Hundreds of students gathered outside Cambridge University´s prestigious debating society on Tuesday to protest a speech by French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose visit sparked an outcry among anti-fascist groups in the country.
Some 200 students turned out to protest the arrival of the National Front (FN) leader, waving banners reading “No Nazis here. Stop Le Pen” and “No platform for fascists”.
The protesters were referring to comments made by Le Pen in 2010 when she compared Muslim prayers in the streets of France with the Nazi occupation. “For those who want to talk a lot about World War II, if it’s about occupation, then we could also talk about [Muslim prayers in the streets],” she said. “There may not be any tanks or soldiers, but it is nevertheless an occupation.”
“Fascist organisations across Europe are attempting to take advantage of the economic crisis and the impact of austerity, to build support,” the group said in an online statement. “Like her father, Marine Le Pen seeks to organize a capacity for extra-parliamentary activity through rallies, street demonstrations and links to openly ‘revolutionary nationalist’ groups,” it said.The demonstration against her visit on Tuesday was organised by the Unite Against Fascism (UAF) association, which described Le Pen and her national Front party as “deeply racist”.
The protest was supported by the university’s Black and Minority Ethnic Campaign (BME SC), the Cambridge Universities Labour Club, the NUS Black Students’ Officer and the Socialist Worker movement. Members of the Cambridge University’s Student Union were also in attendance.
The FN dismissed the UAF and its allies as “radical minority, communitarian groups” and argued that Le Pen was widely respected in the UK. “These fringe groups are bound to make noise,” FN Vice President Florian Philippot told French TV channel i-Tele on Thursday. “But the majority of British people are very happy to welcome Marine Le Pen. They are pleased to see that there is still a free spirit in France.”
‘Don’t even know who she is’
France’s National Front party has become a popular force in French politics since it was formed in 1972. Marine’s 2011 takeover from her aged her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is thought to have softened the reputation of the party. The raspy-voiced leader, who is considered almost charming in comparison with her short-tempered father, gained an easy third place in last year’s president election with 17.8% of the vote.
But the 44-year-old leader remains relatively unknown in the UK, where far-right groups are gradually gaining speed but have yet to match the electoral achievements of the FN in France.
“Up till two days ago, I did not know who Marine Le Pen was,” Cambridge law undergraduate Jinho Clement admitted in a blog on HuffPost Students. Clement, who is also chair of Cambridge University Students’ Union, supported Le Pen’s invitation. “For the sake of people like me who don’t know much about people like Le Pen, it makes a lot of sense to invite her to Cambridge,” he said. “Free speech ensures that societies like the union can provide a forum for discussions like these.”
The Cambridge Union Society, which prides itself on its “political independence”, is known for raising hackles both within the university and in society at large with its choice of guests.
Le Pen joins a list of controversial figures in addressing the prestigious university union. Dominique Strauss-Kahn paid a visit in March 2012 and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange made an appearance via video link in November. The union has also hosted Holocaust denier David Irving and, infamously, former fascist leader Oswald Mosley in the 1970s.