Politics continually repeats itself, but there is a particularly strong symmetry between the French presidential election of 1995 and the one that commences with the first round of voting this weekend.
They share the same dates – a first round on Sunday 23 April, a second two weeks later, on Sunday 7 May. The voting held almost a quarter of a century ago marked the end of the career of a Socialist head of a state, François Mitterrand, and so will the latest, François Hollande.
Then, as now, an ascendant Front National (FN) was promising it was the answer to economic malaise and a host of other problems that are still blighting France, not least of all the kind of vile terrorism that saw a policeman gunned down on the Champs-Elysées on Thursday night.
Marine Le Pen, the current FN presidential candidate, has been quick to leap on the latest slaughter in Paris, suggesting it should be a cue for more deportations, and a ban on foreigners – whether legal or not – entering France in the first place. Never mind that the suspected Isis gunman responsible was a born-and-bred Frenchman and career criminal well-known to the security services – all perceived aliens should be demonised for his barbarism, Le Pen argued, all the while infuriating opponents.
Those refusing to look beyond the FN’s racism, anti-Semitism and often violent xenophobia in 1995 were not interested in its lame attempts to sound like a solution to extremist violence either. Apart from its core hard-Right vote, people found the whole idea of a party created by rabble-rousers and street thugs detestable.
In 1995 this sense of revulsion was multiplied after four FN supporters were arrested and subsequently convicted for the murder of a North African immigrant in one of the most beautiful parts of Paris.
If you are not aware of Brahim Bouarram’s horrendous death, then it is worth learning about it. Marine Le Pen, a woman who has been utterly unconvincing in trying to distance herself from such antecedents, will certainly know every detail of the Bouarram case. She was already well into her career when, on 1 May 1995, the 29-year-old father of two was tossed into the Seine from the quay by the Pont du Carrousel, which crosses the river from the Louvre and Tuileries Gardens to the Left Bank.
The Le Pen family, including Marine’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder and long-term leader of her party, was taking part in its annual May Day march in honour of Joan of Arc. As usual, all those who looked as though they might come from a traditional French background, and who were preferably white and Christian, were invited to join in the show of strength.
Passers-by such as Bouarram, a brown-skinned Muslim, were by contrast viewed as targets. February 1995 had seen a teenager, Ibrahim Ali, shot dead in the back by an FN supporter in Marseille. In a separate incident in March, Samuel Maréchal, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s son-in-law, ended up with an eight months’ suspended sentence for attacking political enemies with a baton in Auch, near Toulouse. Just before Bouarram’s killing, neo-Nazis affiliated to the party and posing as policemen had assaulted a pregnant Algerian woman in the Paris suburbs.
When Bouarram was spotted, obscene insults followed. It was a sunny morning, and there were plenty of tourists around, but Bouarram was accused of being a homosexual suffering from Aids as well as an unwelcome foreigner. One of his tormentors pushed him into the overflowing and filthy water. A fierce current drove Bouarram away from the banks and his cries for help were ignored. Shaken by the fall, Bouarram began to swallow large amounts of water and soon sunk below the surface. The attackers disappeared into the tail-end of the FN demonstration, which had been left unsupervised by police.
Those indicted for the crime had come to Paris from Reims, on a coach hired by the FN, and said Bouarram had called them “skinhead sons of bitches”. No objective witnesses heard this declaration.
Outrage at Bouarram’s death ensued. President Mitterand led moving tributes and electioneering was all but forgotten. On 3 May, right in the middle of the two rounds of the election, some 12,000 people gathered on the Carrousel bridge to drop flowers into the river.
There were criminal convictions three years later. One of the FN men was imprisoned for murder. Three others were found guilty of non-assistance to a person in danger and were also sentenced to prison. All had tried to escape, but were identified thanks to a combination of tourist snaps and film from nearby surveillance cameras.
The Le Pens, however, were unmoved. Jean-Marie’s most memorable comment on Bouarram’s death was: “I regret that a poor man died, but in an agglomeration of 10 million inhabitants, this kind of small news item can always happen, or it can even be created at will.”
Bouarram’s killing showed exactly the sort of impact adverse publicity has on a Le Pen vote – it invariably goes up. Le Pen scored a then record 15 per cent in the 1995 election, which the conservative Jacques Chirac eventually won. Within seven years, Le Pen had actually gone through to the second round of polling, when he again lost to Chirac.
Le Pen Sr, who remains the honorary president of the FN and who is funding his daughter’s presidential campaign with a €6m loan, accused the media of manipulating the Bouarram “accident” and trying to provoke the party.
Plus ça change. This is precisely what Marine Le Pen does today when the FN is linked with offences such as racial hatred and Holocaust denial. And as far as the descendants of men like Bouarram are concerned, she wants all immigrants out. In her last campaign rally, held in Marseille on Wednesday, Le Pen blamed her rivals for letting “immigrants turn France into a gigantic squat”. She spoke of “entire neighbourhoods taken over by foreigners” and said that “a multicultural society is a multi-conflict society”. Sadly, as in 1995, such remarks will certainly encourage plenty of bigots to contribute to a strong protest vote on behalf of the FN in the first round.
In 2003 a plaque to Bouarram was finally placed on the north side of the Pont du Carrousel. Anybody who wants to see a testament to where political extremism can lead should go and look at it.
If the Le Pens are installed in the Elysée Palace come May, what’s the betting the plaque will be gone within days?