The British National Party (BNP) has made some worrying electoral breakthroughs in recent years, winning council seats in a number of areas across Britain and a seat on the London assembly in May.
This is the result of a specific strategy that the BNP has pursued under its leader Nick Griffin.
The model for Griffin’s BNP comes from France, in the form of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National (FN).
Griffin admires the FN because he believes it describes “the nationalist position in terms which ordinary people feel comfortable with”.
Griffin imagines himself to be engaged in “a life and death struggle for white survival”. He also considers the Holocaust to be a fiction and that BNP members have a duty to struggle against “this deadly lie”.
The FN offers him a way of making these Nazi views appear acceptable enough to win elections.
To do this, Le Pen’s organisation of fascists (former Waffen SS officers, wartime collaborators and self-styled “revolutionary nationalists”) had to pay attention to how they looked and how they expressed themselves.
FN members had to avoid comparisons with Hitler and Mussolini by not dressing up like them and by adopting a language of racism that stressed “cultural differences” rather than racial supremacy.
The BNP has seen that achieving such respectability gave the FN access to the media, which helped it to build a fascist organisation on a much bigger scale.
As one leading BNP member put it, “While the FN maintained its hardcore support, it could also reach a much wider audience”.
But France offers important lessons for anti-racists too.
A common response to the FN’s first electoral victories in the early 1980s was complacency- “It’s not a threat” or “It won’t last”.
Another major factor in the FN’s success was the way mainstream parties tried to adopt a “tough” line on immigration.
This simply made racist attitudes more acceptable and gave the FN legitimacy.
It gave the FN the chance to establish itself as a “normal” part of political life. But it was not interested in respectability for its own sake.
The FN used it to reintroduce racist views and revisionist distortions of history into public life.
In the late 1980s Le Pen referred to the Holocaust as a “detail” of the Second World War and made jokes about the gas chambers. In the mid-1990s he openly defended his belief in racial inequality.
Many believed that it was important to allow the FN a media platform in the name of “freedom of speech”.
But when it gained control of several towns in the 1990s the FN demonstrated its determination to destroy such freedoms.
Municipal employees were marginalised for their political views, plans were made to censor libraries and school textbooks, and halal meat was withdrawn from school canteens.
In the 1980s a mass anti-racist organisation had been built called SOS Racisme. It organised several huge carnivals, sold millions of badges and could have built a powerful alliance against the FN.
But its strategy of avoiding direct confrontation with the FN and of cultivating close links with the ruling Socialist Party (France’s version of New Labour) proved disastrous.
Disillusionment with the Socialist Party’s pro-market policies helped the FN grow, just as disgust with New Labour is aiding the BNP in Britain.
SOS became increasingly ineffective while the FN went from strength to strength.
Only when anti-racists organised independently of the Socialist Party and directly targeted the FN did they begin to dent its progress.
In the early 1990s a campaign of “democratic harassment” was organised to disrupt FN activities.
More generally, anti-racism was revived following a huge strike wave in 1995 as a powerful backlash emerged against the neoliberal policies of the Socialist Party and the conservative right.
By the late 1990s concerted action against the FN, combined with the wider anti-racist offensive, was putting the party on the defensive, preventing it from turning electoral success into organisational growth.
In 1997 an impressive anti-FN demonstration was organised in Strasbourg, in the east of France, where the party was holding its congress.
Internal tensions emerged and the party suffered a damaging split in 1999.
However, the organisation has not simply fallen away since then.
This is because it was allowed to grow virtually unchecked for a decade following its first election successes.
Two decades after these victories the FN came second in the 2002 presidential election. Millions, many shocked that the FN had become a serious and durable threat to democratic rights, marched against it.
To stop the BNP following the example of the FN, we must prevent it from gaining a foothold in public life. We need to make every BNP member aware that we will not allow fascists access to the rights and freedoms they want to destroy.
Jim Wolfreys is co-author of The Politics of Racism in France
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