We live in strange times. After celebrating the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied landings in Normandy in 1944, France is about to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris two and a half months later by the combined forces of the French Resistance and Gen. Philippe Leclerc’s Free French Army. Yet these celebrations come just as France’s voters have been handing victories to a party created in 1972 by ideological heirs to the Vichy regime, the French puppet government that collaborated with the Nazis and fought the Resistance from 1940 to 1944.
Strange days indeed. In May, voters awarded the National Front, a far-right, immigrant-fearing, anti-European Union party, first place with a quarter of all votes cast to represent France in the European Parliament. Two months before, voters had chosen it to run 11 French municipalities. Back in 1974, by comparison, the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, mustered only 0.75 percent of the vote for president of France.
Of course, French resistance under Vichy never quite fit the morally pure image — a country united in opposition to German occupation — that was superimposed on history after the Liberation by a tacit agreement between Gaullists and Communists, the two main French forces who had fought the Nazis. Indeed, in July 1940 the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to establish the Vichy government in what would become unoccupied southern France.
Nevertheless, in the summer of 1944 French opinion rallied in massive numbers to the victors’ banner: There were colossally more Resistance fighters than when Gen. Charles de Gaulle first sent out his call in 1940. They produced the uprising that broke out in Paris on Aug. 19 and brought the German garrison to surrender six days later, as the rapidly advancing Allied armies arrived in Paris in force with Free French infantry and tanks in the lead.
For decades in France, that Resistance victory — the universalist spirit of progress and the Enlightenment triumphing over the herd-like, xenophobic spirit of Vichy — put everyone who had collaborated with Nazism outside the legitimate political and moral field. And even though the Resistance was far less united than had been imagined during the war, it had been united enough to reach agreement in March 1944 on a farsighted program of national reconstruction as the principal war aim.
This program, unanimously adopted by the leaders of the National Council of the Resistance (C.N.R. in French) — Gaullists, Communists, socialists, Christian democrats and even conservatives — became the inspiration for a French New Deal of sorts; a dynamic state with a generous social policy that framed the reconstruction of France’s economy in what is known as “the 30 glorious years” of growth.
By the 1980s, the French had absorbed what the French call their “social victories” — the two best known are universal health care and a fair pension system — and retrenchment began slowly eating away at them.
Now, however, two more recent incidents have revived this program of the Resistance as an issue.
In 2007, Denis Kessler, a prominent French entrepreneur, called for reforming the French economy by “completely undoing the C.N.R.’s program” and bringing down the welfare state. In response in 2010, the diplomat Stéphane Hessel, who had fought for the Resistance and survived deportation to Buchenwald, published a short book, “Time for Outrage!” It called for a return to the founding values of the postwar program, starting with social justice and opportunities for the underprivileged, including immigrants. His tract sold more than four million copies, inspired protests by sympathizers across Europe and influenced some elements of Occupy Wall Street.
Nevertheless, the program of the Resistance had been repeatedly cut back for 30 years, and this steady disintegration of the “French social model” does a great deal to explain the current rise of the National Front and the disturbing resurgence of xenophobia and herd mentality.
The putative heirs to the Resistance, who have run the country for 70 years now whether as socialists or conservatives, have proved unable to halt this disintegration. And it is especially difficult for them now. The Socialist Party, which holds power, no longer has any identifiable politics, not even reformist. The radical left is too incoherent and divided to take the slightest electoral advantage of its hostility toward President François Hollande. The Communists have almost entirely vanished from the scene. And the Union for a Popular Movement, which unites Gaullists and conservatives, was turned into a megaphone for triumphant free-market capitalism when Nicolas Sarkozy was president. Ever since, its factions have been mired in financial scandal, strong ideological and personal divisions, or fury at Mr. Sarkozy.
Mr. Hessel’s call to revive the “spirit of the Resistance” was somewhat artificial, given that French society has changed dramatically in 70 years. But it remains significant as a vision and example — a remembrance of a time of collective action, openness to others, creative and dynamic leadership, and confidence in the future. All these qualities are cruelly lacking in France today. Their absence opens the way for all the fears that dominate French society, and for all the retreats and retrenchments.
In 2011, Marine Le Pen succeeded her father as head of the National Front. Her father was a racist demagogue who spent his life in Vichyist circles. Now she is the only rising figure on France’s political horizon, and she tries to prune away the most repellent aspects of her party’s past. She sticks to a public platform that is less provocative and more centered on actual issues.
But in reality, Marine Le Pen remains firmly in line with the party’s history. The National Front’s first program, in 1973, was called “Defending the French”; it stood against immigrants, minorities, Communists and anyone “anti-French.” Today, its most rousing slogan invokes “national preference”; among other things, this entails refusing foreign employees access to the social protections French employees get. This may be milder language than her father’s, but the idea still repels the left and Gaullists alike. Marine Le Pen also champions isolationism toward Europe, and hostility toward immigrants and minorities, especially Muslims. In short, she and her party still embody the precise opposite of the “spirit of the Liberation” that prevailed 70 years ago.
This week, even as anti-immigrant sentiment spreads among us daily, we French should remember that many of the first unit of Free French infantrymen to enter Paris and liberate the city on Aug. 24, 1944, were foreigners — the 9th Company of the 2nd Armored Division, nicknamed in Spanish “La Nueve” (“The Ninth”). In Spanish, because among its 160 men, 146 were former members of the Spanish left who had fled General Francisco Franco’s fascist regime to continue, in France, the fight against Nazism and its collaborators.
Sylvain Cypel, a former correspondent for Le Monde, is the author of Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse. This essay was translated by Edward Gauvin from the French.