CN: this article mentions far-right slurs
An investigation led by Mediapart has revealed that at least 50 soldiers from various regiments of the French army have been found displaying neo-Nazi behaviour, in a pattern becoming worryingly more ubiquitous in the Hexagone. Behaviours included the displaying of the swastika ensign in barracks, photographs with flags of the Third Reich, and Nazi salute poses. Evidence of this was largely found on unrestricted social media accounts (published under aliases), drawing back the curtain on the sinister reality of France’s military, and its government’s lassitude at cracking down on systemic far-right extremism. The Minister for Higher Education, Frédérique Vidal, reminded her Twitter followers, after the recent episode of antisemitic graffiti on SciencesPo’s Paris campus, that hatred has ‘no place’ in the French republic. And so one would hope. Yet it seems that, as Europe becomes temporally distanced from a time in which this behaviour held political legitimacy, the danger it poses to targeted communities is being recklessly trivialised by its leaders.
Among the evidence uncovered by Mediapart was a recently-surfaced video of a soldier on overseas deployment in French Guyana instructing four local boys to stretch their arms out in a Nazi salute and shout, ‘Sieg Heil’. Another soldier deployed in Africa is seen yelling at a young boy to perform push-ups in the dirt, shouting, ‘pompe sale pute, qu’est ce que tu pensais, que la nourriture française est distribuée gratuitement?’ (‘pump dirt, bitch, what did you think, that French food is given out for nothing?’).
These shameful revelations follow the conclusions of an investigation last year that found yet more soldiers of the French army publicly displaying anti-immigrant and even neo-Nazi sympathies. Photos were released of soldiers proudly displaying tattoos of ‘mein ehre heist treue’, (‘my honour is fidelity’), a phrase infamously associated with the German SS of the Third Reich.
It is patently evident that the French army is experiencing a pandemic of far-right extremism, entirely self-propagated and encouraged by a system that does not seek to punish this ideology sufficiently enough to eliminate it. The immediate question that poses itself is why, in the body that supposedly defends the freedom of an egalitarian republic, have such hateful ideologies become the norm?
Marine Le Pen’s monopoly on national security in political discourse has bought her support, particularly among the armed forces and police. After the 2015 Paris attacks, Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (formerly Front National) cemented its support among the military in the conveniently-scheduled regional elections that year, taking place just three weeks after the attacks. A 2017 survey showed 51% of gendarmes would vote for Le Pen in a presidential election. And they were true to their word: when the day came, in the first round of voting, 54% of police officers voted for Le Pen, alongside 41% of soldiers. The narrative propelled by the RN, that Muslim immigrants are the root of national security issues, seems to be hoovering up support within the armed forces and police.
Army officials argue they do not have the resources to monitor the social media presence of all of their employees. It is more likely, it seems, that they don’t have the resources to defend themselves against a media storm if seen to be ungrateful to the servicewomen and men who risk their lives in their line of duty. As base as this equivalence may seem, it is one that suits a normalised far-right agenda perfectly: if calling out extremism is equated with being ‘ungrateful’ to those who protect us, their own prejudice can continue to go unchecked.
In the same vein, the spokesman for the Army Minister, Hervé Grandjean, argued in response to Mediapart’s findings that it is impossible to screen all new recruits, and that no system is infallible. No system, then, except that which accommodates perpetrators.
Mediapart stresses that the 50 neo-Nazi soldiers it has uncovered could be just the tip of the iceberg.
The political pendulum in France is swinging all the more precipitously to the right as we approach the 2022 presidential election. That far-right tendencies within France’s military institutions go unchecked is sadly a simple reflection of the political situation of late. As popular perception of an ever-rising threat of ‘Islamisme’ grows stronger, stoked by the anti-separatist policies of Macron’s government to secure public and media support, so does the untouchable pedestal that the military rests on.
The fine line between holding institutions to account for their actions and being seen to criticise those who risk themselves to protect us is pushed in favour of the military when their positive actions are naturally publicised so widely. Justice in a corrupt system is impossible. As law enforcement and the military often rely on their own watchdogs, or other intertwined agencies, to hold themselves accountable, it is inevitable that their results should come back in favour of the accused. And the ‘we-should-be-grateful’ narrative serves no one but the extremists in their midsts.
A report from July 2020 found that multiple French soldiers had been found posting neo-Nazi propaganda on their social media, and, at the time of its publication, none had been fired, with only a handful having left voluntarily. ‘Alan V’ from the 27th Alpinistes regiment had posted on Facebook, for example, that he saw no reason not to ‘coller une bonne balle dans la nuque (des migrants)’ (‘put a bullet in the back of any migrant’s head’).
The argument made by the governing body that it lacks the means to punish neo-Nazis is not good enough. A quick glance at Germany shows us how it can be done: when in 2019, 592 Germans soldiers were found to be closely linked to the far-right, the Bundeswehr dissolved the regiments most affected. Impossible it is clearly not, but sadly neither does it seem to be a priority at the Élysée.
With a lack of credible left-wing opposition, far-right rhetoric is being given a free pass by France’s ruling party to the political centre stage. In turn, law enforcement and the military are held less and less accountable by the state that funds them and, subsequently, their votes. The vicious cycle is clear: law enforcement and the military are faced with violence at home and abroad, gain martyrdom in the eyes of politicians and the press, which then acts as a shield against institutional scrutiny when the far-right is accommodated by the vey top. Tellingly, this is not an issue confined only to France. Both the British and German police forces have been found to harbour neo-Nazi cells. It’s almost as if a job at an institution that sanctions unlimited violence against perceived ‘threats’ that it itself has the power to define would attract those with a hateful agenda. This reality continues to come as a ‘surprise’ to the French government, who, with what at best can be seen as blind naiveté and at worst (perhaps more accurately) wilful ignorance, seems to have no intentions of stopping this evil.
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