We are living through an astonishing time for democracy in France. Journalists are being harassed, intimidated, and threatened with death or rape by far-right sympathisers simply through the exercise of their profession.
There have been elected politicians, political activists, union officials, booksellers and demonstrators who suffer the same, including the passage from threats to physical assaults.
While all this is happening, and despite this being a crucial time in the life of our democracy, the executive appears not to take measure of the danger, so occupied as it is in weighing up which opponent will allow Emmanuel Macron to hold on to power following the second and final round of next spring’s presidential elections.
As the campaigning begins – and when the political health of a country is represented not only by the vitality of debates but also in the respect shown to common rules, the refusal of hate and the defence of those who counter-balance the powers that be – the ultra-right is laying down its law by calling, in all impunity, for the life of others to be placed in danger.
Mediapart journalist Lucie Delaporte, who has written numerous articles about the “fachosphère” (for “fascist-sphere”, the loose collection of websites and social media accounts promoting far-right views and propaganda), has since several months become a victim of attacks by far-right, racist, xenophobic, misogynist and homophobic YouTubers.
In a nauseous, ignominious display, Ugo Gil Jimenez, aka Papacito, (who is surrounded by Julien Rochedy, a former Front National party official, Georges Matharan, aka Jordi, a former journalist with far-right weekly Valeurs actuelles, and the YouTuber Baptiste Marchais) uses social media to target our colleague who revealed the far-right links of polemicist Éric Zemmour (see more here).
Zemmour, 63, is a polemicist and political commentator who, after starting out on a career as a print journalist and becoming a regular columnist for French daily Le Figaro, then gained widespread notoriety since as a controversial political pundit on television shows. In a thinly disguised programme for his presidential bid, which he is yet to announce, he has launched a series of meetings, presented as “conferences” around his recently published book La France n'a pas dit son dernier mot (literally, “France has not spoken its last word”). Zemmour is positioning himself as a far-right rival to Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National party (the former Front National).
Speaking about our colleague Lucie Delaporte, and also about other journalists who took part with her in a discussion about the fachosphère presented in an online video by French website Arrêt sur images, Jimenez declared: “I’m going to give them authentic fractures of the snout, that’s going to seem bizarre for them […] masses of arms at 55 kilometres an hour, 200 joules in the heads.”
Our requests to the platform to remove the post have until now gone unanswered, which we bitterly regret. Mediapart is preparing to take legal action to put an end to such behaviour.
Videomaker “Usul”, who has since several years produced a weekly video-column for Mediapart, has also been targeted by the same individual. The latter is the subject of a preliminary investigation opened by the Paris public prosecution services following the posting of a video online on June 6th in which Jimenez presents the mock execution of a leftwing activist and explained how to legally purchase weapons.
Meanwhile, Mathieu Molard, the editor of independent French website StreetPress, became the target of thousands of messages on social media containing insults and death threats – some of which also targeted people close to him – after his website published an exclusive report on weapons-toting followers of Éric Zemmour. Following that campaign, organised by influential far-right online accounts, came a photomontage, posted via Telegram by the neo-Nazi channel Les Vilains Fachos, showing weapons aimed at various individuals known for their opposition to the far-right.
These included Mathieu Molard, along with a student union representative, and also the radical-left France insoumise (LFI) party leader and Member of Parliament (MP) Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and another MP from his party, Danièle Obono. Those targeted have since indicated that they have, variously, filed an official complaint or reported the matter to the prosecution services.
Their faces, and also sketched caricatures, are presented alongside racist drawings supposed to represent Muslims, Jews, black people and a photo of Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager whose diaries recounted her life in hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland during WWII and who died aged 15, after she was discovered and deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. “An explicit call to murder”, as StreetPress described it.
