“Anti-white racism” is big news in France. But while concern over the real or perceived bigotry faced by white people was previously limited to the National Front, a statement from Jean-Francois Cope, the secretary general of Sarkozy’s UMP party has ushered this buzz-phrase into the mainstream.
In his forthcoming book, Manifeste pour une droite décomplexée (Manifesto for an unabashed right-wing), Jean-François Copé declares he is willing to ‘break taboos’ and to denounce the growing ‘anti-white racism’. This mainstreaming of a type of discourse which until recently was limited to the marginal extreme right demonstrates clearly the worrying trend French politics is following. There is little doubt that such a headway into this kind of politics is bound to reinforce Marine Le Pen’s normalisation.
It is therefore no surprise that almost five months after Marine Le Pen gathered 17.9% of the vote in France’s presidential elections, a combination of factors allows her to remain on the centre stage despite her failed bid at a parliamentary seat. Alongside Copé’s comments, the release of the islamophobic film Innocence of Muslims, the violent reaction that ensued in various countries, and the publication of satirical cartoons in French magazine Charlie Hebdo, have indeed returned Le Pen’s momentum, absent since May. The presidential campaign, during which Nicolas Sarkozy made radical headway into extreme right rhetoric, played an important role in Le Pen’s normalisation and in her themes being commonly accepted as valid in the political realm.
The current context sees Le Pen able to further push the themes she raised throughout her campaign, and to denounce the policies of both Hollande and Sarkozy for their ‘softness’ in the face of a ‘ communitarian’ danger of apocalyptic proportions. In Le Monde on 20 September, Le Pen declared that the ‘Arab Spring had turned into an Islamist winter’, one which would in turn threaten Europe as the cold chill of Muslim fundamentalism forced many to flee their countries. In a context of, albeit marginal, social unrest and violence, Le Pen felt vindicated and again at ease with the old extreme tropes she had attempted to conceal during her campaign. In a style reminiscent of her father’s most conspiratorial tones, she declared that the ‘ Innocence of Muslims affair’ was ‘eminently suspect’. She did not believe that chance was responsible for the release of the video on a ‘Salafist television channel’ just before 11 September. Similarly, in the most traditional extreme right style, she accused the US of allowing ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ to take over many countries in the Middle East.
In her struggle against Islam, Le Pen was also able to please her father and the old guard by demanding the ban of all religious clothing, be it the Islamic hijab or the Jewish kippah. Conscious of the resonance of her proposal and its anti-Semitic flavour, she affirmed the next day that while ‘the kippah did not cause any problem in our country’, that those who did wear it would be asked this favour to control those religions ‘that cause more problems than others’. Le Pen’s attacks on Islam were no longer thinly veiled: the religion of up to 10% of the French population, devout, moderate or non-practising, had to bow to ‘French ideals’.
At the party’s summer camp, Jean Marie Le Pen added to the debate and declared he was more concerned by the ‘200 million Muslims at our gates’ who represent ‘a serious threat to Europe’. These would-be immigrants could never integrate, for they are often ‘of a race, religion, and mores very different from that of true French ( Français de souche)’. This innate inadequacy was not limited to future immigrants, but extended to those already on French soil: in Le Pen’s view, in all common sense, ‘a goat born in a stable is not a horse’.
After years of the legitimisation of the Front National, Marine Le Pen was in this case able to rely on formerly progressive rhetoric to justify her stigmatisation of Islam. Her harsh proposals aiming at the singling out of an already victimised minority were made in the defence of republican ideals: ‘secularism is a non-negotiable value, just like liberty’. After years of weakness from both the left and the right, ‘authority’, ‘clarity and common sense’ needed to be restored to protect the Republic. ‘ Freedom of expression’ would not be negotiable either, at least for this ‘true’ French.
For a Muslim woman wearing a hijab or a kippah-donning Jewish man, the story is obviously a different one. These minorities would be forced to dress the appropriate way ‘in shops, on public transport, in the street’. As Sarkozy’s former minister of immigration and national identity declared in 2010 in relation to the burqa ban, such measures would allow ‘life in society and civilisation to be explained’: only when the lesser-emancipated ‘ Other’ becomes like ‘Us’ can they be our equal, and free.
This hierarchy of religions was further highlighted in Le Pen’s proposal to add to the Constitution that ‘the Republic does not recognise any community’; for Le Pen, this would allow the state to fight against all communitarian demands, and to prevent schools from serving halal or kosher food, for example. More subtle than Sarkozy, Le Pen did not openly promote a Catholic vision of France. However, her flawed understanding of secularism, and that of many more moderate commentators who have recently targeted Islam, allowed her to present a very Christian vision of the Republic. Her defence of the Law of 1905, separating church and state, distorted the very aim of this law, which far from being anti-religious, only withdrew religion to the private realm, away from public decision making.
That Islam was Le Pen’s target, rather than the defence of republican or democratic ideals, was further highlighted in relation to Syria. Asked why she felt that a secular dictatorship is better than a religious one, and why the international community should negotiate with Bashar al Assad, Le Pen affirmed that people ‘ lived better under secular ones’, and certainly had ‘more freedoms than under Islamic fundamentalist’ regimes. Her Catholic fundamentalist supporters were spared. A sign of things to come in the Front National’s crusade?
First published in the Independent on 27/09/2012