The Normandy D-Day landings, 70 years later: France then and now
(Published in The Malay Mail on 6 June 2014)
Today, foreign leaders from around the world will gather in Normandy to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Europe’s D-Day landings — 6 June 1944 — a day that marked a turning point in World War II and its defeat of intense racial hatred that gripped Europe at this time.
Surviving war veterans will stand together on the sandy beaches of Juno, Gold, Utah and Omaha where the world’s largest seaborne invasion took place, knowing all too well the high price paid by the allied forces.
The hard-fought peace and stability should never be taken for granted; although with the passage of time it is easily forgotten. Maybe I am being an alarmist, but there’s a force at play here in France that gives one cause for reflection. That force has been liked to “an earthquake” by Prime Minister Manual Valls.
He was referring to Marine Le Pen, and her far-right National Front party’s victorious win in the recent European Parliament elections. She bagged more than a quarter of the votes leaving President François Holland’s Socialist Party in an embarrassing third place.
I pass this lady everyday. Only, I see her in a somewhat skewed way: black moustache, horns and swastika graffiti scrawled over her face on the election billboards lining my village green. Another, with the “anarchy” symbol drawn on her poster outside the local school, a short distance from the ivy covered WWII bunkers still standing in the nearby woods; palpable reminders of wartime France.
Anarchy, by definition, implies political disorder or lawlessness within a society; a stretch of the imagination? Admittedly, François Holland’s government is suffering a crisis of confidence, crippled by zero-economic growth and high unemployment, but the artist is more likely suggesting what will transpire if Marine Le Pen makes it to the Élysée Palace in 2017. For she’s surely set her sights on the presidency, as did her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, when he reached the runoff stage of the presidential election.
Exit polls reveal that her recent electoral success is based on her party’s anti-Europe, anti-immigrant mantra rather than economic concerns; “Non à Bruxelles. Qui à la France”.
She believes that restricting the flow of immigrants (from 200,000 to 10,000 per year on her estimates) will keep France ‘French’ and help solve its economic woes. But the real threat to France, to its security and unity with the rest of Europe — in which several other countries including the UK, Greece, Italy and Spain, are also seeing the same far-right parties prosper — is what her party’s true raison d’être is.
A local journalist recently confirmed my suspicions: the figure people most associate with the National Front is not her. Rather, her 85-year-old-father, the founder and honorary president of the National Front who is well known for his racist and antisemitic views.
Marine Le Pen has been tenacious in her efforts to distance herself from him and move her party mainstream. However, it’s hard not to be tainted, particularly when he continues to make outrageous statements such as those made at a National Front rally in Marseille last Tuesday: that Monsieur Ebola (the deadly virus) could solve France’s immigration problem “within three months”; and that the immigration situation in France was “made worse” by the fact that most immigrants were Muslim, “a religion whose aim is to conquer”.
And if immigrant-heavy communities across France felt marginalized before these elections, they must now be seething with resentment. Did this disfranchisement, for example, play any role in 29-year-old Mehdi Nnemmouche’s (a French citizen) decision to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ‘ISIS’? He was arrested last Sunday in connection with the killing of three people, including two Israeli tourists, outside the Jewish Museum in Brussels on 24 May.
Marine Le Pen’s electoral success seems to me a perverse contradiction in terms: the National Front, a group with a history of inciting racial hatred and promoting religious intolerance, seeking representation in the European Parliament. The voice of the European Union, created in the aftermath of WWII and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 in recognition of having “contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe” over the past six decades.
I hope today’s anniversary celebrations of the Day-D landings will serve as a reminder of the fragility of peace and unity in Europe. For memories fade so fast.
It feels right to recall the famous words of Sir. Winston Churchill: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”