Besides these incitements, there are elsewhere acts of intimidation or censorship that breach press rights, with certain journalists barred from attending various far-right public meetings. That has regularly been the case at meetings of Marine Le Pen, as Mediapart itself has experienced on several occasions. Éric Zemmour has latterly adopted the same anti-democratic behaviour, when reporters from the south-west regional daily Sud Ouest were prevented from attending his public “conference” meeting earlier this month in the city of Bordeaux, where the paper is based. The reason given by Zemmour’s team was that they were unhappy with the daily’s coverage of an earlier event by the polemicist.
This violence is nothing new. A number of Mediapart journalists have come up against it in the past, as have others, like a reporter from news broadcaster FRANCE 24, who was assaulted by Front National security guards on the sidelines of the party’s congress in 2011. In 2015, at the traditional Front National May 1st rally (which honours Joan of Arc), TV crews from public broadcaster France 5 and private channel Canal Plus were attacked while filming and forced to leave the scene.
But the events now are happening in a particularly alarming context. It is that of a hold-up of public debate by the far-right, which succeeds in doing so without any resistance – quite the contrary. The presidential election campaigns in France, and notably since the 1980s with the emergence of Front National founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of Marine, have rarely been spared from the whiff of xenophobic and identarian effluvia. The current situation is however quite novel with regard to the level of aggressivity of these past few weeks, but also because of the media coverage of the far-right’s favourite themes. Pampered by many among French broadcast media, they appear to have set the political agenda of the governing majority and its rightwing opposition.
Poured out in a constant flow, the hate-talk against foreigners, minorities and the poor – among others – produces effects. When Éric Zemmour pointed a gun at journalists during the Milipol security industry salon in Paris in October, the symbolic nature of his gesture escaped no-one. The implicit attack on journalists is but a symptom of a wider brutality. By targeting journalists, as the troublesome ‘scouts’ of events of concern in public debate, it is the whole of society that is intimidated. The message is that ‘these methods are mine, keep away’.
Encouraged, even manufactured by concordant ideological and economic interests (and top of the ladder here is the Bolloré group, whose grip on media is expanding dangerously), this far-right drift by a few rubs off onto all of the election campaigning. A crazy machine is started up whereby, under the impulsion constantly activated by rolling news channels and certain dominant media organisations, the quite vile polemics, reinforced by the effect of social media, become commonplace and trivialised. They become so to the detriment of dignified and plural discussion about issues that are central to the daily lives of citizens, such as the environment, economic and social questions, healthcare, housing, education or problems of discrimination.
Once again, the attacks of the far-right are in themselves nothing new, but the situation is undoubtedly made worse by the activities of video platforms and the mechanical effect of the internet to overvalue conservative positions, as argued by American sociologist Jen Schradie in her recent essay The Revolution that wasn’t: how digital activism favors conservatives. By favouring simple, radical and striking content, and also hierarchical organisations ready to pay to give visibility to their messages, the very structure of the web promotes the voice of the far-right, to the cost of progressist opinions which still bathe in the initial horizontal ideals of the internet, despite these being largely compromised.
Targets are thus designated, with the risk that an extremist or crank interprets the incitement literally. The moderating policies of internet content hosts prove insufficient to prevent this.
While the responsibility here of both the traditional media and social media should be recognised, one must also, and above all, question the responsibility of our political class. As Mediapart political journalist Ellen Salvi wrote in a recent op-ed (in French) on the debates ahead of next year’s French presidential elections: “The Left runs behind the Right, which itself runs behind the far-right. In this political confusion, the least dissonant expression is caricatured, scorned, delegitimised.” Instead of rallying as one, unanimously and firmly, against this befouling of the election campaign, there are more and more of those who contribute to making it hysterical.
While on the Left there is at last the beginning of a certain indignation over this, it is the ranks of the governing party and its rightwing opposition that concern the rear-guard defenders of a constitutional state where the pluralist agora would keep its place as consubstantial with the democratic and social definition of our republic.
