You would have to be living under a rock to avoid talk of the Oxford Union’s controversial invitations. As someone of German heritage I cannot help but notice the ongoing misrepresentation of antifascist protests outside the Oxford Union. Coming to Oxford, it soon became clear that the student political scene is quite far removed from British and European campus norms – both those of my friends and those in my parents’ heyday. Peculiar to Oxford, especially when compared to what my family taught me, is a deep-seated disaffection for protest and indeed many overt forms of political expression. Protests are almost always maligned in the comment sections of student newspapers, for example.
With each Union-related fascist controversy, I am certainly pleased to find a host of opinion pieces advocating free speech and a healthy dose of caution when using the fascist label. On the other hand, something that is problematic is that there is such little breadth of opinion represented in the discussions after each protest. It seems almost as if the antifascist protestors are not represented at all in student journalism. I have also become quite disturbed by how often those arguing against the antifascist demonstrators buttress their arguments with an attack on the very essence of protest itself.
The critique of antifascist protest itself made me think of what my mum and dad had taught me. They were at the forefront of student politics when they were studying in 80’s Munich and later 90’s London. Theirs was a childhood steeped in the inescapable spectre of German fascism and its horrendous trail of devastation and genocide. The fear of a fascism’s revival was then – and still is – at the very centre of the German psyche. My mum was taught at the age of five what had happened at the nearby Kemna concentration camp; my dad went on compulsory school trips to the memorial sites once a year. As students, they stood time and time again in solidarity with the Roma communities who were – and still are – being deported from the same countries they were massacred in 70 years ago.
Most intrinsically, they taught me never to forget The Holocaust. They pressed eye-witnesses’ novels into my hands and ingrained in me an innate wariness of fascism. Fascism was unique, dangerous and innately opportunistic. It came in all different guises and its greatest strength was that it was so hard to pin down. It must be dealt with sooner rather than later.
My parents also enshrined in me the importance of protest. Peaceful protest was sacred and always justified. A society in which people are no longer at liberty to assemble and critique authority is a society which has lost its freedom. They warned me that protest as a legitimate form of political expression was going to become more and more endangered as the internet took hold, whilst fascism was going to become increasingly dangerous as the holocaust faded from collective memory of Europe.
And so it was disheartening to find that many of those who took it upon themselves to use the Cherwell Comment section to castigate antifascist demonstrators do not seem to have grasped the centrality of protest as a universal human right, an intrinsic form of political expression and a crucial tool to stop fascism’s deadly spread. Each time the Union invited Tommy Robinson, Marine Le Pen, Alice Weidel, Steve Bannon or Marion Maréchal Le Pen to speak, numerous comment pieces appeared chastising antifascist demonstrators on increasingly ludicrous, unfounded grounds.
One theme which is running through the pieces is that protesters are somehow ‘wasting’ police resources. This is not a valid line of argument. Protest is as much a civil liberty as free speech is, in fact, the two are part and parcel, and the function of the police is to protect both. As the East Oxford MP Anneliese Dodds so aptly put it, it is the Union that is wasting police time by consistently inviting propagators of hate speech as a publicity stunt. The opinion pieces tarred all protesters with the same brush, suggesting that the most ‘extreme’ slogans, the swearing at police or the physical violence were somehow totally universal amongst all those who chose to speak out against fascism. To expediently negate just how multi-faceted and broad a church protest can be so as to better make a point is hardly accomplished reporting. Throughout these myopic, finger-pointing generalisations, it soon becomes easy to forget that those protesting outside the Union are united behind a cause we all sympathise with. They are saying no to fascism, racism and hate speech.
But what I found by far the most disturbing is the lack of responsible journalism. In spite of the critical acclaim many of these ‘free speech’ articles receive, there is little to no attention paid specifically to what antifascist protestors are demonstrating against. Instead, commentators write a thousand words in voracious attacks directed towards what they see as illiberal, intimidating leftists.
Predictably, earlier this week heralded the publication of another immensely popular Comment piece criticising those protesting against Marion Maréchal Le Pen’s visit last week. It re-used the trope of demonstrators wasting police money and shouting ‘disrespectfully’ at police. It is also the latest in a long succession of Cherwell Comment pieces which grossly misrepresent those standing up to fascism. Not a single ‘free speech’ advocate who has thus far chosen to protestors has taken the time to properly interrogate why so many see the likes of Robinson, Le Pen, Weidel, Bannon and Maréchal as fascists.
And so it was hardly surprising that an article avidly defending Maréchal’s right to speak at the Union did not feature the words Front National a single time. Maréchal is practically guaranteed to become the next leader of France’s Front National (recently rebranded as National Rally). She represented the party in the French parliament and is tipped as its most likely candidate for the 2022 presidential elections. To discuss the politics of protesting Maréchal’s visit whilst alluding only once to the political party and ideological movement she represents surely fails to grasp even a sliver of what the debate is all about. A piece earlier this week offered a thousand words on how the term Nazi had been ‘taken out of context’ but did not once attempt to properly explain how Maréchal and her movement are not Nazis. This is symptomatic of the reaction to antifascist protests over the past two years and is simply irresponsible and lazy journalism.
