Fight against Le Pen must continue
As a young girl who fled Iran, I lived in France for several years during the mid-1980s before coming to the United States. I attended a French public middle school, one of only three Iranian students in the entire school. The tension between “Arab” and “French” people was palpable on a daily basis.
Despite the external challenges, I was enduring my own internal cultural conflicts, or, perhaps I should say, tectonic shifts. I had escaped the tumult of the Islamic Revolution and a country where I was forcibly covered from head to toe on a daily basis, only to find myself now exposed to a new environment where women comfortably walked the beach without even a bikini top! I remember the images of men and women casually socializing, holding hands, even kissing in public.
It was overwhelming , but I cherished the freedom France offered. I was a young girl, liberated from the hijab that covered not only my hair, but also my dignity and identity.
In those years, the National Front movement led by Jean-Marie Le Pen — whose daughter Marine Le Pen succeeded him as head of the party and just lost the French presidential election to Emmanuel Macron — was just beginning to pick up steam. It was particularly gaining popularity among troubled students who I knew. These teens expressed their disenchantment by greeting one another with straight-arm salutes, shaving their heads, donning army attire and boots, and occasionally harassing and spitting at Arab students.
Before too long, they discovered I was an easy target as a young Middle Eastern Jewish girl, barely able to communicate in French and still adjusting to my new surroundings. So they teased and harassed me, yelling “Arab!” at me. I tried to reason with them, explaining that I’m not an Arab, I’m Iranian — Persian! I once said Iranians are of the Aryan race, hoping to score points, but they still saw me as I was — a dark-skinned Middle Eastern girl, a despicable foreigner, “the Other.” The fact that I was Jewish enabled me to seek refuge within Jewish community life, but it proved little more than a liability with the Le Front National.
As a vulnerable teenager, life was hard. Beyond the Jewish community, I never was included in any social activities with peers, never invited to parties, never received phone calls from friends after school. I do recall one time when the phone rang. It was a classmate asking for me. Flattered, I picked up the receiver to hear the voice of Florence, a girl from school. I always thought she was friendly, not too cool or snobby. But as soon as I said hello, Florence said, “Tu es une sal Juive Iranienne” — You’re a dirty Iranian Jew — and hung up the phone.
This was a painful but clarifying moment. In an instant, I realized that, no matter how much I boasted about my Iranian (not Arab) culture or my Jewish roots, I still would always be “the Other,” the undesirable threat to their heritage.
It’s undeniable that terrorism and radical Islamists pose real challenges to French society. But white nationalism and neo-fascism are real problems, too. I have experienced this threat firsthand. I know the pain and it causes. I know the anger it breeds and the destructive cycle it sustains.
I’m grateful for my life in the West. I freely can practice my religion, express my opinions and, yes, freely expose my hair and dress however I wish. But I would never align myself with fascists with the false hope that I could preserve these freedoms. Empowering these authoritarians by ignoring and excusing their behavior is immoral, futile and self-defeating.
For those people seeking a quick fix to the decades-long problems of France and the radicalization of elements of its Muslim population, Marine Le Pen’s idea of banning religious attire and head-coverings might have some initial appeal. To Persian-Americans, it might seem reminiscent of Reza Shah’s revolutionary mandate to forcibly remove the hijab from women in an effort to catapult Iran toward rapid secularization. But we live in a vastly different world today.
Ask the majority of French Jews residing in Israel today who voted against Le Pen. They know that Jews — along with other religious minorities, including Muslims and Hindus — all would suffer serious consequences with a ban on the hijab. Despite what the neo-fascists might say, this would not be the end, but rather the beginning, of religious oppression for people of all faiths.
After her defeat, Le Pen apparently is seeking to “rebrand” the National Front party. Such marketing strategies may ameliorate Le Pen’s image, presenting a softer side and a more patriotic mission that may increase her appeal in some quarters. I can imagine that a new generation of voters may develop new impressions of this movement.
Some might be drawn to Le Pen because of a lack of better alternatives, others because their hatred for radical Islamists and foreigners is far stronger than their love for their democratic values and fellow French citizens. And yet, those of us who are familiar with Le Pen must raise our voices. We should not accept such distortions.
Some are saying that Le Pen has lost the battle but the war is yet to come. For this reason, we must be prepared to fight. With our votes and with our voices, we must speak out, because we cannot afford to yield an inch in the fight against fascism. This is a fight for ourselves. ”
MARJAN GREENBLATT is a human rights activist and founder of the Alliance for Rights of All Minorities (ARAM), Iran.