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OPINION: There is no ‘civil war’ in France – but Le Pen seeks to conjure one

The words 'civil war' have littered the French discourse since the stabbing of a teenager at a village dance and ensuing violence from extreme right activists - John Lichfield looks at what really happened, and how the far-right have tried to weaponize the tragedy.

OPINION: There is no 'civil war' in France - but Le Pen seeks to conjure one
Marine Le Pen delivers a speech in Lisbon. Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP

Thomas Perrotto was stabbed to death, aged 16, at his first dance. He lived in a village in the pretty foothills of the Alps on the eastern side of the Rhône valley. He was captain of the local, junior rugby team

His killer has not yet been identified. He was one of a group of French young men of North African origin who drove uninvited to the dance from a multi-racial estate 17km away in Romans-sur-Isère.

There was a quarrel and a scuffle, possibly caused when a local man called one of the outsiders “Chiquita”, a slang word for a pretty girl. The youths from Romans-sur-Isère (Drôme) got the worst of the fight. They called in a gang of friends, who arrived armed with knives.

Several people were stabbed outside the village hall. Thomas, who seems to have been standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, was stabbed to death.

This is the provisional time-line established by the gendarmerie after interviews with 104 witnesses. Five of those questioned said the attackers shouted that they wanted to “kill whites”. Most heard nothing of that kind.

You can listen to John Lichfield talk about far right violence in France on the new episode of our Talking France podcast.

So much for the facts – disturbing enough, in all conscience.

Here is the same incident as described by French right-wing and far-right politicians.

Marine Le Pen said that “armed militias” were now organising razzias against rural France. (Razzia was a word used to describe North African pirate raids on Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries).  

Eric Zemmour said that Thomas’s death was the start of a “war for civilisation”. Marion Maréchal Le Pen spoke of “ethnic war” and “civil war”.  

There was even worse in the so-called “Fachosphere”, the social media sites run by and for people who detest Muslims. A far-right website, consulted at random, spoke of a “Muslim pogrom” against white France. Others suggested that the “raid” was inspired by the Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7th which killed 1,400 people.

The government handled this avalanche of racist bile and political manipulation badly. It withheld the names of the nine youths who were arrested. The Fachosphere screamed “conspiracy” and revealed that they were called, inter alia, Chaïd, Yasir, Mathys, Fayçal, Kouider and Yanis.

After treating the incident as an isolated “fait divers” (miscellaneous news story) for more than a week, the government sent its official spokesman Olivier Véran to visit Thomas’ parents and other victims this week. Véran said that the murder of the young man was a “tragedy which threatens to be a tipping point for our society”.

Does it? Véran seemed to be agreeing with the far-right that Thomas’ death could be the starting point for civil war. He was referring, in part, to 100 ultra-right knuckleheads from all over France who attempted to gain “revenge” last week by attacking the La Monnaie estate in Romans-sur-Isère with baseball bats and agricultural, bird-scaring fire-works.

One of them, from as far away as Mayenne in western France, was beaten up by local youths and his life saved by the intervention of other Muslim residents of the estate.

There are many disturbing things about what happened in the village of Crépol in the early hours of November 19th. The incident should not be dismissed as a banal dance fight which span out of control.

This was a confrontation between mutually uncomprehending worlds living 17 kilometers apart. It was influenced by racial divisions but it was not pre-planned or organized. The young attackers, mostly in their teens, were not fighting for Islam but responding with the empty-headed violence of their everyday lives to a supposed slight or defeat.

Romans-sur-Isère (population 33,000) is not the first name that springs to mind when you think of urban poverty, racial separation and drug-related mayhem. Even medium-sized French towns now have racial ghettos.

The town’s mayor points out that the La Monnaie estate is home to 4,500 people, whose lives are constantly disrupted by around 100 youths in their teens and 20s.  

Some of those arrested told police that they did not go to Crépol looking for trouble but to “have fun” and to ogle and chat up girls. That is perfectly normal teenage behaviour but something not allowed in Muslim-dominated La Monnaie and its bigger equivalents on the edges of Paris or Lyon. Sexual frustration is one of the many frustrations of the disaffected youth of the banlieues.

Until recently, the worlds of places like Crépol and La Monnaie never met. There seemed to be an invisible wall which separated the multi-racial banlieues from the rest of France.

That changed in the riots in the summer which followed the fatal shooting of a young Muslim man by a traffic policeman in the Paris suburbs. Unlike the 2005 riots, the violence spread into the centre of cities and to smallish rural towns.

All of these things are genuinely disturbing.

They do not begin to encompass the kind of inflammatory nonsense which has been spouted in the last 10 days by Marine Le Pen and in the columns of once relatively sane right-wing newspapers like Le Figaro.

There are no “Muslim pogroms” against village France; there are no “razzias” by organised Islamic militias.

Officially, Marine Le Pen rejects suggestions of an inevitable civil or ethnic war in France as “inflammatory”. And yet a senior figure in her party this week blamed the violence of a minority of Muslim youths on the fact that an alien race, unable to control its “impulses”, had been transplanted to France.

What then of the vast majority of the six million French Muslims  – like the majority of the people on the La Monnaie estate – who are hard-working and law-abiding?

Angry, disaffected Muslim youths say that they are angry and disaffected because they know that they will never be accepted as French. What then of the many young Muslims who do succeed?

There is danger in what happened in Crépol. There is greater danger in the deliberate distortion of what happened.

The greatest risk is one of “engrenage” the creation of a vicious spiral of self-fulfilling prejudices and hatreds.

