Anders Behring Breivik’s murderous rampage in Norway on July 22 has—leaving aside the human tragedy—sent a chill through the ranks of the European far right. The last decade or so has been good for anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and xenophobic movements, whether one thinks of the Dutch Freedom Party, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Flemish-Belgian Vlaams Belang, the Danish People’s Party, the Sweden Democrats, the True Finns, Norway’s Progress Party, or Hungary’s Jobbik. Could their recent victories now be spoiled by one mad Norwegian?
In the pantheon of the European far right, however, none can match France’s Front National (FN) in terms of longevity, influence, or electoral success. The risk of being tainted by Breivik’s attack would thus seem to be a particularly troubling prospect for the FN. Next year, after all, there will be a presidential election. While its rise in the polls has recently tapered off, some 18% of the French electorate still intends to vote for its candidate, Marine Le Pen. This not only sets the stage for a respectable third-place finish behind President Sarkozy and the (as yet undecided) Socialist Party candidate, but puts the FN within striking distance of qualifying for the run-off contest (or deuxième tour), a feat accomplished by Marine’s father, Jean-Marie, in 2002. Guilt-by-association—the tendency of politicians and the press to utter “Le Pen” and “Breivik” in the same breath—could, moreover, jeopardize the facelift Marine Le Pen has sought to give her party. She has undertaken to shed its image as a redoubt of reactionary Catholics, neo-pagan white supremacists, Vichy apologists, and skinhead thugs, united in the defense of French racial purity against Arab and African immigration. Taking a page from the book of Gianfranco Fini, the politician who deftly transformed Italy’s post-fascist movement into a slick, modern right-wing party and a mainstay of Silvio Berlusconi’s most recent coalition, the junior Le Pen, who became party leader earlier this year, would like her FN to be a no-nonsense champion of the most time-honored principles of French republicanism, such as citizenship, integration, and laïcité (“secularism”).
Yet even as Norway was still reeling from the horrors of Utoya, a few off-message FN supporters were available to remind the French of the party’s nasty, not-so-distant past. A sympathizer named Jacques Coutela, who ran as an FN candidate in Burgundy in last March’s cantonal elections, used his blog to describe Breivik as a “resistant,” an “icon,” and “the first defender of the West [l’Occident].” “The reason for the Norwegian nationalist’s terrorist action,” he proclaimed, is “to combat the Muslim invasion.” This, he added, “is what they’re hiding from you.” Lest anyone miss his drift, he described Breivik as “Charles Martel 2” (in honor of the Frankish warrior who, at the Battle of Tours in 732, defeated the armies of Umayyad Spain—preventing, as historians used to say, Europe from becoming Muslim). Significantly, Coutela’s blog is named La valise ou le cercueil—“the suitcase or the coffin,” a reference to the unappealing choice that European settlers in Algeria believed they were given when the French government acceded to Algerian independence (i.e., return to France or be killed by supporters of the new regime). By extension, the phrase is also a criticism of the French state’s betrayal of the settlers and of l’Algérie française.
The FN promptly kicked Coutela out of the party. But others, who made equally disturbing if slightly less inflammatory remarks, were not. Laurent Ozon, an entrepreneur and proponent of deep ecology (they used to call the far right-environmentalist or “Brown-Green” nexus the “Khmer-Verts”) who also sits on the FN’s political bureau, laid the blame for Breivik’s murders on Norway’s immigration policies. On his blog, he wrote: “the migratory anarchy that we [the French] support as do many other European countries (as well as others, like Morocco) is a massively destabilizing factor […]. This destabilization provokes tension between [ethnic] communities and a rapid rise of social violence in all the countries that experience them.” Striking a conciliatory tone, he expressed hope that the Norwegian massacre might become “an occasion to speak freely and respectfully of our society’s evolution.” Le Pen reminded Ozon of the party line. But she did not ask for his resignation.
Finally, on Friday, July 29, the inimitable Jean-Marie Le Pen—the daddy of the mother of all daddy parties—upped the ante even further when he claimed that while Norway was a “sympathetic little country,” it had shown great “naiveté” in its lax policies on immigration and terrorism.
Only a few bad apples in the FN have openly sympathized with Breivik—or, at least, minimized his actions. But this relatively marginal phenomenon should not hide the fact that his views, however wild and paranoid, resonate at a deep level with core FN beliefs—including Marine Le Pen’s allegedly sanitized versions of them. A comparison of Breivik’s views in his rambling, 1,500 page manifesto 2083: A European Declaration of Independence and Le Pen’s recent pronouncements make this clear. Breivik’s tract reads as a shrill, loony version of the very ideas that are the bread-and-butter of frontiste discourse.
