France's Royal Reactionary Gets Down and Dirty

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Right wing French politician and presidential hopeful Phillipe de Villiers was roundly denounced last week after his dubious claims that much of the workforce at Charles de Gaulle airport had become infiltrated by Islamic radicals — which, in some ways, was exactly his intention. At a time when mainstream political leaders like interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy are embracing anti-immigrant positions and xenophobic National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen finds his popularity growing, de Villiers was clearly hoping that his sensational claims would raise the profile of his Movement for France (MFF) among the country's hard right voters, which comprise roughly 20% of the national electorate.

The MFF's immigration-hostile, anti-European platform has traditionally attracted the more affluent, genteel brand of reactionary — matching de Villiers' own snobbish aristocratic background. The scion of a posh family whose blueblood ancestors once lorded over parts of his native Vendęe region in western France, the chateau-owning de Villiers initially attracted more pragmatic royalists and upper-class rightists than he did hardened reactionies. Long unwilling to taint himself with the snarling language and mean-spirited policies favored by the National Front, de Villiers has often been belittled as "Le Pen Lite." He's clearly looking to change that — and not just with his trademark warning of a nefarious "Islamization of France." With Le Pen uncharacteristically quiet and politically dormant since reaching the run-off in the 2002 presidential race, de Villiers' has been busy trying to win National Front voters over with depiction of Le Pen as an old, spent force — and himself as an experienced legislator capable of bringing the extreme right's ideals to power at long last.

In his new book titled The Mosques of Roissy, de Villiers charges that the defiantly fundamentalist employees at de Gaulle represent a ticking terror time bomb within the heart of one of the world's busiest airports. As proof, his book reproduces a dire report by France's police intelligence unit responsible for identifying and tracking extremists. The problem, security officials say, is the document de Villiers has brandished is bogus — containing errors and inaccuracies police intelligence agents would never make. Worse yet, they add, his false alarm may have ruined work of agents who are watching a few airport employees actually suspected of Islamist ties — and who may now go underground.

But if de Villiers figured he could elbow past Le Pen as the extreme-right's new, more photogenic face, he was wrong. Swept back to center stage and his traditional role as the national Cassandra, Le Pen has found supporters flocking to him anew in the wake of the suburban Muslim riots of November, and two months of violent youth protests over labor reform this year. Able to claim he'd long denounced the mass immigration and bleeding heart permissiveness he has blamed the rioting and demonstrations on, Le Pen has been effective in mocking de Villiers as a calculating opportunist — or, as his daughter and potential successor called de Villiers, a political "vulture."

Still, any extreme-right voters feeling flattered by the all attention being paid shouldn't celebrate just yet. Barring any renewed bursts of urban violence that could send masses of frightened conservatives into the National Front's camp, political analyst Dominique Reynię says the triangular split between Le Pen, de Villiers and presidential frontrunner Sarkozy could actually hurt the right's prospects. If Le Pen and Sarkozy were to savage one another ahead of the first round of presidential voting, after all, it could lead embittered backers of whichever candidate doesn't make the run-off to withhold their votes in the second round — or cast them for the probable Socialist finalist out of spite. "In either scenario, the short-term winner of a split is the left," Reynię says.

In the even longer run, however, it may be that the biggest loser in next year's voting, likely to be de Villiers, will be turn out to be in a good position for the next election, in 2011. "De Villiers strategy is that Le Pen drags Sarkozy down in 2006, before being forced to leave politics due to age," says Reynię. "To de Villiers mind, that leaves him uncontested leader of the hard- and extreme-right, and with Sarkozy defeated as the standard-bearer of dejected mainstream conservatives." It's a long shot, of course, but de Villiers may not have any other kind.