A version of this article was published in The Bubble
The displays of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo in France have been heartening. However, outside of this swell of national pride and support, it has this is also given the opportunity for racists of different forms to pose as anti-establishment figures to their disillusioned followers.
Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala is a black French comedian who once used to campaign against racism and stood against the Front National in elections on this platform. He since made friends with Jean-Marie Le Pen and has been in trouble multiple times for anti-Semitism, calling Holocaust remembrance “memorial pornography” and joking about the gas chambers. Funny guy. Depressingly, he has lots of followers, who for example have provided him with hundreds of thousands in donations. At best they do not see his blatant racism as a problem; at worst they like it.
After the terrorist attacks in Paris he wrote on his Facebook page “je me sens Charlie Coulibaly,” an amalgamation of the Je Suis Charlie motto and the name of the man who killed four people in a Kosher grocery store, Amedy Coulibaly.
Unfortunately for believers in the sort of principles of free speech which, for example, allow Charlie Hebdo to depict the prophet, since the attacks France has been enforcing a law against apologising for terrorism. Dieudonné was charged, and more than fifty others have been as well on similar charges. While in the context of the national mood it is easy to understand why these arrests are carried out, these people are not directly harming anyone. Apologising for terrorism should not be a crime.
Meanwhile Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former leader of the Front National, refused to support Charlie Hebdo, saying its spirit was “anarcho-Trotskyite, absolutely detrimental to political morality”. Instead, he said “je suis Charlie Martel”. This particular Charles was an 8th century ruler of Francia who defeated Muslims in the Battle of Tours, thus supposedly saving Christian Europe.
Rather than standing against religious extremism, Le Pen suggested he is simply against all Muslims in France. His statement failed to make a distinction between the actions of a few and the practices of millions of moderate Muslims in France. This of course plays right into the hands of the fundamentalists, who would also like to draw the dividing lines between ‘Muslim’ culture and traditional ‘European’ culture.
His dislike of the magazine, meanwhile, shows the history and ideology of the French far-right, who traditionally opposed anti-clericalism and the disempowerment of the Catholic Church, ideals which Charlie Hebdo stands for. This is worth remembering for those in Britain who have called it a racist magazine.
He has also implied to a Russian newspaper that the attack might have been a conspiracy. “The whole operation (of the Kouachi brothers) carries the hallmarks of the secret services. Of course, we don’t have proof. I am not saying that the French authorities are behind this crime, but that they could have let it take place.” He did not expand on why he thought it would be in the interest of the government to kill its own citizens, but normally such theories target America, Israel and those sneaky Jews. 9/11 conspiracy theories are believed by a frighteningly high number of people in Muslim countries. If theories about the Paris attacks catch on among disaffected Muslim youth in France it will further stoke up tension.
The fact his comments were to an anti-Western Russian newspaper are also relevant, given Russia’s anti-Western propaganda on for example the Russia Today television network, and the support it has provided to the Front National.
The reactions of these two unpleasant public figures illustrate the fractured social landscape in France if you look behind the Republican unity shown by mainstream politicians, the media and much of the general public. Dieudonné has gone from the anti-racist left to the anti-Semitic far-right: instead of tackling racists against all minorities, he has decided to pick on an easier target: Jews. Le Pen and the Front National rant about the Islamisation of France.
Two recently-published books in France, Soumission by Michel Houellebecq and Les Événements by Jean Rolin, predict just this. In the former a reactionary Muslim political party comes to power, and in the latter France is ravaged by civil war containing Jihadists. The scenarios chosen are significant not as a prediction (both are of course ludicrous) but as a suggestion that the French public do not find them quite as ridiculous as they should.
France must tackle racism and bigotry against all groups, not shying away from denouncing anti-Semitism and reactionary Islam for fear of causing anger, but not falling prey to the Front National’s bigotry either. Millions in France have shown their attachment to the values of the French Republic in the past ten days. Now it’s time to think about the ones who did not.