You can’t fail to have noticed a fair number of opinion pieces in the liberal media questioning why the left is in trouble, and how it is that right wing, populist movements are in the ascendant. Still lumbering creakily along in the wrong direction after the cultural upheavals of 2016, some cranky progressives remain blankly unable to recognise the staggeringly obvious.
But French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has just done a helpful favour to baffled liberals, by demonstrating exactly what they’re missing. If you want a short, effective illustration of why politicians such as Le Pen are gathering momentum, all you have to do is watch Tuesday’s video of the Front National president arriving to meet Lebanon’s Sunni leader, Grand Mufti Abdel Latif Derian.
Le Pen was informed she’d have to put on a headscarf to speak with him, in line with his Islamic customs. She refused, politely and in good humour, and left briskly. She may well have known in advance what would happen and had her response planned, in which case it was a piece of theatre. But it was theatre with a message.
Contrast this with Sweden’s self declared ‘feminist government’, who’ve also tried their hand at performance politics. They made a big deal of their gender after Donald Trump was inaugurated, posting a morally immaculate photo of their undeniable femaleness, in apparently deliberate contrast to images of Trump flanked by men while signing Executive Orders in the Oval Office. However, the Swedes were then roundly mocked when they visited Iran, and rather undermined their gender warrior credentials by lining up wrapped in head scarves, a perfect picture of signalling over substance, and hypocritical obeisance.
Or compare with the Women’s Marches last month, when demonstrators donned hijabs as a sign of resistance. That is, they wore tools of patriarchal control to protest against the notion of patriarchal control. And they did so in free countries where they aren’t patriarchally controlled.
Or take a look at the teachings of intersectional feminism. Or is it third wave, or fourth wave feminism? Whatever it calls itself, with its reliance on post-modern trickery, victimhood fetishization, and the reduction of society to segregated special interest groups, it crumbles under scrutiny, and speaks to very few outside its own cultish circles.
Marine Le Pen, as far as I’m aware, doesn’t call herself a feminist. But, whether pre-planned or not, by publicly refusing to wear the scarf she appeared to make a bigger statement on gender equality than intersectional feminist writers such as Laurie Penny have ever done in their entire careers.
Le Pen played out a kind of feminism which people who aren’t interested in feminism instinctively understand. It isn’t anti-intellectual, it’s just common sense. We needn’t even call it feminism, since it just means gender equality. And the vast majority of people fully support that, without having to go anywhere near a university gender studies department.
Of course, the other thing Le Pen did when she refused the headscarf was to unambiguously reject Islamic rules. For years, Western politicians have kowtowed and capitulated to Islamic sensitivities. Up to a certain point, this can be seen as normal political expediency, and serves a purpose.
Up to a certain point.
But the growing opinion in Western democracies is that we’re now well past that point, and that it’s time for a reassertion of secular values. Forcing women to wear a headscarf in order to join a conversation is fundamentally incompatible with egalitarian principles. Le Pen made a show of upholding those principles, well aware that centrist politicians have become incapable of doing so.
And that’s quite incredible, that it falls to the leader of a previously toxic, far right wing party to speak up for liberal values, because the nominal liberals are too scared of their own politically correct decrees to stand up and be counted.
Progressive parties and social justice marchers apparently don’t grasp the strength of feeling among voters who are tired of having legitimate concerns evaded. Should the French elections tip in Le Pen’s favour, then adherents to the liberal consensus might finally start to understand some hard facts. Primarily, that her victory would be a shock of their own making.