Right Turn

Dear readers this is a “thoughtful” post – meaning it’s not very funny and it rambles on with my usual incoherence. Yet another 6th form essay. You have been warned.

Is the extreme right making a comeback in France?  Some might argue that the extreme right has never been off the political scene – the National Front or Front National (FN) have been part of the French political landscape for over the past thirty years. Founded and led by the bluff, populist  Jean Marie Le Pen, the FN are regularly attributed with a poll ratings varying from 11% to 21%. Their hour of glory came in 2002, when Jean Marie Le Pen made it through to the second round of that year’s presidential election by narrowly beating the socialist party candidate, Lionel Jospin into third place in the first round of voting. The FN though would refute the label of extreme or ultra right, nationalist or even fascist.

The idea of a resurgence of the extreme right comes in the light of recent events.

First there were the huge demonstrations in Paris against the bill on same sex marriage, which officially became law on May 26th. Experts and observers of French politics were literally amazed at the groundswell in anti gay marriage opinion. In at least two demonstration in the nation’s capital, a loose coalition of right wing, catholic and family groups, bound together for the time of a single issue cause under the banner of « Le manif pour Tous » – the movement claim to have had as many as a million supporters on the streets of Paris during two of their rallies. In France, massive street protest is normally the political protest tool of the left. In the anti gay marriage movement there were no banner waving revolutionaries, but mums and pushing prams, demonstrating at, what they saw as President Hollande’s attempt to « destroy » the institution of the traditional family. The FN did not officially participate in these demos, though plenty of their sympathisers did. Everyone was amazed that there was such strength of right wing feeling in France, and that it was able to mobilize so many people. Leaders of the Manif pour Tous refuted all claims that they harboured elements of the extreme right or that they had any links with ultra right wing or fascist organisations.

The second event leading to « evidence » of a right wing comeback, happened on June 5th, when a gang of skinheads (between 5 and 7 in number) killed 19 year-old Clément Méric in a busy commercial district in the centre of Paris. The press have termed Méric as an anti-fascist activist or a member of an extreme left wing movement.

Reports on the killing say that 19 year-old Méric, a student at the Sciences Po school in Paris – an establishment of economic excellence that churns out the nations future leaders and administrators – had gone with fellow activists to « disrupt » a sale of Fred Perry clothing taking place in a private apartment in the Rue Caumartin. Méric and his fellow activists first confronted two skinheads at the entrance to the apartment building. The latter phoned for « reinforcements » and later, 5 other skinheads emerged and a fight ensued in which Méric was beaten about the head and face. He then fell to the ground, hitting his head. He was taken to hospital already in a coma; he died a few hours later. The day following the attack, Mr Méric’s assailants turned themselves into the police. For the moment they face charges of murder, though they claim it was never their intent to kill Mr Méric. Likely as not, the charge will be changed to manslaughter.

The third « right wing » event was reported in Thursday’s edition of The Times (June 6th 2013) (sold in France as « The Times of London ») – in a story entitled « Call for a Coup to Save France » – the newspaper’s Paris correspondent: Charles Bremner writes that « sections of the French military have called for a coup to save France. The Defence Ministry are taking seriously appeals from royalist, ultra traditionalist catholic groups on the Internet. … The plotters claim that France is threatened by decadence. » Mr Bremner goes on to say that an extreme right wing group known as Le Lys Noir  (the Black Lilly) made up of high-ranking traditionalist army officers, have called on their Brother officers to overthrow the Socialist Government.

So, are we on the brink of a military coup? Are the extreme right about to rise up and seize power from the hands of Mr Hollande?

It is all very reminiscent of France in the 1930’s – when, against a backdrop of economic crisis, right wing  « leagues » made up of disaffected soldiers, Royalists, nationalists and traditional Catholics, took to the streets in mass demonstrations that normally ended in running battles with the police and communist and anti-fascist counter demonstrators. The fascist leagues of the time had names like « La Croix du Feu » or « Solidarité Française » or « Action Française ». The latter, formed in the early 20th century in the wake of the Dreyfus affair, are still around and still quite strong – on their website they describe themselves as a « royalist, nationalist » movement. The French fascist leagues of the 1930’s were home-grown versions of the Italian fascist leagues and the NDSAP in Germany – pretty much in the same vein as Oswald Mosley’s « Blackshirts » in Britain. The Blackshirts were pretty much beaten in the 1936 « Battle of Cable Street » in London’s East end. The French fascist leagues had their moment of “glory” on February 6th, 1934, when hundreds of thousands of League members descended on Paris and tried to storm the Palais Bourbon, home to the French National Assembly.

