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New Statesman: Jean-Marie Le Pen may have been banished. But his ideas endure

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The expulsion of the former National Front leader does not mean a shift away from his racist views.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity goes the old adage and in the ongoing saga which currently pits the Le Pen dynasty against one another, it seems that may well be true.

Of course, family feuds and internal fighting within a party are never good for business, but when your business is staying in the news, and most significantly, affirming a distance from a toxic fascist legacy, the National Front could do worse than a summer “coup” to oust the notoriously racist party co-founder,Jean-Marie Le Pen. He in turn has accused his daughter Marine – the party’s leader of ordering his “political execution”, despite her decision not to be present during the deliberations by the FN’s executive office.

The French press has been dominated by the ousting which cements an increasingly public divide within the FN between JM Le Pen’s openly far-right ideas and Marine Le Pen’s attempts to mainstream the FN, by downplaying its racist roots and focusing instead on anti-EU, anti-austerity rhetoric, and emphasising a cultural exclusivism, with wide traction on the left and the right in France. The extent to which the conception of an “Islamicisation of France”, an idea with roots on the far-right, as well as anti-immigrant discourse, have wide traction in current media and political discourse in France today, is testimony to the efficacy of her strategy. But central to this mainstreaming has been the need to resituate her father within the party’s hierarchy, while seeking not to alienate his supporters and risk dividing the party, a move which could see JM Le Pen leave with a non-negligible percentage of the party’s loyal supporters. For all the party’s appeal to a more palatable image, it still draws committed support from the fringes. And the last split within the FN, in 1999, when a disgruntled Bruno Mégret set up a parallel party, the National Republican Movement (MNR), led to the FN’s worst showing in elections since the 1980s, with less than 6 per cent of the vote. Marine Le Pen is very conscious of avoiding any such outcome.

The FN’s leader has the 2017 presidentials firmly in her sight and key to her strategy has been asserting her leadership of the party, despite the hold of her charismatic father, and navigating the delicate task of retaining his core base of support, while distancing the party from some of his more openly racist views. It is no surprise that JM Le Pen’s most vocal opponent within the party has been Florian Philippot, Marine Le Pen’s strategic director for her presidential campaign and the man in charge of the party’s communications, who described the move as “logical” despite the shock expressed by other members.

In May, JM Le Pen was suspended by the party after repeated instances in which he made racist remarks, including his description of the Nazi gas chambers asa detail of history. In an attempt at damage control, the party announced a vote on a proposal to strip Mr. Le Pen of his honorary title of party president at its upcoming congress. It was during this congress that the patriarch was dismissed from the party, although thanks to a bureaucratic loophole, he does in fact remain the party’s honorary president.

Although the move had angered JM Le Pen and many of his supporters, it means that the firebrand MP – who won 33 per cent of the votes in the region Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in the recent European elections– retains a formal association with the party, avoiding the real danger of a party split – for now.What’s more, he’s unlikely to disappear any time before 2019 given his role as an elected member of the European Parliament.

No one can say for certain to what extent the divide between Le Pen senior and his daughter is tactical or ideological. JM Le Pen’s closeness to his great niece, FN golden girl and France’s youngest MP, Marion-Maréchal Le Pen, suggests that although it is possible the appeal of his founding views have skipped a generation, there may still be far more unity within the party’s ideals than is publicly revealed and indeed, a significant stake for Marine in presenting the divide as starker than it actually is.

In response to his exclusion, Jean Marie Le Pen says he plans to question the competency of the executive office to dismiss him, as well as its partiality, while his lawyer dubbed the decision “suicide” for the party. All the commotion has dominated the French press where the infighting within the FN is often presented as a somewhat bemusing family feud.

In reality, the FN has become a staple figure on the media scene, where it has succeeded in normalising its presence and ideas thanks to a combination of astute rebranding, careful image management and an arid political scene where infighting within the right-wing UMP and utter indolence on the part of the Socialist party has left the way ripe for the mainstreaming of previously marginal oppositional voices. While Le Pen’s accession to the second round of the presidential elections in 2002, where he decisively lost against Jacques Chirac, was met with general dismay, political analysts are already predicting a strong show by the FN in the 2017 presidential elections. In a poll by the French agency Ifop in January this year, Marine Le Pen would have won the first round of the election had it been held then, with its leader gaining around30 per cent of the public vote, significantly ahead of all hypothetical challengers.

