It struck some observers as perverse to exclude the National Front from the immense rally, held yesterday between the Place de la République and the Place de la Nation, to mark the Islamist terror assault upon the Paris paper Charlie Hebdo, publisher of satirical cartoons featuring Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, among other themes.
There are good reasons to doubt the democratic credentials of the French nationalist party that for years has called for restrictions of immigration and has been viewed as the heir to the authoritarian, illiberal parties that worked to subvert the Republic before World War II and that has specialized in mobilizing xenophobic fears. A fringe, not to say crackpot movement in the first ten or fifteen years after its launch in the 1970s under Jean-Marie Le Pen, it gradually grew in appeal and influence and lately, it has approached respectability. Ironically, for an allegedly hyper-conservative movement, it could not have made this breakthrough, if such it is, without the votes of hundreds of thousands of “orphans of the left,” working-class and lower-middle-class French who a generation ago gave their support to the Communist Party.
Fearing that the National Front will benefit from a backlash to last week’s terrorist outrage, in which journalists, hostages, and policemen were massacred, the Socialist Party, organizing Sunday’s march, pointedly told the National Front not to show up, adding, democracy oblige, that Front supporters were welcome as individual citizens.
A furious Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter and heiress to his party, announced she would not go where she was not wanted, and called on her followers to march in provincial demonstrations held on the same day. She blasted the “parties of the system” for their discrimination, saying it was to be expected of elites whom she holds responsible for France’s problems, notably in the areas of immigration, security, and employment.
To many observers, such as the widely reviled but broadly popular (this can happen, viz. Rush Limbaugh) radio commentator and writer Eric Zemmour, the French governing and intellectual elites are more interested in being nice to masses of immigrants from north and sub-Saharan Africa who do not seem keen to fit into French life than in giving some thought to millions of alienated ordinary people who are told in essence to be patient while Europeanization and globalization bring them their promised rewards.
Zemmour does not belong to the National Front, whose old guard detests his great hero, Charles de Gaulle. But he suggests that, in an unsettling way, the position in French politics of the National Front offers a window into the whole conundrum of France’s ruling and opinion elites. While widely perceived as incompetent, these elites, Zemmour argues, nevertheless keep to themselves the right to define the political and social agenda, including, pertinently, the burning question of who can be trusted to speak for France in the current crisis, which, moreover, only they can define. Yet, citizens of France can recognize that certain questions need to be put starkly — is the fight against “terror” or “radical Islamism” or is there something the matter with Islam itself?
Sunday’s marches did not bring answers to these questions, ensuring that the standoff between the establishment, or mainstream, parties and a populist movement with wind in its sails will be a key factor in French politics at least in the near term. At the same time, the demos showed the French people, a great many of them at any rate, have no truck with revolutionary Islam. Political and civic leaders, notably in the Muslim population (about 10 percent by admittedly imperfect estimates, as French censuses do not tally religious and racial background) will have to take note.
Nearly two million people expressed their disgust for the gunmen who broke into the editorial offices, located on the east side of the right bank, of Charlie Hebdo. Shouting Islamic slogans, announcing they were avenging the insult to their Prophet, the intruders killed eight staffers and visitors, a policeman assigned to guard them, and a maintenance man in the building. They killed another cop on patrol downstairs during their getaway, and a co-conspirator elsewhere in Paris gunned down a third one.
The third member of the gang, holed up in a kosher grocery on the eastern edge of Paris, killed four of his hostages before a police squad moved in and killed him. The two attackers of the newspaper office, trapped in an industrial building north of Paris after hijacking a car and stopping at a gas station (where one of them apparently dropped an ID), were also shot to death by policemen.
All three men were French, of Algerian and Malian heritage but born and raised in France. Is there a France within France that does not want France to remain France? This is not a word game. Did France in its educational and social institutions fail these young men? And, to some, defending basic rights was fine, but it was not enough. While the National Front took an official position defending the principle of freedom of the press that millions have proclaimed by adopting the slogan “I am Charlie,” Jean-Marie Le Pen, with his customary flair for incendiary provocation, said over the weekend that for his part, he was not Charlie — but he was happy to be “Charlie Martel,” referring to the Frankish leader who stopped an invading Muslim army at Tours (south-central France) in the eighth century, a key battle in the formation of the Christian West.
Charlie Hebdo’s previous office space was firebombed in 2011, following its publication of cartoons originating in a Danish paper lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. It also lampooned observant Jews, believing Catholics, and just about everybody else. The highest French officials, including then-president Jacques Chirac, had warned the editors (years before the bombing) to watch it, they should be more respectful. They laughed at him.
To hell with respect for religion. To hell with respect for politicians. Charlie Hebdo was definitely of the left, but it was indiscriminately, as its own masthead proclaimed, “bête et méchant” toward everybody. Freedom of the press means just that, the right to be “stupid and mean.” Which is the notion the millions in the streets on Sunday took as their common denominator. No pol contradicted them. Many World Leaders joined the marchers, including the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and Israeli P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu.
