‘It was a mistake to strip Le Pen of her immunity’

After the leader of France’s National Front party Marine Le Pen was stripped of her immunity on Tuesday, French political analyst and expert on the far-right, Jean-Yves Camus tells The Local why it was a mistake. However, anti-racism campaigners disagree.

'It was a mistake to strip Le Pen of her immunity'
No longer immune from prosecution. Marine Le Pen. Photo: Georges Gobet/AFP

Many opponents of the French far-right National Front will almost certainly have welcomed Tuesday’s decision by the European Parliament to strip Marine Le Pen of her immunity from prosecution as an MEP.

Those who believe her provocative speech in Lyon, when she compared Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation, was indeed incitement to racial hatred, will be eager to see French authorities now launch legal proceedings against her.

However Jean Yves Camus, a political analyst from the French think tank IRIS (Institut de Relations International et Stratégiques) and regular commentator on the country's far right, believes the European Parliament and French authorities have made an error.

(Jean Yves Camus, Photo:IRIS)

“I don't think this is a really smart move,” Camus says. “This will only give publicity to the National Front and they will use it to their advantage. In the past there have been several incidents with Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie, who was also stripped of his immunity but it was all to no avail. He remained an MEP.”

Camus believes the only thing that the European Parliament has proved with Tuesday’s decision is its own inconsistency.

“On the one side, the parliament has stripped her of her immunity and on the other side far-right politicians in the same parliament from Greece or Hungary, who have more extreme views than Marine Le Pen, have been able to say almost anything they like about Islam.

“They have been able to voice their opinion without being stripped of immunity. I don’t see any good reason why the parliament should only concentrate on Le Pen. Politicians from Greece's LAOS party for example say more harmful and more provocative than Marine Le Pen.

“I am, of course, against her views but I think there's definitely something wrong with letting other MEPs say what they want and only focusing on France’s National Front because it's the most successful of the far-right parties in Europe.”

On the eve of Tuesday’s vote, Le Pen remained defiant and even reiterated the words she used in the original speech. She insisted her only crime was to express an opinion and the French public would certainly not be swayed by any prosecution.

“I will go to court with my head held high to explain to them that France needs people to tell the truth,” Le Pen said.

This defiance, Camus believes, is why the European Parliament has played into her hands.

“She will no doubt try to turn this to her advantage and make herself out to be the victim of some kind of plot between the mainstream parties, who have had her right to free speech taken away from her,” he said.

“If they really wanted to deal with Marine Le Pen it would have been much wiser for the mainstream political parties to just concentrate on themselves and on what they say. For example, the more the centre-right UMP party talks about Islam the more they give legitimacy to the National Front.”

Tuesday’s decision to strip Le Pen of her immunity comes at a significant time for the National Front, with just nine months to go before municipal elections where the far-right party is hoping to make significant ground on the mainstream centrist parties.

With a year to go before the next European elections, the National Front is neck and neck with the French Socialist party and the centre-right UMP with 21 percent of voting intentions, according to a survey by the Ifop polling agency.

“I think in the next elections the National Front could achieve a significant breakthrough. If they make agreements and deals with the conservative right in certain seats, then that will be a significant development, not only in France but for the whole of Europe.

“It’s too early to tell how the loss of immunity will affect the National Front at the elections but if she ends up being prosecuted for her remarks in the run up to the municipal elections, then I can really see her taking advantage of it.”

Not everyone agrees with Camus' view however. Lawyer Philippe Schmidt from the International League against Racism and anti-Semitism (LICRA) in France said the European Parliament had to set an example, no matter what the fallout.

"What Marine Le Pen said was disgraceful. When we take people to court as an organization we always ask ourselves: 'Is this person going to get publicity out of it and will they benefit?', but you cannot decide on these grounds," Schmidt said.

"If the person simply has to be prosecuted for what they've said, then that's the most important factor to consider, especially if it's the state that is prosecuting. The most important thing to consider is not whether she will be able to claim she is a victim but simply whether what she said was illegal.

"The European Parliament have sent the message that they will not tolerate this kind of speech. We have to be vigilant and make sure people who preach hate cannot just say what they want."

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


OPINION: The real threat to France’s democracy is Le Pen and the ex generals threatening civil war

We have been here before, writes John Lichfield, as a group of French military officers publish a second open letter warning of 'civil war' in France.

OPINION: The real threat to France's democracy is Le Pen and the ex generals threatening civil war
Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP

The campaign of political poison-pen letter writing by French military officers recalls other times – some surprisingly recent – that parts of the country’s army felt justified in interfering in politics.

The letters also recall efforts elsewhere, including those of Donald Trump, to encourage fear and loathing for political ends.