The exclusion of Jean-Marie Le Pen is a fortuitous opportunity for the party to distance itself once again, very publicly, from its xenophobic tendencies, ahead of a presidential campaign Marine believes she has a real chance at winning. But whether Le Pen’s marginalisation reflects a shift away from the founder’s racist views among the party more broadly remains to be seen, with various FN MPs coming out in shows of support for the patriarch. To quote the MP Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, “Le Pen may have been excluded from the FN. Now to banish his ideas.”

You can read the original piece here, on the New Statesman website.


Written by Myriam Francois

August 22, 2015 at 22:23

New Statesman: The Front National’s success in France shows that “protest votes” can no longer be easily dismissed

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You can read the piece on the NS site here:

marine le pen

Victorious and branding itself France’s “leading party”, the Front National (FN) stormed the European elections with results which have sent shockwaves through the nation and beyond. Although the media is awash with shocked commentary from those who decry the damage being done to France’s reputation abroad, there can be no real surprise at how the French have got here. A hapless Left led by a president better known for his affairs than his policies, a divided and navel-gazing Right and an eye-watering rate of unemployment combined with a lack of any real growth, means the French have every right to feel frustrated. They have certainly chosen to voice that discontent.

Polls suggest that in this election, despite the European stakes, 38 per cent of voters sought to express their discontent with the government – among the key issues, 31 per cent listed immigration, following closely by purchasing power (30 per cent), the eurozone crisis (27 per cent) and unemployment (27 per cent). Although the French remain predominantly pro-European, there is still a widespread sense that Europe has failed to protect against the economic crisis and is not responsive to French needs. After five years of no growth under both initially the Right and now the Left, a sense of widespread despondence with the abilities of the main political parties is being felt.

Back in March, the Socialists were punished when they lost over 155 cities in municipal elections, a sign of an electorate weary of a wavering president who has sought to change everything about his government from his prime minister to his team at the Elysée in a bid to win back support. So far his efforts have failed and the FN has capitalised on mass disaffection. Though this will rank as one of the worst defeats for the Socialist Party, with a 10 point difference between their score (around 15 per cent) and the FN (25 per cent), it is even more symbolically damning that it should be a defeat inflicted by what many have continued to view as a vocal but marginal party in French politics.

Marine Le Pen’s masterful revamping of her unabashedly racist father’s party as an anti-EU, “pro patriot” movement which prefers to refer to love of the French nation than hatred of foreigners, has led to her becoming a fixture in the French media (which largely shuns her father). In the 2012 elections, the FN scored almost 18 per cent, up from just under 11 per cent back in 2007, labelling itself “France’s third party” and warning that it could no longer be dismissed as a fringe voice.

In fact, Marine Le Pen’s greatest success thus far has been the normalisation process she has applied to the FN, and the distance created in public perception between her father’s overtly racist legacy and her new image – an image she protects assiduously having threatened to take anyone who brands her party racist to court. This “softening” eased her way towards a media platform and enabled her to make significant contributions to political discussions – as during the latter days of Nicholas Sarkozy’s presidential campaign in 2012, when the agenda was led by topics raised by the FN. More recently, the party has succeeded in making debates about immigration a near constant fixture in the media, fodder for FN supporters who then decry – tautologically – that the FN is the only party addressing the “real” issues. It is more worrying still that while support for other parties appears to be waning, the FN is the only party with a significant increase in support since 2009.

Attitudes are changing too. Back in 2002, there were protests in the street when the FN made the second round of the presidential elections and a display of national unity emerged in support of then presidential candidate Jacques Chirac. But there are no comparable responses to the fact that 24 new FN MEPS are now preparing to take their places in Brussels, the largest number of French MEPs from any one political party. Polls even suggest that 42 per cent of the French are “not disappointed” by the FN’s result.

