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Saturday 11 April 2015

France's Other Nightmare: The French National Front

Posted in: Comment
By Politics and religion commentator Craig Young - 23rd January 2015

Here in New Zealand, we tend to focus our attention squarely on the dominant source of organised, strategised homophobia and transphobia, the Christian Right. However, that is not the only problem many LGBT Europeans have to face. Look at France's National Front, for example.

The French National Front is the third largest French political party after the governing Socialist Party of President Francois Hollande and the Union for a Popular Movement on the centre-right. The party is economically protectionist, Eurosceptic, socially conservative...and neofascist. Founded in 1972 from an array of neofascist and far right French organisations, fortunately the National Front has been hampered by the French preference voting electoral system for its National Assembly, although former leader Jean Marie Le Pen once beat the Socialist Presidential candidate into third place in a First Past the Place direct election in 2002. Fortunately on that occassion, the centre-right Gaullist Jacques Chirac beat Le Pen. However, while it is not represented in the National Assembly, it has had more success in the European Parliament (23/74 MEPs), French regional councils (118/1880) and municipal councils (1546/536,519)

The National Front is also anti-immigrant, particularly when it comes to unemployed, illegal and unemployed immigrants, whom it would prefer deported to their countries of origin. More recently, it has started to complain about the "Islamisation" of France and Western Europe due to increased Muslim presence within French cities and towns. Is it fair to call the National Front "neofascist?" Yes. Before its formation, the French far right consisted primarily of organisations like Action Francaise, founded in 1899 by right-wing French author Charles Maurras and inclined to conspiracy theories centred on Jews, Freemasons and Huguenots (French Protestants). It hoped to achieve its objectives through a coup d'etat. During World War II, Action Francais collaborated actively with the Nazi occupiers and the southern Vichy France puppet state of Marshall Phillipe Petain. Occident was formed in the sixties and attacked demonstrators against the US Vietnam War on French university campuses. The Groupe Union Defence engages in frequent hate crimes against the French Union of Jewish Students.

Why did these organisations arise in the first place? Extremism is usually a consequence of profound national trauma. In the case of France, there were several intermediate causes. One was France's defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1940 and its four-year occupation, as well as the hideous consequences of collaboration, leading to the deaths of French Jews in Germany's concentration camps. The second was France's experience of decolonisation through resistance in Indochina and Algeria. The latter led to a grim and violent colonial war that ended in the early sixties. Some disaffected French Army officers planned a military coup and defeat rocked the establishment. In May 1968, France came close to a student-led socialist revolution. Finally, in the seventies, France entered a long period of economic stagnation and short-lived polarised governments. Each series of events led to loss of public faith in orthodox French politics. In the case of the Algerian War, it also led to an influx of alienated and extremist ex-colonists from that abandoned colonial possession, who would produce one of the core constituencies for far right politics. In truth though, there has always been an extremist faction that refused to recognise France's dominant political values of civic republicanism, faith/state separation and liberal democracy. The events of the forties, sixties and seventies led to the crystallisation of a large scale, rural constituency for right-wing extremism in France, much as it did elsewhere in Europe.

Members of all of the above ended up joining the National Front when it was founded in 1972. It was mostly unsuccessful during the seventies due to its perceived extremism and founder Jean Marie Le Pen's claimed participation in torture of Algerian FLN soldiers when stationed in that country during Algeria's successful war of national liberation against French colonial rule in the fifties and sixties. Unfortunately, that didn't last, and due to vacillation from mainstream centre-right parties, the National Front was allowed to make inroads into local authority politics, as can be seen from the numbers above. Le Pen proved a charismatic and populist figure and effective public speaker, and was thus well positioned to exploit Islamophobia in the wake of Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini's ill-advised fatwa against Salman Rushdie due to his controversial fantasy novel, The Satanic Verses, in 1989.

Fortunately, Le Pen could not sustain the pressure and a series of anti-Semitic gaffes led to public anxiety about the actual political values of the extremist in question. The Gaullist RPR centre-right also differentiated itself from the National Front, clarifying that it would refuse to enter any coalition with the far right, which kept it from making gains at the National Assembly level. However, in the French countryside and provinces, and away from the multicultural French cities, the Front grew. In the nineties, Le Pen's nepotism led to schism, as long-time Le Pen deputy leader Bruno Margret established a more orthodox centre right National Republican Movement. In 2002, Le Pen polled well in the direct presidential elections, much to mainstream French horror. To his credit, Jacques Chirac refused to debate the extremist and his resolve won the day for the RPR. Unfortunately, at the same time, other French centre-right parties formed the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement). In 2007, Nicholas Sarkozy and the UMP won the presidency and majority control of the National Assembly. Sarkozy pursued a more populist tack in power, rehabilitating some of Le Pen's anti-immigrant and "anti-Islamisation" rhetoric, until continuing economic instability led to the advent of the Hollande administration and Socialist Party government in 2012.

