|French far-right group has message in menu |
By ELAINE GANLEY
TOURVES, France (AP) -- They feasted in the verdant back
country of picture-postcard Provence, the delight of tourists and the
pride of France.
But it was no ordinary
country idyll. The extreme right Bloc Identitaire, or Identity Bloc, was
lashing out at Islam while dining on pork roast and local wine - off
limits to practicing Muslims.
The group, an
emerging force on France's far-right scene, likens Muslim immigrants to
invaders threatening the identity of the French heartland and menacing
European civilization. The movement - with a wild pig as its logo - is
gaining traction through its blend of Islam-bashing and romanticizing of
French rural culture.
Increasingly, it is
being used as an "idea box" for the National Front, a well-established
far-right party and force in European politics that could play a crucial
role in French presidential elections five months away.
Bloc's campaign against mosque building and its wine-and-pork
strategies are also finding a more mainstream audience in the country
with western Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated at 5 million,
the majority with origins in France's former colonies in North Africa.
group of lawmakers from President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative UMP
party has formed a hard-right wing, the Popular Right, that berates
immigration and has espoused anti-Muslim themes in a low-key echo of
"The combat is urgent. We
don't have the choice," said Bloc Identitaire member Jean-Christophe
Oberlaender, whose arms are tattooed with what he said are ancient
He was among some 50 people
attending a daylong Bloc meeting outside this small Provencal town
whose origins date from Roman times.
"These products will soon be very rare in France," he said of the pork and wine being served at lunch.
Identitaire, also opposed to multiculturalism and globalization, has
the largest footprint of myriad groups on the extreme-right fringes of
France, and appears to be harnessing influence beyond its numbers.
officials put membership at some 4,000 - a figure experts say is
exaggerated. Regional alliances with other "identity" groups in France
and their heavy use of the Internet to spread their word to the
mainstream public make a real count difficult.
movement opposes violence in its bid to erase all traces of Muslim
culture in France. But violence has been known to follow its members -
something they blame on neo-Nazi hangers-on.
this year, a rally in Lyon called the "march of pigs" turned into a
clash between Bloc Identitaire supporters and extreme leftists - kept
apart by hundreds of police called in ahead of time. Several local
businesses were damaged, including a kebab restaurant.
Identitaire militants ferret out plans by Muslim communities to build
mosques and campaign to stop them. An "identity guerrilla" pamphlet
spells out how to raise awareness of Muslim initiatives, from mosques to
halal food restaurants, and infiltrate culture or sports clubs popular
A mosque project in the village of Tourrette in southern France was their latest target and, they claim, success.
discovering plans by a Muslim association to convert a villa into a
mosque, Bloc Identitaire militants flooded the area with protest fliers,
met with the mayor and organized a demonstration. The mosque project
was scrapped in October, days before the rally was to be held.
Benzirar, a dentist with Moroccan origins who led plans for the mosque,
claimed the project collapsed over funding, not because of Bloc
Identitaire, and vowed to press forward with a mosque once money is
"Pressure doesn't scare us," he said by telephone.
has passed laws in recent years banning Islamic headscarves in schools
and banning Islamic face veils anywhere in public, laws embraced by the
mainstream left and right as upholding secular French traditions but
that many see as stigmatizing Muslims.
recent gathering of Bloc Identitaire revealed an ideological and
religious mix, from pagans who worship the gods of the ancient Norse
peoples, to devout Catholics and others simply searching for a voice
that reflects their worries about France's future.
at home" is their motto, but "revolution" was the watchword at the
gathering near the city of Brignoles, where a National Front member is
The Bloc Identitaire denies any formal
alliances with the National Front. Unlike the bigger movement it is
pro-European and wants to keep France in the 27-nation EU. It spins ties
with other European far-right groups in Britain and some other European
The national treasurer, Dominique
Lescure, recently traveled to Russia, with its burgeoning and violent
extreme right, to meet with groups in cities as far away as Vladivostok
on the Pacific coast.
presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, is trying to tame her
party's image to appeal to a broader public after decades under the helm
of her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, a scrappy, charismatic
figure repeatedly convicted for racist and anti-Semitic remarks. He
stunned the world by reaching the runoffs in 2002 presidential
elections, before being trounced by a rare coalition of France's
mainstream parties, assuring victory for incumbent Jacques Chirac.
Le Pen has told Jews they have nothing to fear from the National Front
and even briefly met Israel's ambassador to the United Nations during a
recent trip to the United States.
has pointedly targeted Muslims and the spread of Islamic culture, in
the name of the French principle of secularism - mimicking the message
of Bloc Identitaire.
The Bloc "uncovers the themes for the National Front," said Erwan Lecoeur, a sociologist who studies the extreme right.
National Front has for years played the role of spoiler in French
elections, and candidates from the mainstream right typically try to woo
voters away from the extreme party. Polls put Marine Le Pen in third
place behind Sarkozy, in second, with Socialist Francois Hollande in the
Bloc Identitaire, born in 2003, raised
its profile several winters ago by dishing out pork soup, so-called
"identity soup," for the homeless.
It thrives on evoking the legends of France's history.
me, France has a reason to exist because of its past ... its knights,
its chateaux, the France of the Gaulois, the France of the Romans," said
Michel De Susanne, a 34-year-old computer technician who heads the
Bloc's Marseille chapter.
The bloc has held
street parties featuring aperitifs of wine and sausage. Some were
canceled by authorities, but last year, chased from a heavily immigrant
Paris neighborhood, they managed to recamp on the famed Champs-Elysees,
near the Arc de Triomphe.
Bloc officials claim
their group is neither racist nor anti-Muslim but contend that the
Muslim population in France has reached an unacceptable critical mass
with designs on supplanting the local culture.
here to make a revolution ... We're not here to scare our grandmothers
or the candy salesman," Richard Rudier, a member of the Bloc's executive
board, said in a speech before the crowd at the Provence gathering. "We
want to scare the establishment."
For Oberlaender, the target isn't just Muslims.
"Today, it's the Arabs. If it's the Chinese tomorrow, I'll combat the Chinese."
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