In the case of Maréchal’s Union speech, its defender’s constantly cite her party’s recent electoral success in the French presidential elections as some sort of loose justification for her right to speak. Since when did mainstream public opinion suddenly serve as a benchmark for what ideologies are considered acceptable? Was it not one of the first lessons we learnt in history classes on Nazi Germany that what is mainstream is not necessarily justifiable? Public opinion is hardly a bastion of progressive values – 55% of Europeans would ban immigration from majority-Muslim countriesand only 55% of Brits support gay marriage, to cite two of many examples. Maréchal’s Front National received 30% of the French vote in 2017, the exact same proportion as Adolf Hitler received in the first round of the German elections in 1933. Both achieved unexpected success, in part by promising to tyrannize and persecute minorities, be it the Jews then, or the Muslims, Roma and migrants now. In both cases, a third of the public cheered them on: the people had spoken.
The Union invited a speaker who represents a fascist movement which singles out minority groups as enemies of the people. 82% of Front National’s members self-identify as racist. Despite their leaders attempts to ‘de-demonise’ the movement, another poll found 87% to still be ‘very racist’. The FN’s regional elections were run on a campaign slogan promising ‘to decry and eradicate all bacterial migration’(my own emphasis added to highlight the fascist language of racial contamination). The FN frequently promises a ‘great displacement’ of migrants who have settled in France. One FN councillor recently suggested that Roma families should pay for their houses by having ‘their gold teeth…collected from them’. I simply ask, does this idea of ‘mass removal’ of minorities or the extraction of gold teeth remind us of anything? More pressingly, what is the difference between this rhetoric and that of the Nazis and where would those arguing for freedom of speech draw the line? Is there even a line?
It is obvious. Maréchal’s movement has a long-standing affiliation with fascism which refuses to go away. This is not an extreme leftist or progressive opinion. 58% of French people perceive Front National as a threat to democracy. It is a movement which has always been home to fascist undercurrents. Only a few months ago it was explicitly renamed after a party founded by French Nazis. This tradition stretches far back to Maréchal’s racist, fascist, homophobic, holocaust-denying grand-father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party in 1972.
Maréchal herself – far from merely making ‘controversial comments about Islam and homosexuality’ as previous opinion pieces have indifferently put it– has always refused to fully condemn her grand-father Jean-Marie’s hate speech. Not in 2014 when he jeered that Ebola would solve France’s migration problem ‘in three months’, nor in 2015 when she deemed his horrendous gas-chamber comments nothing more than ‘a useless provocation’. The Union invited a speaker who condones racist hate speech and blasé allusions to the mass murder of minorities to give a 15 minute address up the road from a holocaust memorial exhibition.
Jean-Marie Le Pen’s descendants Maréchal and Marine, her aunt and current leader of the Front National, continue to communicate the same fundamental hate-filled, fascist message, simply cloaking it in more palatable language. The pair of them have simply shifted the goal-posts: antisemitism and homophobia have been toned down. Overt ethno-nationalism has been replaced by a kind of ‘civic-nationalism’ with distinctly racial undertones. Let us not forget that the latest ‘reformed’ generation of the Le Pen dynasty did not describe Jean-Marie’s racism, homophobia and antisemitism as deplorable or criminal. No, they simply deemed it a political suicide. It was more than enough to win them an audience at the Oxford Union.
In any case, where antisemitism and holocaust denial have been swept under the carpet, the FN’s Islamophobia and racism remain full-throated as ever. Maréchal claims that Muslims ‘cannot have the same rank’ as Catholics in society. Her aunt compares Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation and once asked an audience ‘would you accept twelve illegal immigrants moving into your flat?…some of them would steal your wallet and brutalize your wife’.
Perhaps a closer look at Marion Maréchal Le Pen’s record and a broader interrogation of the movement she represents can give us a better picture of how diligent we should be. It is patronising to suggest, time and time again, that protestors who ‘lump’ her and other controversial figures into the category of ‘Nazi’ are misguided, without even touching on the political movement she or other supposed fascists represent. It is foolish to presume that any political movement operates in a vacuum away from its members, followers and voters. Robinson’s white supremacist followers, Breitbart’s hateful authors, Weidel’s neo-Nazi following and Le Pen’s racist voters should be considered just as much as what their figureheads say on record. Perhaps the Union could rescue its reputation by evaluating what is fascist through a more comprehensive framework. As for the Maréchal speech’s relevance to us in the UK? The ‘foreign country’ that one article described Maréchal as affecting is France, one of the UK’s closest allies, £33.8bn of its exports, and a shorter drive from Oxford than Newcastle. Maréchal and the Front National are on our doorstep, threatening the very values that make Great Britain, namely inclusivity, equality and multiculturalism. Upon closer inspection, some things explain themselves.