Marine Le Pen at an EU press conference / Photo by Epa
Continued from Part I.
Like elsewhere in Europe, France’s working class are becoming increasingly captivated by the allure of right-wing populism. The mainstream parties who have held power for decades have eroded the trust between themselves and their voter base, and the two-party system is at risk of fracturing. Ready to fill this gap are political parties that personify your drunk uncle who says racist things at family parties.
Through their own negligence and indifference, the dominant political parties across Europe are now faced with an increasingly angry and right-wing population. Having shafted the working class for decades through neoliberalism, they now spend more time convincing their own voters to stay, rather than convincing new ones to join. They have fractured their own political system, and zealotry stands ready to fill the gap. France is no exception – it too has a party that personifies the drunk racist uncle trope, and it’s called the Front National. Though they typically falter on election day due to the undemocratic ‘winner takes all’ electoral systems, in France, the ideology of the FN is spreading like a virus across the heartlands of Europe.
This does not make France unusual: Britain has UKIP, Greece has the Golden Dawn, Germany has Pegida, and Austria has the Freedom Party. Nor is the spread of Islamophobic vigilantism contained within France’s borders. But what makes the FN so unusual is their ability to divert angry people’s attention away from those actually responsible for France’s suffering, and put it onto those who have no power or influence. It is a classic divide and conquer strategy that is not only setting the tone for its supporters, but for national discussions more widely.
Of course, if the FN’s leader, Marine Le Pen, had a bone of integrity in her body, she would recognize the damage that economic liberalization has done to France, and would spearhead the effort to restore socialist measures to alleviate suffering among the working class and the unemployed. Instead, Le Pen blames ‘the other’ for wage stagnation, unemployment, and the decline in public services. It is the influx of Muslims, foreigners, and cultural dissenters that make France weep. It is not oligarchs and moguls who act as vampires on France’s economy with the help of puppet politicians.
The message is clearly deceptive: Those with absolutely no political or economic power in France are responsible for its gradual undoing. Those with all of the political and economic power are not.
To her credit, Le Pen does occasionally fire a shot across the bow at politicians obsessed with privatization, but nationalization is not the core of her message. If anything, Le Pen only seeks greater centralization of public services so they can fall under her watchful eye, not so they can benefit French citizens. There is a strand of national socialism that persistently runs through her economic policies and her foreign policies alike.
Perhaps the political genius of Le Pen is her ability to influence France’s national debates without ever setting foot near the Presidency. Not only has she helped create a new generation of cultural puritans by drawing the working class further away from storming the gates, but she has also managed to transform an anti-Semitic protest party into serious opposition to the mainstream.
Initially haunted by her father’s reign as leader, in which he outed himself as a Holocaust denier and war criminal, Marine helped expel Jean-Marie Le Pen from the party and has taken considerable steps to rehabilitate the Front National’s standing among voters. She has somewhat toned down his racist rhetoric, rejected anti-Semitism, and driven away the most fringe elements of the membership. Naturally, this is a superficial maturing, and the core Islamophobic message of the party is largely the same; Marine just uses different words to promote it.
But while her father’s preferred political strategy was to verbally bludgeon people into submission, the younger Le Pen has a newer, more deceptive strategy to justify her rank conservatism: An appeal to progressive values. This is what affords her so much influence in political discourse, and allows her to get away with scapegoating ‘the other’.
During Cologne’s New Year’s Eve celebrations last year, multiple women were subject to a spree of brutal sex crimes in the streets, crimes which probably would have gone under-reported were it not for one crucial fact: Refugees were among the attackers. Never one to miss an opportunity to stoke the flames of hatred, the media gratuitously published details about the possible “North African or Arab descent” of the attackers, painting a picture of up to one thousand rabid foreigners pillaging the streets of Europe, though later estimates put the number of attackers at around thirty, with about half not born in Europe. An American, a Serb, and many native Germans were also among the attackers.
Le Pen said she was “scared that the migrant crisis signals the beginning of the end of women’s rights” and slammed the “tacit consent of the French Left in the face of these fundamental attacks on the rights of women”. She even crudely quoted Simone de Beauvoir. There is certainly no evidence that a thousand refugees collaborated on coordinated attacks across Cologne, and there is nothing to suggest Le Pen would have commented on the atrocity if North African and Arab men were nowhere to be seen either.
The FN’s takeaway message from the Cologne attacks was clear: The Front National’s willingness to confront Islam and foreign culture makes it a stronger ally of women’s rights than the French left, whose misguided attempts at political correctness put women in danger. But if one reads between the lines, it is clear that the FN regards crimes committed by ‘the other’ as more sinister than crimes committed by native Europeans, even when those crimes are identical in number or motivation.
For Le Pen, a spree of sexual assaults by (white) European citizens is unfortunate, regrettable, and unremarkable. A spree of sexual assaults by refugees and Muslims is an indictment of the French left, an indictment of foreign culture, and an indictment of Islam. Equally, victims of sexual assaults deserve more sympathy when the attackers were not born in Europe.
