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Marine Le Pen, the radical right and French Islamophobia - Part II

Nicolas Lebourg continues (see part one) to explore how the Toulouse events contributed to shaping Marine Le Pen’s electoral strategy. While it is dubious that Islamophobia played the most decisive part in her latest presidential score, she placed it on the top of the political agenda for the second round.

In her speech of Sunday 25 March, in a climate marked by the anxiety caused by the Montauban and Toulouse killings, Marine Le Pen abandoned the « stand up » style which has characterized her presidential campaign so far. She did not improvise but read her speech. This is understandable: it was very militant and dealt with a hot topic, therefore care must be taken to avoid blunders. Marine Le Pen used very pejorative terms: “loathsome”, “nauseous”, etc. She described France as imminently under the attack of Islamist killers. Contrary to common assumption, this type of discourse is not a Front Nationale “basic”. Islamophobia is a recently evolved ideological device anchored in a long history and mobilizing powerful cultural schema.

The shock of the Iranian Revolution

In 1979, the coming to power of Ayatollah Khomeini exerted a powerful fascination upon the radicals of the world. Among them the radical extreme right which served as an ideological vanguard for the whole of the far right. Since 1945, its main source of theoretical rejuvenation had come from recycling the so-called Conservative Revolution current of 1919-1933 Germany, and from imitating foreign experiences.

The new Teheran regime displayed some similarities with this Conservative Revolution. National-revolutionaries and partisans of the New Right first from Italy, then from France, did not hesitate to praise the new regime, in which they saw a model for the “rooting of the peoples” opposed to the “American Empire”. Such radicals also recommended that migrants of Arab origin settled in Europe should focus on an identity closely centred on Islam, as this would keep Europe’s culture and ethnicity free from a dreaded hybridity. When the debate on banning the hijab in schools erupted in 1989, the inappropriate use of the Iranian word “chador” in the French media revealed deep political divides. While the supporters of the Atlantic alliance worried about the Iranian influence in France, national-revolutionaries from Nouvelle Résistance (New Resistance) and the GRECE New Right supported the young girls expelled from their schools for refusing to take off their hijabs, and denounced “anti-Muslim racism”. Everywhere in the radical right sphere echoed the idea that radical Islam and the European extreme right were forces resisting “globalism” together. Identité (Identity), the FN’s theoretical journal, under the influence of Bruno Mégret and his New Right supporters, claimed that against the “cosmopolitanism” of the “new world order”, Islamism was a sign of “resistance” revealing the Arab’s “struggle for rootedness and identity”.

Islamic subversion

Such enthusiasm was not shared by everyone in an ideological world marked by the East-West divide. It is no wonder that in the 1980s public intellectuals specialized in the critique of “Communist subversion” like Jules Monnerot began transferring their analytical skills to Arabs and Muslims. They identified a foreign threat coupled with a foreign subversion: the same schemes used to denounce Communist dangers were applied to Islam, Iran and migrants. A member of Bruno Mégret’s Club de l’Horloge and of the FN’s scientific council, Monnerot quitted it in an uproar when Jean-Marie Le Pen declared his opposition to the first war in Iraq (1991)

This transposition from Communism to Islamism is not limited to the French radical right. In speeches circa 2005 and 2006, President George W. Bush claimed that “Islamo-fascism” was the new global enemy facing the western world after it had defeated those previous “totalitarianisms”, fascism and Stalinism. He echoed Ronald Reagan’s concept (itself borrowed from the World Anti-Communist League) that the whole of global terrorism was secretly centralised and led by the Kremlin, and simply replaced the latter with the “single movement” of “Islamic fascism” composed of Hamas, Hezbollah and Al Qaida.

While one should be wary of not underestimating potential Islamist security threats, it is striking that discourses denouncing them often adopt the forms of anti-subversive imaginaries commonplace in western societies during the Cold War. Metaphors of disease are typical – Marine Le Pen spoke of a “cancer” and of “gangrene” in her speech. French discourses denouncing Communist subversion were often paired with a call to the Republic, a trick which is also present here.

