The French fascists are buoyant. Brimming with energy after recent electoral success, the leader of the Front national (FN) 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 that the FN have taken control of, this will be policy.
There are three points of immediate interest here.
First, the invocation of 'secularism'
. Of all the 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 popularised 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 organisation that, while trying to efface the most egregious manifestations of antisemitic ideology from its public image, likes to keep the hardcore happy.
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 rationalise, prevaricate and obfuscate. Neither option is good for them; both are great for the FN. 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 civilising 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 racialised 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 routinise 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 popularise the notion that white people are being cheated and oppressed. Whether it is UKIP's Farage claiming to speak for the 'white working class', or the UMP'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 spectre 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 channelled in a terrible, cruel revenge. They want 'payback'. And to those, the FN offers a tantalising foretaste of what real 'payback' might feel like.