On Monday March 19 people began to suspect the extreme right of being responsible for the Toulouse massacre. By Wednesday March 21, debate settled on how Marine Le Pen might benefit from the fact that the alleged killer was an Islamist. Such a striking reversal of positions begs for some explanation. Why was an extreme right perpetrator seen as a likely lead? How does the Front National address issues of political violence? How did Marine Le Pen react to these events?
A radical underground
In leftist imaginaries, the extreme right has always been perceived as intrinsically violent, from the Leagues of the first half of the XXth century to the Vichyist Militia and the OAS terrorists. None of these images though conjures up a killer on a motorcycle. While certain cohorts of military personnel may be locally radicalized, some additional elements explain why the radical right presented itself as a likely lead to investigators.
On the ideological level, the so-called “European-nationalist” radical right have over recent decades been busy inventing a modern conspiracy myth according to which Jewish plotters have conspired to destroy the European race and culture through immigration and intermarriage. In doing this, they have to a large extent inverted French themes from the Second World War, by claiming that radical right activists are now the “Resistance” faced with a new “Occupation”. During the 1970s, a number of such attacks were attributed to the radical right – some by misattribution.
For example, the “Groupe Charles Martel” were the signatories claiming responsibility for the attack which opened this phase of activity by striking at an Algerian consulate on December 14 1973, causing 4 casualties and injuring 20 others. The message claimed that “our country, once a colonizer, has now become colonized thanks to the lack of foresight and the cowardice of our elites… French people, it is time to imitate the Algerians who expelled us by force. IMITATE THE FLN. Bomb the mosques, the Arab cafés and corner shops. Shoot these occupiers before they gain the upper hand over us. We didn’t refuse the German occupation only to accept the humiliating occupation of the North African mob”.
The Toulouse killer took the lives of four victims in the military, three of Arab origin, one Black Antillean, and had targeted a Jewish school. On Monday, it was therefore still plausible to conjecture that, according to this type of mythical scenario, he had chosen to ‘purify’, or ‘renationalize’ institutions considered to be the basis of the Republic and the nation.
On the other hand, killers operating alone systematically prompt questions regarding their potential psychosis, as the Anders Breivik case demonstrated: he was considered to be legally irresponsible by the Norwegian tribunal despite the lengthy preparations he devoted to this slaughter and the publication of a manuscript aimed at fully justifying it. In the radical right context, violence takes a specific form which corresponds to this framework. From the ‘balaclava terrorism’ of the 1930s to radical actions performed by French Algeria ‘ultras’, a model of safely partitioned micro-cells has become dominant. However, their members were still motivated by an ideology anchored in social support. Lately, the US model of the neo-nazi ‘lone wolf’ has migrated to Europe where it has both taken on a mythic status and offered a new mode of action. Moreover, for the past couple of years, the radical right has been striving to gain support amongst the military who they see as particularly promising candidates for performing the reconquest of Europe. By contrast, in the 1970s-1990s, white supremacists privileged police forces as their targets for recruitment, with some success.
Extreme right parties and political violence
The French National Front was founded in 1972 by an openly neo-fascist and militant movement, Ordre Nouveau (New Order), dating back to 1969. After it had been implicated in 82 violent acts, Ordre Nouveau was dissolved by the state in 1973, following violent clashes against the Communist Revolutionary League (the ancestor of today’s New Anticapitalist Party). This resulted in 76 policemen being injured, including 16 seriously. The whole episode was partially orchestrated by the Ministry of the Interior. The Front National did not openly opt for militancy, but it has been accused on several occasions, especially by left-wing observers, of doublespeak on this issue. Its private security force was investigated by parliamentary order in 1998.
Yet paradoxically both Ordre Nouveau and the Front National have contributed to reducing extreme-right violence. After a rise in the number of violent clashes after May 68 (136 in 1968, 271 in 1970, including 42% attributed to the extreme left and 11% to the extreme right), the following period saw a decline with 269 attacks over three years. The number of extreme right violent acts declines sharply from 15 in 1971 to 6 in 1972. By organizing dissent and controlling it, extremist organizations channel the potential for violence by turning it into a ritual. However, after 1973, the nature of the attacks change. They become less symbolic and more spectacular and tend to be aimed at people. In the absence of a political outlet for their action, activists turn into lost soldiers of a final battle between ‘fascists’ and ‘bolsheviks’.
