It’s been six years now that France’s barely-closeted fascist party, the Front National (FN), has worked tirelessly to convince us, the French electorate, that they are a respectable political party.
The message has been that the far right’s glory days of throwing migrants into the Seine to their deaths are over, that they have changed, and that they are now respectful and moderate people, with the greatest interest in mind for all of France.
Six whole years of dazzlingly smooth PR, which has brought the FN neatly into the mainstream. It is, of course, a pack of lies.
Since Marine Le Pen became the leader of her oligarchic party in 2011 (replacing her openly anti-Semitic father), she has done everything in her power to hide every last bit of overt racism from the cameras of the press. Exit the bald thugs in leather jackets and military trousers; enter the clean operators in suits and ties.
The FN discovered the optical power of ‘dapper’ fascism long before the alt-right dared to show itself. And it’s been working quite well.
But sometime it’s hard to reconcile l’amour de la patrie with a facade of good intentions. When Le Pen appeared on a right-leaning radio show just two weeks before election day, she was asked if she thinks Jacques Chirac (President, 95-07) was wrong to have admitted France’s responsibility for the Vel d’Hiv Roundup – one of France’s worst mass killings of World War II.
To this, Le Pen kindly and politely replied “oui”. She continued: “France is not responsible. Generally speaking, those who are were the ones in command at the time. France has been bashed for years now, we have taught our kids that they should be ashamed of our historic past. And I want them to be proud again.”
This is a good moment to rewind just a bit. The Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup is not a historical detail that you can gloss over like dust on one of Louis XIV’s old cupboards. On June 17th 1942, 7,000 French policeman mass-arrested 13,000 Jews and imprisoned them in Paris’s Vélodrome stadium.
Fewer than a hundred survived. The remaining 12,900 were sent to Auschwitz and other death camps, never to be seen again.
One could point out that it was a demand of the Third Reich, at a time when France was under Nazi occupation. But that doesn’t change the fact that those who committed the crime did so not simply as French citizens but as servants of the French government. It was the state of France, with its police force and its administrative machinery, that opted for institutional complicity.
In 1995, President Jaques Chirac officially recognized this culpability for the first time, permanently casting light on this dark stain on our history – as many other nations already had done for their own crimes. It urged us to grow and learn as a nation without denying our past and thus repeating the same mistakes in the future. But it appears to be too much for our wannabe Joan of Arc to swallow.
Such denial of responsibility is quite incredible, really; such spiteful dissonance in the face of our recorded history, such fragile pride in masking the fact that, maybe, we are not perfect in every way. But it’s not surprising.
In the same way that Le Pen stubbornly denies that she illegally took money from the European Parliament, she also denies that we, as a nation, have responsibility for our actions. She cannot accept that this duty won’t go away just because one thinks that France has been “bashed”.
Why, after so many years of trying to mask the Nazi stench of her party, is she making a mistake like this? Simple: it is no mistake.
From the beginning of this years-long re-branding, Marine Le Pen has consistently positioned herself and her movement as anti-establishment (sound familiar?) – even as she uses the machinery of that same establishment to hide from the cops with parliamentary immunity. She poses as the victim of a decadent society that stigmatizes her for being true to the old French values, incorruptible, without an ounce of irony.
Of course Le Pen’s words have been met with widespread condemnation across the French media, and of course the general public is offended…but they are not her target audience, their outrage is not her concern. She built her base by touching France’s very own deplorables, the ones that think that they cannot express their complaints out loud, the ones that feel duped by so-called politically correct society.
With this sort of declaration, she is speaking directly to a fragile mob that seethes with resentment at every reminder that we are not above reproach. They are fed up with the fact that they cannot shout out loud their French pride unchallenged, mixing racism and negationism in the process.
If you have the stomach for just a brief glance at the comments section of one of the many op eds condemning her hate speech, you will see legions of Internet trolls shouting their unshakable support of their candidate. You’ll observe one of the great flame wars of our time.
Politicians from other parties closed ranks against Le Pen’s position, such as Christian Estrosi from the Republicains (the main center-right party). Estrosi said that “by denying the french state responsibility, she is following her father on the path of indignity”, a position broadly echoed by left wing candidates Benoit Hamon (Parti Socialiste) and Jean Luc Mélenchon (la France Insoumise).
All the while Le Pen is quietly smiling, her campaign having been built on the assertion that those guys are all the same, liars and slaves of the system. With voting now just days away, the FN are still polling exceptionally well and are tipped to be the front runners in the first round, putting them dangerously close to winning the presidency. Le Pen’s calculation, that antisemitism is no longer a vote-killing taboo, appears to be paying off.
This allows her to shore up her base with relative impunity, reassuring those who still believed in her daddy, a man who qualified the gas chamber as “a historic detail”. Because we wouldn’t want to lose those guys on election day, would we?
Is there any need of further proof that the Front National is still the same old racist party? No, not really. But it has now become clear that when it comes to watching fascists rise to power, France doesn’t care.
Image: Blandine Le Cain