Calls for a putsch, millions of right wing demonstrators on the streets,  and the tragic death of an anti-fascist activist. Are we on the brink of civil war ? Probably not, although right wing feeling has never been this strong for years.  Not since 1984, when President Mitterrand tried to remove all state funding from private education (schools are private but teachers are paid by the state) – the results were the biggest ever demonstrations seen on the streets of the nation’s capital. In the light of the massive street protest, Mr Mitterrand backed down, as do all French Presidents when unpopular reforms bring hundreds of thousands of people out to protest on the streets. Over the past twelve years, massive street protest has been enough for successive governments to drop controversial legislation on employment reform and retirement. And every time that the call of the streets has been heeded and the President has backed down, the mass protests and demonstrations have stopped. This time round though, President Hollande did not heed the call. After a mass demonstrations and a two-week long acrimonious parliamentary debate, the same sex marriage bill became law, and when it id so, Mr Hollande and his ministers told the protesters to go home. There was no more point in protesting, the law would stand. The right though have not gone away, and the single-issue movement that grew up around the same sex marriage bill is perhaps all set to turn into something bigger. American observers of French politics have called this the birth of a « French Tea Party movement. »

There is something « revolutionary » about the « French Tea Party Movement » – in the way that they used and tested street protest techniques more associated with the left. In common with the left, though, there was nothing revolutionary about the movement. France may have had its fair share of revolutions, for the past fifty years though, any protest has been to maintain the status quo – defending those rights and freedoms won through revolution and subsequent revolts, rebellions, protest movements etc. The French are often referred to as a nation of revolutionary conservatives. In the recent « manif pour tous » movement, it as simply a case of people once again taking to the streets to maintain the status quo. The same sex marriage law in itself though was a revolutionary act, so were the pram pushing mums counter-revolutionaries?   The French right was after all born out of those who opposed the first 1789 and subsequent revolutions. Royalists, Nobility, Clergy and quite a substantial part of the peasant class. In the wake of the 1789 revolution, vast swathes of the French countryside rose up against the Parisian revolutionary government. The peasants were locked into a feudal system – their daily needs looked after by their lords and masters and their spiritual needs looked after by the church. The urban revolution in Paris didn’t go down well in the countryside as the peasants’ feudal world was swept away. In the west of France along the Atlantic coast, peasant armies led by local nobility fought first against the Republic, then the Directorate and were finally suppressed by Napoleon, who can hardly be called a revolutionary.

Whereas the American Tea Party Movement takes its name from a revolutionary act – (if you can call the Boston Tea Party a revolutionary act – perhaps more sedition than revolution) – the French right have their roots firmly in anti-revolutionary, royalist ground.  Nowadays in France the difference is still made between the catholic /royalist right and the Republican right – the latter being those mostly on the centre right and firmly attached to the republican triptych of « Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. »

Those on the right in France do sometimes have to tread carefully. Though the second World war is long over, the ghosts of Petain and Vichy often come back to haunt the right. After the defeat of France in 1940, the Nazi occupiers divide France into two zones – a German occupied zone in the north and a « puppet regime » in the south – the Vichy Republic, presided over by Marshall Petain, from the small spa town of Vichy in the Massif Central. The Vichy Republic was one in name only. It even abandoned the old Liberté Egalité Fraternité, opting for a new triptych – Travail, Famille, Patrie – work, family and nation. The Vichy regime, whilst not openly collaborating with the Nazi occupiers, certainly followed the political line of their Nazi masters in return for being allowed to simply « exist » In November 1942, following the Allied invasions of French colonies in North Africa, the Germans « invaded » the unoccupied part of France. Following this, Petain was sidelined and the new key players in the Vichy Republic were very open in their collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. With this historical weight, even life as a centre right republican politician can be difficult when talking about questions of  « national identity ». Sarkozy became « unstuck » when launched such a national debate with the simple question « what does it mean to be French? »  This kind of questions brings back images of French police and Gendarmes rounding up thousands of Jews in Paris during the « Rafle de Velodrome d’Hiver »

The Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup (French: Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver, commonly called the Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv: “Vel’ d’Hiv Police Roundup / Raid”), was a raid and mass arrest in Paris by the French police on 16 and 17 July 1942, code named Opération Vent printanier (“Operation Spring Breeze”). The name for the event is derived from the nickname of the Vélodrome d’Hiver (“Winter Velodrome”), an indoor bicycle velodrome and stadium where many of the victims were temporarily confined. The roundup was one of several aimed at reducing the Jewish population in occupied France. According to records of the Préfecture de Police, 13,152 victims were arrested and held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver and the Drancy internment camp nearby, then shipped by railway transports to Auschwitz for extermination. French President Jacques Chirac apologized in 1995 for the complicit role that French policemen and civil servants served in the raid. (Thanks to Wikipedia)

The problem of the mainstream French right is that they tend beat themselves up over history. Mind you, one problem with France in general is the nation’s uneasy relationship to its recent historical past – not just in WW2, but also in Indochina (Vietnam) and also in the bloody decolonisation of Algeria. In fact, this was the last time that the French military staged a putsch, (but that will be part of another post)

Back to the current « putsch » though. In my job as an English teacher for the French army my colleagues and trainees are all soldiers. From the officer corps, right down to the rank and file, there don’t seem to be any putsch rumblings, but there is a lot of grumbling about massive cut backs in manpower. I would hasten to add that I hear quite a few members of the officer corps lamenting on how decadent France is becoming.  Unlike in Britain, where it is not uncommon to have senior members of the armed forces openly criticising government policy in the national media, in France all soldiers, of whatever rank are held to a « devoir de reserve », basically meaning « a duty to silence ». They may express their political views in private and out of uniform, but even out of uniform in public they are not allowed to say anything – it could lose them their job. I suppose there is a paradox within the French military. A greater part of the officers corps are very much the traditional catholic, five kids and stay at home mum variety. Quite a few have royalist leanings, though they are sworn to protect the Republic.