The FN has achieved this aim while maintaining some expressions of political violence in its propaganda and symbolism in order to retain its anti-system credentials. The play for respectability on the part of the FN has certainly contributed to the social control of radicalized individuals, by providing them with symbolic ways of expressing their thirst for political violence, such as billposting as a method of controlling a territory. This ambition also led to the regrouping of activists keen on denouncing the Front for having “sold out to the system.” But even this group formation made some contribution to the consolidation and identification of activists cadres, simplifying surveillance (for instance after the 1990 profanation of the Jewish cemetery of Carpentras, the police was able to immediately arrest 39 members of the European and French Nationalist Party).
The Front National discourse
Present day challenges regarding the difficult attribution of episodes of political violence are not new. During the wave of attacks claimed by the radical right between 1976 and 1980 (185 attacks), a radical right Jewish activist infiltrated a European nationalist organization comprised of former Front National members. He managed to claim responsibility in their name for the attack against the synagogue of the rue Copernic in Paris on October 3 1980, which left 4 dead and 10 injured. A wave of police repression of the radical right followed. Activists were lynched and attacked with vitriol by Jewish activists. It was finally discovered that the attack had been staged by a Palestinian commando. In later decades, Jean-Marie Le Pen often referred to this erroneous accusation in order to demonstrate that the radical right was not behind the violence but was itself the victim of violence and defamation. Actually, some attacks were conducted against the extreme-right, ranging from a car bomb against Front National number 2 leader François Duprat on March 18 1978 to attacks against FN property in Marseille between 1994 and 1998. Politicians did remember the Copernic mistake and made some effort not to blindly blame the radical right in various circumstances: not to defame this political orientation, not to endanger activists, and not to endanger the future possibility of tapping into Front National votes…
On Monday March 19, after the attacks, Marine Le Pen chose in her declaration to reiterate the importance of the rule of law and to express compassion for the victims. In contrast with other members of her party, she had similarly opted for a very restrained reaction to the double Norwegian killing, which she had very clearly condemned. When suspicions of the radical right were voiced with regard to the Toulouse attack, she withdrew from a conference she was participating in that same afternoon, and asked that the TV debate she was supposed to attend on the same evening be deferred. Clearly moved, she explained that acting that way was a matter of decency and humanity. When she added that it was the role of the President in office and not for the candidates to go to Toulouse, she elegantly dodged the risk of having to face potential violent reactions on the part of angry people convinced that the extreme-right had staged the killings. Later she could opt for a more offensive tone when she declared on Wednesday 21 that France should go to “war” against Islamism; and on the afternoon of the same day her discourse escalated further when she spoke of “wiping out” Islamists. The change of leader has clearly allowed a change of tone for the Front National.
Yet we could interrogate these 48 hours when France froze in disbelief to see which issues divide the nation and how they relate to the import of the Israel/Palestine conflict into French politics. Political Islam and Islamophobia share the tendency to assign fixed identities to people whereby citizens are seen as intrinsically bound to one or another ethnic or religious group. These questions were obfuscated by media and political discourses alike, which went into overdrive with sensationalist formulations to characterize the killings. In a display of astonishing short-sightedness one journalist spoke of “soldiers of Muslim origin” – an extremely shocking expression in the French context of Republican and secular integration, while presidential candidate François Bayrou and former candidate Corinne Lepage, together with public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, all claimed that it was time for a “payback” against so-called “Islamo-leftists” and “Nazislamists”.
One cannot afford to smile at these ignorant oversimplifications. They signal an ongoing trend in French politics and society towards the proliferation of fabricated ‘enemy others’, while new Mohammed Merahs and Anders Breiviks are waiting in the wings.