Wednesday, May 03, 2017


Sometimes a passing remark tells you everything you need to know about a particular person, or a particular way of looking at things. This is The Guardian's European affairs editor Jon Henley, reporting on the debate between Macron and Le Pen: "Le Pen brings up Macron's clumsy remark about France having committed crimes against humanity in Algeria."

This was not a "clumsy remark". It was one of the few entirely, uncontroversially accurate things that Macron has said in his whole campaign. Not only is it deadly accurate, it is also vital to understanding today's France. You cannot understand the France that allows police to rape a teenager with a baton, then declare it "accidental", without understanding the France that, for example, tortured and murdered captives in Algeria. What is more, you cannot understand fascism, or the campaign of Marine Le Pen, without understanding this context.

Macron doesn't know this, of course. Why would he? But Jean-Marie Le Pen was a Lieutenant in the French paratroopers who helped suppress the Algerian independence struggle. And in the course of that task, he was directly involved in the torture and extrajudicial execution of prisoners. This included electrocution, battering with truncheons, and being force-fed soapy liquid before having a towel stuffed in one's mouth while soldiers jumped up and down on one's stomach. This was a crucial part of the subjectifying experience that galvanised the fanatical nationalist and racist Le Pen, sparking his dreams of fascist revolution, and that provided a base for a fascist movement discredited by the Second World War. Much as the National Front and then BNP emerged from beleaguered and embattled empire loyalists, so today's Front national is a legacy of the French empire.

What is more, the rise of fascism in the first instance could hardly be explained without reference to the colonial experience and its huge, often hidden, crimes, and the racist dreams driving them: Italy in Libya, Germany in south-west Africa, France in north Africa and Indochina, Spain in the Rif, and so on. One could hardly talk fascism without talking about the history of bombing, the history of gassing, the pioneering of efficient methods of genocide, all in the colonies. One could hardly talk about Nazi Germany's campaign for Lebensraum without addressing its ideological inspiration in the British Empire. One could hardly talk of the vicious doctrine of Aryanism, without talking about the British colonial philologists and others who invented it as part of the subjugation of south Asia.

"Clumsy" is an interesting English locution, a way of saying that one doesn't talk about such things. It is also euphemistic, because what is being warded off with such polite coughing and hand-waving is the ghost at the feast -- the mutilated body of the slain who kills the buzz. What is "clumsy," from any other perspective, is being unable to talk about this history. What is awkward is the extent of circumlocution necessary to have a discussion of fascism that omits colonial history entirely.

Above all, clumsy is any attempt to discuss presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, without mention of the palpable, bragged-of atrocities of her father, and their role in the formation of her own politics.