Hundreds of students and anti-fascists disrupted a speech by Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right Front National at the Oxford Union last night. Le Pen and her party would have been proud of the invitation to talk at such an important institution. But through the thin walls of the old crumbling building, she and the audience would have heard the disgusted cries of people who think she should never have been there in the first place. Her speech was held back for an hour, hundreds were blocked from getting in, and the night ended with her sitting in a police van being followed down the street by irate anti-fascists.
It was an evening the Oxford Union would have been used to. They have a habit of inviting racist creeps to debates to show how brilliantly open minded they are and to cause a bit of a stir. In 2007 protesters broke through into the debating chamber to oppose the invitation of Nick Griffin, then leader of the far-right British National Party. It seemed like the Union had learnt a lesson when they dropped another invitation for Griffin in 2013. But last year, former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson was asked to speak in the wake of Rotherham's child abuse scandal. It was also opposed.
When I arrived in Oxford about an hour before Le Pen was due to speak, hundreds of students were queuing up on St Michael's Street outside the Union building waiting to hear her. Nobody I interviewed seemed to agree with Le Pen's xenophobic, anti-immigrant politics but many were interested in how she might justify and explain them.
"I'm not here because I support her," Will, a 21-year-old history student told me. "But I think we need to listen to her because she is being listened to by others. We should engage with her on a rational level and ask her some intelligent questions."
Most people in the queue agreed. For a while, the only people protesting were Unite Against Fascism. They'd set up a stand and a PA system at one end of the street and lectured the largely unimpressed students about their views on what free speech actually means.
A few minutes later the atmosphere changed. As the long line of students began to make their way in through the Union gate, a bunch of new protestors arrived from a variety of anti-racist and anti-fascist groups including RS21, NUS Black Students Campaign, Stand Up to UKIP, London Black Revs and Berkshire Antifascists.
The demonstration swelled to between 200 and 300. Though Le Pen had already managed to slip in through a side entrance on Cornmarket Street, they weren't about to let things run smoothly. One activist I spoke to said he had already tried to stop the event. He and several others woke up at five in the morning to put bike locks on each of the Union's entrances. University security guards just sawed through them.
The Oxford Union, which is not affiliated to the University, defended Le Pen's invitation on its website. The Union says that it, "believes first and foremost in freedom of speech".
The anti-fascists trying to shut down the event argued that allowing people to say what they want doesn't necessarily involve actively inviting people to your gilded plinth to say it, particularly someone whose party is home to an ugly mix of rank and file racists and nationalists.
"Marine Le Pen has done nothing to erase her father's anti-semitic legacy," Jonathan Katz, a 23-year-old Jewish graduate student told me. "Even if it says it's courting us Jews it's quite obvious if you're going to balls sponsored by neo-Nazis in Austria that you're not really a friend of the Jews. I'm very shocked that the Oxford Union has invited her to speak particularly given that Jewish and Muslim students already feel so threatened in the current environment. Freedom of speech should not be idolised over the freedom of people to live a safe life."
Annie Teriba, a 20-year-old history and politics student with RS21 echoed those thoughts. "I'm standing here watching a line of largely white people go in to debate my identity because that seems fucking interesting to them," she said. "My identity is not up for debate. My safety is not up for debate and if you think it is, you don't deserve a place on our campus either. We're not opposed to debating these ideas – we do that all the time. But that doesn't require having someone like Marine Le Pen on our campus."
After half an hour of chanting, five or six anti-fascists holding anarchist flags suddenly moved to the front gate and blocked the 200-odd students still cueing outside from getting in.
The two security guards on the door, holding nothing but clipboards, decided to shut the gate to try and contain things.
There was a bit of a stand off before one activist moved forward, shouting out the code of the locked door – which he somehow knew – to those at the front. The door was forced open, but despite some pushing and shoving, the same two security guards somehow managed to keep the entire crowd out with nothing but their feet. Only the activist that had shouted out the code managed to get in, and charged into the courtyard as an army of one.
"I was the only person," he told me after. "I ran straight up into the union chamber inside the courtyard. The moment they saw that the gate had been breached there were two people stood by the double doors where Le Pen was speaking. They pulled the doors shut and started running after me. I was shouting 'Nazi scum here we come' at them. They dragged me out into the back entrance before I was able to run off."
At this stage the police – who had been absent up to this point – started to arrive in the courtyard. After an hour delay to the debate the Union had finally made a decision to close the gate, seal the other entrances and stop all further access.
The night then turned into a noise demo. For the next hour or so people gathered around trying to disrupt the event just 20 meters away by making as big a racket as possible.
Some of the students that had tried to get in stayed, confused and irritated in the freezing cold. Standing away from the main demo I spoke to Rupert Cunningham a 22-year-old classics student. He was former President of the Oxford Conservative Association, and dressed in the way he will when he holds high office in about 30 years time. He arrived towards the end of the protest but told me that he had no interest in being a part of it.
"I think they are presenting quite an intimidating front to people who are generally interested in what she has to say. They have the right to protest, but trying to shut down debate is not good at all," he said.
"If Marine Le Pen can come anywhere to have her views questioned and intellectually challenged the Oxford Union is the place to do it," he told me.
This made me wonder if antifascists should actually be encouraging the Oxford Union to debate the far-right. Maybe if every fascist top dog in the whole world was subjected to the withering critique of a particularly precocious first year PPE student, they would give the whole thing a re-think and stop being so nasty? Maybe not.
Speaking for first year PPE students, Sam Slater was also quite annoyed.
"I don't think these people understand that fascism doesn't start with a speech," he said. "It starts with a basic erosion of freedoms like the freedom of speech and assembly – which these people are denying me. I think these guys are the real fascists."
After a while the chanting started to die down with no more than 30 to 40 demonstrators remaining. I decided to leave but shortly afterwards an activist called me to say Marine Le Pen had been spotted coming out of a side entrance by a group of protesters.
"They saw her walking out through the side with her head covered like she was a celebrity coming out of court," I was told. "She got into a police van and ten people started following after it but the van got away. People were annoyed at the police for having protected her."
In France, where people's opinions of Le Pen are more important, her attempts to rebrand the Front National appear to be working. An opinion poll published last week suggests she would finish top of the first round of the next presidential election – just her like her father did in 2002. However, her party is stained by a legacy of fascism. As last night showed, while her popularity grows, plenty of people will still try and make her life difficult wherever she goes. Meanwhile, all the fuss of the night probably did little to dissuade the Oxford Union from inviting "controversial" speakers to debate with them in future.
Meet the French Far-Right Who Will Try and Capitalise on the Terror Attacks
I Went to the Street Memorial for the Murdered French Anti-Fascist