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, events have passed by with a grim inevitability. No large demonstration has been staged, but reprisals have started and fear is surging among the Muslim community.
In Le Mans, a city just West of Paris, three blank grenades were tossed into the courtyard of a local mosque that evening. 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 lady, 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 the far-right. When I visited the former communist-voting rust belts of France last year to explore the impact of the far-right on local populations, it was de-industrialisation, unemployment, and disillusionment with the centre-left and centre-right 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 defence groups, from ex-communists to extreme-right groups that claim to reject nationalism, it's an odd, sometimes paradoxical, always horrifying mix.
At its heart is the Front National (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 stigmatising the Muslim population – it was Sarkozy's centre-right UMP that introduced the Burka Ban and is the current home of a hard-right, Islamophobic faction called the Popular Right – 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 population. The party claims to have detoxified. Much like another far-right French organisation – Riposte Laïque (Secular Response) – who organised a small rally in central Paris on Thursday – the FN's stance on immigration 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 "Islamisation of Europe" and "anti-white racism". They've held pork and wine parties in Muslim neighbourhoods and have distributed so-called "identity soup" – pork soup that deliberately discriminates against Muslims and Jews – 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 Islamisation of our country."
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 Civilisation. 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. Non-bigots 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, emphasises 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 publicise 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 blood curdling, decently produced two and half minute video on Youtube where they describe themselves as "the generation of ethnic fracture, total failure of coexistence, and forced mixing of the races."
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 organised 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, whose political position they aim to influence. Philip Vardon, the head of Nissa Rebela, a local division of the Bloc, joined Marine Le Pen's coalition of far-right parties – the Rassemblement Blue Marine or Marine Blue Gathering 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 Front National, and perhaps one of the stranger presences on the French 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 organisation, but operates freely in France, where it claims to be gaining membership after last summer's war on Gaza and a big spike in anti-Semitic incidents. The today's kosher shop siege outside east Paris may increase that even further.
The French wing 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, vandalising 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 Front National 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 your enemy's 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 err towards Hitler-esque politics because they both hate Arabs so much.
One noted anti-semite that the LDJ do seem to dislike is Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, the one time anti-racist activist who would go on to make YouTube videos about the "Jewish lobby" and invented the "quenelle" gesture – the inverted Sieg heil that got Nicolas Anelka in trouble.
His mixture of conspiracy theory, 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 the Front National's founder, 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.
Sadly, Dieudonné and Soral don't complete the picture. There are Catholic fundamentalists that are active, there's a viciously homophobic movement called Manif Pour Tous that organised demonstrations last year against the gay marriage bill and of course there are skinhead groups, who despite having no over-arching organisation 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 that suffer from their actions: immigrants, Muslim citizens and refugees that have fled exactly the same people that carried out Wednesday's massacre. For the far-right in France, this could be a defining moment.
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