President Obama did not appear at the rally, nor did Vice President Biden, nor did Secretary of State John Kerry. There may have been security reasons for this. The U.S. Embassy in Paris has been loud and clear on condemning the terrorist assault. Attorney General Eric Holder told a TV interviewer that the three terrorists had links to al-Qaeda, as the gunmen themselves had proclaimed before dying.
The French security services performed admirably, even as, inevitably, questions were raised about their failure to avert the terrorist deed. The terrorists, French citizens, were known to French (and U.S.) security, but reportedly either had fallen out of sight or were forgotten. A fourth accomplice, a woman, also a French citizen of Algerian background, was sought during the dragnet, then was reported to have left France and made her way to Turkey and Syria days before the attack.
With a nation in shock, the organizers of the demo defended their no-National-Front ruling on the grounds that the National Front, which polled ahead of the other parties in recent Europarliamentary elections, allegedly displays contempt for the “valeurs de la République” (liberal democratic principles) to which the demonstrators referred, while paying homage to the newspapermen and the policemen, hostages, and building maintenance crew who died in the rampage. It is one thing to express an opinion — fanatical Muslims are a bad joke — another to form a political party that proposes to act on it — fanatical Muslims should be sent back to Africa. At least, that seems to be the distinction.
Not without reason, editorials, messages of condolence, and somber political statements referred to the horror as family tragedies — “we grew up with them,” one message from a professional association read, “they accompanied us in adolescence and youth, they were family.” You might or might not be a regular reader of the papers in which Chabu, age 70, or Wolinski, age 80, appeared, or Willem, their Dutch colleague who was not at the office the day of the attack, or the others, but almost any one living in France would have at least a passing acquaintance with their styles and themes and would be easily reminded of the notorious bombing of their previous office. Approve or not, agree or not — they were highly opinionated, and showed it — ya had t’ love ’em, as we might say, and admit they were good. Because they hit the reader in the guts with their sarcasm and their insights.
And if you had no sense of humor, especially about yourself, you might hate them. As did Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the National Front and still its emeritus president. He sued them, tried to shut them down. They retaliated by drawing him with his eye-patch as a porcine bigot. His daughter, who inherited the party and has sought to portray it as mainstream, did not put an end to the tradition of excluding critical journalists, including Charlie’s, from party conventions.
Charlie Hebdo some twenty years ago joined calls to outlaw the Front; more lately the paper (and others) has relaxed that position, but not its criticisms. Immediately following the massacre, Marine Le Pen put out a terse, sober message of condolence and insisted on the absolute principle of freedom of the press. As an organization, the Front put out several messages expressing sympathy and outrage, underscoring that policemen had been killed, though they did not mention that one of these was of Algerian and Muslim heritage (as was one of the staffers; one of the editor-cartoonists was a Jewish native of Tunisia). They had nothing to say specifically about the targeting of a Jewish grocery store and the killing of its customers.
This underscores the problem with Jean-Marie Le Pen and the reason he could never come to power in an election. He hates Jews. He despises black and north Africans. He has expressed these dislikes and phobias and obsessions for fifty years; they are not shared by his compatriots. He is a powerful orator, who has several times overshot the boundaries of French hate-speech laws with the malicious puns to which he is addicted. He never had a chance to reach power but he probably never wanted that. He was content to be a gadfly, to “emmerder les autres” (annoy everybody) and he was good at that.
(He has been a parliamentarian and held other elective offices and announced on the weekend that he would run in forthcoming regional elections, advanced age notwithstanding; some observers felt it was perverse of him to make this announcement just as his daughter was saying that it would be wrong to try to use the events for partisan purposes.)
His daughter took the position that power is there to be taken. Assisted by a man named Florian Philippot, who recently won a libel case against a newspaper for publishing photos that it claimed proved he was a hormosessuel (as the French sometimes refer to persons of certain inclinations). He encouraged Marine Le Pen to adopt a strategy of respectability. Neither she nor Philippot has denounced the old man’s positions, though the Front now mentions “our Muslim compatriots” when referring to the national community that it insists is under threat (economic, security, cultural, you name it) from “immigration.”
Marine Le Pen called the other day for the reinstatement of the death penalty, in reaction to these murders. It cannot be reinstated because the European Union, to which France belongs, forbids it. Christopher Caldwell of the Weekly Standard, well-informed observer of French affairs and author of a book on Europe’s immigration question (Reflections on the Revolution in Europe), suggests in a recent article that the National Front’s recent electoral momentum has more to do with precisely this sort of thing, which implicates the larger question of national sovereignty, than with the immigration and racial questions that heat up the founder’s blood and cheeks and nose. Which could also be due to his Breton complexion or his drinking habits, about which I know nothing, just supposing.
Caldwell’s insight is characteristically astute, if questionable. No doubt, a new generation of Frontistes is less obsessed with the kinds of issues, Jews and who was right in World War II, who lost Indochina and Algeria, who is selling out France to American interests, than the older base that made up Le Pen’s original constituency. Those were hard boys, some of whom served with him in Indochina and Algeria, or, still older, in the pro-Nazi para-militaries of the 1940s. (As a teenager he tried to join the Resistance.)