In an interview with Russia Today, FN member Patricia Chagnon unironically declared that her party doesn’t tolerate Muslims “trying to impose their way on women in society”. But the Front National supports the bans on religious garbs and symbols in public areas, in line with the wider authoritarian French secularism promoted by the current government. For the FN, a woman’s freedom relies on her being told what to wear. Even the Ministry of Truth in 1984 might scoff at this level of doublethink.
Additionally, many Front National officials such as Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (another member of the Le Pen dynasty) believe in making cuts to providers of women’s healthcare and abortions, and the party is indifferent on the pay gap between men and women. It is baseless self-deception to think that the Front National cares about the welfare of women independent of Islam. Women are cannon fodder to be fired at foreigners.
The picture for other French minorities is similarly bleak. According to an article in The Spectator, “the Front National now offers a welcoming home to gay people who feel judged by Muslims”, and polling numbers suggest they are getting an increase in the gay vote. But the party does not support same-sex marriage, does not support same-sex adoption, is indifferent to gay pride parades, and is indifferent to hate crime legislation. As founder of the FN, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s policy towards LGBT people was extremely hostile, and his daughter has done little to rectify it in manifestos. Once more, the party’s progressive transformation vanishes when there are no Muslims to attack.
To that end, the FN has managed to weaponize progressive values to promote a viciously anti-progressive agenda. The party turns a blind eye to the suffering of minorities unless that suffering can be pinned on immigration, Islam, and/or multiculturalism. For Le Pen, “whether man or woman, heterosexual or homosexual, Christian, Jewish or Muslim, we are foremost French”. The party’s concern for minorities hinges upon whether their oppressors are French or part of ‘the other’. Minorities are not worthy of protection in their own right, and unquestioned support for mythical interpretations of what it means to be French is paramount.
This too is in agreement with wider secular society, which views a citizen’s allegiance to the state to be far greater than their allegiance to religion, culture, sexuality or skin colour. Though in practice this appears to level the playing field, it actually hurts minorities greatly.
Le Pen may promote biological racism the most, but she is by no means its only beneficiary. To some extent, François Hollande’s transition from “marshmallow to chief of war” has relied on soft white supremacy too, and his administration now seems intent on reviving its colonial-era civilizing missions. However much he may criticize Le Pen for exacerbating cultural divides, Hollande’s policies require some degree of tension between social groups too.
Consider his fiery declaration of war against ISIS last November, or the televised terror exercises carried out by special forces. French society is becoming increasingly militaristic, and seems hell-bent on rooting out Islamic extremism regardless of the innocents who suffer in the process. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Hollande has aggressively pursued greater executive powers, has expanded police surveillance on French citizens, and curtailed civil liberties as they relate to demonstrations and protests.
As you might have guessed, all of these actions disproportionately affect France’s ethnic and religious minorities. Le Pen delivers the doomsday sermons about Muslims, but Hollande enacts her recommendations.
To their shame, the political French left has all but abandoned their demands for oversight or caution. Worse still, sometimes they join the other side in their crusade against Muslims. Tacit complicity is bad enough, but sections of the left are now openly participating in hunting season.
In the aftermath of the November attacks, the French Communist Party and the Left Party voted in favour of constitutionally enshrining President François Hollande’s “state of emergency” measure, an authoritarian profiteering exercise that was used to place environmentalist protesters under house arrest during the COP 21 summit, as well as to issue arrest warrants for the “glorification” of terrorism, some of which were handed down to children as young as eight. The French Left’s response to the brutality of November was to comply with the government’s demands for more brutality, and to accept the narrative that all Muslims share the blame for the actions of a tiny minority. Only the Green Party has stood in opposition as Hollande’s carpet bombed civil liberties.
The Socialist Party, which Hollande leads, is supposedly part of the French Left too, but is the current architect of state-sponsored misery against French Muslims, despite his platitudes to the contrary. His Minister for Women’s Rights, Laurence Rossignol, recently compared Muslim women who wish to wear a burqa to “negroes” who wish to be slaves, and condemned fashion houses incorporating veils into their products as “not socially responsible”. Rossignol, who describes herself as a feminist, is not the only one: Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently expressed a desire to ban head-scarves in French universities. This is what mainstream progressivism in France has become.
“After January’s attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Paris kosher grocery store, [Hollande] introduced a raft of draconian surveillance powers, put thousands of soldiers on the streets of France, hardened laws on hate-speech, cracked down on “speech that glorified terrorism” and launched airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria. And yet, still France was hit once again” – Angelique Chrisafis
It is one thing for the right-wing to employ Islamophobic tropes in the wake of a terror attack, but the failure of progressives in Hollande’s party and elsewhere to challenge this narrative is an indictment of French democracy itself. What kind of “Socialist” Party detains environmentalist activists and outlaws demonstrations for Palestinian freedom under the guise of public safety. Even the UK’s most fanatical right-wing newspaper was not happy about that, and one finds it hard to swallow that the pro-Israel French government has banned pro-Palestinian protests because it is concerned about the protesters’ safety.
Thus, the steady march towards authoritarianism has begun. Virtually all of France’s political class seems united in suspicion towards Muslims, and they will now brutalize their own people to marginalize, or even root out, ‘the other’. Those who are found wanting will not just be terrorists; there will be ordinary citizens caught in the firing line too, but perhaps this was the goal all along.