But the racism is never far from the surface. Just last week Jean-Marie Le Pen – who remains the party’s honorary president and has just been re-elected – suggested the country’s immigration “problems” could be resolved by the Ebola virus. Marine herself, despite her “softer” image, compared Muslim prayers spilling out of prayer rooms onto the street (due to lack of facilities for French Muslims) to the Nazi occupation. Recently a supporter of the FN referred to France’s black minister of justice Christiane Taubira as a “monkey”, while throwing bananas at her.

As the FN has increased in visibility and political clout, two camps have emerged over whether the party represents a genuine cause for concern. Some claim the FN is a protest vote, a vote of anger against a political class seemingly so oblivious to the daily struggles of many people trying simply to maintain their standard of living. They point to the fact that in real terms, because of a high rate of abstention, the FN actually appealed to fewer voters than in the last presidential elections. But in Marine Le Pen’s constituency in the north-west, the FN polled over 32 per cent, a result which has led some, such as far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus, to state that the “National Front’s results can no longer be relativised”. For a start, all parties polled less than in the presidential elections and despite the rate of abstention, there is some indication greater participation might not have affected results dramatically. And despite attempts to minimise its progress, the FN has never polled well at EU elections, with its highest score being around 14 per cent in 1989. It has quadrupled its score since 2009, a result which would not be overlooked in the case of any other party.

What’s more, the party now achieves support among a generation which might have once been expected to be out protesting against it, polling best among young people and the working class. Many of the latter represent a significant loss for the Left, and particularly the far-left party of Jean-Luc Melenchon, himself a charismatic leader who shares many of Le Pen’s views on Europe and anti-globalisation and yet performed comparatively poorly.

Many voters feel the European project is being undertaken for interests other than their own. A common theme across the European elections seems to be a disconnect between what is happening in Brussels and the people on the streets of individual countries. The increasingly common refrain that the bureaucrats in Brussels are disconnected from the lives of ordinary people has gained traction, particularly as austerity has bitten across the continent. Parties like the FN across Europe are the loudest critics of an EU which even EU insiders, such as former adviser to European Commission president Philippe Legrain, admit mishandled the economic crisis. According to Legrain, Brussels’ response to the crisis was “generally inept, often misdirected and frequently outright destructive”. Parties like the FN offer simple solutions to complex problems. Although pro-EU parties continue to speak of European reform and building the European project, decision makers’ accountability and accessibility to the electorate represents a significant stumbling block, fuelling the voices calling for a return to simpler methods of governance. In many ways, Marine Le Pen’s project, with her warnings of an invasion of GM American products, a return to a national policy on agriculture, and calls for resistance in the face of neo-liberalism all speak to genuine concerns over the ability of individual nations to protect consumers and producers alike in an open, global market.

Whether she will carry any weight in Europe where she will be required to form alliances to forge a voting bloc almost seems like taking the charade a little too seriously. After all, this is a eurosceptic party which wants out of the euro and the Schengen agreement, and which has its sights on issues much closer to home. Instead, the result is a clear indication that so-called protest votes can no longer be easily dismissed. FN voters no longer feel the stigma of voting for a party with its roots in France’s darkest history. The ability of the current political class to bounce back notwithstanding, there is every likelihood that those voters who gave their allegiance to Le Pen in this election, may swell by 2017. Le Pen is unlikely to win the presidential election (yet), but her party’s ability to define the terms of the debate and to shift the discourse towards divisive and regressive policies looms. Racism is at its most worrying when it is carried out by states and Le Pen’s inroads into the institutions of national and supra-national governance should concern us all. But more broadly, the construction of an accessible European project in which individual citizens feel they have both a stake and a say needs to be placed top of the agenda.

Written by Myriam Francois

May 27, 2014 at 19:48

France Legislative Elections: A Left turn for Europe?

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This piece is featured in the New Statesman here and on the Huffington Post blog, here

Yesterday saw a record low level of participation (48.31%) in France’s legislative elections as 6500 candidates campaigned for 577 seats. People headed to the booths to choose between an average of ten candidates, including a number of smaller fringe parties such as the Pirate party and the Blank vote party, which reflect the broader European tendency towards a balkanisation of politics.

