Living in the south of France in the late 1990s, I was surrounded by the burgeoning popularity of le Front national, a far-right political party founded and led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen was an angry, racist man who had criminal convictions for downplaying the significance of the Holocaust and who, while I lived there, was accused of punching a woman when she refused to shake his hand. The punch was shown on TV but he still denied that it had ever taken place.
It was in the south of the country that the Front national was gaining ground, and this was blamed on the number of north African migrants who had come up to the country from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, by sea or via Spain. The Front national enjoyed putting fire under the hatred of local racists and watching the anger and hatred burn. And it was in the south that, a few days ago, Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, spoke to thousands of supporters of a newer, shinier Front national that has no less Islamophobia and hostility towards people who are not French, born and bred.
Un parti populiste
Anti-fascist posters around the university and city I lived in declared “Le Front national n’est pas un parti populaire, c’est un parti populiste” – i.e. the National Front isn’t a popular party, it’s a populist party; the implication being that it appeals to the lowest common denominator of people. Those who supported it were blatant in their opposition to immigration of any kind, and Muslims altogether. Their posters mimicked those of the Nazi party (as, later, did posters by Ukip and the ‘leave’ campaign in the UK), and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s casual TV appearances shocked me, as he was a guest alongside other politicians, while only occasionally being truly challenged on his policies. This is also reflected in the Ukip of recent years, who have made their way onto chat shows and mainstream political discussion programmes.
Marine Le Pen has worked hard to shake off the image of the Front national that was propagated and perpetuated by her father’s influence. She has tried – and mostly failed – to reach out to Jewish communities, and she has promoted women’s rights and gay rights (but only because she declares that Muslims are opposed to these things). Her default is still that Islam is a negative force for France, and she has added globalisation to her list of things to resist.
Inspired by Brexit and Trump
Inspired and emboldened by the successes of the Brexit leave campaign and Donald Trump’s election win in the United States, Marine Le Pen wants France, too, to exit the European Union. France has always been much more deeply involved in the EU than the UK, which often stood back a little (such as by failing to switch to the Euro as monetary currency), to the overall support of its citizens, but Le Pen is fired up by the right-wing successes to the west of her country and she is encouraged to fight for the strange, nationalist France that she dreams of. Her France will be independent of other countries (such as the other members of the European Union and globalised countries around the world) and it will be pure and white and secular.
Capitalising on the horrifying, high-profile terrorist attacks that took place in Paris and Nice, Le Pen stood in front of crowds of thousands last weekend and talked of halting immigration, sending illegal immigrants ‘home’ and refusing socially funded services to people who come to France from elsewhere, even those who gain a legal right to stay in the country.
She may mention LGBT rights, or the rights of women but, as well as being a way to add a sheen of respectability to a dirty party, it is only in the context of hating the ‘other’. If she can portray Muslims as people who disrespect others’ rights, she will be able to suggest that they should have fewer rights, too. The gay activists who have come to her support remind me of a young, black, gay man I heard on a podcast, who supported Trump because he once said that he would keep equal marriage in law if he was elected.
These people are not our allies. If their policies are built on hate and exclusion, then we who are also hated and excluded cannot trust them to stay on our side when the shit really hits the fan. However well or poorly Marine Le Pen does in the upcoming elections, her elevation as a potential presidential candidate should be something we fear and reject; her actual ‘divide and rule’ policies do not go well with her pretend ‘for the people’ rhetoric, and it is only when she gains sufficient power that we will truly see what she is capable of. For as much as she is empowered by Brexit and Trump, other neo-Nazi politicians around the world are empowered by her.
Photo: Global Panorama/Creative Commons