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Europe’s far right and the new racist normal

Julie Pascoët is a senior advocacy officer at European Network Against Racism. Nabil Sanaullah is the organization’s communications and press officer.

As the dust from the French election finally settles, the heavily racist rhetoric that propelled several political campaigns shows no sign of abating.

However, the rise of the far-right National Rally (RN) party and its greater prominence in the French parliament makes one thing very clear: It’s now perfectly acceptable to be an unapologetic racist. And as prejudiced rhetoric becomes a political fixture both in France and across the bloc, alongside an ever-shrinking civil society, Europe is setting a disturbing tone.

Just last month, far-right deputy José Gonzalez reminisced about French Algeria, decrying the territorial loss of his birthplace when the country gained its independence. And shockingly, his colonization-glorifying speech was met with applause in the French National Assembly. For what could possibly be more nostalgic than the golden era of subjugation and murder by European colonizers?

When pressed on the topic, Gonzalez stood by his comments, even claiming that France hadn’t committed any war crimes in Algeria. And with his denial of wrongdoing by the French Algerian l’Organisation armée secrète, being an apologist for colonial war crimes has now made its way into the political mainstream.

Of course, this may come as a shock to disengaged observers, but for those who have borne the brunt of discriminatory policies and rhetoric in France for the past five years, it’s all business as usual. The country’s minority communities were already feeling asphyxiated by President Emmanuel Macron’s government.

Over the last few years, several civil society organizations, particularly those defending the civil rights of Muslims, have been dissolved under the instructions of Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin, with no judicial review. The highest administrative court, Le Conseil d’Etat, has repeatedly sided with Darmanin, and outside the shrinking civic space, ordinary people have been targeted by French authorities. So much for the objective and independent functioning of the French judiciary system.

During the pandemic, for example, women who wore both a mask and the hijab were still fined on the grounds that their faces were fully covered. And France’s ethnically diverse district of Seine-Saint-Denis received more COVID-19 fines than the rest of the country combined.

With France’s far right now holding 89 seats in the National Assembly — an unprecedented 11-fold increase —the Collective for Countering Islamophobia in Europe, a Belgium-based civil society organization, declared, “the normalization of far-right rhetoric by the presidential party has allowed Le Rassemblement National to become the real winner of this election.” And efforts to stomp on the fundamental rights of minorities will only increase further.

At this point, however, the French government seems to think that the liberation of its Muslim population is a greater threat. “Not only does the presidential party assume its Islamophobic stances and laws, but some of its members have also now stated they may ‘move forward together with the RN,’ and even doubt whether it is a far-right party,” the organization warned.

Three weeks ago, Le Conseil d’Etat reversed a decision to allow three-piece swimsuits at public pools in Grenoble, pushing Muslim women back to the sidelines. And even the dead are not spared, as tombstones with Muslim symbols are now falling prey to last year’s controversial anti-separatism bill, meant to enforce neutrality measures. Apparently, being buried according to your religious beliefs potentially constitutes an act of separatism these days.

While Macron fashioned his image to become Europe’s liberal protector against the far right, the fact is that he actively contributed to its advances. And rather than uphold the infamous “republican barrage” against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, the president’s party refused to encourage voters to support candidates from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s socialist-left NUPES coalition.

France’s far right now holds 89 seats in the National Assembly | Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images

However, France is not isolated in this matter either. There’s been a consistent failure to address the growing threat of the far-right movement on a European level too. And the resulting effect is a gradual shift of European Union politics toward the right, and a normalization of racism and discrimination. Just recently, for example, Vice President of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas appeared to break the “cordon sanitaire” policy when he met with MEPs from Spain’s far-right Vox party — a policy that was, ironically, used as a mechanism to limit far-right influence with the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front party in 1980s.

Although the situation looks dire, however, all isn’t lost. With the establishment of the EU Anti-racism Action Plan and the appointment of Michaela Moua as the first EU Anti-Racism Coordinator, there are some signs of an institutional pushback.

But regardless of the few positives, the far right still amounts to a ticking time bomb for our democracies — and EU leaders must start to defuse it, both at home and across the bloc.

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