One reason to attend an FN event is to look at the people and talk with a few. There is a long held, widespread view on the left that FN rallies are frequented mainly by neo-Nazi skinheads or other lowlifes and that one risks physical aggression, if not worse. Lefties seem to think that the FN is a French version of the Ku Klux Klan. Even yesterday, before going, an academic friend (and centrist in her political views) wondered if I would have problems taking photos, that I would be met with hostility. But what strikes one almost immediately at an FN event is how ordinary the people are. They’re just regular French people—des Français moyens—, who one crosses on the street and encounters every day. And they’re no less polite or civil than anyone else. They’re mostly middle class, petit bourgeois and even bourgeois. They are utterly non-threatening. [italics added]Indeed. This was perhaps the most striking thing to me when I once attended an FN rally in Paris. How sedate they seemed, for the most part. Nothing like the venomous mobs that one saw in Mississippi--or Boston, for that matter--during the civil rights struggles in the United States. And certainly far less colorful and vociferous than a Tea Party rally today. Ordinary Frenchmen--and Frenchwomen: I was also struck by the number of women who attended.
But of course the very phrase "ordinary Frenchmen" reminds us of Christopher Browning's "Ordinary Men," a book about a German police battalion involved in the killing of Jews in Eastern Europe. This is an odious amalgame, to be sure. Indeed, the point of Browning's book is that one doesn't need to be an ideologue motivated by racial animosity to become a perpetrator of crimes against humanity. So it's quite mistaken to believe that Marine Le Pen's adherents, who cheer her diatribes against the "immigrant invaders," are dangerous people. The danger is political, not individual. It arises when a faction motivated by ethnic hatred gains control of a state with a monopoly of the means of violence. The discipline imposed by that state can then turn the most of ordinary of men into the systematic killers that Browning describes.
It begins, however, with the different sort of "ordinary people" whom Arum observed at the Zénith, many of them apparently having come straight from the office, as he remarks, still clad in their workday attire. Many of the men are in suits and ties. These are not marginals, lowlifes, or the dregs of French society. This should give us pause, as similar right-wing populist parties gain adherents across Europe in response to the seriousness of the economic crisis and the seeming inability of national governments to devise a credible way out.
"Ordinary people," when not well-served by governing elites, can become the instruments of the most extraordinary of political regimes.