Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Marie Le Pen and the NYT's Chickenhawk Stance on Free Reporting

Yesterday, readers of the op-ed section in the New York Times may have been surprised to see one of the published pieces was written entirely in french.  It was on that day that Marie Le Pen joined the ranks of countless other culturally significant (and make no mistake, controversial) figures to have been able to publish opinion pieces in such a storied paper.  While La Pen and her resurgent Front National party have been the beneficiaries of significant coverage in the EU, North American audiences for the most part are unaware of the stunning redressing of far right politics she may be on the cusp of accomplishing in France.

Established in 1972 as an amalgamation of various radical French nationalist groups, the Front National was, from its conception, a party predicated upon the principles of "pure" French identity and the rejection of non-European immigration.  While most of its policies actually aligned with those in the mainstream right, it was the party and its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's (Marie Le Pen's father and the party's only other leader) virulent xenophobia, antisemitism and seeming fondness for dictatorial right wing regimes which drew the frequent condemnation of French politicians of all stripes.  In fact, his outrageous antics were enough that after the FN came in 2nd in the 2002 elections, the senior Le Pen essentially solidified his role as the figurehead of far right sentiments in the French political consciousness.  That a man who once referred to the occupation of France and subsequent deportation of Jews and other targeted groups during WWII as "not particularly inhumane, even if there were a few blunders, inevitable in a country of [220,000 square miles]" was very nearly elected to the Élysée Palace is a frightening reminder that a slumbering nationalist beast exists in French politics to this very day, threatening a groundswell nearly every election cycle.

If the elder Le Pen is considered the spiritual center and figurehead of the FN, he has largely conceded the brain to his daughter Marie.  Upon taking the reigns from her father in 2011, she embarked upon an ambitious redesign and airbrushing of the party's platform in the hopes on increasing its electoral chances, a gamble which so far seems to be working.  Riding a wave of Europskepticism among the EU's wealthier nations, the party has captured 23 seats in European Parliament, and has taken control of councils and mayoral offices in mainly industrial cities which have borne the brunt of the most recent economic crisis.  Even though her party only currently holds three seats in the National Assembly, many party faithful are confident Le Pen will indeed be President in 2017.  But no one has been fooled into thinking that the core message has changed; in the aftermath of the shootings in Paris two weeks ago Jean-Marie Le Pen told the Huffington Post "I am not Charlie Hebdo, I am Charlie Martel."  Martel of course, was a Frankish (de facto) king among whose many accomplishments was the successful repelling of Islamic invaders from North Africa.  Poor historical analogies aside, the racist and borderline fascist origins of the policies which continue to guide the Front National today were enough that Nigel Farage of UKIP, himself no stranger to accusations of racism, blasted Le Pen's party as "antisemetic" and "racist".

And so we arrive at Le Pen's editorial.  In it, she seems to imply that the government shied away from labelling the attack on Charlie Hebdo's offices an act of Islamist terror, a patently false accusation.  Both Le Pen and her party may seem repellent and their policies and rhetoric harmful to efforts to integrate Muslim migrants fully into French society, and yet publishing her piece was not where the Times stumbled.  While it is not surprising that the FN and other far right groups are seizing upon this opportunity to label the government as soft on Islamic terror, and laying responsibility for the attacks at the feet of Muslim immigration, it is surprising that the editorial staff at the New York Times felt that giving La Pen a soapbox with which to extol her agenda of Islamaphobia and xenophobia was of value as news, especially in light of another editorial decision at the paper to not publish the cover of Charlie Hebdo's first edition since the shooting.  In a blog post a week later, NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote that in her opinion, the cartoon depicted on the cover, despite its potential to offend a minority of readers, was not gratuitously offensive nor was it devoid of news value.  And yet, it was shelved to avoid "offending Muslim sensibilities".

This isn't a question of journalists having the ability to publish whatever they wish, but rather one of them being restricted in their ability to best illustrate and convey stories they deem newsworthy.  For example, Executive Editorial Editor Dean Baquet's decision to not include the more graphic of the Mohammad cartoons because they were of little worth with regards to advancing understanding of the story at hand (The shooting at Charlie Hebdo's offices) was perfectly justified.  If asked to defend the publication of Marie Le Pen's editorial, the editors at the Times will no doubt point to the long history of people writing controversial and potentially inflammatory things in its op-ed pages over the years, and how ideas and speech, regardless of how morally reprehensible they may seem, should be publicly aired, lest they quietly fester on the fringes much like most of the radical policies the FN espouses; and they would be absolutely correct.  There is no doubt that op-eds critical of Marie Le Pen's views have been published, and will continue to be published.  Her policies will be subject to critical analysis and challenged based on their adherence to facts, versus distortion of them.   What the New York Times should apologize for however, is the double standard it adhered to when it decided that publishing an editorial possibly damaging to religious relations in France was alright, but that a story about a cartoon with the potential to inflame some readers could be neutered to appease that minority by removing an image of the cartoon itself.

No one should harbour any delusions that this cowardly attack in Paris two weeks ago was remotely justified, or that jihadis deserve to not feel insulted.  To suggest so would be to equate those who perpetrate such acts of terror with those who peacefully practise Islam, those who owe no more of a condemnation of terrorism than the rest of us.  The only ones who owe the people of France and generally anyone horrified by such acts anything are those who suggested that the perpetrators' actions were in any way justified.  It is Pope Francis, and those who marched in Tehran and Beirut under the banner "I am not Charlie" who owe a condemnation of radical Islam to us, and not to a rank political opportunist like Marie Le Pen and her ilk.