Despite tepid public interest in the elections, their outcome could have a significant impact on the government and its ability to undertake its agenda, which includes raising taxes on the wealthiest, tougher measures to regulate the finance sector, the creation of 60,000 new jobs in education over the next 5 years, reducing the deficit to 3% by 2017 and outlining a new Franco-German treaty. The high level of abstention increased the number of ‘three ways’ in the second round on June 17, whereby three candidates reach the second round, and which traditionally sees the formation of alliances to achieve a majority, a situation in which smaller parties can become King-markers. Such an outcome is likely to favour Hollande’s Socialist party (PS) which already has a national alliance with the Ecology party and a less formal agreement with the Far-Left.

The party which wins the presidential elections traditionally achieves a majority in the national assembly, a result which could see the Left dominate all the major government institutions and consolidate Hollande’s power. Whether the PS will have to be drawn into a coalition with the anti-capitalist Far-Left in order to achieve that majority will determine its ability to manoeuvre subsequently and could further complicate negotiations with European partners on the already thorny issue of austerity, just as Spain has conceded a bailout. Leader of the Leftist Front, Melenchon, who wants a ‘citizen revolution’, has previously expressed his desire to weaken the Right in France in order to create a precedent for Leftist policies in Europe, starting with Greece, which will vote straight after France and Germany, set to vote in October. Such a prospect has Layla and Florian, a young Parisian couple and Melenchon supporters, enthused. They claim the Leftist Front offers a way out of this “corrupt and unjust capitalist system” and reflects the only real alternative: “We don’t need three cars or big houses – the current system means the middle class and the elite get richer whilst the poor get left behind – we need a revolution.” But their conviction the Far-Left can resolve France or even Europe’s problems, is far from unanimous. An elderly couple queuing at the polling office tell me they’re concerned there could be a ‘return’ of the communists, as occurred under the government of Leon Blum in 1936, which they recall was marked by “near constant strikes.” After casting a vote for the UMP, they praise Le Pen’s views on immigration, but say their memory of the war and “the fratricide which occurred” means they would not contemplate voting for an anti-EU party.

The elections have highlighted tensions with the UMP, which suffered significant losses, over its ideological outlook and strategy . The traditional UMP alliance with Centre right parties has been negatively affected by the poor showing of Francois Bayrou’s ModDem party, as well as by the rise of the Far-Right, which has drained some of its electorate. Since the departure of Sarkozy, the party has been embroiled in a power struggle between Party leader hopefuls and the public squabbling has served the interests of the National Front, which seeks to position itself as the ‘New Right’. Despite some pressure from its base to form UMP-FN alliances to keep the PS at bay, the UMP has so far resisted such a move, with Alain Juppé warning of the dangers of an alliance with a party which seeks to weaken the Right, in order to subsume it. But MP for the Gironde and representative of the UMP’s right wing, Jean-Paul Garraud, has called on the party to move beyond an ‘ideological blockage’ for pragmatic reasons and unite with the FN, a strategy which though officially denounced, may end up being reflected on the ground. The pressure on the UMP to concede is even more accute, in light of the thirty two ‘three ways’ in which the FN remains present for the second round.

A UMP-FN alliance, though grounded in electoral concerns, also reflects Marine Le Pen’s success in transforming the image of her father’s party, distancing herself from his racist and anti-semitic rants through a focus on anti-EU rhetoric and economic protectionism, coated in xenophobia. The FN which achieved almost 18% in the Presidential elections, has traditionally failed to gain seats in the National Assembly, a fact that reflects both an element of protest vote in its score at the Presidential election and the higher levels of abstention in local elections, which disproportionately affects smaller parties. Yesterday, it achieved 13.77% of the votes, a three fold increase on its 2007 showing in the legislatives elections then, through considerably lower than its score in May’s election. In the second round, the FN may achieve between 0-5 MPs, under the banner of the “Marine blue gathering”, a symbolic gain which reflects the growth of the Far-right in Europe and which would undoubtedly negatively impact France’s Muslim citizens.

