Last Wednesday afternoon, Clément Méric, a 19-year-old university student, was punched by a skinhead wearing brass knuckles on rue Caumartin in Paris. He fell and his head hit a pole. He was declared dead the following afternoon.
Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent’s partner, said on Twitter that he believed the anti-gay marriage movement was to blame: ‘The Manif pour tous accepted into their ranks these fascists who killed Clément.’ He also reminded his followers of the threats made by the leader of Manif pour tous, Frigide Barjot, at a rally in April. ‘If Hollande wants blood, he shall have some.’ Most French newspapers agreed with Bergé’s analysis.
Now that blood has been spilled, Barjot denies any responsibility. The people at the Manif pour tous protests were ‘families with prams’, she said. She puts the blame on the law allowing gay marriage: ‘It’s started an ideological conflict. One shouldn’t be astonished that there are deadly repercussions which I deplore totally,’ she told AFP.
Julien Salingue, a political science student at Paris VIII University and a member of the NPA (New Anticapitalist Party) says that in recent months he and other activists have observed ‘far-right groups growing in universities, fights taking place regularly in Toulouse and Lyon, a trade union CGT activist getting beaten up. Identitaires’ – a far-right youth movement – ‘putting video clips online. As if all these small far-right groups had decided to become more visible.’
SOS Homophobie say they received 30 per cent more reports of homophobic acts in 2012 than in 2011. Wilfred de Bruijn, a Dutchman wo has lived in Paris for nine years, was attacked with his partner on 7 April. He published a photo of his badly beaten face on Facebook, with the caption: ‘This is the face of homophobia.’
Méric was involved in the campaign for equal marriage. A video shot on 17 April, 10 days after the assault on de Bruijn, shows him in the front line of a counter demo. Half of his face is hidden by a red bandana and he’s holding a sign that says: ‘Homophobia kills.’
For far-right groups, the Manifs pour tous have been an opportunity to recruit. ‘Just as we try to recruit within the most radical young people during social mobilisations,’ Salingue says. ‘After all, big right wing demos are quite rare.’
Dominique Venner, a veteran far-right historian, shot himself in Notre Dame to protest against the law allowing gay marriage. ‘Organising nice street demonstrations won’t be enough,’ his final blog post said. ‘We will need new gestures, spectacular and symbolic… This is a time when words have to be backed up by actions.’ Marine Le Pen paid tribute to Venner, saying on Twitter that his suicide was ‘an eminently political gesture aimed at waking up the French people’.
Méric’s murder was initially linked to the Jeunesses Nationalistes Révolutionnaires, a small but growing far-right group. The five people who have been arrested are said to be not members of the JNR but sympathisers of Troisième Voie, a small group created in 2010, for which the JNR do security. On Saturday, the prime minister announced that the JNR would be dissolved, and that Troisième Voie might be too.
Stéphane François, a political scientist, told L’Express that the factors behind the rise of such groups include the economic crisis, the fact that the JNR claims to be anticapitalist, and the attempts of the Front National to rebrand itself as a more mainstream party and to publicly distance itself from its neo-Nazi acquaintances. Marine Le Pen immediately condemned Clément’s assault. Confronted on RTL radio by a journalist who played the statement of a witness saying one of the assailants was wearing a Front National T-shirt, she said it wasn’t true.
Yet Méric’s death was political. He was killed because he was a member of Action Antifasciste Paris-Banlieue. His face would have been well-known to neo-Nazi groups.
Jean-François Copé, the president of the UMP, who attended the Manif pour tous demonstrations, called for the dissolution of all ‘extreme’ political groups, ‘of the far right, and the far left’, whose ‘sole expression’, he said, ‘is violence’.
‘When was the last time a far-left activist killed someone in the street?’ Salingue asks.
On Thursday night, thousands of people gathered in cities across France to remember Méric. Some of his fellow students at Sciences Po objected to his being depicted as a ‘far left’ activist. ‘The left he was defending is the real left,’ they said.