Le Pen:
I had not planned on doing any reporting here in Nice as such, but the right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen came to town for carnival. He booked the largest hall in Nice, the Acropolis, to bring together his supporters – apparently there are lots of them here in the South of France. So I decided to go and take a look and listen, with video camera in hand.

The subject brings me back to my beginnings as a reporter. In 2004 I went to Germany to interview Muslim women to help bring their voice into the mix on the debate over the wearing of the traditional Muslim headscarf – the hijab. Anti-Muslim sentiments have never been hidden here in Western Europe, the September 11th attacks just gave them more impetus, and I believe that is what lies behind this new proposed law to ban the wearing of the Burqa in France.

“C’est quoi être Français?”, “What is it to be French?” is the question the French have been directed to ask themselves by their Minister of Immigration. The question of French identity appears to have become critical in the wake of the 2005 riots in many of France’s banlieue, which brought attention to France’s failure to truly integrate its immigrant population.

Sarkozy’s Gamble is Le Pen’s Win
March 14th, 2010

France’s far-right National Front Party takes third place in French regional elections:

The Front National (FN), France’s far-right political party led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, won 13% of the vote in nationwide regional elections this month. The FN won 23% of the vote in the South-East of France in the second round of elections on Sunday.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right party, the UMP, lost heavily to the left nationwide, taking second place, followed by Le Pen’s Front National in third.

Sarkozy’s UMP losses in-part can be attributed to Sarkozy’s proposed cuts in education and health care, both of which are actually in the purview of regional governments. Proposed pension cuts have also caused outrage, especially among the working class. But it would appear that Sarkozy took an additional gamble when he placed such divisive issues as national identity, security, and immigration at the front, right and center of his campaign. The xenophobic tone began with Sarkozy’s response to the riots in France’s banlieu in 2005, and then he turned up the volume with a proposed ban on the burqa (or niqab) earlier this year. At the same time the Minister of Immigration, appointed by Sarkozy, directed French citizens to ask themselves, “C’est quoi être Français?”, “What is it to be French?”. By re-awakening the spectre of xenophobic nationalism Sarkozy has pandered to the darling themes that are Le Pen’s calling card, and with that he has presented Le Pen with an easy platform with which to take center stage.

And Le Pen grabbed it. The 81-year-old founder and president of the Front National hardly seemed his age at a rally in Nice just before the first round of regional elections. Halfway through the rally he abandoned his written speech and began to improvise. He claimed the stage with a strong and steady stride, elegantly walking from one side to the other, energizing his captivated audience with a healthy dose of the very themes that Sarkozy had tried to hi-jack from the FN. As he walked and talked, half as if in contemplation, half as if in bemusement, it became clear that he had no need for a carefully scripted speech, the national political discourse was now squarely in his camp.

“The President”, Le Pen snorted, “always says that he killed us, and I say to him that he has robed us, but he did not kill us”.

Sarkozy reportedly instructed his cabinet to pursue his misconceived strategy to win votes away from the Front National by taking a tougher position on immigration, both legal and illegal, and espousing ideas such as the ban on the burqa, in the fall of 2009. But Sarkozy began to ferment his own apparent distaste for France’s immigrant population, or certainly for those of Arab and African origin, with key policies and laws he tried to push through already in 2007. France had in fact never had a Minister of Immigration until Sarkozy created the position after he was elected President in 2007. Sarkozy appointed the former socialist Eric Besson as minister of what is formally titled the Minister of Immigration, Integration, National Identity, and the Development of Solidarity. It seemed an odd marriage given that the socialist party typically is considered the more tolerant in respect to France’s immigrant population. But Besson has proven an extremely affective messenger of Sarkozy’s hardline position on immigration and integration (or rather the lack thereof). One might also view Besson as the potential fall guy for Sarkozy in this case, should the strategy have failed, as it did, but it seems French voters have not let their President pass the buck on to Besson who, even after the humiliating losses of his adoptive UMP party in regional elections, continues his (or his boss’) “crusade” to stem immigration to France, and to force the cultural “integration” of France’s Muslim population with harsh and discriminating laws.

Le Pen wins 23% of votes in the South of France:

Carnaval in Nice:
The day before the Le Pen rally in Nice locals mingled with day-tourists for the Battaile Des Fleurs (battle of the flowers) all along the Promenade Des Anglais, past the Negresco Hotel made famous in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “Tender is the Night.” In the evening they watched a parade of floats pass along the promenade to the center of town. The guest of honour was Barack Obama, floating through the crowds in the form of a superhero balloon clad in red white and blue and carrying the Kyoto Protocol in his right hand. The environment was the theme this year, and Nice’s Mayor, Christian Estrosi, a close ally of Sarkozy, pulled-out all the stops to present the people of Nice with an especially spectacular end to the carnival celebrations in an election year.

Le Pen is no friend of Estrosi’s, though Estrosi, like his boss in the Elysee, is in tune with Le Pen’s call for more security on the streets. Indeed Estrosi owes his present popularity as Nice’s Mayor to his tough stance on security. Shortly before the first round of regional elections Estrosi re-iterated his commitment to limiting what he and other conservative politicians widely refer to as “delinquency”: “Security is the first of my priorities, as I have always said. It is the first of the liberties that I owe the people of Nice.” In France street crime and “delinquency” is associated by many with the youth of the banlieu, mostly teenage boys of Arab origin. However crime rates in the South of France, in the cities of Marseille and Nice in particular, are mostly due to organized crime such as drug-trafficking, prostitution and robbery, as opposed to petty crimes committed by youths.

