Essay: Marine Le Pen in France is the latest face of European neo-populism, which mixes ideals of freedom and feminism, with open hostility toward Islam.
With Marine Le Pen taking the leadership of the far-right National Front and her increasing popularity in polls, France has finally been hit by the wave of nationalist movements that has been sweeping across Europe. The new dynamics explaining the resurgence of the far-right movement are multifold: it acquires new faces, it ceases to be marginal, makes the ideals of France's May 68 social uprisings its own, targets Islam, defends national values and creates a whole new political vocabulary.
These movements are trying to gain legitimacy, taking up the debate over national identity, which has been gaining ground all over Europe over the past decade. Taking part in this debate has given them a new audience. They stand out because of their aggressive stand toward Islam, and their irreverence in taking on all the multiculturalism taboos. They pretend to embody personal freedom values, and an attachment to the land.
Gradually gaining legitimacy for their ideas has propelled them onto the public arena and put an end to the ostracizing of the extreme right. They're no longer on the fringes of the political spectrum, but rather seek acceptance by the public at large. The mainstream right as well as left-leaning intellectuals are stunned by the rise of these movements, which are taking over egalitarian, feminist and secular ideas, which once guaranteed the far right would stay at the margins.
These new faces have blurred the lines between left and right. They're different from the previous conservative generation. Sometimes they even seem closer to European counter-culture. Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Austrian far-right party FPO, wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt or Switzerland's Oskar Freysinger, with his long hair, use symbols of the cultural revolution. They fight for gender equality and freedom of speech, denounce homophobia and anti-Semitism: Islam is their preferred target.
They have entered the public arena by triggering controversies about Islam in Europe. Freysinger was all but unknown in Europe until he started a heated debate around minaret construction in Switzerland. The referendum that ensued has become a reference point at the heart of the European debate.
In Fitna (discord in Arabic), a short film Geert Wilders directed in 2008, the Dutch Freedom Party leader depicted the Muslim threat through the question of women in Islam. In it, he invites Europeans to "protect their freedom by stopping Islamization." Comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf, he has asked that it be banned.
In France, Marine Le Pen is riding the Islamic threat bandwagon, drawing attention by comparing Friday street prayers in a heavily Muslim neighborhood in Northern Paris to Nazi occupation.
The Austrian FPO planned anti-mosque campaigns; Italy's Northern League organizes pig-parades in order to desecrate sites reserved to building mosques; The French association Riposte Laique (Secular Response) has called for a "sausage and wine" gathering to commemorate Charles De Gaulle's June 18th speech against Nazi occupation, defining national values in a way that de facto excludes Muslims.
The rise of these neo-populist movements illustrates the search for being among your own peoples, a vision of community through likeness, white Christians against Islam. Race is turning increasingly religious. Patriarchal and anti-Semitic conservatism is replaced by national (not universal) values of individual and sexual freedoms, as well as freedom of speech.
Populism is no longer fit to describe these movements. As the philosopher Jacques Ranciere put it, racism today no longer comes from "popular passion" but from "a racist passion from above." According to him, this state approach is "supported first and foremost not by random backwards social groups, but by a major part of the intellectual elite (…) by an intelligentsia which calls itself a leftist, republican and secular intelligentsia."
A whole array of intellectual and political ideas about social relations and cultural and religious differences is being lost in the process. Attacks are leveled against principles that guarantee democratic pluralism and allow new social groups to be integrated as citizens. The difference between people is less and less seen through ideals such as the rights of religious minorities, the freedom of religion or multiculturalism.
Nilüfer Göle is Director of studies at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris
Photo - (Julien Licourt)