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”.
That theme continues today, while the number of unemployed has quintupled. “When a country has five million jobless, by definition, when you import immigrants, you’re importing unemployed people,” Le Pen says.
The founders of the FN were mostly supporters of L’Algérie francaise, who opposed independence for Algeria in the 1954-1962 war.
“Since the majority of immigrants came from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, the hostility was in part based on resentment towards countries considered ungrateful to France, particularly Algeria,” Prof Perrineau says. “There’s an element of settling historic accounts.”
Young FN supporters have forgotten the war, but Marine Le Pen brought it up spontaneously with journalists, and it still weighs on the old-timers.
Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie frequently pointed out the high numbers of immigrants among the French prison population. The FN’s programme still calls for the expulsion of all immigrants convicted of a crime.
In his 1995 book The Crisis Vote, Prof Perrineau coined the phrase “gaucho-lepenisme” to describe the shift by unemployed French workers from the communist and socialist parties to the FN, on the grounds that immigrants “stole our jobs”. Today, 33 per cent of French workers and 40 per cent of the unemployed vote FN.
By the time the FN started using Islamophobia to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment in the 1990s, the party’s influence was waning. Realising the impact the attacks on the World Trade Center would have on the FN’s fortunes, young militants drank champagne while the towers burned on September 11th, 2001. They were reprimanded, and Jean-Marie Le Pen sent condolences to George W Bush.
When fundamentalist Muslims carried out attacks in London, Paris and Madrid, the FN explicitly associated immigration with radical Islam.
“The message was, ‘watch out’. Immigration is not only the vector of economic competition and insecurity,” Prof Perrineau recalls. “It was also that Islam threatens our cultural model; that we can never integrate a Muslim community that harbours radical Islam as surely as clouds carry storms.”
France “can no longer assimilate new Frenchmen,” says the FN programme. “Ghettos, inter-racial conflict, sectarian demands and politico-religious provocation are the direct consequences of massive immigration that threatens our identity and carries ever more visible Islamisation.” Le Pen often lists “veils, burkas and cathedral-like mosques” as the symptoms of Islamisation, and says she’s fighting to prevent France becoming a caliphate or Islamic state.
Incitement to hatred
Two anti-racist groups have filed lawsuits against Marine Le Pen for her December 2010 comparison of Muslims praying in French streets to the German army’s occupation of France during the second World War. The EU parliament has lifted her immunity as an MEP, and she may stand trial for incitement to racial hatred.
“I prefer my daughters to my cousins, my cousins to my neighbours, my neighbours to strangers,” Jean-Marie Le Pen said for decades, explaining his policy of “national preference”. Marine’s modernised FN has changed the term to “national priority,” but she, like her father, still condemns the “sucking pumps” of welfare payments and other benefits which attract immigrants to France.
“Whatever his race or religion, a French person must have priority of access to employment and housing,” Le Pen says. “Even if I disagree with the way a lot of them acquired French nationality, I would not try to take it away from them.”
Le Pen says she would reduce legal immigration to France from 200,000 to 10,000 annually. All illegal immigrants would be expelled, and French law would be altered to make future legalisations impossible. Demonstrations by illegal immigrants or those who support them would be banned.
The FN would rescind the 40-year-old policy of family reunification, renounce the Schengen accords on freedom of movement in Europe, and reduce the maximum duration of a residence card from 10 to three years. The FN would abolish jus soli, the right of anyone born in France to citizenship. Foreigners who lose their jobs would be expelled after a year’s unemployment.
Jean-Marie Le Pen’s prophecy of the “Le Pen-isation of (French) minds” seems to have come true. Polls show that three- quarters of French people believe Islam is “not compatible with French values”. Two-thirds say there are too many foreigners in France, while 59 per cent say that “in general, immigrants don’t try to integrate.” At the same time, acceptance of the FN has grown – 47 per cent say it’s “a useful party”.
Immigration was the backdrop to feverish political disputes in recent months: the “Leonarda affair”, when the expulsion of a 15-year-old Roma schoolgirl with her family backfired on the Hollande administration; the government’s climbdown after 250 experts delivered a report on integration to the prime minister which said schoolgirls should be allowed to wear headscarves and Arabic could be taught in French schools. “We’re not in Britain or Canada, where women can go around in hijab and kids can demand halal meals in schools,” says Prof Perrineau. “France just doesn’t work that way.”
An opinion poll in October showed the FN would win 24 per cent of the vote in European parliamentary elections on May 25th, two points ahead of the conservative UMP and five points ahead of the socialists.
France is the second most powerful country in the EU, after Germany. If the FN comes in first on May 25th, it will be a political earthquake, comparable to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s qualifying for the run-off in the 2002 presidential election.
And a wave of disquiet will run through France’s immigrant community.