While it looks likely Hollande will get his socialist majority parliament, the chorus of anti-austerity voices from both the Far-Left and the Far-right, which may be rewarded with a parliamentary presence, will complicate his ability to act against the significant challenges faced, including 10% unemployment, sluggish growth, a lack of competitiveness and a massive deficit. Despite the lack of enthusiasm for them, these elections will have a decisive impact on France’s policies and given its place in Europe, on the very nature of European policy.

Sky News: Live commentary on the French elections

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A snippet of my commentary on the first round of the French Presidential elections on Sunday, on Sky News.

Written by Myriam Francois

April 25, 2012 at 09:50

France is Turning ‘Bleu Marine’: the Existential Crisis of the French Right

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This piece is published over at the Huffington post, here

France is turning “bleu-Marine”, a play on words which refers to the National Front (FN)’s strong ‎showing in the first round of the French Presidential elections. 18% of the vote is the strongest ‎polling yet for Marine Le Pen’s party, out-doing even her father’s 16.9% in the 2002 elections, ‎where he made it to the second round. The success of the National Front was in stark contrast to ‎the poor showing of France’s Right. Sarkozy has the dubious privilege of being the Fifth Republic’s ‎most unpopular president, with a 64% disapproval rating, and the first incumbent not to take the ‎lead in the first round. But these sobering findings clearly hadn’t dented the President’s self-belief on sunday as he delivered a “victory” speech, in which he claimed his supporters had ‘proven the ‎polls wrong’ – despite the rather accurate predictions that he’d lose out to Holland in the first ‎round, with around 26% of the vote. Which he did. ‎

His hope now will be to galvanise the Far-right and Centrist votes to compete with the Leftist block, ‎totalling 41%, which gives the socialist candidate, Francois Hollande a solid basis on which to achieve the winning 54%, predicted by ‎an IPSOS poll in the second round.‎

As Sarkozy seeks to salvage the situation in the run up to May 6th, his Sunday speech offered a ‎glimpse of things to come as he focused on key National Front issues of immigration, border ‎controls and national identity. In recent years, the UMP has been split by its veer to the right under ‎the direction of Sarkozy’s adviser, Patrick Buisson, considered the architect of the UMP’s “LePen-‎isation”. Many blame the strategy for alienating traditional right-wing voters and changing the very ‎nature of the neo-Gaulliste party. Others see Le Pen’s success as a vindication and evidence of the ‎need to move further on this terrain. The fact Sarkozy can count on 60% of Le Pen’s votes in the ‎second round, poses some existential questions about the very nature of the Right in France.‎

A regional breakdown of the vote showed Le Pen achieved high scores in the industrial North Est, ‎where she often came second, behind the Left for whom the North is not traditional terrain and ‎where Sarkozy had scored highly in 2007. The North Est and France’s industrial regions were those ‎worst hit by the economic crisis in 2008-2009, with a significant increase in unemployment. Today ‎jobless claims are at a twelve year high across France. In addition, France has lost competitiveness. ‎Its exports have lagged behind those of its major trading partners in the past decade, labour costs ‎have grown and whilst the economy is sluggish, workers are faced with reduced purchasing power. ‎This squeeze on the working class under the UMP’s rule means many are looking elsewhere. The ‎breakdown of votes shows Sarkozy lost many seats in central France, the 6th largest industrial ‎region, where the Far Left made significant advances and 29% of Blue-collar workers now vote Le ‎Pen.‎

But the Far-Right has also benefited from Sarkozy’s tactical inclusion of Far-right themes into the ‎mainstream political discourse. Many of Sarkozy’s election pledges seemingly acknowledged the ‎problematisation of issues raised by the FN, including the halal meat saga and the proposed rethink ‎of the passport-free Schengen zone. This strategy assumed the incorporation of such issues into ‎the UMP’s agenda, could garner more votes away from the NF, but appears instead to have ‎legitimised Le Pen’s discourse and ensured the perennity of her party on the French political ‎scene. What’s more, Sarkozy’s perceived failure to address these issues, alongside his ‎acknowledgement of their importance, has bolstered the FN’s agenda.‎

