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).

GEOGRAPHY PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era