A Close Look at the French Far Right

What groups will be looking for a political edge in the aftermath of the 'Charlie Hebdo' attack?

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Jan 9 2015, 8:00pm

Far-right protesters on a "Day of Rage" demonstration last year

Since the shooting of 12 journalists at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday morning, a predictable series of attacks on Muslims have unfolded with a grim inevitability.

In Le Mans, a city just West of Paris, three blank grenades were tossed into the courtyard of a local mosque on the evening of the shooting. In the South, near Narbonne, shots were fired at a group just finishing their evening prayers. On Thursday morning, in the town of Villefranche-sur-Saône, a kebab shop next door to a mosque was firebombed. And yesterday afternoon a Muslim woman who was four months pregnant,lost her child after being attacked on the streets of Paris.

Like many countries in Europe, France appears to be on the edge; under the strain of an extended economic crisis, tensions over immigration have meant big gains for far-right parties. When I visited the former communist-voting rust belts of France last year to explore the impact of this on local populations, it was de-industrialization, unemployment, and disillusionment with more moderate politics that stuck me as the main sources of the problem.

But who are the groups we should be worried about? Who makes up the French far right in 2015? From old school neo-Nazi skinheads to Jewish defense groups, from ex-communists to extreme-right groups that claim to reject nationalism, it's an odd, sometimes paradoxical, always horrifying mix.

Marine Le Pen. Photo via Flickr user Blandine Le Cain

At its heart is the National Front (FN), the dominant far-right party founded in the 1970s by Nazi collaborators, Vichy obsessives, and anti-republicans. They aren't the only political party stigmatizing the Muslim population—it was Sarkozy's center-right UMP that introduced the ban on headscarves and—but they remain easily the most Islamophobic party in France.

In March last year they took control of a number of towns in the local elections, and immediately set about making life as miserable as possible for the Muslim and immigrant populations. Much like another far-right French organization—Riposte Laïque (Secular Response), who organized a small rally in central Paris on Thursday—the FN's stance on immigration today is cloaked in the language of secularism and republican universalism; fascism dressed up as anti-fascism. Some of their members—like the Major of Hayange, Fabien Engelmann, and many of their supporters—are even ex-communists.

For the FN, the Charlie Hebdo massacre presents yet another opportunity to grow its base, to make Islamophobia more mainstream and "legitimate" than it already is. Their leader, Marine Le Pen, daughter of the far more openly fascist holocaust revisionist Jean-Marie Le Pen, has already called for a "republican" march this Saturday. The shooting also means an opportunity to push forward other ideas from the radical right. On Thursday morning, speaking to France 2, Le Pen said she would call for a referendum on reinstating the death penalty if her 2017 presidential campaign proves successful.

Also worrying is the growth of an extra-parliamentary street protest movement called the Bloc Identitaire, set up in 2003 by Fabrice Robert, a former member of the far-right Unite Radical. Since their inception they've been engaging in all kinds of weird, provocative, racist street stunts designed to prevent the "Islamization of Europe" and "anti-white racism." They've held pork and wine parties in Muslim neighborhoods and have distributed so-called "identity soup"—pork soup—to homeless people across the country. After the killings they published a statement on their website saying "nobody will be able to claim that they are struggling again Jihadism without questioning massive immigration and the Islamization of our country."

Anti-fascist and fascist graffiti in Henin-Beaumont, a town where an FN mayor won a seat. Photo by the author

Their theoretical ideas—which they refuse to call nationalism—are rooted in Identitarianism, an ideology cooked up by the philosopher and so called "father of the new radical right" Alain de Benoist. He heads up a think tank called GRECE—the Research and Study Group for European Civilization. A critic of neoliberalism and multiculturalism, Benoist claims that the separation of different races and culture is the key to spiritual rebirth. It's a theory he calls ethnopluralism. Others call it racism.

Bloc Identitaire have an extremely active presence on the internet. Benoist is particularly keen on aspects of the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, whose theory of cultural hegemony emphasizes the need to influence culture and public opinion in order to achieve political change. The group even has its own pan-European press agency called Novopress that it uses to publicize its far-right ideology.

