French far right rallies in defence of Syria's Assad
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Former far-right head Jean-Marie Le Pen has defended Syria’s Bashar al-Assad on French radio, claiming Allied forces during World War II had far more blood on their hands. Has he put his foot in it for daughter and presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen?
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen spent much of last week carefully deflecting journalists’ probes into her party’s stance on Syria – only to see her plain-spoken father quash her efforts Sunday when he brazenly defended Bashar al-Assad in an interview on French radio.
Describing the Syrian conflict as a civil war, former National Front (FN) leader Jean-Marie Le Pen said that it was “not abnormal for the Syrian state to defend itself,” and that Bashar al-Assad should not face criticism from countries who fought Nazi Germany during World War II.
His comments came just days after his daughter, presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, was grilled on the subject herself. Appearing in a live TV debate on state channel France 2, Le Pen junior managed to evade the issue by arguing that there weren’t “only bad guys or good guys” in Syria. “I just hope Bashar al-Assad won’t be replaced by Islamist fundamentalists,” she concluded, firmly dodging the question.
But her 85-year-old father had no qualms in weighing in on the issue. “Bashar al-Assad is a government leader who is facing a rebellion which is both civil and military,” he declared. “I don’t find it abnormal that the Syrian state is defending itself.”
He then went on to dismiss the deaths of 6,000 people killed in the conflict, weighing the casualty count against that of Allied operations during World War II. “Yes, there is shelling every minute, every two minutes [in Syria]… But within just 30 seconds in Tokyo, 100,000 civilians were killed. In Nagasaki, Hiroshima, 80,000 were killed. In Dresden, 200,000. The people who carried out these bombings on civilians should keep quiet about Mr Assad and his 6,000 deaths over six months.”
Adding insult to injury, Le Pen also read out a poem by French Nazi sympathizer Robert Brasillach.
Damaging to his daughter?
“Jean-Marie Le Pen’s comments may have upset the French electorate on the whole,” said Sylvain Crépon, a specialist of the French far right, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “But established FN supporters probably agree with what he had to say. Since the 1990s the FN has been defending Arab regimes, right from Saddam Hussein.”
Crépon, who works as a researcher at the Sophiapol laboratory at Nanterre University west of Paris, believes that unlike her father, Marine Le Pen will not offer support to any Arab regime that opposes Israel.
“She cannot cut ties with Assad and the Syrian regime because there is a very powerful radical movement within the FN that is pro-Arab purely because it is anti-Zionist,” Crépon said. “Paradoxically, she has worked hard to normalise relations with French Jews and the state of Israel since becoming party leader – she doesn’t want to throw that away. The same goes for her efforts to humanise the FN as a party.”
Le Pen junior has indeed transformed the image of the FN since taking the reigns from her father in January of last year. Her polished media presence has helped put her in a safe third place in this year's presidential race, just behind Socialist candidate François Hollande and incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.
But Crépon believes her popularity won’t be damaged by her father’s candour. “If she’s pressed, she will always argue that it’s better to have a secular dictatorship than an Islamist democracy,” he says. “And besides, foreign policy is not a major concern for most FN supporters.”
As her father pointed out on Sunday, Le Pen will soon be focusing on the party’s stronger points: immigration and insecurity. “She will certainly be in the second round of the election,” he promised. “Once she fires up those campaign issues, we’re unbeatable.”