Marine Len Pen’s speech on Sunday suggests she now views her party as the ‘true’ Right, in the ‎face of a weak and discredited UMP. What is certain is that her historic success in this first round ‎has shifted the political terrain in France and conveyed a degree of respectability she has worked ‎hard to foster. Since taking over from her father, Marine has morphed the party’s image, seeking ‎to distance it from its racist reputation and consolidating its platform through a solidly anti-EU ‎focus, broadening its appeal. The message of curbing immigration and combating a European elite ‎by taking France out of the Eurozone, is designed to protect an allegedly threatened French ‎identity. ‎

Alongside proposals to protect small businesses and ban supermarkets in towns of under 30 000 ‎people, she speaks to a France suspicious of globalisation and of the EU’s austerity plans, in a ‎country where only 31% of people agree that a free market economy is the best system. It is ‎amongst the squeezed working and middle classes, who feel that Europe is failing to protect them ‎against global competition, that her message of protectionism, both social and economic, has ‎found an audience. ‎

Last year, academics warned of the “France of the invisibles” where almost 40% of the electorate ‎in rural and suburban areas, as well as in towns hit by deindustrialisation, feel abandoned by the ‎democratic process and unrepresented in their concerns. The consequence is the emergence of a ‎more radical political vote, towards the Far-Left but more so towards the Far Right whose ‎combination of a focus on social and identity issues has broad appeal. Worryingly, this is no longer ‎perceived to be a protest vote, but a vote of adherence to the FN’s agenda. 64% of FN voters state ‎their support for Marine le Pen as a candidate, and only 36% describe theirs as a “protest vote”. ‎Amongst FN voters, immigration polls as the highest concern (62 %), followed by insecurity (44 %) ‎and purchasing power (43 %) and Le Pen has successfully taped into this combination of social and ‎economic conservativism.

While Hollande may be elected France’s first Socialist president in 17 ‎years, it was under another socialist, Francois Mitterand that the National Front first made ‎headways in response to austerity measures in the 1980s. In 2012, their presence is far more ‎entrenched and they’ll be facing a candidate whom only 25 % of voters believe can improve the ‎situations in France. If he fails, an emboldened Far-right is waiting in the wings.‎

“There aint no crescent in the Union Jack”

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In 1987, Paul Gilroy penned his now seminal book “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”, in which he unpicked the usual explanation of racism as a peculiar evil on the margins of British society, and highlighted instead how the history of British racism is bound up with an imaginary English ‘national culture’ which is supposedly homogenous in its whiteness and Christianity. Cut to 2011, where Far-Right discourse has shifted from an anti-black focus to an anti-Muslim focus (although how cynical this ploy is, is anybody’s guess), and it is clear that Gilroy’s ideas continue to have huge relevance. While the focus of the Far-right’s vitriol has shifted from race to culture, the new target has been afforded widespread legitimacy by mainstream arguments asserting that ideas, unlike race, are a legitimate target for criticism and ridicule. There is no denying that all ideas must be open to critique and therefore potentially derision, but this convenient argument ignores the reality that arguments critical of Islam have been used to tar, stigmatise and even at times legitimise violence against individual Muslims. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi put the problem succinctly in a recent interview with emel magazine, in which she stated: “Islam is a religion and everyone has a right to question, criticise, disagree with, and object to other people’s religions… but where you have an approach of hatred towards a community because of the religion they belong to… that’s what I am saying is wrong.”