The younger generation, however, is concerned with the drowning of the French identity in an amorphous Europe defined in canned platitudes and sentimental principles of good will, not only because they feel this is not them, but because it often interferes with their political and economic well-being, as they perceive it. They blame unemployment on the alleged sell-outs to global capitalism. As businessmen, they perceive the European Commission, not entirely without reason, as a kind of soft tyranny, a regulatory machine, a faceless supranational redistributionist bureaucracy. Theoretically, this is all supposed to work out in the end, with a stronger European economy and revitalized local self-government.
But if these questions of sovereignty, by no means confined to France but perhaps more sharply felt there due to this country’s historic reliance on the idea and practice of a powerfully centralized nation-state, are very real, it remains that when the time comes to rally the base, the FN calls upon the old reflexes. The Front does not call its grand old man to order when he sides with anti-Semites, from Saddam Hussein some years ago to the stand-up provocateur Dieudonné more recently.
Here, perhaps, you see the problem: people are less afraid of “right wing populists” than of foreign masses perceived (perhaps unfairly) to refuse to assimilate; but at the same time they perceive (again, perhaps unfairly) political and intellectual elites unwilling to do or even say anything about this. The fact is that there have been calls for years to pull punches with regard to Islam. (Such calls were never heard with regard to the followers of Jean-Marie Le Pen.) This way of thinking is common. As Weekly Standard editor William Kristol noted in an editorial the other day, our own top magistrate said only two years ago, “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”
But no one is talking about owning the future. Journalists, certainly, have no interest in owning the future. They do have an interest in making fun of, or investigating, or reporting on — call that slander if you want — people who are influential, including those who claim to have a direct line to God. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, there is not a religion known to mankind that has not been mocked in its pages. And so what? In the eighteenth century a French bellelettrist named François Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, made major career gains by carrying on for years on the theme of “Ecrasez l’infame!” (Down with the Hateful One), by which he meant the Roman Church. He had to hightail it to Switzerland periodically to escape the armed men with royal warrants for his arrest. This was prior to the Revolution. And the Republic.
So it is not entirely out of school to ask: When did a Catholic, even what they call in France an integriste (anti-Vatican II) Catholic, threaten Charlie Hebdo yelling “Dieu le vault” (God wills it)? When did a latter-day follower of Jabotinsky ever attack the offices of the National Front with shouts of “Israel chai” (Israel lives!)?
There are matters of civic responsibility, or comportment, that have been avoided in French policy circles, notably in the schools but by no means only there. The National Front owes the contempt in which the elites hold it at least partly to the fact that it has said things, arguably in incendiary ways, that bien-pensants elites prefer not to hear. For if these things were said calmly and with civic compassion, would they be more acceptable? The French experience since at least the 1980s if not earlier suggests that people who should have known better had better things to do.
After all, it is not to blame anyone or any religion to ask why three young French men (and one young woman) did not find in their neighborhoods and, to use an American term, communities, the resources to resist the blandishments of neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic jihadist (real or phony) violence. The only people who seem to have had the presence of mind to put this question in the public square last week are the leaders of a Kabyle organization; might it at least be worth wondering whether they, representing a repressed minority in Algeria, know something about Muslim societies that the secularist, humanistic, liberal, and democratic defenders of republican values do not know, or do not want to know?
On the other side, it is quite possible the National Front men (and women) have given indications of what they would do if they were in power. There is no doubt their anti-Semitic, xenophobic excesses are troubling. Thus far, these have been confined to rhetorical appeals.
The Islamist radicals, as they are called, have gone directly into action to demonstrate what they would do. Why should it not be a fair question to ask — the answer is by no means ineluctable — whether calling them “Islamic radicals” is itself a form of surrender in the face of a present danger to France? Indeed, as Caldwell put it, is talking about the “values of the republic,” which after all can be a subject for debate, rather than France itself, which cannot be, already a symptom of pusillanimity foreshadowing capitulation? But capitulation to what? Do the French know?
Those are questions for another day. The march yesterday was one of the biggest in the history of a city whose politics are inseparable from such demonstrations. This may well have broken all records, some four million people in the capital and the provinces and the overseas outposts of France. The prime minister stated that France is at war. The police, in acknowledging their failure to protect Charlie Hebdo, may well have been hinting at the dimensions of the security problems facing the country. A redressement, a stiffening of resolve and purpose, may be on the way.
For notwithstanding all the questions that must and will be raised, this is also a time for affirmation. Following the giant Sunday marches, the immense, and immensely moving, outpouring of solidarity, generosity, and love for their country that ordinary people showed, there is every reason to keep faith with the République that has served the grand et vieux pays. The sacrifices of Frenchmen with names such as Stéphane and Georges and Ahmed and Sami will become known to every schoolchild. As will the courage of a very young man, a French man, whose name is Lassana Bathily, who worked in the store taken hostage by another young French man, like Lassana of Malian origin, and who was able to save many of the trapped Jewish customers and said simply when it was over, “Don’t thank me, that’s life.”
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