By Conor Holohan
European lawmakers have voted overwhelmingly in favour of lifting Marine Le Pen’s parliamentary immunity. The leader of the French populist party the Front National is currently fighting a presidential election campaign, but is now vulnerable to prosecution in France for distributing violent imagery.
In 2015, Le Pen got into a spat with a French journalist who compared her party’s beliefs with those of ISIS. In response Le Pen tweeted 3 graphic photographs of ISIS executions including the beheaded body of journalist James Foley, captioning them ‘THIS is Daesh’. Without her parliamentary immunity, Le Pen is open to prosecution under French law and could face up to three years in prison should a successful case be brought against her.
The first question; why, when these tweets were posted back in 2015, are the EU suddenly so eager to lift her immunity? Are the pictures more horrifying or more illegal to distribute now than they were back when they were tweeted in 2015? Of course not; this is an excuse by the EU to target Le Pen, who they rightly fear that she could act as a final nail in the coffin of the European Union should she win the French presidency.
Le Pen, who has dubbed herself ‘Madame Frexit’, obviously plans to take France out of the European Union. She demands that France honours its history and constitution, and wrests legal supremacy back from unelected and distant officials who are lobbied by large corporation interests on a scale not seen in most national European parliaments. Le Pen’s election and a subsequent Frexit could be a significant blow to the EU, and along with Brexit and a Eurosceptic leading the polls in the Netherlands, could be a pivotal factor in the collapse of the European project.
However, this act of political desperation will most probably serve Le Pen’s prospects of being elected French president well rather than damage them. Like Trump, Le Pen, has successfully painted herself as the anti-establishment candidate, and stitch-ups like this vindicate her argument that the establishment are working against ordinary people in the interests of the corporatist status quo.
What’s more, it is legally unsound to prosecute people retrospectively in this way. People should be punished for crimes in accordance with the laws at the time of the crime and in the place the crime took place. If a law was introduced today to outlaw a certain action, you could not then retrospectively punish those who had perpetrated the offence before the law was passed. In the same way, when Le Pen tweeted the graphic images, she was under the impression that she was protected by parliamentary immunity, and to remove her immunity in order to prosecute her can only be seen as a form of retrospective punishment.
It is all the more concerning when you consider the role that politicians play, and that their free speech should be protected even more vehemently than that of a citizen. It is most important in representative democracies that parliamentarians can contribute to the public discourse in absolutely any way they see fit, as they have been elected, and are looked to to represent and drive public opinion. To stifle the free speech parliamentarians is to deprive the public space of intellectual diversity and will lead to totalitarian tendencies as we have already seen in many aspects of EU one-size-fits-all principles and policies.
This is not the first time Le Pen has had her parliamentary immunity stripped – it was lifted before in 2013 when she likened the public display of Islamic prayer in France to a Nazi occupation, though she defends the remarks by insisting that France is a secular nation and that she was referring to a disregard for French secular culture rather than being purely prejudice against Muslims. The race hate charges levelled at her were dropped in 2015 under the Free Speech Act.
Francoise Fillon, the centre-right candidate who was supposed to represent a more moderate form of Le Penism and absorb enough of the right wing vote to beat her is now expected to lose big amid various corruption scandals. Some opinion polls are stipulating that three-quarters of voters would prefer it if Fillon withdrew from the race, especially since his home has been searched by corruption investigators over the last week. As Fillon of the Les Repbulicains loses support en masse, Le Pen’s remaining contender is the pro-European centrist establishment-politician Emmanuel Macron; representing a dying breed in Europe, Macron is seen by many as the ‘Hillary’ candidate.
So, much like with Brexit and with Trump, Le Pen against Macron will be more than just a question of left and right, but a question of the ‘real people’ against the establishment. Le Pen believes that it is a question of patriotism against globalism, and this is certainly true of Trump and Brexit too. If there’s something we can learn from Trump and Brexit and extrapolate from in regards to the upcoming French elections, it is that the silent majority is on the populist side, and is understated in the polls. As it stands, Le Pen leads the polls by 25% to Macron’s 24%, while Fillon trails behind at 21%.