Since last weekend, the French far-right, anti-immigrant party, Front National, which had been founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, has a new president: The daughter of the founder, Marine Le Pen.
Jean-Yves Camus, political analyst at the Institute of International Relations and Strategy in Paris and expert in right-wing extremism, talked with EMAJ Magazine about the right-wing party and its attitude to Islam and Muslims in France.
Marine Le Pen first came to public notice during the presidential election in May 2002. That year France suffered a political earthquake when the National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen came second to incumbent Jacques Chirac in the first round of the presidential elections. Even though presented as a more modern and consensual figure compared to her father, Marine Le Pen is controversial and often targets Muslims in her declarations. In December last year she drew heavy criticism after she compared Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation in France, during a debate on TV.
- Marine Le Pen was elected on Sunday as the new president of the Front National. Does this mean a new era for the extreme-right French party?
I really think so. The opinion polls show that she is more acceptable than her father to the voters and militants of the mainstream conservative right, especially those of president Sarkozy’s party (UMP). Given that the support for Sarkozy is shrinking, Marine Le Pen may appear as an alternative to those who think that the present government is a bit shy regarding such issues such as immigration, Islam or law and order. Obviously she is a competent leader and speaker. To put it bluntly, she has the guts to run the party with an iron fist but she is far more in tune with the younger generations than her father is.
- Do you think the arrival of Marine Le Pen at the head of the Front National will turn it into a more consensual party within the French society, giving it more chances at the next presidential elections for example? What makes the party appealing?
In her maiden speech at the party convention, she surprised many, and even angered some, by quoting several times the “values of the Republic” which are so dear to the French. She spoke about the secular State and the alleged threat of Islam. She also supported another typically French idea, that the State has the duty to intervene in the economy in order to protect the poor. She attacked the “big capital” in a way that could have been that of the radical left and said that she was in favour of France leaving the EU and the euro, because they are negative tools of a globalized economy. That may sound odd to the social elites, but it is a language the ”common folk” understand.
- Marine Le Pen has targeted Muslims and mosques in recent speeches. Could she be compared to politicians as Geert Wilders or politicians of the Sweden Democrats (SD) for instance, or are there still differences?
She wants to get in touch with Geert Wilders and also the Swiss politician, Oskar Freysinger. Opposition to Islam is at the top of her political agenda. Her idea is that France has its roots in Christian tradition, although religious values those days are nothing more than cultural landmarks and do not shape the life of the individuals as they used to. The issue of national identity has become more important than immigration in the agenda of the Front National and the party does not want to expel all non-EU foreigners. It is now focusing on the threat posed to Western civilization by Islam. I say Islam, not Islamism, but the National Front does not see any difference between the two.
- Is the anti-Islam attitude a new component of the European extreme-right?
Yes, especially in a former colonial power like France. The old-fashioned racism of the extreme-right used stereotypes that came from the colonial experience of the French. They targeted “Arabs”, who were seen as lazy, untrustworthy and having a lower standard of civilization than Europeans. But the colonial power spoke no evil of Islam and they even used religion as a tool to keep the indigenous population from rebelling. The imams in Algeria were often integrated into the colonial administration, and the independence movement was secular.
With the rise of political Islam and 9/11, this situation has changed. What is now perceived as a threat to the West is Islam as a religion. The noteworthy change is also that the “modern” extreme-right is attacking Islam on the grounds that it wants to curtail civil liberties. The extreme-right is now presenting itself as a defender of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, women and gay rights. This is a complete reversal when compared to the authoritarian ideology of the traditional extreme-right.