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France

French human rights defender becomes far-right mayor

© Photo: AFP

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by Guillaume GUGUEN

Latest update : 2014-03-31

At first glance, Robert Ménard is an unlikely champion of France’s far-right National Front party. He founded and led the freedom-of-expression group Reporters Without Borders (RWB).

On Sunday he became mayor of southern French town Beziers on a Front National ticket.

Ménard, 60, is one of 11 new FN mayors to be elected following Sunday’s nationwide local elections, an unprecedented victory for the anti-Europe and anti-immigration party. 

His win spotlights the question of how a vocal defender of freedom of speech can reconcile his background with the policies of the FN, a party whose founder has been convicted of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

“Defending freedom of expression cannot exclude the freedom of the right wing to express its own opinions,” Ménard wrote in 2011 in a manifesto titled “Vive Le Pen”,  referring to the party’s leader Marine Le Pen, daughter of FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.

It came as a shock to many, not least to French weekly news magazine “Jeune Afrique” (“Young Africa”, published in English as the “Africa Report”), which had previously called Ménard “the voice of conscience of an entire generation of independent African journalists”.

“Behind the seeming clarity of this ayatollah of freedom of expression, who claims to support the right to freedom of speech, lies a terrible confusion of fundamental values,” "Jeune Afrique" editor François Soudan wrote in response to Ménard's manifesto.

Cult of the leader

Ménard isn’t just defending the FN’s right to voice its own opinions. In recent years he has been a vocal supporter of the FN’s nationalist policies. He supports the re-introduction of the death penalty and he opposes same-sex marriage.

At the same time, he is proud that his work defending freedom of expression has led to him being banned from Cuba, Turkey and Algeria (where he was born when the North African country was still a French territory).

“Ménard went the extra mile to defend journalists, taking on autocratic regimes, mostly in Africa,” said one of his former colleagues.

In 2008 he made headlines by protesting during the departure of the Olympic flame from Greece, unfurling behind the Chinese delegation a banner depicting the Olympic rings replaced by handcuffs. RWB accused China of clamping down on journalists as it prepared to host that year’s games. The same banner was hoisted over Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris when the torch came to France.

He was arrested in July of that year for protesting on the Champs Elysées in central Paris against the presence of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad (whom the FN supports as he wages a bitter civil war) at France’s national day parade.

“Having such a strong personality running RWB meant that people listened to us,” a former colleague told FRANCE 24. He said Ménard’s imaginative and attention-grabbing campaigns were central to the NGO’s success.

“But he lived and breathed the cult of the leader,” the source said. “His management of RWB was autocratic. He did not tolerate opinions among his staff that were not his own. It’s probably the only trait that survived from his Trotskyite beginnings.”

Rony Braumann, also a founding member of RWB, wrote of Ménard in a 2007 in regard to human rights in Cuba, “Not only would he not listen to dissenting voices, but anyone who disagreed with him or asked questions he didn’t like was mercilessly put down, if not sacked on the spot. The man was a tyrant.”

Hatred of ‘well-meaning but lukewarm’ left

Ménard began his political career as an activist for France’s Revolutionary Communist League before joining the more mainstream Socialist Party which he quit in 1981.

Since then his positions have shifted ever to the right. He is appalled by the “well-meaning but lukewarm” left wing, which he claims wants to stop any meaningful debate on immigration, Islam and security.

“Back when he ran RWB we were aware that he held some radical opinions,” said a former employee. “But RWB was never concerned with these debates; his principal focus was always on total freedom of expression.”

His former employees and colleagues were shocked last year when Ménard spoke up for comedian and convicted anti-Semite Dieudonné and outspoken Holocaust denier Vincent Reynouard.

That shock was compounded when they hear him say on RTL radio in March 2013, “Marine Le Pen calls a spade a spade [in French: 'a cat a cat']. She asks questions that are valid. And despite what people say, her answers are valid too, whether we like them or not. She is trampling on a political class that is totally incapable of solving the problems of today.”

RWB reacted by cutting all ties with its former boss and releasing a statement saying, “Ménard’s political stance is not linked in any way with the organisation he founded in 1985 and ran for 23 years."

There was little surprise when he announced he was standing to become mayor of Béziers, a medieval walled town with a population of 70,000 in France’s Languedoc region, under the banner of the FN. He is not a member of the party but is part of the FN’s “Blue Marine” grouping of far-right candidates.

Ménard insists that despite his allegiance with the FN, it is still not his party.
“I’m not a card-carrying party member,” he told left-leaning French daily "Le Monde" in November 2013. “Having said that, I agree with the FN on 80 percent of their ideas, particularly their policies on immigration.”

Date created : 2014-03-31

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