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AP Photo/Christophe Ena
French far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen.

Marine Le Pen’s New York Times op-ed is a knife in the back for France

Emma-Kate Symons
By Emma-Kate Symons

Since 17 people were murdered in the Paris terror attacks that started with a massacre of cartoonists, staff, and police at Charlie Hebdo magazine almost two weeks ago, The New York Times has not deemed fit to print even one caricature by the French satirical weekly, citing Muslim sensitivities.

But today the Times opened up her august op-ed pages to France’s extreme right Front National (FN) party president, Marine Le Pen, the chief Gallic spokesperson for Islamophobia and racism.

We must explain who Le Pen is here because the Times did not include even a phrase qualifying its op-ed contributor as a far right party boss, nor explaining her movement’s long history of Muslim-baiting, incitement to racial hatred, Holocaust denial, and generalized anti-foreigner bile stretching back to the grimmest days of World War II collaborationist Vichy France.

The deliberately divisive FN leader is less Pat Buchanan, the renegade Republican, as she is white supremacist David Duke, and it is highly doubtful the Times would give an op-ed to either, especially on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

The daughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, an avowed Algerian war-torturer, she appropriated the legacy of Albert Camus and Georges Clemenceau, then purported to speak for ‘The French people’ ‘French values’ and the national value of ‘laicité’, secularism built upon the strict separation of church and state.

In 2010, to cite one notorious example among many, Le Pen compared Muslims praying in French streets (for lack of Mosques) to an ‘‘occupying force’’ akin to the Nazis, though such outrages were airbrushed from her carefully-worded Times screed.

Her op-ed, littered with half-truths and lies, distorts the position of the French government, which strongly condemned the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the murder of police, and the attack on a Kosher market, as terrorism, driven by Islamism, and as fundamentally anti-Semitic.

Of course Le Pen did not dare mention anti-Semitism, and she conveniently neglected to detail that her party promises to end all immigration, send migrants ‘home,’ strip non-white French people arbitrarily of citizenship, close mosques and prayer halls, deport Roma peoples, close France’s borders and Europe’s free movement of peoples, leave the euro zone, and install the ‘national preference’ for only ‘real’ French i.e., white, nationals, thus forcing out millions of French people with dual nationality.

Le Pen is hoping to having a real shot at the French presidency in the 2017 elections, and her popularity is soaring, with more than one third of French agreeing with her views. Her success would mean a hijacking of French democracy as we know it.

The FN’s DNA is firmly fascist and Le Pen has never renounced the core of her father’s ideology; she has just presented a more acceptable face, refocused the hatred on Muslims, and calibrated her incoherent economic ‘platform’ to sound like far-left anti-globalization populism.

But the leopard has not changed its spots. The FN remains what it always has been. It is a fascist-derived front party that capitalises on hatred of the other, chiefly immigrants, and today, especially Muslims. Its platform espouses a monocultural white France, and its supporters are among France’s most virulently anti-Semitic voters.

Le Pen’s values are an insult to French values—the Front National abhors the legacy of the French revolution, and the universalist notion of French citizenship, as something that is not tied to race, but tied to republican French values of liberty, equality and fraternity. The party, without any sense of shame was not invited and did not attend the ‘Marche Républicaine’ the enormous march for the values of the French republic attended by around 5 million after the attacks.

Evidently we were all France and all Charlie for about one day, however the loyalty quickly wore off.

For good measure, The Times took the unusual step of publishing Le Pen’s editorial in French, a decision that gave the op-ed top billing as Le Monde’s most shared article of the day.

As The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch tweeted, ‘‘Marine Le Pen Op-Ed @NYTimes & in French, too! A milestone in her radical right National Front’s quest for legitimacy.’’

Evidently we were all France and all Charlie for about one day, however the loyalty quickly wore off.

The Times’ disturbing dual errors of editorial judgement—banning Charlie, the scourge of clerics, Islamists, and ultra-orthodox preachers everywhere, and giving a bully pulpit to Le Pen—was unquestionably a knife in the back for France, for the Charlie Hebdo victims, the three police officers, and the four Jews murdered at the Paris Kosher market during the three days of attacks.

What France and the victims needed after this catastrophe was solidarity from other nations and international media organizations who share the same Western values grounded in the democratic, secular commitment to freedom of speech.

They did not need censorship and unexplained promotion for a right-wing extremist movement that is seeking to exploit tensions after a terrorist attack launched by home-grown radicals and is desperately seeking mainstream acceptability.

Obviously Le Pen has the ‘right’ to be published wherever her savvy communications team can manage to get their chief’s name up in lights, but did the New York Times have to do her bidding? And on a weekend when violent riots swept the Muslim world, French cultural centres and consulates were attacked and threatened, French flags were burned, and churches burned down by Islamist mobs screaming, they were, ‘not Charlie?’

Loyal readers of the Times, and writers and journalists around the world have struggled with the newspaper’s bizarre decision to refuse to show any Charlie Hebdo caricature. The policy persisted a week on from the massacre when in a five million print run, the magazine put out its cover featuring Mohammed saying ‘All is Forgiven’ and ‘Je Suis Charlie’.

At least when Pope Francis expressed sympathy with the angry jihadists, declaring that no one should have their religion insulted, and comparing the shock to having your mother insulted, an act that could result in ‘punches’ being thrown in response, there was no surprise.

But the Times is in the news and free speech game, it does not answer to religious and political leaders and should never do so.

Comic book artist Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus,  pinpointed the problem when he criticized the “mega-fanatic zeal to be polite” in the US press.

“I think it’s so hypocritical to drape yourself in freedom of speech and then self-censor yourself to the point where you are not making your readers understand the issues,” he told AFP, noting that a 2006 Charlie Hebdo cartoon that ostensibly ridiculed Mohammed ”was not making fun of the prophet, it was excoriating the believers who would kill.”

Sure the Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan has queried the editorial decision of executive editor Dean Baquet to censor because the Charlie cartoons were ‘‘gratuitously insulting’’ and ‘‘not satire.’’  Her latest post argued that ‘‘news value should have prevailed’’ and Times readers should not have had to go elsewhere to find the post-massacre Charlie Hebdo cover cartoon of Mohammed.

What will Sullivan say about Le Pen’s spectacular entrée to the most valuable op-ed real estate in the old media? The Opinion Pages are run independently from Baquet by his counterpart, Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, but did Le Pen better belong in an objective report or profile?

Of all the French ‘experts’ on the trouble roiling the country, was Le Pen the only person Rosenthal could find? French political, media and cultural figures have penned multiple open letters, commentaries and essays since the attacks, many of them calling these attacks what they were: Islamist terrorism. The editors could have turned to the numerous French authorities on Islam, or writers like French-Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben-Jelloun, historians such as Olivier Roy, or the expert on extreme right and Islamist radicals, Caroline Fourest.

Can we now expect Le Pen’s fellow travelers across the European extreme right spectrum, from Geert Wilders in Holland, to Golden Dawn in Greece, the British National Party, and German’s anti-Islam haters PEGIDA to get a guernsey in the op-ed pages?

For any democrat with even a rudimentary knowledge of recent French history and the Second World War Le Pen’s ‘arrival’ on the New York Times op-ed pages was a shocking development, given France’s risks of falling into civil strife stoked by an anti-Muslim far right and a growing domestic jihadi problem. That it could occur at the same time as the Times and some other Western media were censoring Charlie Hebdo beggars belief. At least if the Times feels obliged to publish Le Pen, run the Charlie cartoons, too!

The question now for the Times is: How did such a grievous, and yes dangerous error of judgement occur?

Somehow this needs more than another tortured column from public editor Sullivan.