A sickening insult added to injury

April 7, 2014

In municipal elections held in late March, France's far-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, scored significant gains, running on an anti-immigrant platform that focuses special abuse on France's 5 million Muslims as scapegoats for the country's economic woes.

The National Front won mayoral elections in 11 cities and towns--candidates with ties to the party triumphed in three more--and came in third overall, behind the Socialist Party, which leads the current national government, and the mainstream conservatives. The far-right's victory comes less than two years after a landslide repudiation of the mainstream right under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, which brought François Hollande and the Socialists to power. Hollande's reign has been such a disappointment that the advances for the National Front, as well as the record low turnout, were expected. Now the National Front is poised to make gains in elections for European parliament scheduled for May.

Capitalizing on the French idea of "laïcité," or official secularism--a concept that has been repeatedly exploited to excuse bigotry toward Muslims, including a ban on Islamic headscarves in public schools--Le Pen declared, in one of her first post-election announcements, that in towns where the National Front had won control, the party would prevent schools from offering a non-pork meal alternative to Muslim students. In the eastern town of Hayanges, National Front Mayor Fabien Engelmann has proposed a "Pork Fest." Here, Richard Seymour looks at the meaning of the National Front's latest outrage.

THE FRENCH fascists are buoyant. Brimming with energy after recent electoral success, the leader of the National Front (NF), Marine Le Pen, has come up with a new way of punishing the Mohammedan interlopers. Their children should be made to eat pork or starve. And in towns the NF has taken control of, this will be policy.

There are three points of immediate interest here.

First, the invocation of "secularism." Of all the possible forms of ascriptive humiliation that could be targeted against Muslims, Le Pen chose one that is based on the French ideology of laïcité.

This is a typical example of how the far right cannily exploits contradictions in the dominant ideology, imbricating itself into the "mainstream" by operating on racist canards already popularized by the state, the ascendant parties and the mass media. After all, why make allowances for replacement meals if we're banning headscarves? Of course, the fact that it also by definition targets Jewish pupils is a bonus for an organization that, while trying to efface the most egregious manifestations of anti-Semitic ideology from its public image, likes to keep the hard core happy.

Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen (Marie-Lan Nguyen)

Le Pen's provocation poses a challenge to the bourgeois parties. Either they accede and grant her point as a logic extension of their own avowed commitments, or they rationalize, prevaricate and obfuscate. Neither option is good for them; both are great for the NF. The only possible way out would be to break with the ideology of laïcité and republicanism, which isn't going to happen.

Second, the palpable punitive violence of the suggestion. This is, of course, veiled in layers of plausible deniability, and mantled in the civilizing discourse of the state. It isn't as though a bunch of school bullies or a gang of fascists was randomly targeting Muslim kids and trying to force-feed them chunks of bacon. It is instead a form of racialized biopolitics, which amounts to the state taking hold of the bodies of Muslim and Jewish children, and compelling them on pain of going hungry to ingest something which is--if they are devout--proscribed for them.

It is one thing to regulate apparel, to tell Muslims how they might dress in school, or work. But to regulate their diet, to compel them to ingest and assimilate into their body, on pain of not eating, something that is haraam, that is considered the filthiest meat, from what is considered the dirtiest animal in existence; and then to routinize it, as a matter of bureaucratic course, to regularly mark out as excluded those who cannot eat the meal or as capitulating those who do; this is a remarkably efficient way to make a symbolic act of humiliation both recurrent and ongoing, and effective at a deep, somatic level.

THIRD, THIS is social sadism, but it is sadism predicated upon resentment. The cause of resentment in this case is deviance from the dominant culture. It is the idea that Muslims (and Jews), by being different and getting away with it, are getting something special. It is the idea that this is just one of the many little extras and allowances given to the foreigner, the immigrant, the Muslim by the treacherous cosmopolitan elites in flagrant disregard for France's traditional secularism.

This is not to say that difference as such is the cause of resentment. Certainly, Muslim dietary habits might offend the parochial universalism that is integral to imperialist culture, but the question then is why don't all such deviations cause social resentment. There is nothing particularly controversial about the "veggie option," for example; it would be more controversial if it wasn't there. Even airlines supply a range of meals for people with different dietary requirements: you can have Kosher, Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Vegan vegetarian, Lacto ovo vegetarian, Asian vegetarian, seafood only, bland, diabetic, gluten intolerant, low fat, low salt, low lactose, and so on and so on.

People are different; they have different needs: hardly news. Most such differences don't generate social resentment. They have to be connotatively linked to suffering and loss for that to happen.

And of course, there has been for some time a project on the right to popularize the notion that white people are being cheated and oppressed. Whether it is the UK Independence Party's Nigel Farage claiming to speak for the "white working class," or the Union for a Popular Movement's Jean-François Copé bemoaning "anti-white racism," there has been a persistent project of linking the experiences of material decline on the part of certain social classes and strata with the specter of national decline.

Nor is this practice restricted to the right. The fantasy of Majorité Opprimée was that the free rein given to North African immigrants, and particularly Muslims, menaced the material well-being, comfort and freedom of the French middle class, by undermining the "values" upon which France was based--and that a particular form of nationalist feminism could save both France and its embattled middle class.

The cumulative effect of this is that significant layers of the population link their grievance, their injury and their loss to the freedoms and allowances made for Muslims, and want evidently something more than a simple material restitution, whatever that could consist of: they want punishment, denigration and humiliation. They want their accumulated rage to be efficacious, for once; to be channeled in a terrible, cruel revenge. They want "payback." And to those, the NF offers a tantalizing foretaste of what real "payback" might feel like.

First published at Lenin's Tomb.

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