Examples of critical derision instrumentalised to justify hate campaigns trickle down from pseudo intellectual articles in the usual suspects, arguing Islam’s alleged inherent misogyny, to groups like the EDL, who like to proclaim their questionable feminist credentials as being part of their opposition to Islam. The language slips frequently and fluidly from Islamism, or Islamic extremists to Islam, condemning not only the violent minority, but criminalising the entire community.
Even the politically correct caveats have now been omitted so that Islam is now described as an ideology, not a religion or spiritual tradition, but a human contruction, considered like other ideologies, as inherently power hungry, oppressive and machiavellian, not an ethical body of ideals which nourishes the framework of values of societies as diverse as Indonesia, Senegal or Bosnia.
It is Islam, not its interpretations which are now described as barbaric, violent or backwards, a simplistic refusal to recognise the reality that texts don’t speak for themselves, humans, as a product of their social, cultural and political context – make the text speak, as their filter the words and their significance. To anyone familiar with the diversity within religious interpretations, this comes as no surprise. It is basic hermeneutics. But the talking heads, many of whom have now made a career in Islam-bashing, are not interested in nuances. And their irresponsible commitment to perpetuating a clichéd and narrow conception of Islam and the Muslim community, is not merely an insult to the real theology experts, but actually affects the lives of Muslim citizens.
The reality is that the pervasive hostility towards Islam, fed and well watered in the public sphere, has a very real impact on the private sphere of individual Muslims. Personal anecdotes abound, my friend Abdul being called into a management meeting to ask if he might consider changing his name to something which might be less likely to ‘offend’ the customers. Kareema being verbally abused on the bus. In Paris a few years ago I was told my “headgear” was not permitted in a bowling alley… In France, the 5% overall unemployment for university graduates contrasts with 26.5% unemployment for “North African” university graduates. Here in the UK, my research with the European Muslim Research Center (EMRC) highlighted just how widespread and how serious incidents of islamophobia have become from discrimination in the workplace to arson and even murder. More worrying still however is the continuing unwillingness to acknowledge its existence, be it through the incessant debates over the semantics of the word or the insidious suggestion Muslims are always portraying themselves as victims, implying it would seem, that we should put up or shut up. The grievances of citizens discounted by virtue of their religious identity. To be Muslim is to be less worthy of sympathy when attacked, less entitled to complain when slighted, to be fair game for public ridicule and derision. To be Muslim today is to owe the world an explanation for your very being.