The two letters, published by the far-right magazine, Valeurs Actuelles, allege that France is on the verge of “disintegration” and “civil war”. They warn of military intervention and “thousands of deaths” unless President Emmanuel Macron acts to combat a rising tide of violence, radical Islam and the “hordes” in the multi-racial suburbs or banlieues.

READ ALSO: Five minutes to understand: Why a group of French generals are warning of ‘civil war’

No ideas are put forward about what might be done. The reference to “hordes”  is the kind of racist language found daily in the “fachosphère”, the phalanx of far-right blogs and fake news sites on the French-language internet.

The letters have been received with some glee by parts of the right-wing media in the UK.

They should be taken seriously for what they are: a Trump-like campaign by people close to the far-right leader Marine Le Pen to darken the already febrile mood of France 11 months before presidential elections.

They should not be taken seriously for what they say. They present an absurdly exaggerated picture of France’s genuine problems with radical Islam and other forms of violence.

In a more rational political climate, the letters would have damaged Le Pen more than Macron.

For ten years she has been telling us that she is not her father; that the Rassemblement National is not the Front National; that she is not racist; that she is a good republican and democrat; that she can be trusted with power.

Now here she is rejoicing in letters which are stuffed with lies and racist vocabulary and which threaten, implicitly, a military coup unless something or other (no suggestions yet available) is done to fight Islamism and violent crime.

The government, initially slow to react and counter the letter’s absurd narrative, has finally started to make this point.

The Prime Minister, Jean Castex, asked: “How can people – and Madame Le Pen in particular – who aspire to run the state support an initiative which implies a revolt against the state’s institutions?”

Castex added that Le Pen had been “chasing away her true nature but it has now returned at the double”.

The retired Gendarmerie captain who wrote the first letter is no random ex-member of the military.  Jean-Pierre Fabre-Bernadac, 70, was Jean-Marie Le Pen’s chief security officer in the 1990s. He now runs a far-right website.

The lead signature was that of a former head of the Foreign Legion, General Christian Piquemal, 80, who has already been dismissed from the honorary army reserve for his involvement with racist movements.

That letter was also signed by over 100 other officers, mostly retired but some still serving. Not all of them have a known record of far-right activity. That military officers should be right-wing in their politics is unsurprising: that they should sign a letter de fact threatening a coup is disturbing.

It is difficult to know how widely their attitude is shared in a French military whose upper ranks are now increasingly female and ethnically diverse. A second letter was published last weekend which purported to have been written and signed by serving officers but no names were given.

The present military chief of staff, General François Lecointre, said both letters had “seriously transgressed against” the twin military obligations in a democracy of neutrality and silence. He invited those who had approved the second letter (if they actually exist) to leave the army and enter politics.

What is even more disturbing, in my view, is that no politician of the moderate right has made a strong attack on these letters.

They have criticised the implied threat of military intervention but happily endorsed the letter’s absurdly dark, Trumpian portrait of “Macron’s France” in 2021.

The essential argument of the letters are correct, they say. France is increasingly violent. Parts of the inner suburbs (banlieues) are “no go zones”. Patriotic values are mocked; anti-white racism is preached.

Like all great populist lies, those allegations include elements  of the truth.

France has suffered more than 30 Islamist terror attacks in the last six years. Parts of the multi-racial banlieues – how often have our generals actually visited them, one wonders? –  are  violent, crime-ridden places and have been for years.

But the great majority of citizens in the banlieues – and the great majority of France’s five million Muslims – are hard-working and law-abiding and want to get on with their lives. Referring to them generically as “hordes” is an attempt to create problems, not to solve them.

And what of the supposed wave of violence? 

In 2016, the year before Macron became President, there were 575,000 acts of physical, non-domestic violence in France. By 2018, it had reached 693,000. But as recently as 2008 – when the fiercely pro-law-and-order Nicolas Sarkozy was president – there were 875,000.

IN NUMBERS Are crime rates really spiralling in France?

The figures go up and down. There is no “explosion”. The overall trend since the 1990s has been down.

The other great lie in the generals’ letter is the allegation that Macron’s response to the radical Islamist threat has been “evasion” and “guilty silence”.

Can this, be the same President Macron who is accused of “islamophobia” by parts of the French Left and racism by parts of the US media because he brought forward a new law this year to try to curb radical Islam?

READ ALSO What is in Macron’s new law to crack down on Islamist extremism?

The letters suggest that French democracy is fragile and the military may have to intervene to save it. The real threat to French  democracy comes from the letter-writers and their backers, including Madame Le Pen.

It also also comes from the self-seeking cowardice of “mainstream” politicians of the right who failed to condemn the letters for the grotesque, electoral manoeuvre that they are.