Against the French court’s pathologising of Marine Le Pen

“Pathological liars” is a valid description of the far right. But we should be cautious not to take the first word literally. Last month, the leader of French far right party Rassemblement National (National Rally, formerly the National Front) was ordered by a court to undergo a psychiatric evaluation for posting graphic tweets of ISIS executions.

Marine Le Pen tweeted the ISIS videos in 2015, a few weeks after the Bataclan terrorist attacks in Paris. She argued that it was in response to a French journalist who compared her party to ISIS. Responding to the court order, Le Pen wrote: “I thought I had been through it all: well, no! For having condemned Daesh [ISIS] horrors in tweets, the ‘justice system’ is putting me through psychiatric tests! Just how far will they go?”

Le Pen’s original tweets were another episode in the constant stream of Islamophobic, racist propaganda she and her party spew forth almost daily. But the intervention of the judiciary in ordering a political figure to undergo psychiatric evaluation for expressing her views is something the left should oppose.

The law under which Le Pen is being prosecuted prohibits the distribution of images considered to “incite terrorism or pornography or seriously harm human dignity”. Under the Code of Criminal Procedure, a psychiatric test is mandatory.

The left wing daily Libération recently featured an article, “Why Marine Le Pen’s psychiatric evaluation is perfectly normal”, backing the court order because it is standard practice for “affairs of this nature”.

Yet this “perfectly normal” order sets a dangerous precedent for any activist or critic whose views sit outside what is acceptable to the mainstream. It foreshadows a situation in which political activists could be declared insane by the state and institutionalised for their beliefs.

Despite its professed love of liberty, the French state, including the judiciary, has a long history of trampling freedom of expression by criminalising offensive speech.

After the January 2015 attacks on the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, 69 people were prosecuted in French courts on the charge of “defending terrorism”. This included teenagers sharing ironic memes that satirised Charlie Hebdo. 

Also in 2015, the French Court of Cassation upheld the conviction of 12 Palestine solidarity activists, who had called for a boycott of Israeli goods, on the grounds that their actions were discriminatory and anti-Semitic.

Supporting such a move, even against the workers’ movement’s enemies such as Le Pen, only bolsters the state’s case for repressing all of its opponents, including the left. And it suggests that far right ideology is pathology and can be dealt with medically, rather than being a noxious political movement to be dealt with politically.  

That’s why it was important that the far left politician Jean-Luc Mélénchon, who declared his “total disagreement” with the court’s decision, swiftly condemned the court’s move: “Le Pen is politically responsible for her political acts … It is not with such methods that the extreme right will be pushed back”.

State repression could strengthen the far right’s position, giving credence to the idea that they and their supporters are an oppressed minority and making them more appealing to those fed up with the political mainstream. 

The far right deputy prime minister of Italy, Matteo Salvini, was one of the first to offer his “solidarity” to Le Pen, followed by Donald Trump’s ex-strategist Steve Bannon. They know that the state persecution of Le Pen is a potential rallying point for the far right across Europe.

It’s crazy to think that psychiatrists could defeat fascism. The left must provide a political alternative to the far right’s ideas and win this battle in the public arena.