Guardian (Manchester), October 22, 2009
Hoping to ‘expose’ the BNP leader on Question Time only repeats the mistake France made with the Front National
One overlooked aspect of the emergence of the BNP is the influence of Jean-Marie Le Pen. BNP publications praise his Front National’s (FN) transformation “from a far-right party with embarrassing figures and strident language into a slick, sophisticated, more electorally appealing party” and reserve particular admiration for the fact that “while the Front maintained its hardcore support, it could also reach a much wider audience”.
Access to the media played a crucial role in the FN strategy, first drawn up by a group of self-styled “revolutionary nationalists” in 1972.
Their aim was to court respectability to reach a wider audience and then transform it, as they put it, “in our image”. Television appearances provided two distinct types of opportunity for the FN. The first was to cement Le Pen’s status as a fixture in mainstream political life. The second was to bolster hardcore support by shifting the parameters of what it was acceptable to say in the public arena.
The opinion of many liberal commentators–that Le Pen was a buffoon who would be exposed and belittled on national television–was confounded by his first major TV appearance, on the flagship current affairs show L’Heure de Vérité (The Hour of Truth). Le Pen’s bombastic performance saw him demand a minute’s silence for the victims of Stalin’s gulags and was followed, according to FN HQ, by a flood of applications to join the party.
Regular TV appearances gave Le Pen’s ideas an air of legitimacy. But respectability was never an end in itself for the FN. Those who see this week’s Question Time as an opportunity to outwit or rubbish BNP leader Nick Griffin miss this aspect of the BNP/FN strategy.
Le Pen used his high profile to scapegoat gays, Jews, black people and women. For the first time since the Vichy regime, antisemitism was aired openly and frequently in the media. Le Pen baited a Jewish government minister about the 1942 roundup of Jews in occupied France, made endless coded references to the role of “lobbies” and “cosmopolitanism” and, in his most notorious intervention, claimed that the Holocaust was a “detail” of the second world war.
Le Pen’s influence was not eroded or even stalled by others getting the better of him in televised debates. Instead–and crucially for the FN strategy–hitherto taboo subjects, from Holocaust revisionism to myths about racial inequality, were reintroduced to the mainstream. Racists and antisemites were emboldened. Their politics are not motivated by reason or defeated by clever turns of phrase, so their world view appeared vindicated by the profile and status conferred upon Le Pen by a compliant media. A craven political elite that capitulated to FN myths on law and order, immigration and asylum further enhanced this status.
When Griffin responded to his election to the European parliament this summer by calling on the EU to sink boats carrying migrants, he was simply following Le Pen’s lead–twisting democratic legitimacy into a tool with which to foster prejudice. That Griffin should learn from Le Pen is one thing. That the BBC should learn nothing from the unwitting complicity of the French media in his rise is another. Either way, the BBC’s decision to provide a platform for fascists to distort democracy remains nothing less than a disgrace.
[Editor’s Note: See also yesterday’s story on Nick Griffin’s appearance on BBC here.]