'I'm Glad I Was On The Outside Shouting:' Here's Why Oxford University Students Were Protesting Over Marine Le Pen
The Debrief: Last night students protested outside Oxford Student Union after Far-Right French politician Marine Le Pen was asked to speak. Rosalind Jana attended to find out, does freedom of speech have its limits?
Yesterday evening in Oxford as the light dimmed and the temperature dropped, a rather small street ended up being stuffed to bursting with people, banners and the occasional megaphone. The reason? Marine le Pen. Who’s that again? (As several people asked me when I mentioned her.) Ah yes, the leader of the French Front National - the far right political party that scooped up 25% of the vote in the 2013 election. The one whose father once deemed the Nazi gas chambers 'a detail' in history. But let’s remove the parental shadow to focus solely on Le Pen instead. What does she stand for? Well, she’s staunchly anti-immigration, for starters - to the point that she’s keen on removing border-free travel within Europe - and once compared Islamic prayer to wartime occupation. Oh and she thinks that re-introducing national service is a great idea. The main word on everyone’s lips though was ‘fascism’ – a description that Le Pen took someone to court over last year (and lost).
And this week she was invited to give a speech at the Oxford Union, a society affiliated with the uni, that costs a cool £242 for lifetime membership. The Union claims that an invitation obviously isn’t an endorsement. In the past they’ve hosted everyone from Ronald Reagan to Tony Blair – as well as plenty of big names from the media, music, science and sports worlds. Yet between 200-300 of us, from students to local councilors to parents with babies in tow, weren’t quite convinced of this claim to complete impartiality. In a week where the 70th Anniversary of the Holocaust had just been commemorated, anti-Semitic attacks in Britain were reported to be at an all-time high, and Islamophobia continues to heighten following the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, what did it say for such a massive institution to beckon a figure like this through their doors?
The word ‘platform’ came up a lot in discussion, with many angry at the level of coverage and status they felt the Union was giving Le Pen.
I asked Kate Bradley, who was involved in organizing the protest through the student activism group RS21 (others included the NUS Black Students Campaign, London Black Revs and Stand Up to UKIP). 'The Union claims to be “politically neutral”, but when you invite political speakers, that's impossible: you're always choosing who to give the platform to, and… making a decision on their value against other potential speakers.’
The word ‘platform’ came up a lot in discussion, with many angry at the level of coverage and status they felt the Union was giving Le Pen. One of the most popular chants was 'this is free speech, that is a platform.' It was intercut with others like 'unemployment and inflation are not caused by immigration: bullshit, come off it, the enemy is profit' and 'Auschwitz, never again' – as well as the pretty blunt 'Oxford Union, fuck you.'
Another protestor, Ellen O’Neill said to me, ‘this isn’t in my name; I don’t condone it. I… don’t think the union should be a platform for fascists full stop when they have plenty of other places to spew their bile.’ The general response online to the protest seemed to be ‘FREE SPEECH, IRONY, REPRESSIVE AND SILLY STUDENTS, BLAAAARGH’ – but the opinion I heard again and again was that this wasn’t about free speech, but about giving space to hate speech. I did also speak to someone attending, who said that she was going because she wanted to write her thesis on extreme rightwing politics.
For whatever reason, people seem to be far more interested in our protest than they were in the contents of the talk she eventually gave.
In between the shouts and rattles of a lone drum and occasional cheers when someone scaled the railings, snippets of information cut through the crowd. Apparently we were making enough noise to be heard inside the Union. Apparently some people had broken in. Apparently students weren’t allowed to leave the chamber for their own safety. Apparently we’d managed to delay her talk… She still did talk though, and as it got chillier, more people sloped off – trailing their placards behind them.
Interestingly, it’s much harder to find out much about the content of her talk, than the size of the protest. Various sources mentioned that her discussion included harsh dismissal of multiculturalism (claiming that it led to conflict) and critiques of the European Union, while the sections tweeted in French from her account drew parallels between Britain and France, making reference to both countries’ next elections. But for whatever reason, people seem to be far more interested in our protest than they were in the contents of the talk she eventually gave.
A select handful of students stayed outside the building right until the end though, moving their attention around the corner to the other Union entrance. Katharine Baxter was involved in a sit-in there. She said the police were heavy-handed, filming them and ‘pushing us to the ground when we were linking arms.’ A decoy exit was staged with an empty police van zooming off, meaning that most protestors scattered away. Katharine was one of two remaining who saw Le Pen eventually slip out in a flurry of high security and high vis jackets.
I'm really glad I was there. Having Le Pen in Oxford made me feel, well, I'm not sure what the right word is. Not nervous, and not surprised - but definitely frustrated. It felt like particularly bad timing given recent world events. But regardless of timing, the Union's invitation still feels totally and utterly off. I can respect why some people chose to be inside the building listening, but I'm glad I was outside shouting.
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