulting fear that many Frenchmen feel cannot be mentioned by the polite and sophisticated, the respectable politicians and mainstream pundits have ceded all public discussion of such evident facts to the impolite and the outré, like Le Pen. The elites were the architects of his triumph.
It is not only in France that this is happening. Two of the most liberal societies in the world, Holland and Denmark, are moving sharply toward cultural nationalism. They have seen that, in the name of diversity, everywhere is becoming the same. There are large parts of Copenhagen in which it is impossible now for a stranger to guess what country he is in. The Danes fear to become foreigners in their own land, and in the not very distant future.
Nationalism is fraught with dangers, of course, but so is the blind refusal to recognize that attachment to one’s own culture, traditions, and history is a creative, normal, and healthy part of human experience. A democracy that stifles debate on such vital and difficult matters by means of speech codes, explicit or implicit, is asking for a genuinely fascist reaction.
Chirac will certainly win the next round of the election by an unprecedented majority. The French left is unlikely to repeat the error the left made in Germany: failing to unite against Hitler on the grounds that he was in essence no different from other nationalist or conservative politicians. But even if, as seems likely, Chirac wins 80 percent of the vote, it would be a grave error to assume that things could then safely go on as if nothing important had happened in the election, and that the genie of unease about the North African influx into France could be returned to its bottle and never be spoken of again. For the sake of democracy, vigorous, civilized debate must replace the law of silence that political correctness has imposed.