Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1321, (24 - 30 November 2016)
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1321, (24 - 30 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The BBC and Marine Le Pen

A recent BBC interview with French extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen should spark a major reassessment of the British media,
writes Peter Oborne

Al-Ahram Weekly

Let’s embark on a mental experiment. Let’s imagine that French Front National leader Marine Le Pen was on record as declaring that “Judaisation” was a threat to French civilisation. Let’s imagine that she had told her far-right supporters that public manifestations of the Jewish faith on French streets were comparable to the wartime Nazi occupation. This would be regarded in Britain as profoundly sinister.

Luckily for her, Le Pen has never attacked “Judaisation”. She has reserved her venom for Muslims, at one stage comparing Muslims praying in the streets of Paris to the Nazi occupation. She has also warned that what she calls “Islamisation” threatens French civilisation.

Yet, despite all this, earlier this month at the Party’s headquarters in Nanterre outside Paris, Le Pen was handed the platform of a prestigious interview with the BBC’s most respected political journalist, Andrew Marr.

Many have criticised Marr for hosting the Front National leader on his TV show. Others argue that he deserves to be congratulated for pulling off an exclusive interview with someone who stands a chance of becoming the next French president in the elections just a few months away.

I can think of no more relevant guest in the week when Donald Trump surged to his unexpected and frightening victory in the US presidential elections. However, I do believe that Marr is open to strong criticism for failing to put the right questions to Le Pen.

Let’s not forget that the Front National leader has called for the headscarf to be banned in France, for the banning of non-pork meals in French schools, and for the surveillance of French mosques. To be absolutely fair to her, she claims to be speaking up in defence of the French secular tradition as expressed in the national constitution and says she wants the same standards applied to all religions. However, most observers have little doubt that the targets of her remarks are Muslims, rather than Christians or Jews.

This became obvious when she compared Muslims praying on the streets of French towns to the wartime Nazi occupation in a campaign speech to supporters in Lyon in 2010.

“I’m sorry, but for those who really like to talk about World War Two, if we’re talking about occupation, we could talk about that [praying the streets], because that is clearly an occupation of the territory,” she is reported to have said.

“It is an occupation of sections of the territory, of neighbourhoods in which religious law applies, it is an occupation. There are no tanks, there are no soldiers, but it is an occupation anyhow, and it weighs on people.”

This was a distasteful and ugly analogy, and let’s bear in mind that many Muslims are obliged to pray on French streets because there simply aren’t enough mosques or prayer rooms. Yet, in his interview Marr only asked Le Pen one innocuous question on the subject, gently inquiring whether Muslims were welcome in France. When the response came back that “we are not going to welcome any more people, full stop. We are full up,” Marr did not pursue the subject.

Let’s not forget that Marr is one of the more senior and respected representatives of the British liberal elite. I am fairly certain that he would have asked further questions had Le Pen given the same reply to a question about any other minority group, homosexuals, blacks, Jews, or Hindus, for example. But Marr let Marine Le Pen’s remark go by without comment, as if she had said something absolutely normal. This is disturbing.

To be fair, Marr did ask Le Pen about the Front National’s historical record of anti-Semitism. However this was an easy question for the French far-right presidential candidate to answer. It has been extremely well-documented that Marine Le Pen has distanced herself from her Party’s past, and denounced her father’s anti-Semitic views. (He was the Party’s former leader.) But the urgent and burning question about the Front National today is no longer anti-Semitism. It is anti-Muslim bigotry.

It is important to note that the evolution of the Front National in France is part of a wider European pattern. Large sections of the far right have stopped attacking Jews and gone after Muslims instead. Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom in the Netherlands is an important example of this pan-European phenomenon. In the UK, Nigel Farage’s anti-European Union UK Independence Party (UKIP) is showing nasty signs of becoming another.

Yet, it is important to bear in mind that even UKIP regards Marine Le Pen as beyond the bounds of respectability and has refused to have anything to do with her or her Party.

I believe there are strong grounds for defining Le Pen as an extremist under the UK Prevent definition of this word, which states that “extremism is vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” (Prevent is a UK organisation designed to combat extremism.)

In Britain, there has developed a set of practices regarding speakers who are classified as extremists. On the whole, they are not permitted to appear on mainstream public platforms. On the rare occasions that they do, they are challenged. One important precedent concerns the former British National Party (BNP) leader, Nick Griffin. He was allowed on the BBC’s Question Time programme, but he had to put up with a barrage of intense questioning and challenges to his beliefs.

An even more relevant case concerns the heavy grilling Griffin endured from BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman over his views on Islam and Asian people on the corporation’s programme Newsnight. These precedents suggest that Marr should have challenged Marine Le Pen far more than he did.

Yet, when Le Pen appeared on Britain’s foremost political programme, she wasn’t challenged over her views on Islam. I am absolutely certain that had Marine Le Pen expounded similar views about blacks, homosexuals, Hindus or Jews, Marr would have asked her very probing and probably hostile questions.

There are approaching three million Muslims in Britain, almost all of them payers of the licence fee that funds the BBC. The treatment of Marine Le Pen would suggest that the BBC deems these people to have different rights to other categories of the population. I use the term “rights” because I reckon they are entitled to expect that mainstream BBC interviewers would ask tough questions when someone who has expressed such strongly anti-Muslim opinions comes into the room.

However, it would be entirely unfair to single out Marr, who is an excellent interviewer, for this double standard. The British public press and broadcast media conducts itself in exactly the same way that Marr and the BBC did in the interview with Le Pen.

Here’s another, even more marked example from the UK Times newspaper earlier this month. One of the paper’s columnists, Melanie Phillips, has excused the bigotry found on the US news Website Breitbart in the following terms: “Breitbart exposes Islamist violence and intimidation. For that it is called racist, hate-fuelled and Islamophobic.”

It is astonishing that one of Britain’s leading newspapers should try to make Islamophobia normal in this way. This is a problem. I think we all need to reassess the way we engage with right-wing extremists like Marine Le Pen and for that matter US President-elect Donald Trump, who has made a series of statements about Muslims in America that would beyond question classify him as an extremist were he to try to enter Britain.

This reassessment is urgent. We may be entering another dark age in European history, and Muslims are being held out in particular for unfair treatment, as Le Pen in France and Wilders in Holland show all too clearly. In the meantime, we need rules that everyone can accept, that are completely fair and transparent and that do not target some communities at the expense of others.


The writer was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013.

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