Selective zero-tolerance: is Greece really a democracy anymore?

The abuse suffered by four young anarchists, arrested for a bank robbery, at the hands of the police proves it’s time to call Greece’s coalition government what it is – a far-right authoritarian group.

Earlier this year, the Greek Minister of Citizen Protection declared he would take up initiatives to restore law and order in the capital of the crisis-stricken country. Nikos Dendias spearheads an attempt by the coalition government produced in last June’s elections to show that while the public coffers are empty and people are seeing their quality of life reduced to shambles, the state is present and it can still provide them with a sense of safety at the very least. Xenios Zeus was one of those initiatives, a crackdown on “illegal immigrants”, its failure (from 73,100 people arrested, only 4,352 were charged with anything) a big problem for the government. The coalition is also now dealing with accusations of tolerating an increasingly authoritarian police force that is torturing people and colluding with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, alongside the Lagarde list scandal taking its toll and two very difficult parliamentary votes looming. The first is a new tax code that will find many Greeks unable to pay their tax bills in 2013 and the second an investigation into the names included in the Lagarde list (the list of around 2,000 potential Greek tax evaders with undeclared Swiss HSBC accounts passed to the Greek government by Christine Lagarde in 2010), with at least two senior members of the government involved in an attempt to bury the files before they were published three months ago.

Since the crackdown on immigration didn’t work as the ministry had expected, their next move was to attack occupations and spaces associated with the anarchist movement. This should not come as a surprise since it is exactly these political spaces that have moved to organise in many neighborhoods and stand against the neo-Nazi gangs now roaming the streets of Athens, often with very high cost. But the manner in which this agenda is pursued has revealed something more: this government now sees the anarchists, as well as SYRIZA, as its opponent on the political stage. By cracking down on squats like that of Villa Amalias a month ago, the government is doing a favour for the Golden Dawn thugs who attack people openly with no repercussions – it was squats like that which traditionally stood as an obstacle to the ever expanding activities of the neo-Nazis and which as many locals have stated, helped keep the area around it safe. The spin is to baptise anarchists as the tools of SYRIZA, terrorists who enjoy the support they get from the opposition party. They have gone on the record with this many times.

But it’s the arrest of four young anarchists (aged between 20 and 25) this weekend after a failed bank robbery that brings back the political nature of Dendias’ agenda and of the police’s fascist tendencies. Two of them already wanted as suspects in the “conspiracy of the cells of fire” terrorist group, they were arrested in Kozani after trying to flee the bank while chased by the police. Witnesses of the incident claim that when they realised they couldn't get away, they exited the car and surrendered peacefully. However, the pictures published by the police show them to have been extensively abused, their faces swollen to the point where the mother of one didn’t recognise her son when she was allowed to see him. His own testimony leaves no doubt as to what transpired. He claims they were fitted with hoods, tied up and beaten for hours after their arrest. That the police tried to crudely photoshop the bruises “to make them recognisable” as Dendias himself stated points to the extent of the abuse. The use of torture is straightforwardly forbidden by the Greek constitution and violates human rights, while reminding the Greeks of the Colonel’s Junta and their systematic torture of dissidents.

A video showing the four being transferred leaves no doubt as to their political alignment. In front of the cameras, they shouted defiance at a country that has pushed its youth to extremes with the apathy that now runs deep in our lives, making us afraid of losing the few things we have left. “We only lost a battle, not the war” and “Long live anarchy”, they shouted, not to the cameras, but to the faces of those who stand by idle. Dendias didn’t even bother to launch an inquiry into the conditions under which they were tortured despite stating that “there is no desire to cover up anyone or anything”. Prime ministerial advistor Failos Kranidiotis, in an exchange we had on Twitter, sided with the police and spoke of injuries that were caused during the arrest, despite the absence of evidence backing his claims. How could anyone disarm a “terrorist armed like a lobster” with his punches? That is his claim and that of Dendias. He said “the monopoly of violence belongs to the state” and spends more time being sarcastic towards journalists who called him out on his statements than actually providing a factual basis for them. The New Democracy government is trying to condemn an entire ideology and along with it, all righteous outrage.

But this is the sort of policy line the government currently walks. Thin on arguments, strong on propaganda, full of venom and revenge against all those who oppose their totalitarian plans in any way. That the four kids were arrested for armed robbery does not justify torture, because that only brings us one step away from legitimising the torturing of the fifteen anti-fascists last October. All this wears only one colour, and it’s the colour of hate against those who will not stand for members of far-right groups and think-tanks (as Dendias and Kranidiotis were in the Nineties) to crack down on their lives and their dreams.

