In France, it's perfectly fine to describe Marine Le Pen as a fascist. Usually when you write this kind of thing about someone it stirs a little flurry of editorial anxiety: the f-word marks a pretty serious accusation. Can you really say this? Is it really justified?
Le Pen certainly doesn't think so: the Front National leader tried to sue both the left-wing politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the comedian Nicolas Bedos for libel after they described her as a fascist (Bedos as a "fascist bitch"), and both times she lost: the French courts decided that, actually, the epithet was entirely reasonable.
The political party she leads fits the bill – founded by an anti-Semite and Holocaust dismisser, it has said it opposes all migration into France, regularly wets its collective pants at the mere existence of ordinary Muslims and has been instrumental in a growing movement in which local French school authorities eliminate the "no pork" meal option for both Muslim and Jewish students – "it's pork or nothing", they are told.
Her views should be, in any minimally reasonable discourse, entirely unacceptable. So what was she doing on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday?
There's a line on this kind of thing: the best way to beat fascism is to engage with it openly so that people can see how ridiculous it really is. But this is stupid: you can say that sunlight is the best disinfectant, but try hauling a big slab of rotting meat outside on a hot summer day and see what happens. It's as if the BBC has learned nothing from the travesty of Trump's rise to power: all that ceaseless mockery, the laughter of smug liberals 24 hours a day on every channel coast to coast – and somehow, by some strange and mysterious mechanism, giving slavish attention to Donald Trump didn't make him go away.
Marr explained his interview by saying that it was important to inform viewers on the nature and policies of a person who could be France's next president, but there's no shortage of academics and experts to do the same. You don't gain any special insight on an ideology by letting ideologues take the floor; all you do is allow it to reproduce itself.
Fascism exists in its own communication: it's the weaponisation of dumb common sense, the politics of the easy answer, something that doesn't work according to the rules of open debate. Liberals like to point to Nick Griffin's disastrous 2009 Question Time appearance and the BNP's subsequent collapse as an example of this process, but Griffin was always a poor communicator: all it did was open up a wider space for Nigel Farage, who – for all his faults – is not. And Marine Le Pen is the same.
Say we accept, provisionally, the idea that you can beat fascism by giving it airtime. Even on that level, the BBC interview was a monumental dereliction of duty. Andrew Marr did not hold Marine Le Pen to account during his interview; he did not challenge her views; he did not grill her. If anything, she grilled him.
Start with the basic optics of the interview. Most of these dialogues take place in the studied neutrality of a TV studio; this one did not. Marine Le Pen was sat in what looked more like the interviewer's seat, dignified against a generic background: rich, blank, depthless blue, with a trio of French flags – very stateswomanlike, very restrained and legitimate – just out of focus behind her. She was in the placeless everywhere of television, a scene that could reproduce itself anywhere and everywhere.
Andrew Marr, meanwhile, had sat himself down in front of some tatty-looking blinds with trees wobbling vaguely outside, and a National Front propaganda poster reading "Brexit et maintenant la France" – "Brexit and now France". He was in a space that belonged entirely to her. Marr didn't look like a tough interviewer challenging an insurgent right-wing; he looked like an overgrown schoolboy, with his suit and his lolling bubble-head, his rosy apple cheeks and his smart little side parting, sat obediently in front of Mme. Le Pen and eager to learn from what she had to say.
Take one of their earliest exchanges. For Marine Le Pen, the choice facing France is clear, and she lays it out: "Do we want a multicultural society, following the example of the English-speaking world, where fundamentalist Islam is progressing, where we see major religious claims? Or do we want an independent nation, with people able to control their own destiny?"
This is a fantastic piece of rhetorical trickery: without ever really explaining how this opposition is created, Le Pen manages to make it appear as if the rights of some people to freely express their religious beliefs are in contradiction to the ability of everyone to control their own destiny, rather than an integral part of that ability. Suddenly, Muslim people and the European superstate and the blank repression of a "society" are united into one faceless bloc, with an unspecified principle of "being able to control your own destiny" (what does that mean, exactly?) on the other side of the equation. It's an incredibly dishonest line. Does Andrew Marr challenge it? Does he fuck. His jelly eyes wobble, he sticks out his grisly little row of teeth and says, "Let me turn to culture..."
On it goes. Marr points to the Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism of Le Pen's father and predecessor, and she's shocked. "I cannot let you say something so insulting." She's in the big chair here, roundly condemning Marr for saying that she might have anything in common with her father just because she leads the same party and taps into the same political energies, and challenging him to explain himself. "I would like you to tell me what sentence, what proposal in the National Front's programme is a racist proposal?"
Of course, the racism of the FN doesn't really lie on the level of their outwardly stated policies, but even there it's visible – take, for instance, their proposal to ban dual nationality, but only for non-Europeans: white French people can have as many allegiances as they like, but the loyalties of people from the Maghreb or sub-Saharan Africa are suspect.
Then there's her own racism – her suggestion in 2012, for instance, that refugees would "steal your wallet and brutalise your wife". Marr doesn't mention this. He asks how the National Front would approach French Muslims – can they "be good French citizens and be welcome in Marine Le Pen's France?" Le Pen doesn't really answer the question; she says that migration into France must end and that she only cares about whether people comply with "our codes, our values, our French lifestyles". Whose lifestyles specifically? It doesn't matter – the question has already vanished; it was just an opportunity for Marine Le Pen to talk about herself.
The Marr interview was a travesty, but what it demonstrates is even more terrifying. An office full of BBC executives came together to create something so craven and so spineless: a shameful display of cringe in the face of a hateful ideology.
They did try to challenge her, a little, but there was something structural that prevented them from doing it properly. It's not, as some on the left have argued, that Le Pen's opinions put her so far outside the mainstream that she shouldn't be allowed on TV; it's far worse than that. Her politics are just an intensification of what's there already. There was nothing in what she said about Muslims or migrants that hadn't been circulating through the British media for years; she just draws together and systematises the hatred, pettiness and suspicion of a political mainstream that's already profoundly reactionary and violent.
The BBC couldn't really challenge her because it had nothing to challenge her with. As the interview quite blatantly dramatised, we're all on her turf now. The insistence that Le Pen and people like her shouldn't be allowed on our screens is a good one; we need to fight for whatever small victories we can get. But it doesn't end there. The far bigger task is to collect and systematise something that opposes her ideology, so that the next time someone like her invades a million homes through their TV sets, we'll have better questions to ask them.
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