Secular protection

The influence of the national-Catholic current is still palpable inside the extreme right, even in the so-called « New FN » era, which manifests itself in ambivalent views concerning the Republican ideal. Such qualms are not always shared by the party’s rank-and-file. In her 1997 research into the French radical right, Magali Boumaza met a student leader of the Toulouse FN youth organization whose ideology clearly departed from the party’s official discourse. When discussing marginalized youth of Arab origin, he took a bold secular stance: “If they have no model to look up to, what are they? Are they French? Are they the children of the Republic? They don’t give a damn about the Republic, they don’t even know what it is. This is the work of the imams who come and educate them politically and religiously… I do think that secularism is essential and cannot be separated from the Republic, but unfortunately the communitarian phenomenon is against the Republic”. This young man defending such peculiar views for the 1990s FN is Louis Aliot, today no one else but the party’s number 2 in charge of its political programme and a close supporter of Marine Le Pen. At the same moment, Fabrice Robert, a Nouvelle Résistance, then Unité Radicale (Radical Unity) leader, completed his master thesis on Kemalism, the Turkish nationalism. He is now the president of the Bloc Identitaire (Identitarian Bloc), a small group well known for its media-friendly modes of direct action against the “Islamization of Europe”, such as the infamous “pork sausage and wine” street events. Also from Nouvelle Résistance and Unité Radicale, Christian Bouchet joined the FN and supported Marine Le Pen in her race to becoming presidential candidate. His ideology has evolved to the point where he currently supports the assimilation of Muslims, thanks to a Republican “French Islam”. Ethno-differentialist and traditionalist Catholic support for Islamism has completely receded leaving the way open for new views on Islam, a question which has in the meantime become central in the party’s ideology.

Green fascism?

« What has happened is the coming of the vanguard of green fascism into our country », asserts Marine Le Pen in her speech. Linking fascism and Islamism is a complex theoretical device. Such comparison used to be considered positive, for instance when used by François Duprat, the former number 2 murdered in 1978. However, he logically preferred the secular and nationalist Syrian Ba’th to Islamists. For this reason he had also in 1970 launched a slogan to be often used by Jean-Marie Le Pen after the first war against Iraq: “Nationalists of the world, unite!” Under this ideological influence, radical nationalists adopted the keffieh. The small group GUD which provided so many allies for Marine Le Pen openly displayed its sympathy for Hamas.

The comparison however gradually turned into a negative one. During the dislocation of former Yugoslavia (1991-1995), nationalist defenders of Great Serbia circulated the Islamic Declaration, a manifesto calling for a great Islamic republic which was written by Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic in 1970. Great Serbian nationalists therefore portrayed themselves as fighting against a “red-brown” or “Nazi” monster: their war was not imperialist but embodied the defence of Europe against the birth of an Islamic regime which would threaten it. Already in the 1980s Yugoslav rumours were circulated claiming that Muslims were preparing for the “genocide” of Serbs. With the 1999 Kosovo war, such rhetoric was imported into the French radical right. Islam ceased to be seen as an ally against the “Americano Zionist plot” and was instead perceived as its puppet in the destruction of Europe. The same year Bruno Mégret and his radical supporters seceded from the FN and they were faced with the necessity of justifying their choice in creating the Mouvement National Républicain (MNR – Republican National Movement). The MNR began producing pamphlets jointly denouncing Islam and insecurity, a new theme which they accused Jean-Marie Le Pen of ignoring. Islam became a stake in the competition between both parties. Samuel Maréchal, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s son-in-law, tried to fight against the MNR by publicly acknowledging that France was a “multi-confessional country”, thereby alienating the support of traditionalist Catholics who had refused to follow Mégret, whom they accused of paganism.

The divine surprise of 9/11

Tensions were heightened by the global Islamophobic wave after 9/11, and they were no longer limited to right-wing extremists. The term “islamo-fascism” was first popularized by journalist Christopher Hitchens, a member of the American left. Not a single historian of fascism supported this over-simplified view of fascism solely aimed at launching a polemic.

In the French context, the importing of such discourses, the consequences of the Second Intifada and of 9/11, the rise in anti-Semitic attacks all came simultaneously. The 2002 presidential election immediately followed. Media discourses began to split according to whether they were denouncing « Islamophobia » or « Judeophobia », each camp denying the other’s arguments according to its own position in relation to the Israel/Palestine conflict. The dissolution of Unité Radicale following the attempt by one of its members to murder president Chirac on the national holiday of July 14 2002 allowed the radical right to put an end to the same internal ideological conflict. Upon the ruins of the vigorously anti-Zionist Unité Radicale was built the Bloc Identitaire, which became a space for Islamophobic creativity.

