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Weissman writes: "A growing progressive movement could beat back the beast and push the country in a more positive direction. We could, that is, if we focus less on why we can't and more on how we can."

Weissman: 'It's going to get a lot worse here before it gets better.' (photo: Phillippe Arbez)
Weissman: 'It's going to get a lot worse here before it gets better.' (photo: Phillippe Arbez)

Fascism Comes in Many Shades

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

17 January 14


ome of the best writers on the American left openly worry that the country is "on the brink of totalitarianism" and careening toward fascism, however they choose to define that very slippery word. The danger certainly exists, but a growing progressive movement could beat back the beast and push the country in a more positive direction. We could, that is, if we focus less on why we can't and more on how we can.

Optimism, cautious rather than cockeyed, goes a long way, but it is harder to keep alive here in France, where fascism, past and present, has a far greater reality. Ever since 2001, my wife Anna and I have lived in rural Dordogne, which still celebrates the World War II exploits of its anti-fascist French Resistance. It's all very romantic. But early in our first year I was walking in the nearby village, when I had to question whether we had made a frightful mistake. On the old stone walls of a deserted building, someone had crudely scrawled in white paint several six-pointed Stars of David, the ancient symbol now turned into a sign of racial hatred against Jews, whether pro-Zionist or not.

Anna is British, not Jewish, and was raised on stories of how her father, then an army officer, helped liberate the German concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen. Fearing for my safety, she wanted to pack up and leave. I was not about to let graffiti drive me away, but continued to wonder why the mayor never found it disturbing enough to remove. I should have asked him, but never did.

Soon after, I interviewed a Resistance hero, a lively gentleman in his 80s who had been honored, along with his mother and wife, for saving endangered Jews, many thousands of whom had fled to the Dordogne from German-occupied Alsace. He quickly cut through my illusions. A large majority of his neighbors, he said, had actively collaborated with the Nazis or passively went along with them. Nothing I have found disputes his judgment.

My next jolt came in the first round of the April 2002 presidential elections. Winning nearly 5 million votes, the National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen beat out the flaccid Socialists for a place in the run-offs. Thuggish and charismatic, Le Pen was easily satirized as "Super-Facho," short for Super-Fascist, a name he well deserved. With support from the left, the center-right incumbent Jacques Chirac overwhelmed Le Pen, winning more than 80% of the second-round ballots.

Times have changed. Super-Facho's daughter Marine now runs the National Front and has rebranded it as an old-fashioned nationalist party, still right-wing and populist, but closer to the mainstream. She proudly proclaims her support for Israel. She insists she is not anti-Islam, but only opposed to what her father called "the Islamization of French Society." And, in her first run for the presidency in 2012, as Christopher Dickey reminds us, she "made a knowledgeable attack on neoliberal economics and finance-dominated capitalism, which many voters found more credible than Hollande's badly compromised social democratic critique or Jean-Luc Melénchon's far-left update of Karl Marx." All this has made the new Le Pen "the rising power in French politics," especially as the current Socialist president François Hollande had tanked in the polls even before the scandal of his romance with actress Juliet Gayet.

In local election this March, the National Front will field some 500 candidates, far more than in the past, and polls suggest that they will make a strong showing. Their platform remains much as it was. They want strict curbs on immigration, a crackdown on crime, and a return to protective tariffs. Le Pen has specifically targeted proposals for a trans-Atlantic trade accord, but offers no alternative beyond the dead-end of economic nationalism.

For the European parliamentary elections in late May, she sings the same siren song, playing on well-deserved criticisms of the undemocratic, bureaucratic, and far too neo-liberal European Union. She is allying herself with the anti-Islamic Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and other right-wing Euro-Sceptics to block any further integration of the European Union – and possibly to break it up entirely.

"I don't expect anything from the European system except that it explodes," she told Anglo-American journalists last week. If, as the polls suggest, the National Front does well in both elections, Super-Facho's daughter could in time do what he never could – win the presidency. Would she then remain bound by the rules of French democracy? Or would she swing back to her father's fascist ways?

No one knows. But I cannot get out of my mind the way he once characterized the Nazis in their rise to power. They were, he wrote, "a powerful mass movement, altogether popular and democratic, that triumphed through elections."

A timelier clue will be how Marine deals with the openly anti-Semitic comic Dieudonné M'bala M'bala. Performing under his first name, which translates as "God-given," the mixed-race Dieudonné gives a decidedly un-Aryan, third world cast to racial hatred, making himself the darling of disaffected young people of all races.

Brilliant onstage, he uses social media to spread his Holocaust "humor." Last month, French television – and YouTube – showed him attacking a Jewish journalist who is one of his fiercest critics. "When I hear talk of Patrick Cohen, I say to myself, you know, the gas chambers." Dieudonné pauses and raises an eyebrow. "A pity."

He also ridiculed the Holocaust in song. He explained that he was against Israel but not against Jews "yet." And he declared that in the conflict between Nazis and Jews, he did not know who started it and would not take sides.

One does not have to be Jewish for this to sound sick, but Dieudonné's audience lapped it up. Young people and sports figures also love to give his trademark gesture, the quenelle, holding one arm down at an angle and reaching upward across the chest with the other. Critics see it as a stiff-arm Nazi salute in reverse. Dieudonné insists that, as The New Yorker put it, it is "simply a defiant 'up yours' to the establishment."

How have the big shots responded? Exactly as expected. First they convicted him eight times for violating French speech laws that make it a crime to deny the Holocaust or spread racial and religious hatred. Having put all his assets in his wife's name, he never paid a single Sou.

Upping the stakes, Interior Minister Manuel Valls, officials in several cities, and the Council of State then banned his "Le Mur," The Wall, the performance in which he attacks Patrick Cohen. In turn, Dieudonné cleaned up his act a bit and now performs it as "Asu Zoa" – "The Face of the Elephant" in Ewondo, the Cameroonian language his father speaks. To Jewish observers, the new title looks like a clever anagram for USA ZOA, the Zionist Organization of America, which is probably the elephant he has in mind.

And so the show goes on, making officials appear ridiculous whatever they choose to do. If only Dieudonné were not such a hateful thug, his endless provocations would look like the best political jujitsu of non-violent civil disobedience, using the government's heavy-handed attack on what should be his right to free speech, no matter how vile, to makes himself even more of a hero to his growing base of fans.

Now the interior minister wants to censor YouTube, while Dieudonné threatens to go to the European Court of Human Rights. As for Marine, the public knows that her father befriended Dieudonné and god-fathered one his daughters, which makes them all family. What can she do? Just as she zigs toward the center right, at least publicly, Dieudo zags back to her father's worst hate-mongering, taking increasing numbers of young people with him. Her response so far has been lawyerly, which is how she used to earn her living.

"What he said against Patrick Cohen is against the law, and Mr. Dieudonné knows that perfectly well," she told the foreign journalists. "So he must assume the consequences, and he should be sanctioned."

Defending free speech, she sounded like a card-carrying member of the ACLU. "If political authorities start to ban shows in advance, because statements could be made during the event that would be outside the law, that makes me very afraid," she said. "It would be a totalitarian excess."

Too true. Yet Marine never slammed the anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial that Dieudonné and her father share with so many National Front supporters. Her approach seems too pitch perfect. Never bait Jews, Muslims, or blacks in public, but hold back from alienating those who would once they get the chance. Optimistic or not, it's going to get a lot worse here before it gets better.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How To Break Their Hold."

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