At the rally Le Pen was quick to chide Estrosi on security, despite the fact that Nice, which is France’s fifth largest city, boasts having the most surveillance cameras in all of France: “Mr. Estrosi”, Le Pen smirked, “who is proud with all his cameras. I’m reminding him that Nice is the biggest town in France where security reigns the least.” The Ile-de France, which includes Paris and its suburbs, actually has the highest crime rate in France.

But in disregard of the facts Le Pen continued with his rant against Estrosi, and poking fun at the local police: “It’s hard to catch them, they are in places where the police can’t go.” The “them” he was referring to were clearly understood to be the “delinquent” youth of Arab descent from the banlieu.

The politics of immigration and integration:

Both Estrosi’s and Le Pen’s stance on controlling “delinquency” finds resonance with voters in the South of France, especially in and around Marseille and Nice. Both cities have large immigrant populations. In France immigrants make-up about 7.4 percent of a population of 64 million. Exact numbers on ethnic and religious categories are not available because the French census does not include this data, but studies estimate that 3 to 10 percent of the population is Muslim.

Le Pen’s National Front party illustrated this perceived connection between security and the Arab immigrant population with a new campaign poster.

Le Pen poster beneath a painting of Louis Armstrong at Nice Acropolis

Indeed, Le Pen’s campaign in these elections took off on a controversial foot with this defining campaign poster. Headed with the caption “Non a L’Islamisme” (“No to Islamism”), the poster shows a woman wearing a Burqa with a map of France to her left covered by the Algerian flag and minaret towers shaped like missiles. The subtitle reads, “La Jeunesse avec Le Pen” (“ The Young with Le Pen”.)

The campaign poster also provoked an official protest from Algeria, and although French electoral authorities had approved the poster, the French Foreign Ministry called Algier’s complaint “legitimate”. The Front National in turn protested that, “Paris is on its knees before Algiers.”

But in fact Sarkozy had already set the scene for this campaign poster with the national debate on identity that quickly turned into an ugly argument with strong racial overtones about Islam in France. Le Pen promptly took advantage and demanded tighter controls on mosques. Le Pen criticized Estrosi also over the construction of mosques in Nice that he claimed, “begin as regular mosques and end-up the size of cathedrals.”

Rally organizers in Nice oddly, or unwittingly, hung this poster up beneath a painting of Louis Armstrong at the Nice convention center, where the rally took place.

And equally unaware, or unconcerned, about the controversy surrounding the poster, an elderly man, with the help of a young local skinhead, urged us to take several posters home with us, and recommended we hang them up in our building’s lobby. The pair explained that Estrosi had ordered the police to tear down all the posters that the young man and his friends had mounted all over town the previous week.

Inside the convention center’s auditorium the faces of the audience waiting for Le Pen’s arrival were bathed in a red, white and blue light, reflecting the colours of the French flag that were projected onto a large screen on stage. They were faces from all walks of life: a group of skinheads from the nearby city of Toulon, later referred to by Le Pen as his faithful “militants”; families with young children; and the elderly, some surely old enough to have lived through WWII. The pre-game show was a movie that was a throw-back to Nazi propaganda films. The “villain” in this film, judging by the vicious jeers that his image drew from the crowd, was General Charles De Gaulle. Images of the Algerian flag, and young men of Arab descent, drew equal ire from the audience. Shouts of “Dehors!” (“Out!”), “La France aux Francais” (“France for the French”), filled the auditorium. And this set the tone for the afternoon. During Le Pen’s one-and-a-half-hour long speech, his words only found resonance with his audience when they espoused anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments. No-body seemed to really share his concerns over the economy, or unemployment, or the welfare of France’s senior citizens.

Most disturbing really is the similarity in the rhetoric we hear coming from the Elysee, and what I heard that day at the Le Pen rally. In one moment Le Pen cynically defended the wearing of the veil and the burqa, but finally sarcastically quipped that, “If they want to proclaim themselves as Muslim, well, at least we will be aware of it and we will know who they are amongst us.”

After-effect of the elections one month later:

Besson has moved to further tighten immigration laws, and has even gone so far as to threaten stripping any man whose wife wears the burqa of his French nationality. Indeed a woman was stopped by police and fined for driving dressed in a burqa, though it is not actually against the law yet, and her husband has been threatened with expulsion even though he is a French citizen.

The French Parliament will vote on the Burqa ban, which would affect the estimated 250 French women who wear it. Even if such a law were to pass in Parliament it is widely believed that the Senate will overturn it.

In the meantime the Front National is being sued for plagiarism by the Swiss agency that designed a very similar campaign poster to that of the FN. Last November Switzerland held a referendum on blocking the construction of mosques and minarets.

Similar ideas to limit Europe’s Muslims from openly practicing the tenants of their faith and having a visible presence in European society are taking hold in other countries in Europe with large Muslim populations, and the far right is presenting more and more of a challenge to center-right parties, in Germany and the UK in particular.