Although the primary National Front targets are Muslims and North African and Arab immigrants, the party also believes in an increased birthrate amongst non-Muslim French people. It is anti-abortion and anti-gay. In 1987, Jean-Marie Le Pen called for the forced quarantine and imprisonment of People Living With AIDS and argued that all immigrants should receive a mandatory HIV test before entering France. However, his daughter Marine Le Pen, a divorced woman and current National Front leader, has been lambasted by antigay elements within the National Front and other French right-wing extremist groups for "surrounding" herself with gay men, including her recently-outed Deputy Leader, Philippe Florian, and newly employed advisor Sebastien Chenu, a pioneering French gay liberationist. Notably, Marine Le Pen did not participate in demonstrations against the arrival of marriage equality in France in 2013, although many members of her party did, as did other right-wing extremists. As to why some gay men would support such a right-wing party, that is not universal- ACT UP Paris strongly dissents from that stance, given Jean-Marie Le Pen's previous statements about HIV/AIDS- he also described homosexuality as a "biological and social anomaly". The National Front's Islamophobia appears to be a chief drawcard.

What about far right opposition to marriage equality and inclusive adoption reform in France? It should be recalled that Virginie Tellene ("Frigide Barjot"), a French conservative Catholic comedian was one of the core figures of "Manif Pour Tous," one of the ringleaders of antigay demonstrations against the adoption of marriage equality and inclusive adoption reform. Tellene/Barjot had controversial prior relationships with the extreme-right herself before she adopted that role; she used to be associated with the Union for a Popular Movement, one of France's two dominant centre-right parties, before moving toward right-wing extremism as a member of the Movement for National Republicanism. In her student days, she was associated with the GUD, a neofascist student group. However, although Tellene originally tolerated the presence of right-wing extremists within Manif Pour Tous, she became increasingly concerned at the far right elements that had "hijacked" the cause of opposition to marriage equality and violent elements on her own side of the debate. In the latter demonstrations against marriage equality, she refused to become involved due to fears and threats of reprisals against her from extremists within her own ranks. One Manif Pour Tous faction, Printemps Francais ("French Spring") was run by Philippe Darantier, a former French paratrooper, who actively advocated violent confrontation against the French state and police at antigay demonstrations, while there was also overlapping membership with French Renewal and the Groupe Union Defence. Another pack of violent participants was Jeunesse Nationalists ("Nationalist Youth"), expelled from the National Front for its open espousal of neofascism and led by Alexandre Gabriac. Make no mistake about it, elements of the French far right are committed to violent insurrection and are as antigay as they are anti-immigrant.

Indeed, the above violent antics of National Front and other right-wing extremist figures lead one to fear for France's future. There seems little doubt that the French far right is dedicated to violent confrontation against the French state and opposed to equality and inclusion for LGBT French people, French Muslims and Northern African and Arab immigrant communities. One must ask disturbing questions about just how provocative and confrontational these organisations are and whether their extremism precipitated the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo through fostering comparable radical, alienated youth support for radical Islamism

Alain Badiou: The Meaning of Sarkozy: London: Verso: 2010.
Peter Davies: The National Front in France: Ideology, Discourse and Power: London: Routledge: 1999.
Edward DeClair: Politics on the Fringe: People, Policies and Organisation in the French National Front: Durham: Duke University Press: 1999.
Peter Frayn and Jim Wolfreys: The Politics of Racism in France: New York: St Martins: 1998.
Jonathan Marcus: The National Front in France: The Reversible Rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen: Washington Square: New York University Press: 1995
Gino Raymond: The Sarkozy Presidency: Breaking the Mould: Basingstoke: Palgrave: 2013
Peter Merkel and Leonard Weinberg: Right-Wing Extremism in the Twenty First Century: London: Routledge: 2003
James Shields: The Extreme Right in France: From Petain to Le Pen: New York: Routledge: 2007.
Henry Simmons: The French National Front: Extremist Challenge to Democracy: Boulder: Westview: 1996.
Jean-Paul Zapata: "French marriage equality bill meets with threats of violence" Gay Star News: 13.04.2013:
"France: Protestors in violent clashes with police against newly passed marriage equality bill" Pinknews: 23.04.2014:
"French anti-equality marriage leader pulls out of rally for fear of violence" Pinknews: 24.05.2013:
Yosef Brody: "Behind the radical French Spring movement":

Politics and religion commentator Craig Young - 23rd January 2015

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