Members of France's extreme-right subculture enjoy a growing footprint in Marine Le Pen's anti-immigration National Front party. This runs counter to her efforts to transform her longtime pariah party into a mainstream political force.
LYON, France — There’s no doubt that an extreme-right French group known for violence and large doses of anti-Semitism doesn’t like journalists or the establishment.
“You lie … you spend your time at society soirees … you are the system!” Steven Bissuel, the boss of the Lyon chapter of the Union Defense Group (GUD), hissed at an Associated Press journalist.
Marine Le Pen, the far-right French presidential candidate, may not personally know Bissuel or his “black rats,” as GUD members call themselves. She also many not individually know their extreme-right brothers down the cobblestone street in old Lyon, the militants of Identity Generation, whose speeches and shock tactics can have strong racist overtones.
But members of France’s extreme-right subculture have a growing footprint in Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Front party and in her campaign. Le Pen’s willingness to bring them into her fold runs counter to her efforts to purge National Front ranks — including her own father, the party’s co-founder — to transform the longtime pariah party into a mainstream political force.
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Leading figures who once hailed from both extremist groups are donning suits and taking on roles in Le Pen’s bid for victory in France’s two-round April 23-May 7 presidential election.
The militants of Identity Generation and GUD — which have no known formal links to each other and different ideologies — share a common fear that immigrants will take over France and Europe, uprooting Western civilization. They have a ferocious desire to erase all traces of Islam from French soil, where an estimated 5 million Muslims live.
Bissuel’s GUD “redecorated” a local Starbucks, stickering its windows with a caricature of a black man’s face to protest the company’s decision to hire 10,000 refugees around the world.
“Yankees, refugees, go home!” Bissuel said in a video.
Paris GUD chief Logan Djian, who sports a tattoo of the SS Charlemagne division, was jailed for bloodying a rival in a violent, humiliating confrontation that was posted in a video online. He has relocated to Lyon.
The far-larger identity movement is known for holding sausage-and-wine street fetes — items forbidden to Muslims — famously organized a “march of pigs” in Lyon in 2011 and once occupied a mosque’s roof in Poitiers, where invading Muslim armies were stopped in the 8th century.
There is an ideological compatibility between the National Front and the identity movement, said Sylvain Crepon, a leading far-right expert. Le Pen must show party members that she remains an anti-establishment figure even as she runs for the French presidency.
“It’s dangerous … she is playing with fire,” he said.
A self-described patriot, Le Pen hopes to extract France from the European Union and do away with France’s membership in the shared euro currency. She pounds away on the disadvantages of “massive immigration” like a drum major.
The tactic has set the tone for the French presidential campaign and may help her to a spot in its May 7 presidential runoff. Polls suggest she could be one of the two top-voter getters on April 23, along with independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, sending them into the runoff.
In a speech in March, Le Pen denounced the “great historic design of some to replace political power with religious power, subjugate the nation to their belief and make the Republic obey religion.” Her words came close to echoing the radical right’s theory of the “great replacement,” where non-European immigrants will inevitably replace the Western system and culture with their own.
Le Pen told the AP in 2014 that her party has no ties to France’s identity movement. She cited, among other things, their European and regional visions, which is anathema to her nation-state view.
Yet today, the leader of the identity movement in Nice, Philippe Vardon, who is appealing a 2016 conviction and prison sentence after a violent confrontation with French people from North Africa, is a regional councilor for her National Front party and has a post in the important “ideas-images” unit of her campaign team.
Le Pen’s ties to the GUD — which also has links with extreme-right groups in Italy, Poland and elsewhere — are more personal.
Former GUD leader Frederic Chatillon, best known for his role in financing the National Front’s electoral campaigns, has been ordered to trial on suspicions of weaving an elaborate illegal money scheme. He has been seen in photos — notably in Syria — hobnobbing with extreme-rightists convicted for racism or questioning the Holocaust, a crime in France. And now he has a paid part-time job at Le Pen’s campaign headquarters.
“So what?” Le Pen told BFM-TV when asked about his involvement.
Another former GUD member, Axel Loustau, is now an elected National Front official in greater Paris and heads a unit inside the campaign that reaches out to small businesses. He, too, is being put on trial for the alleged illegal financing scheme, along with two ranking party officials.
Loustau, 45, dismisses his past with GUD, attributing it to the folly of youth.
“When you’re 20, you do politics a little stupidly, with a bit more temperament,” Loustau said in an interview, adding he doesn’t want to “justify myself all my life for what I did at 20. I killed no one, stole from no one.”
He also stressed that he was never convicted.
“I was a nationalist militant and a patriot,” he declared.
It was not by chance that Le Pen unveiled her 144-point presidential manifesto in Lyon. France’s third-largest city captures the identity theme that is a pillar of her program and now serves as a base for France’s extreme right.
GUD’s current militants appear to have taken lessons from Chatillon and Loustau, who have recycled themselves into successful businessmen. GUD members in Lyon run a high-end streetwear shop and a tattoo parlor. Both Chatillon and Loustau visited Identity Generation’s locale during Le Pen’s campaign conference, underscoring the links between former GUD members, the identity movement and the National Front.
Lyon GUD leader Bissuel vehemently ordered an AP journalist to leave a sidewalk by a GUD-linked tattoo shop. Identity Generation members refused interview requests — though the group is savvy at using social media networks to spread its message. Their propaganda skills make Identity Generation a strategic asset to Le Pen, according to Crepon.
And as young militants mature, some seek “to move into the world of adults in politics. The only enterprise where they can recycle themselves is the National Front,” Crepon said.
Vardon echoed that, saying he had worked for the identity movement since age 14 but then became a pragmatist and shifted to Le Pen’s party.
Not everyone in the National Front is happy with the addition of identity movement representatives, but Crepon stressed the party’s need for a radical edge.
Le Pen “cannot do without radicality. That is what separates her in the political arena,” he said. “She must at once detoxify (the party) while remaining in part radical. If not, she disappears.”