(A quick aside: one of the stranger things about Breivik’s rant, from an intellectual historian’s perspective, is his attempt to lay the blame for Europe’s current predicament on, of all people, the Frankfurt School. He maintains that Weimar-era philosophers and social critics like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Eric Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse, spawned, in their analyses of fascism and their efforts to marry Freud and Marx, a form of “cultural Marxism” that ultimately gave birth to the European Union, multiculturalism, and the Islamic “invasion.” Reductio ad Adornum. I feel bad, too, that Breivik cites poor Martin Jay, a prominent historian of the Frankfurt School and one of the finest intellectual historians of his generation. I seriously doubt Jay needed the publicity).
Both Breivik and Le Pen see contemporary Europe as overrun by an Islamic invader, a latter-day Saracen. Breivik states: “Europe is being targeted for deliberate colonisation … by Muslim states, and with coordinated efforts aimed at our Islamisation and the elimination of our freedoms. We are being subject to a foreign invasion, and aiding and abetting a foreign invasion in any way constitutes treason. If non-Europeans have the right to resist colonisation and desire self-determination then Europeans have that right, as well. And we intend to exercise it.” He is particularly sympathetic to Bat Ye’or’s argument in Eurabia, which holds that the “Islamization” of the continent was a conscious policy choice of Europe’s leadership, beginning with Charles de Gaulle’s efforts in the sixties to establish a relationship with postcolonial Arab governments in order to build a geopolitical axis that could challenge the United States as well as the Soviet Union.
Without (to my knowledge) subscribing to the Eurabia thesis, Marine Le Pen has readily likened Islam’s presence in Europe to a military invasion. Speaking at a meeting in Lyon in December 2010, she criticized the way that, in some French cities, the Muslim Friday prayer has spilled over into public streets. “I am sorry,” she said, “but for those who like to speak of the Second World War, it is possible to speak of an occupation—this would, for once, be the right occasion to talk of it, because this is an occupation of territory. There are no tanks, no soldiers, but it is an occupation all the same, and it burdens the inhabitants.” (I have taken this from Caroline Fourest and Fiametta Venner’s useful new book, Marine Le Pen [Grasset]).
Breivik is further angered by the threat that the Islamic “invasion” poses to Christianity, the core of Europe’s cultural identity. The FN has never been anything remotely approaching a Christian party. Yet Le Pen is willing, like Breivik, to invoke Christianity when calling for the defense of European—and French—identity. At least when she’s bashing immigrants. “It is not because [Islam] has arrived in a massive way in recent years,” she remarks, “that it participates in French identity in the same respect as Judeo-Christian religions.” “France,” she adds, “is France. It has Christian roots, that’s how it is, they are part of its identity.”
Yet Marine Le Pen’s game, of course, is to defend a racial and intolerant conception of French identity while hiding behind more respectable discourses like republicanism. This prudence is not shared by the more extreme groups that inhabit the FN’s ideological border zones. A more virulent strand of Islamaphobia, closer in tone to Breivik’s, can be found in organizations like Bloc Identitaire (“Identity Block”) or Riposte Laïque (“Secular Reprisal”—a group with distinctly far right tendencies, despite its bad faith reference to the republican ideal of laïcité). Like Breivik, these groups are obsessed with the idea Muslim immigration is corrupting European identity. Both groups have been involved in a particularly obnoxious form of political agitation known as “apéros saucission pinard,” or “wine and sausage parties” (here’s a clip of one recently held in Toulon). In a deliberately “in your face” gesture, these organizations meet in Muslim neighborhoods to nibble saucisson sec and quaff Beaujolais for all to see. Pork and wine, they assert, are essential to French identity. Muslim bans on pork and wine is an attack on this identity—“anti-French racism,” they call it. It must be urgently resisted.
Thus Anders Breivik’s specific views find sympathetic ears in the most remote corners of the French far right. But what really matters is that the broader claims he endorses—that Europe is being Islamized, that it has been invaded, that its core identity is under siege—are increasingly part of mainstream French political discourse (which the FN has substantially contributed to shaping). While middle-of-the road politicians and antiracist organizations are eager to wave the bloody shirt of Utoya to discredit Le Pen, experts have speculated that the FN might ultimately profit from the incident. The political scientist Nicolas Lebourg argues that the FN has turned comparable incidents in the past—such as the machine-gunning of the rue Copernic synagogue in 1980 or the desecration of Jewish graves at the Carpentras cemetery in 1990—to its advantage, first by presenting itself as the victim of false accusations, and second by purging itself of its most embarrassing members. The secret to the far right’s rehabilitation in the past thirty years has been its skill at asserting that it is merely speaking common sense, while relegating discourse echoing its fascist past to the overtones. The FN may yet find a way to profit politically from the Norwegian tragedy.