Marine Le Pen speaks to the media after a campaign rally in 2012. Demotix/Xavier Malafosse. All rights reserved.
I recently wrote about the way in which the extreme right is becoming mainstream in France, the French casting off their disgust at the politics offered by a party founded by neo-fascists. Since then, events have shown that this trend is far from confined to France.
It has become fashionable it seems for successful far-right politicians to tour the western world in order to share their radical solutions to the problems in our society. In the midst of an on-going economic crisis, it is ever clearer to the right that the solution is to target Islam; and some are willing to invite these politicians all the way to Australia to spread the word.
Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, which received 15% of the vote in the Netherlands’ 2010 parliamentary elections, was invited to embark on an Australian tour starting in Melbourne on February 20. Wilders encouraged his audience to deploy the spirit of Anzac soldiers to fight Islam, which is ‘not a religion, it’s a dangerous and totalitarian ideology’; the same Wilders who had been banned from the UK in 2009 by the Home Office on claims that his presence could "inflame community tensions and lead to inter-faith violence". The ban was later on overturned by an immigration tribunal, and Wilders was able to take part in a ‘Free Speech Summit’ with Lord Malcolm Pearson, screening his anti-Islam film on a "a violent and dangerous religion and a retarded culture" in the House of Lords. While Wilders’ Australian tour was not particularly successful, the fact that he was invited and that some MPs advertised his tour and/or attended it are symptoms of a deeper problem. The acceptance of extreme right rhetoric in the mainstream became clearer last week when opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison exaggerated the risks of having asylum seekers on bridging visas placed in the community. Morrison implied that these asylum seekers were a serious threat, demanding that neighbours and the police be alerted whenever they are released in the community, in the same way that notice will be given on paedophiles. Facts did not bother Morrison: as The Age highlighted, ‘asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas are about 45 times less likely to be charged with a crime than members of the general public’.
At almost the same time, Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, who received 17.9% of the vote (or 6.5 million votes) in France’s 2012 presidential election, was invited to address a University of Cambridge debating group. To justify the invitation, a spokesman for the Union Society declared that this would allow participants to ‘discuss, debate, and challenge an individual who has had an unquestionable impact on French and European politics’. Anti-fascist demonstrators thought otherwise, arguing that ‘Universities do have a duty to uphold freedom of speech, but they are no place for the promotion of fascist views, and university authorities have a duty of care to their students to protect them from those who would promote hatred’.
What is most striking about this invitation is the newly vulnerable position of those with the view that Marine Le Pen’s views should not be heard in one of England's most renowned universities. The motivation for inviting Le Pen or Wilders to speak in England or Australia is not to challenge them or to support freedom of speech. It is, as I have tried to show elsewhere, part of a process of mainstreaming their views, and it is working extremely well. Not so long ago, the dissent would have come not from a handful of protesters, but from most of the press and most of the population. Not so long ago, ‘common sense’ would have driven us to protest against the normalisation of a party which has been guilty of stigmatising a large part of our population, a party who has constantly been placing blame for our troubles onto a visible scapegoated minority, as has occurred previously in some of the darkest periods of our history.
Of course, far-right ‘common sense’ will reply that this minority has been taking advantage of us; that we are tolerant, but that enough is enough; that, as I was recently told without any kind of evidence to support the claim, crime resulting from immigration in Europe is rampant and now involves raiding people's homes and restraining them, with several people having been killed in the process. Why would anyone bother looking for evidence when it is clearly ‘common sense’? Why would we check facts when it is so much simpler to blame the problems in our society on people who are not ‘Us’? Why would we take a good look at ourselves as a society with deep socio-economic issues, when we can just target ‘Them’? Really, isn’t Europe going to be heaven once ‘They’ are gone? Didn’t we live peacefully for thousands of years before ‘They’ arrived?
The growing acceptance of far-right ‘common sense’ is the result of very carefully crafted strategies put in place by extreme right thinkers since the 1980s. For over three decades now, in order to change perceptions and renew extreme right-wing ideology, New Right thinktanks such as the French GRECE (Groupement de Recherche et d’Etudes pour la Civilisation Européenne or European Civilisation Study and Research Group) believed it was necessary to borrow the successful tactics of the left and more specifically the Gramscian concept of hegemony: cultural power must precede political power. Their ideas have had an enormous impact on the Front National in particular and made the use of populist rhetoric allied with the neo-racist stigmatisation of an ‘Other’ central to the party’s strategy. Since then, similar strategies have been adopted by many parties in Europe, who have cleverly covered their traditional extreme right agenda with a populist and neo-racist veneer, turning them into what is now commonly called the ‘far right’.
The type of irrational and illogical thinking promoted in such cases is not new and has always been popular in times of crisis. Withdrawing to a nationalist or exclusivist position always seems safer when one feels threatened. Essentialising the Muslim community into a coherent and cohesive threat is much simpler than seeing it for what it is: a part of our community just as diverse as any other part.
I don’t believe that banning Le Pen or Wilders from speaking their mind is the solution at the present time. However, I do believe that it is our responsibility to carefully weigh the consequences of purposefully inviting them to spread their divisive and dangerous propaganda. It is also everyone’s responsibility to oppose their hateful, simplistic and stigmatising rhetoric, and adopt a more rational approach to the problems facing our society. Of course, it is understandable that people feel insecure and worried for their future; many of these fears are indeed well-founded. However, pretending that all faults rest on our Muslim populations is just plain stupid.