Anyway in answer to my question is this a resurgence of the extreme right?, I would simply say that we have merely rediscovered a part of the right that has been there ever since the French revolution – an ancestral, royalist and catholic right that is occasionally used and usurped by fascists and nationalists. As much as those of Royalist leanings may be slightly out of phase with the republican, ideal they live with it as any normal Citizen would. The Royalist and Catholic right that we have seen on the anti-gay marriage demonstrations though are not the racists and fascists of the extreme right.  Even the FN are now at pains to distance themselves from the skinheads and fascists, who have always been there, indeed, many found a home in the FN when it was headed by Jean Marie Le Pen, himself an ex-paratrooper who served in Algeria and was accused of torturing detainees.

For sure, in the same way that a couple of weeks ago, the French media were out looking for home grown Islamic terrorists, this week, they are looking for Skinheads, and I daresay in the coming weeks we’ll have the darkened, hidden faces of skinheads in all our news bulletins, confessing their crimes and their racism in distorted « Mickey Mouse » voices.

It’s only a couple of weeks since the brutal murder of an off-duty soldier on the streets of south-east London. A few days later, there was a similar, but unsuccessful “copycat” attack on a French soldier in Paris. On  March 11th and 15th 2012, a certain Mohamed Merah killed two off duty soldiers in Toulouse and Montauban, then on March 19th he shot dead five people, including two children at a Jewish school in the suburbs of Toulouse. In the London killing and the French killings, the perpetrators were young men acting in the name of Islam. In both cases the young men were also British and French nationals – home-grown terrorists. It was the same scenario for those who carries out the 7/7 attacks in London in July 2005, killing 52 people.

Certainly such atrocities have served in one way to increase support for the extreme right, however it is possibly the first time within the also thirty years that there has been a death because of Franco-French, political violence. I can only think of one other case of a “political” murder, that of the Renault car boss George Besse, The Renault CEO was assassinated on March 17th 1986, shot in the head by two men on a motorcycle as he left his flat in Paris. In March 1987, the left wing terror group “Action Directe” claimed responsibility for the murder of the Renault CEO

On both sides of the Channel, as we try to understand what drives young men to take up the mantle of radical Islam and then commit acts of terror in its name, we might also have to start doing a bit of soul searching as to what drives all young people into extremist groups with a cult of hatred and violence.

The murder of Clément Méric, has, for the moment knocked Islamic violence off the media radar. There is also a tragic coincidence that it comes at a time when the Socialist government was trying to “diabolise” or discreditthe “Manif pour Tous” movement. Prior to the movement’s final demonstration in Paris on May 26th, there were clear warnings from government ministers that “families” should  stay away from the demonstration in Paris in case they got caught up in violence. True, previous demonstrations had ended with violent scenes as extreme right wing groups tried to usurp the march as it broke up. There were running battle with police who fired teargas at the protesters. It all seemed just a little too far from the previous scenes in the day of pram pushing mums and dads and kids peacefully protesting. Prior to the demonstration, the government made known its intention to ban an extreme right wing group “Le Printemps Français” – a racist, homophobic group that was supposedly born for the “Manif pour Tous “ movement.

Looking at the “Manif Pour Tous” website, I can tell you that they are not about to simply disappear from the political landscape. Indeed, there is talk of them fielding candidates for next year’s local authority elections across France. Mr Hollande already fears a drubbing at the ballot box, he could well do without the actions of the “Manif pour Tous” to make it any worse.

Following the murder of Clément Méric, the government are cosniedring banning extreme right wing organisations, starting with the “Jeunesse Nationaliste Révolutionnaire” – the fascist group to which Mr Méric’s murderers belonged. There is support for this from the mainstream Republican right. Of course, banning one group won’t make the extreme right go away.

Mr Hollande certainly has a right wing problem on his hands, however, whenever we get a Socialist government in France, there is always a rise on the far right. The FN was never as popular as during the Mitterrand years, and in a way, the rise of the FN served the socialists, not just because it helped it attracted voters from the mainsteam Republican right, but also, paradoxically it attracted a great many communist voters. Just as the far left are a currently a political thorn in Mr Hollande’s side, so too were the communists with President Mitterrand. Both Mr Hollande, and Mr Mitterrand in his day won their respective elections with support from the far left in the second round of voting. However, the new found friends also proved, and are proving t to be the best of enemies for the Socialists ?.

Are the extreme right making a comeback ?– well yes they are. The extreme right always have a comeback when the socialists are in power in the same way that the extreme left always enjoy a resurgence when the right are in power. When Sarkozy was President, it was almost trendy to be on the far left.