In France, as elsewhere in Europe, the far right kills

The murder of the young anti-fascist activist Clément Méric in France is the tip of a rise in far right violence at the European level.

Astonishment but no surprise at all: the far-right has killed in France as it kills elsewhere in Europe. The young anti-fascist activist Clément Méric died under the blows of skinheads in the center of Paris. Yet who can maintain that such a violent act was not predictable, even predicted?

The murder of Clement is the tip of a rise in far right violence at the European level. The five people arrested for his murder are said to be members of a small extremist group known as Troisième Voie, but from skinhead groups to the "manif pour tous", through to the Front National, the whole French far right has gone along with, legitimised and even generated this violence. 

We know well that Alexandre Gabriac, the leader of the Jeunesses Nationalistes, went to Greece last December to get inspiration from the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn. Virulently anti-Semitic and racist, with a heavy nostalgia for the Third Reich, they combine legal and illegal action, running for elections while at the same time violently assaulting migrants, on a daily basis, especially in the streets of Athens.

As soon as Golden Dawn entered the parliament last May, we have been developing a European solidarity with democrats in Greece, but the neo-Nazis have gone on gaining ground, especially among youth. In France, after his so-called exclusion from the Front National, Alexandre Gabriac has been maintaining close relationships with the FN group at the Regional Council of Rhône-Alpes.

We also know that, in Hungary, the Hungarian Guard, which is a paramilitary militia of the Jobbik party, terrorizes Roma people, often forces them to flee the country, and even regularly murders some of them. The French far right is an ally of Jobbik, which is the cornerstone of the European expansion strategy of the Front National. Together, they founded, in 2009 in Budapest, the "Alliance of European National Movements", of which the BNP is also a part.

We all remember the massacre of the young social-democrats at Utoya, in Norway, during the summer 2011. Already then, youth was the target and the murders were political. Repeating the racist delirium on a European civil war which White Christians should fight against muslims and migrants, the killer has been celebrated as a hero by the fascist blogosphere. The former leader of the FN, Jean-Marie Le Pen then declared that migration, not the killer, was to blame for the massacre,.

In France, the mobilisation against the extension of civil marriage to homosexual couples has provided an opportunity to express all forms of hatred. The echoes of hate speech inside the Assemblée Nationale; the rallies where leaders of democratic and antidemocratic parties walked side by side; the all-too weak condemnations of violent acts which took place at the end of the demonstrations; the welcoming into the protests of all the enemies of democracy, all the racists, all the far right thugs in these rallies, have paved the way to, made possible, allowed, the murder of Clément.

Now, just over a year since the killings by Mohamed Merah, Europe is again turning its attention to France and expecting a worthy response. It is vital that public authorities resume their support for the fight against racism and for democracy, in France as well as at the European level. It is high time to give life to two of the main themes of François Hollande's election campaign: youth, who are hurting the most today, and equality, which has been assaulted by months of a gruesome reactionary mobilisation. Lastly, it is a democratic necessity to ban far right groups responsible for the murder of Clément.

It is also time for a renewed effort by civil society, which has been too passive when opposing the rise in far right in France like elsewhere on our continent. We must tolerate no hate speech, no illegal act, since none of them is innocent. We must not let ourselves impressed by the feeling of might and permissiveness which the enemies of democracy feel because we, the democrats, are the many, in France as elsewhere in Europe.

What is at stake is clear: liberty, democracy and life. Let us ensure that Clément is the last one to fall under the blows of the far right.

Benjamin Abtan is president of the European Grassroots Movement Against Racism

Protesters hold a banner reading "Clement M. assassinated by fascists / No forgetting, no forgiving" at a demonstration in Toulouse. Photograph: Getty Images

Benjamin Abtan is the President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage