On Thursday evening, I queued outside for almost two hours to see Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s Front National party, speak at the Oxford Union. Thanks to protestors, who scaled the debating society’s walls and allegedly chased Union officials through the building, I then waited an hour more.
About 200 anti-fascist demonstrators gathered outside the Union buildings, holding placards saying ‘Marine Le Pen… Never Again!’ and chanting ‘This is free speech, that is a platform’. Queuing quietly, it felt somewhat ironic to be called ‘Nazi Fascist Scum!’ by angry people in balaclavas.
But as well as wanting to hear the views of the woman who may well become the next President of France, my friends and I were willing to brave the cold and the placards to support the Union’s decision to invite Ms. Le Pen.
Those who wished to deny Oxford students the chance to hear what one of Europe’s most prominent politicians has to say included our own student union. An OUSU Council vote on Wednesday approved an open letter to the Union ‘condemning Marine Le Pen’s views and asking them to refrain from inviting such speakers in future’.
Many Oxford students, however, don’t share our student union’s evident distaste for free speech. While we waited for Ms. Le Pen’s arrival, those in the packed debating chamber held an impromptu debate on the motion ‘This House has sympathy with the protestors’. The first proposition speaker got a round of applause for saying that he had sympathy for those outside because ‘they clearly don’t understand what fascism is’.
A leader in today’s edition of the Times rightly describes those who signed OUSU’s letter as ‘too genteel to cope with university life’ and unaware of the importance of free speech. Describing Ms. Le Pen as ‘xenophobic’, the Times argues that it is ‘the very awfulness of her ideas’ that necessitates that they be heard and examined.
But on the basis on her talk, I wouldn’t call Ms. Le Pen xenophobic. The Front National is certainly a party that includes plenty of noxious elements, but at the Union last night its leader was calm, charismatic and, dare I say it, reasonable.
Asked about her use of the word ‘cancer’ to describe Islamic extremism, Ms. Le Pen said, speaking in French: ‘When I say it is a cancer, I mean there is a very healthy body there. The Muslim religion is healthy, but there are cancerous cells.’ She emphasised the need to avoid any ‘risky behaviours’ – such as extreme preaching and ghettoisation in the banlieues – that might contribute to the spread of this ‘cancer’. Criticising the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and labelling Francois Hollande as ‘a lackey of the technocratic EU’, she said that ‘We are not at war against terrorism. Terrorism is only the tool of an ideology’.
Ms. Le Pen’s views on Europe, too, would chime with many mainstream voters. She told the Union that ‘European peoples have had enough of bowing their heads to the Brussels club and the whip of Germany’.
Even on immigration she said nothing that would earn you a raised eyebrow over dinner. Saying that the Front National wanted to restore national borders, she added that ‘The border must be a filter and not a wall’. She described a France struggling with poverty and record unemployment: when it comes to welcoming an ever-growing number of immigrants, ‘we’d like to, but we can’t’.
Ms. Le Pen was arguably at her most extreme when discussing her protectionist economic policies. Describing free trade as a ‘deeply unfair’ system that ‘puts in place the conditions of slavery’ and leads to ‘economic war’, she called for the implementation of ‘intelligent protectionism’. Her support of Russia’s involvement in the Crimea is similarly questionable.
Perhaps Marine Le Pen does indeed have some deeply unpleasant prejudices, but if so she did an excellent job of concealing them from last night’s audience. She may well be the next President of France – I wouldn’t vote for her, but I can see why 30 per cent of French voters say they might.