French voters must beware ‘terror trap’ after Paris shooting
Days before first round of voting in presidential election, the attack may play into the hands of Le Pen’s National Front, prompting Macron to urge defiance in the face of fear
A deadly shoot-out on the Champs Elysees, Paris’ most famous avenue, darkened the final day of campaigning in France’s pivotal presidential election, stoking fears of terrorist violence and causing candidates to suspend last-minute pitches before Sunday’s vote.
As the candidates vowed to suspend campaign events to honour the fallen officer, analysts were quick to say the shooting, in a country that has suffered a string of devastating terror attacks in the past two years, was particularly advantageous for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front who has been sharply critical of “Islamist terrorism”.
Despite a promise not to campaign, Le Pen spoke on Friday morning, calling on the government to immediately reinstate border checks and expel foreigners being monitored by the intelligence services.
“My government of national unity will implement this policy, so that the Republic will live, and that France will live,” she said.
Once the standard-bearer of a fringe extremist party, she is now at the forefront of a powerful, popular movement, eager to refashion France with an aggressively nationalist agenda. Thursday’s shooting, for which Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility, underscored how ripe France may be for Le Pen’s hardline message on immigration and Islam.
However, Le Pen’s National Front is distinguished from right-wing populists in Britain and the US by a curious trend: the strong backing of millennials. One survey shows Le Pen winning 40 per cent of the vote among those 18 to 24, a reflection of widespread youth disillusionment with the status quo.
“We’ve been told our whole lives that everything is set. Free trade. Forgetting our borders. One currency for all of Europe. Nothing can change,” said Gaëtan Dussausaye, the 23-year-old leader of the National Front’s youth wing. “But young people don’t like this system. This system is a failure.”
While Le Pen and her supporters cast themselves as agents of change, they are saddled with the dark legacy of the past.
Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, became president of the National Front in 1972, shortly after it was founded. The party was “peopled by radical Catholics, monarchists, Vichy apologists, colonial nostalgics, neo-fascists and other marginal reactionaries”, as a recent article in The Guardian put it. “For the first decade of its existence, it distinguished itself mostly by its insignificance. Jean-Marie won 0.74 per cent of the vote in the presidential election of 1974.”
The elder Le Pen – a believer in the “inequality of races” and an alleged participant in the torture of Algerian rebels during that country’s war of independence against France – is an unrepentant extremist. The stigma of the National Front’s connections to Nazi apologists, Vichy sympathisers and other extreme reactionaries enveloped Le Pen and his party.
Since assuming the mantle of leadership, Marine Le Pen has tried to distance herself from her father’s incendiary rhetoric.
“Our project is englobing; it’s inclusive, not exclusive,” said Jean Messiha, a senior National Front official, in a combative interview with Al-Jazeera. “You are talking about history. Don’t take the Front National of the 70s as a reference.”
If poll results are any indication, this strategy of “de-demonisation” appears to have paid off. But, at its core, the National Front remains a faction rooted in xenophobia and ultranationalism. Le Pen’s inner circle still includes far-right rabble rousers who expressed forms of Hitler nostalgia in the past.
Le Pen’s candidacy has soared alongside growing anti-Muslim sentiment, stoked in part by the deadly spike in terrorist attacks in France that has seen hundreds perish in recent years. Le Pen says she is against “Islamist globalisation” – a neat amalgamation of two things she reviles – but wants to curtail the way Muslims practice their faith, seeks to limit immigrants’ access to social services and education and is keen on ending birthright citizenship in France.
The attack was claimed, with unusual speed, by IS, through its propaganda arm, Amaq. But analysts urged caution in interpreting the information.
“It’s never happened in the past so quickly,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, an intelligence expert and the director of the Paris-based Centre for the Analysis of Terrorism, referring to the IS tendency to claim attacks. “Perhaps the individuals in question had some kind of coordination and were in contact with them but we should also not rule out the possibility that Amaq was too hasty in releasing its statements.”
Francois Fillon, one of the presidential candidates, said in a statement that the election campaign should be suspended. Emmanuel Macron, the popular independent candidate, however, was quick to argue against fear-mongering.
“We must not yield to fear today,” he said on Thursday. “This is what our assailants are waiting for, and it’s their trap.”