One of the four arrestees was a friend and present in the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos by a police officer in 2008, which sparked two weeks of unrest in the Greek capital. That we already see a revisionist line in operation in the mainstream media that suggests Grigoropoulos would become a terrorist himself is indicative of the intentions of this government. It is our duty and Europe’s to expose and stop co-operating with those who won’t hesitate to ignore human rights, refuse to reform a clearly fascist police force, and who don’t see racist motives when supporters of the Golden Dawn murder immigrants in the street. It is time to ask for the resignation of Nikos Dendias and any like-minded cabinet members. If we don’t want to see more kids boiling with anger, taking up arms against a system intent on turning them into drones working for scraps, torturing them when they refuse to conform, then it is time to speak out and call this government what it is: a far-right authoritarian group, dressed in a thin-veil of pro-European liberalism. Refusing to recognise them as anything but that is now an obligation for each and every one of us.


Members of the Greek ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party wave Greek national flags during a gathering of Greek nationalists in central Athens on 2 February 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

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Marine Le Pen’s new disguise: a bid to rebrand her far-right party as the “National Rally”

Le Pen hopes to present her renamed party as the working-class alternative to Macron’s bourgeois elitism.

Marine Le Pen had just declared: “When foreigners are in France, they must respect the law and the people” when chants of “On est chez nous!” (“We are at home!”) broke out in the audience. French flags were waved in the air.

On 11 March, Le Pen, 49, was re-elected leader of her far-right party, Front National (FN), and announced it was to be renamed Rassemblement National (“National Rally”). “It must be a rallying cry, a call for those who have France and the French at their heart to join us,” she declared at the party’s conference in Lille, northern France.

It’s a pivotal moment for the party her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded in 1972 and led until 2011. After going from a “jackass” far-right outfit known for its xenophobia, to the nationalist, anti-immigration party defeated in the final round of the 2017 French presidential election by the liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron, its goal is now to move “from opposition and into government”, Le Pen said.

For the FN leader, this is also a decisive moment. Le Pen’s credibility was damaged by her weak performance in the run-off debate and polls show her campaign eroded the political gains made during the party’s decade-long “de-demonisation”. “Her image is clearly tarnished,” Valérie Igounet, an expert on the French far right, told me. “But she is still supported by the party.” The FN claims its membership is around 80,000; Igounet says it is likely to have fallen to 50,000.

The proposed name will be put to a membership vote – as Le Pen’s re-election was, though she was the only candidate – but the move has already prompted concern.

Asked if they were happy with the rebrand, only 52 per cent of FN members answered yes. “It is a name that has negative connotations in French history,” Igounet said. Rassemblement National was a collaborationist party in the 1940s. It was also used in 1965 by defeated far-right presidential candidate Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, whose campaign was run by Jean-Marie Le Pen. “For a party that wants to free itself from Le Pen’s father, it’s a surprising choice,” Igounet said. Another political organisation, Rassemblement pour la France, claims the FN has no right to the name.

Not all of the FN’s fundamentals have been abandoned. The logo, a red, white and blue flame inspired by an Italian neo-fascist party, remains. Membership surveys show 98 per cent still approve of the anti-immigration rhetoric, Igounet said.

Le Pen hopes the rebrand will enable new political alliances. Thierry Mariani, a former minister under Nicolas Sarkozy and member of the right-wing Républicains, has called for an alliance with the FN (which, he said, “has evolved”). But the Républicains’ leader, Laurent Wauquiez, is firmly opposed: “As long as I am leader, there will be no alliance with the FN,” he vowed. “The FN want to make alliances, but they have nowhere to go,” said Antoine de Cabanes, a researcher on the far right for the think tank Transform! Europe.

Can Le Pen’s party really be “de-demonised”? The former Donald Trump aide Steve Bannon, who is currently touring Europe, was invited to speak at the Lille conference. “Let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honour,” he told activists, to rapturous applause.

Bannon has also praised Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine’s more conservative 28-year-old niece, as the party’s “rising star”. The younger Le Pen is on a “break” from French politics but addressed the US Republicans in Washington in February, where she declared her ambition to “make France great again”. Marion is tipped as a possible future leader. “She has the right name,” noted De Cabanes.

Marine Le Pen insisted she didn’t want to “make an ally” of Bannon, but rather to “listen to someone who defied expectation to win against all odds”. Yet even her father, a Holocaust denier whose politics are closer to Bannon’s than his daughter’s, described the choice of speaker as “not exactly de-demonising the party”.

It was not an isolated incident. On 10 March, Davy Rodríguez, a parliamentary assistant to Le Pen, was forced to resign after he was filmed using a racial slur in Lille.

The FN defended Bannon’s invitation on the grounds that “he embodies the rejection of the establishment, of the European Union and the system of politics and the media”. Le Pen called President Macron’s politics a “great downgrading of the middle and working class” and declared her party “the defender of the workers, the employees, the sorrowful farmers”.

The road to the 2022 presidential contest includes four elections – municipal, departmental, regional and European –  in which Le Pen hopes to present her renamed party as the working-class alternative to Macron’s bourgeois elitism. But in Lille, activists cheered wildly not when Le Pen spoke about the road ahead, but when she declared: “Legal and illegal immigration are not bearable any more!” Plus ça change… 

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game