There is no “civil war” in France except the one that Le Pen – and others – seek to conjure up for political gain.

Member comments

  1. Immigration works well only if controlled. The left wing, in their guilt-fuelled magnanimity, have allowed uncontrolled illegal immigration into all EU countries. The vast majority of these illegals don’t have the essential survival skills in a foreign land, and take to crime and bad behavior out of desperation. The people of Europe are fed up with this and are fighting back. It is all too easy to blame the right wingers. If the left behaved itself there would be no right wing.

  2. ‘Far-right’ is used to discredit people. Anyone dissenting from the left-wing narrative that uncontrolled immigration is beneficial to society is labelled a far-right extremist. These labels are used to silence the voices of the majority who are concerned about security. It’s good that politicians are alert to the danger of ‘the enemy within’ and hopefully they will succeed in tightening Schengen borders and deporting individuals against the diktats of the ECHR, as reported on the news today.

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For members


OPINION: Which side would Le Pen be on in World War III? French history gives a clue

When I interviewed Marine Le Pen a decade or so ago - writes John Lichfield - I asked her a would-be clever question: 'If you had been alive in June 1940, who would you have supported, Charles de Gaulle or Marshall Pétain?'

OPINION: Which side would Le Pen be on in World War III? French history gives a clue

She hesitated (considering all sides of the trap) but then said: “My instinct would have been to be with De Gaulle and the Resistance”.

Le Pen rapidly changed the subject. She didn’t want to dwell on the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. Instead, she made a spurious comparison with the alleged 21st century “occupation” of a handful of French streets for Friday Muslim prayers.

All the same, it was telling reply. She had repudiated her father, Jean-Marie, and other founders of the Front National who detested De Gaulle and sympathised with the Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime.

To relaunch and expand the family business, Marine Le Pen realised that she must abandon her father’s implied but never-quite-stated belief that “The Wrong Side” had triumphed in 1945.

Le Pen has since gone much further in de-toxifying the Front National, including changing the party’s name to the Rassemblement National and ditching her papa completely

In France, however, history is buried in shallow graves. World War Two caught up with Marine Le Pen last week.

President Emmanuel Macron had suggested that she should, in all decency, stay away from the state ceremony for the transfer of the remains of a foreign-born, Communist, Resistance leader to the Panthéon, the resting place of France’s official heroes and heroines.

Missak Manouchian, arrested and executed in February 1944, was a one-man affront to the founding genes of the RN, ex-FN. He was a Communist who led a resistance-cell largely composed of Jews. He was an immigrant who gave his life for his adopted country while the ideological ancestors of the ultra-nationalist Le Pen collaborated with the invaders.

READ ALSO Who was Missak Manouchian and why is he important to foreigners in France?

Like the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty, Marine Le Pen insisted on going to the Panthéon all the same. She had, she said, the same duty as any other party leader to attend a ceremony for a national hero (even if he was a lefty immigrant).

By a quirk of events, the murder in prison of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny simultaneously confronted Le Pen with another question. On whose side would she be on in World War Three?

Marine Le Pen is a long-standing admirer of Vladimir Putin. Her party was until recently his client for a €6 million loan.

During the 2017 French election, a young Russian artist presented her with a triple portrait of startlingly vulgar post-Soviet kitsch. It showed three blonde, Aryan heroes gazing portentously into the distance – Putin, herself and Donald Trump.

The RN made a great fuss of the painting at the time. Little has been seen of it recently.

Since the second Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago, Le Pen has distanced herself from Putin. The RN paid off its loan last year (and took out another one with a bank linked to the pro-Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban).

Like Donald Trump, however, Le Pen remains unwilling to break with the Kremlin completely. There was something sickeningly limp about Marine Le Pen’s statement on the murder of Navalny last week.

“I learn of the death of Alexei Navalny, a political activist engaged in the defence of democracy,” she wrote. “My condolences to his loved ones and his political family.”

No outrage. No mention that he died in a punishment camp in Siberia. He might have been an obscure old man who had died at home.

Contrast the statement by her young party president and de facto Number Two, Jordan Bardella.

“Alexei Navalny died in an Arctic prison where he was serving 19 year sentence for opposing the regime. This is tragic news for all defenders of human rights and fundamental liberties”.

That statement also stinks of hypocrisy. RN members in the European Parliament, including Bardella, have consistently failed to support motions condemning Navalny’s persecution. The Rassemblement National is keen to dismantle human rights in France and the EU.

But at least Bardella was prepared temporarily to put aside the latent Putinolatory of much of French far and hard-right and speak of an act of authoritarian wickedness.

At the time of the first anniversary of the Russian invasion last year, Bardella had already tried to toughen the party’s weaselly words on Putin’s responsibility. He was slapped down by Le Pen.

Despite his vacant boy band good looks, he is a clever young man. He no doubt sees Marine’s reluctance to break completely with the Kremlin in the same way that she once saw her father’s refusal to repudiate Vichy – an irritating PR obstacle in the march to power.

France and Europe may not face World War Three in the near future but we do face a long and painful struggle to continue support for Ukraine. The quislings and the Vichy-sympathisers are already amongst us. Not all the pro-Putin readers’ comments in Le Figaro come from Russian troll factories.

On whose side will Le Pen and Bardella be when difficult choices are needed in the months ahead?

In World War Two those who had brayed most about love of patrie and the ‘foreign menace’ proved to be those most willing to collaborate with and exploit foreign occupation.

Le Pen has stolen a march on them. She has shown herself willing to collaborate with Putinism in advance.