Several hundred demonstrators have taken part in a protest against the appearance of far-right French Front National leader Marine Le Pen at the Oxford Union, condemning her political views as fascist, anti-immigrant, anti-semitic, and Islamophobic.
Up to 400 protesters, including students, anarchists, and antifascist campaigners, gathered at the gates of the Union on Thursday evening to protest against the platforming of the nationalist leader. Demonstrators chanted, “This is free speech, that is a platform”, gesturing towards the Oxford Union, and “Oxford Union, shame on you”.
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As tensions heightened, protestors scaled the Union’s walls, hung banners on the fences, and attempted to force open the gates, chanting, “Nazi scum, here we come.” A police presence behind the Union walls prevented protesters from reaching the chamber.
OUSU BME and Anti-Racism Offi cer Nikhil Venkatesh told Cherwell, “It was really great to see so many Oxford students and residents at the protest, telling Marine Le Pen she is not welcome in our city, and showing solidarity with the groups she victimises. I hope the Union got the message.”
Divisions emerged between the various groups present at the protest. Some students snubbed those campaigning with Unite Against Fascism (UAF) because of their links with the Socialist Workers’ Party, who have been accused of rape apologism following allegations that the party attempted to cover up a sexual assault by a senior member of the party.
Slogans chanted by members of Unite Against Fascism received a muted response from some Oxford students, although UAF maintained a sizeable presence. OUSU President Louis Trup admitted to becoming entangled in a heated argument with a UAF protester.
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Marine Le Pen was hurried into the chamber nearly an hour late. Cherwell understands that she had been smuggled on-site through the Purple Turtle nightclub on Frewin Court. As protesters scaled the walls, members in the Chamber were asked not to leave their seats for their own safety, and the doors were locked. Some Union members queueing to enter the event were verbally abused by protesters, who referred to those attending as “fascists” and “Nazis”.
Students queuing to attend the talk remained defiant. St Anne’s student Matthew Kirtley told Cherwell, “I believe freedom of speech is an absolute right, and the Union, as the self-described ‘last-bastion of free speech in the west’, should be able to host anyone, however distasteful. When you start saying a particular ideology is off -limits, you’re containing the limits of free discussion.”
He added, “I don’t understand how this legitimises her platform in any other way than all the rallies she gives in France. I don’t understand how her speaking at the Oxford Union is going to make her ideology more legitimised.”
Another Kellogg College student in attendance remarked, “If 25 percent of the French electorate decided she was worthy of having a say – and I don’t agree with her – then I thought I might see what she has to say.”
But Annie Teriba, former OUSU Access and Admissions officer, asserted, “This is not a debate about free speech. Le Pen has the right to say whatever she wants to say on the street, in her bedroom, in her bathroom.
“This is a debate about whether or not the Oxford Union has the right to invite in to our community someone who doesn’t believe that Muslims should be allowed in Europe, who compares Muslim prayer to Nazi occupation, who invokes the memory of the Nazis in memory of oppression, but at the same time is incredibly anti-Semitic.”
Le Pen began her talk in response to the protesters, telling the Chamber, “Freedom is the ability to say what you think without being in fear.” She spoke of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, referring to Islamic fundamentalists as “barbarians”. On the issue of terrorism, she stated, “We need to regain the control of our borders in France. The border must be a filter and not a wall”. In questions, she attracted controversy when she opined, “Islam is very healthy but there are cancerous cells surrounding it,” going on to comment, “Multi-cultural societies often become multi-conflicted societies.”
UAF joint national secretary Weyman Bennett, attending the protest, told Cherwell, “The Oxford Union is going to give a lot of respectability to the Front National, and they’re going to use that respectability to bolster fascist organisations, who will in the long run remove all democratic values. I think that because she so has much support in France, it is even more dangerous that she should be given a platform. No platform policies prevent these people from building a following in universities.”
The protest followed a mild controversy on Wednesday, when OUSU Council mandated President Louis Trup to inform all students by email that the protests were due to take place. Trup opposed the move, including in the email a link to his post on OUSU.org, where he apologised for sending the email to people who “do not care about any of this”. He later clarified to Cherwell, “I apologised to the people who received the email and don’t care because I don’t think this warranted a special email.”
The same motion mandated Trup to write a letter to the Oxford Union about Le Pen’s appearance. The motion stated that the letter, to be addressed to the Union’s Standing Committee, should condemn the views of Le Pen, and ask the Union to refrain from inviting such speakers in the future.
Trup commented, “I am glad there was a protest because I think it is important that Le Pen’s racism is condemned.”