There is nothing simple about the politics of racial hatred, but we all knew what Madonna was getting at when she depicted France’s Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen with a swastika across her forehead. The image appeared briefly at one of the material girl’s concerts in Tel Aviv, and caused a worldwide stir. Reactions ranged from high-fiving cheers of support to Ms Le Pen threatening to sue “if she tries that in France” (note how even legal threats are imbued with aggressive nationalism when they are made by the doyenne of the Gallic far right).
Forgetting the efforts Le Pen has made to reform the image of her party since inheriting it from her father last year, the fact is that it remains a vehicle for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s racism and antisemitism. The old bigot is given pride of place at almost every rally, with Marine gently pawing his meaty frame with as much enthusiasm as she panders to his enormous ego. If he wasn’t turning 84 later this month, there is no doubt it would have been him rather than Marine who stood as FN candidate for the presidency this year.
The really disturbing part of all this is that Le Pen senior was the runner-up in the presidential election of 2002, while his fawning daughter won around a fifth of the popular vote in 2012. Now she is set to capitalise on the FN’s electoral resurgence to try to win them seats in parliament for the first time in two decades, consolidating a respectability that I suggest would be unobtainable in a country such as Britain. Can you imagine the kind of reception a candidate would receive in London if she took to the hustings with a family mentor who has been regularly convicted of Holocaust denial and stirring up hatred against Muslims? Yet I have attended Le Pen meetings all over France, including major cities such as Paris and Marseilles, and have yet to meet a single protester.
There remains a bland amorality in French voters that evokes disturbing memories of the Vichy regime during the second world war. Then, a collaborationist government was allowed to assist in the persecution, and indeed murder of minorities, especially the Jews, effectively because millions did nothing about it. I think about this every time I see the Le Pens and their heavies marching unopposed through the streets, or being interviewed by nonplussed TV journalists who think questions about austerity and the eurozone are more important than ones about segregation and forced deportation.
It often takes an extremist to highlight the dangers of one, and thus Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the eccentric leader of France’s communist-backed Left party, will stand against Marine Le Pen in two-round elections for the National Assembly that take place on 10 and 17 June.
Mélenchon says he has become a candidate in Le Pen’s fiefdom of Hénin-Beaumont, a depressed northern mining town, to “shine a light on the vampires” of the FN. Such language is, of course, pure Madonna – childishly colourful, catchy, memorable and potentially offensive in equal measure. It neatly sums up people’s fears as the FN bids to capture 15 constituencies across France, and so confirm itself as the popular rightwing choice of the unthinking working man and woman. Such a prospect is not a complicated one, and Madonna was entirely right to use her stage show in Israel to hint at the ideological horror it represents.
The FN is a regressive, divisive party that offers nothing to a modern, forward-thinking republic except for historically discredited dogma. An international popstar with the ability to entertain and shock across borders was exactly the right person to instigate global debate on Le Pen and what she represents. Whether Madonna will do the same when she performs in Paris and Nice later this summer only she knows, but plenty of decent people around the world, including many in France, hope that she will.