In 2009 the Bloc Identitaire became a formal political party and in 2012 they set up the Generation Identitaire—a sort of fascist Boy Scouts—who also work to protect the "freedom" and "cultural heritage" of "native" French citizens. They have a truly bloodcurdling, but decently produced, shot video on YouTube where they describe themselves as "the generation of ethnic fracture, total failure of coexistence, and forced mixing of the races."

Members of Génération Identitaire conduct a "scum patrol." Photo courtesy of Génération Identitaire

One of Génération Identitaire's first actions was held in 2012 when 100 activists stormed the Great Mosque of Poitiers, in a small city in west-central France, occupying the roof and unfurling a banner with the group's name. Last year they organized what they called "patrouilles antiracailles," anti-scum patrols in the subway of Lille designed to intimidate anyone they consider not French.

Both groups maintain close links to the FN and aim to influence it. Philip Vardon, the head of Nissa Rebela, a local division of the Bloc, joined Marine Le Pen's coalition of far-right parties in 2013. And various leaders of the group's youth wing were involved in local FN campaign teams during last year's election. Some, like Damie Rieu, have even secured permanent positions, in his case managing communications for Julian Sanchez, the FN mayor of Beaucaire.

Another group with supposed links to the National Front, and perhaps one of the stranger presences on the far right are the Ligue De Defense Juif (LDJ), the French division of the Jewish Defence League (JDL)—a virulently anti-Arab militant group whose stated mission is defending Jews against anti-Semitism, or, as it usually turns out, any criticism of Israel.

The JDL were founded in the US back in 1968 by Rabbi Meir Kahane, who also set up Kach, the now banned religious nationalist Israeli political party. The group is outlawed in many countries around the world—including the US, who classify the JDL as a terrorist organization—but operates freely in France, where it claims to be gaining membership.

The French wing of the JDL is composed almost entirely of young men and is mainly active in Paris and Lyon. Since 2001 they've been charged with over a hundred accounts of physical aggression and assault including an attack on high school students, vandalizing a pro-Palestine Parisian bookstore, and strapping an explosive device to the car of Jonathan Moadab, a Jewish journalist and an open critic of the Israeli state.

Their relationship with other far-right parties is bizarre, at least for a so-called Jewish group. One of their founders, Jean-Claude Nataf, is known to have links to both the National Front and the Bloc Identitaire. Like in the UK—where the JDL has a Jewish division in the English Defence League—the basic principle seems to be that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. It is said to be a source of baffled horror and amusement amongst French anti-fascists that a Jewish group is hanging out with people who advocate Hitler-esque politics because they both hate Arabs so much.

A protester does a "quenelle" gesture on a far-right demonstration last year

One noted anti-semite that the LDJ do seem to dislike is Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, the onetime anti-racist activist who has made YouTube videos about the "Jewish lobby" and invented the "quenelle" gesture—the inverted sieg heil that got soccer player Nicolas Anelka in trouble.

M'bala's mixture of conspiracy theories, anti-Western rhetoric and virulent anti-Semitism appeals to numerous people from the extreme right to the disconnected urban youth. His popularity with the latter group is particularly strange given his close ties with Jean Marine Le Pen, who is the godfather of his third child, and Alain Soral, the far-right activist and founder of Equality and Recognition.

Mourners in France pay their dues to murdered activist Clement Meric in June 2013. Photo by Maxime Lelong

Sadly, M'bala and Soral don't complete the picture. There are Catholic fundamentalists who are active, there's a viciously homophobic movement called Manif Pour Tous that organized demonstrations last year against the gay marriage bill, and of course, there are skinhead groups, who despite having no overarching organization haven't gone away. Last year a group of swastika-wearing neo-Nazi hangers-on were responsible for the tragic death of Clément Méric, an 18-year-old anti-fascist activist.

All in all, it's a confusing picture. Not all of these groups will be hoping to benefit from the shooting, not all of them are straightforwardly Islamophobic, but many are. And, as usual, it will be ordinary people who suffer from their actions: immigrants, Muslim citizens, and refugees who have fled exactly the same people that carried out Wednesday's massacre. For the far right in France, this could be a defining moment.

Follow Philip Kleinfeld on Twitter.

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