New gateways opened between the communitarian Jewish radical right (which also had been influenced by the Conservative Revolution) and the nationalist one when they both denounced green “totalitarianism” and “fascism”, threatening to destroy Europe with the complicity of the politically correct left. In 2003, Roger Cukierman, then president of the CRIF (Representative Council of the Jewish Institutions of France) - the main French Jewish community umbrella organization -, defended similar ideas. His successor William-Gilles Goldanel represents an even more radical faction. It is therefore no surprise that Marine Le Pen was quoting him when he called for refraining from blaming the radical right after the Toulouse massacre. In this newly formed relationship, both sides seek to legitimize each other. Conspiracy theory has even burgeoned in radical pro-Israeli militant groups claiming that Anders Breivik acted in the name of “Eurabia”, a mobilizing myth closely mirroring the one of the “Jewish conspiracy”.

Is Islamophobia a mobilizing theme?

Florian Philippot, the young Ecole Nationale d’Administration alumni-appointed strategic director for Marine Le Pen, argued after the March 25 speech that his candidate would then see her popularity skyrocket. Until then, Marine Le Pen had concentrated her attacks on Nicolas Sarkozy, hoping to reach the second round against the socialist left. She now focuses on the left, whom she accuses of having won a cultural war, a culture of apologies – even though no apologies similar to those of Jean-Marie Le Pen after the Norwegian massacres were issued on the left… This shift in her objectives reveals that she has actually renounced ranking second at the presidential elections.

In a secular country such as France, Islamophobia bears a cultural value and can reap electoral rewards, but probably not in the short run. Two far-right presidential candidates have already elevated the theme to high up on their agendas: Bruno Mégret in 2002 (2.34%) and conservative Catholic radical Philippe de Villiers in 2007 (2.2%). It is worth noticing that Philippe de Villiers was advised at the time by Guillaume Peltier, a former FN member who had chosen to follow Bruno Mégret at the time of the scission, and who is currently advisor to Nicolas Sarkozy. While Islamophobia is efficient for legitimizing racism and radicalizing certain groups, it has brought meagre electoral results so far. Moreover, public opinion seems now focused on other issues.

Marine Le Pen in a tough spot

In recent months, opinion polls have shown that socio-economic issues such as jobs and inflation matter most for French voters. Marine Le Pen had completely reshaped her party’s orientations, and the issue of Islam was reshaped as part of a tough Republican discourse. The latter incorporated elements of populist democracy (such as an appeal to the people or the promise to use referendums) as well as some angles borrowed from social democracy (the fight against globalization, improved social mobility for the working class). Thanks to this new orientation, Marine Le Pen had managed to come second in opinion polls during the summer of 2011. However she was later left behind by the extreme-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who also spoke of the nation and of social democracy, while Marine Le Pen appeared distinctively ill-at-ease with economic issues, especially her key proposal to lead France out of the Eurozone. She also made some rather puzzling strategic choices, such as announcing that abortion would no longer always be covered by healthcare, hardly an interesting issue for most French voters, which made her appear strange, especially if she wanted to tap into female working class votes. She failed to successfully use the recent murders in Marseilles when these could have returned her to the safety of such topics as arms smuggling and insecurity. The presidential election appears to be focused on one main issue: the defence of France against globalization. Marine Le Pen was focused on this theme when she ranked high in the polls, at the same moment when she introduced the theme of Islam in her depiction of the struggle of the nation against globalization. Islamophobia, one must conclude, is therefore more useful in winning people to a radical right worldview than in actually attracting their votes in a couple of weeks’ time.

(This article is a translation from the « Observatoire du Lepénisme», Le Nouvel Observateur, 29-03-2012)

About the author

Nicolas Lebourg is a researcher focusing on the extreme-right. His Ph.D. dealt with nationalist revolutionaries and the radical right wing. He published "François Duprat, l'homme qui inventa le Front National" (Denoël, 2012) and "Le Monde vu de la plus extrême droite" (PUP, 2010) and holds a column in the weekly newspaper Nouvel Observateur.


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