Some go about debating, as if there was nothing unusual about it, the theory of “the Great Replacement” (the adopted title of the “manifesto” of Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist who perpetrated the Christchurch, New Zealand mosques massacres in 2019), and also the reintroduction of the death penalty, or of imposing a law by which first names must be taken from the Christian calendar (Zemmour), not to mention the suggestion that Alfred Dreyfus was in fact guilty, or that Marshal Philippe Pétain, leader of Nazi-occupied France’s collaborationist regime, protected Jews (again, Zemour).
Relaying the far-right refrains, anti-Semitic, xenophobic and racist arguments are finding their place as if being something that is obvious. The spiralling arguments between the candidates competing in the primaries of the conservative Les Républicains party are one example among others of this headlong rush towards the very worst. Trivialising the hatred of others, and placing in question our fundamental values of equality and solidarity, always leads, at one moment or another, to the legitimization of violence against those on the margins, and also those who carried the message of warning – before turning against others.
So where stands Emmanuel Macron in all that? The French president is allowing it to continue, hoping to gain from the political disintegration caused by the current climate. Some members of his government are even feeding the beast, such as transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari who declared that Éric Zemmour prompts "intellectual debates that are quite interesting”.
The president, up above on the promontory, throws down a few phrases here and there, in the style of a soothsayer removed from the material considerations of the world below. An example was when he declared, at the end of September, that “our identity” has never been based on a narrow approach, neither “for first names nor in forms of tension”, leaving his supporters divided over how to face the far-right. Some of them argue for a full-frontal attack, while others counter that “demonisation” has never halted the advance of the far-right.
Meanwhile, when his ministers – and notably education minister Michel Blanquer and interior minister Gérald Darmanin – lose themselves in unending polemics over notions of “Islamo-leftists” and suggestions that Marine Le Pen is “too soft”, the president makes no effort to correct them.
Macron, who is expected, but yet to announce, he will run for re-election, thinks ahead in terms of market share, and sees here a way of seducing a section of the electorate. As our colleague Ellen Salvi wrote: “To convince the other, he says nothing and contents himself with observing how the public debate is gently but surely transformed into a rubbish tip, so that fears – and the consequences in turn of a tactical vote that was already present in 2017 [editor’s note, in the presidential elections that year, sections of the leftwing and conservative electorate voted for Macron to prevent the election of Marine Le Pen in the second and final round between the two] – take hold. This laissez-fair approach is a trap. It is a trap so crude that, once again, one must pinch oneself to believe it.”
With just a few months now ticking down to the elections, one can but recognise that “laissez-fair” approach and condemn it. It comes from an executive that is supposed to ensure the conditions for a peaceful public debate, and there can only be regrets that it sees no urgency to react firmly and collectively against the threats made to the lives of journalists.
It was only on November 16th that French Prime Minister Jean Castex, answering a question in Parliament from radical-left LFI party MP Mathilde Panot, offered a comment on the situation, but kept to a strictly minimal condemnation of those threats. Announcing his satisfaction that the justice system was onto the cases, he could have made clear that it was because the victims in question had filed complaints. It was not a move made on the initiative of the prosecution services which, however, have all the powers to decide to launch investigations into suspected offences.
Until now, neither Emmanuel Macron, nor his justice minister Éric Dupond-Moretti, nor his culture minister Roselyne Bachelot, whose responsibilities include upholding the rights of French journalists, have made any comment on the issue.
In a recent co-signed statement initiated by the Mediapart journalists’ committee, numerous editorial desks across the French media have called on the government and political parties to take action to halt the attacks by supporters of the far-right to which they have become victims.
In face of the impunity that the far-right intimidators have benefitted from, the government, allowing hate to prosper, appears to be incapable of protecting the right to inform. It is high time that the presidential office, the Élysée Palace, stops playing with fire in the name of a Machiavellian political triangulation, drawing on its enemy’s arguments to better neutralise them. This deadly strategy represents a threat to the whole of society, well beyond the threat to journalists.
The original French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Graham Tearse