And yet so little thoughtful analysis has been dedicated to assessing the similarities between the race bating of the 1980s and current Muslim bating. Racist arguments often contained a cultural dimension, that the black community was inherently more violent or criminal, just as caricatured media stories today which derive their alleged legitimacy from a focus on ‘Islam’, actually contain clear racial slurs.
Just as black men were portrayed as sexual predators biologically predisposed to sex attacks, Jack Straw’s recent comments that Muslim men were targeting “white” girls for sex attacks represented, he claimed, a “specific problem” for Pakistani men “fizzing and popping with testosterone “. Phantasmagorical predictions presented through the lens of the alleged clash of civilizations, that Muslims will soon be outnumbering the so-called “native” population (presumably white, Christian), mirror claims made in Powell’s insidious speech, in which he predicted race-wars, affirming that the black man would gain “the whip hand over the white”.
For Gilroy, the history of slavery was not simply an aberration, but a key component of Western modernity and this oppressive potential within modernity is complicit in the history of slavery. In the case of diasporas, the way colonised peoples were viewed during the colonial era continues to impinge on conceptions of the descendents of immigrants today. In the midst of local elections in France in which the Far-Right party, the FN is set to achieve record votes, Marine Le Pen has largely defined the parameters of the electoral discourse. In a recent inflammatory statement, she claimed that Muslims praying in the street represent “an occupation”, recalling that of Germany in the Second World War, but also France’s presence in North Africa. The implications for how Muslims are conceived of, is clear: foreign, hostile, fascist. Conclusion? like the Nazis, they must be fought and expelled. Like the movement for national independence in Algeria, that struggle is legitimate.
For those convinced the far right remains a marginal voice in Europe, it is time to consider the facts. Germany’s best selling book since the Second world war claims that Muslims are lowering the intelligence of the nation and represent a genetic tar. Entitled, “Germany Does Away With Itself,” it claims Germany is “committing suicide by Islam”. Four days after its publication, it topped Amazon Germany’s bestseller list and Sarrazin’s “theory” has been published widely in the mass circulation Bild newspaper and discussed and debated on talkshows, with muted approbation from the country’s intellectual elite, many of whom have praised his willingness to tackle the “problem” of Islam.
During the second round of France’s cantonal elections, the Far Right has made large advances, becoming the third political force in France, behind the Socialist party and Sarkozy’s UMP. Despite being present in 402 cantons, the FN has 12 per cent of the votes and gained more than 300,000 voters between the two rounds of votes, with over 40% of votes in some areas. That France’s elections have come to be defined by issues such as “the veil”, the burka and Muslim prayers as well as the enduring debate on ‘laicite’ , speaks volumes for the state of populist politics and for the dearth of real political initiative. It also reflects the dangerous strategy employed by Sarkozy to draw far-Right voters away from the National Front (FN) with a tough line on Islam, security and immigration, confirmed by Jacques Myard’s statement that a large part of the UMP’s base had defected to the FN. Previously viewed as a renegade party on the fringes of France’s political life, a recent poll found that a majority of French for the first time consider the FN to be a party “like the others”. Its growing success, fuelled in part by the legitimacy afforded to the Far right discourse by the remainder of the political scene, who have capitalised on its rhetoric, led the FN’s poster girl and daughter of its founder, Marine Le Pen to state: “the redrawing of political life in France is under way”. In my region, Seine-et-Marne, the FN achieved 21,64% overtaking the UMP. In Marseille, traditionally one of France’s most multicultural cities, the FN has achieved over 30% in all the cantons. And this despite the fact over 10% of the French electorate is Muslim.
Infamous Geert Wilders’ Freedom party came third in the June 2010 elections in the Netherlands, following a campaign in which he compared the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And the Far Right parties have made important gains in the European parliamentary elections, where the BNP now hold two seats as MEPs.
The shift from race to religious identity among the far right is a newly discovered discursive ploy which emerged as a consequence of race-baiting being criminalised. But the race card itself was just a way to define the focus of the unease each generation seems to confront with the absorption of different influences and outlooks, often redefining aspects of national culture.
“We want Briton for British” one less than eloquent young EDL member shouted in a much derided interview now re-mixed on youtube. It would come as no surprise to Gilroy that music, which he regards as a prime example of a ‘counterculture’ – available to a diverse and undifferentiated audience, was used by a Muslim to mock and deride the ignorance displayed by the EDL member. Music was just one tool available for a community under attack to forge a notion of itself, defining its culture and outlook away from the restrictive and narrow reflection offered to it by a mainstream culture which rejected its place within it.
Gilroy’s title, ‘There aint no black in the Union Jack’ served to highlight the inability of the black community in the 1980s to recognise itself in mainstream culture’s definition of Britishness. Today, it is equally true of the Muslim community that many feel “there aint no crescent in the Union jack”, that despite their longstanding presence and undeniable contribution to the construction of our society, mainstream culture is hostile to Muslims and to “Muslim culture(s)”, erecting Islam as the latest bogeyman against which to define britishness, all the while ignoring those very concrete examples of individuals who already represent the hybrid of ‘British Muslim’ identity.

In 2008, Gilroy penned an article for the guardian in which he criticised the canonisation of Enoch Powell, whom he wryly describes as “a talisman of authentic English nationalism” and his association with an increasingly popular notion of culture that only makes sense in exclusionary terms. Gilroy’s momentous contribution to the field of race relations was, amongst other things, to demonstrate effectively that cultural traditions are not static, but develop, grow and indeed mutate, as they influence and are influenced by the other shifting traditions around them. Of equal relevance to contemporary debates was his notion of “Double Consciousness” in the black community, which he described as the striving to be both European and Black through a relationship to the land of their birth and their ethnic political constituency, a notion which challenges the restrictive view that Muslims must somehow choose between their religious or spiritual orientation and their national citizenship.
Gilroy noted the importance of culture as expressed in the life of the community and suggested one route of revolt against a society which refused to recognise its place within it, was through cultural assertion, including through notions of a transatlantic diaspora community, the ‘Black Atlantic’ for the black community… the Umma for the Muslim community..?
As the Far-Right continues to make headway across Europe, it is time to re-examine our history and the ideas that challenged the narrow conception of national culture in previous eras and evaluate the possible contribution of such ideas to current debates. Gilroy and his peers shook the debate on racism in the 1980s, but his ideas continue to hold clear relevance for the challenge of one of the particular forms of hatred we face today.

Written by Myriam Francois

April 2, 2011 at 23:13