French National Front focuses on Islam in third phase of far-right strategy
Polls show FN could win biggest percentage of vote in European parliamentary elections
President of the French far-right Front National party Marine Le Pen (left) is kissed by a woman in Brachay in northeastern France. Photograph: Francois Nascimbeni/AFP/Getty Images
The jihadists who leave France to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria symbolise an Islamist “fifth column” within France, perhaps the most potent of fears associated with immigration. Some of the jihadists, such as Jean-Daniel and Nicolas Bons, brothers from Toulouse who died fighting in Syria last year, are Christians who converted to Islam. Their fate gives substance to French paranoia about contagion by radical Islam.
Their father, Gérard Bon, has founded an association to fight the recruitment of young Frenchmen for jihad. The government fears that jihadists will return from Syria to carry out attacks in France. So returning veterans are threatened with 15 years in prison for having participated in “terrorism” – ironic, since president François Hollande has called for Assad’s downfall. Bons recounts how his sons told him that the prospect of years in prison dissuaded them from coming home.
French intelligence says 700 French and foreigners living in France are involved in the Syrian jihad; 250 as combatants. On January 19th, interior minister Manuel Valls said “they represent for me the greatest danger we shall have to face in coming years”.
Though the government does not break down figures between converts and the children of Arab Muslim immigrants, the latter are more numerous.
They include Sofiane (19), who left his family in Roubaix last July. His mother received a telephone call two months later saying he’d died near Aleppo. Or Brahim (17), who left for school on the morning of December 18th, then called to tell his parents he was on his way to Syria. Or two 15-year-olds who left Toulouse on January 6th, also bound for Syria. The government says 21 French jihadists have died, and that a dozen of the hundreds who’ve departed for Syria are minors.
Asked about French jihadists earlier this month, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant National Front (FN) replied smugly: “It’s hard to fight the quenelle and jihadists at the same time.” (The quenelle is an allegedly anti-Semitic gesture invented by the humorist Dieudonné, whose show Valls succeeded in banning.)
Government surveillance of Muslim extremists in France is hopelessly inadequate, Le Pen said, citing the case of Mohamed Merah, the 23-year-old son of Algerian immigrants who killed seven people, including three Jewish children, in early 2012.
The FN has been anti-immigrant and anti-European since its foundation by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972. There have been three stages in its anti-immigrant rationale, says Prof Pascal Perrineau, one of France’s leading political scientists and an expert on the rise of the FN. The first focused on unemployment, the second on crime and the most recent on Islam.
In the 1970s, when Valéry Giscard d’Estaing established the policy of regroupement familial to enable the families of immigrant workers to join them, the FN’s posters said “One million immigrants = one million jobless”.