From Sanctimony to Spectacle: Madonna vs. Marine Le Pen

If there is anything that Madonna has become known for, it’s spectacle. Spectacle in the truest sense, the sense defined in the dictionary as “a public show or display, especially on a large scale.” Note that this definition says nothing about the actual substance of this display; it could be completely devoid of anything consequential. In fact, it was this complete lack of substance–especially in art and culture–that provoked French radical theorist Guy DeBord into tearing down the “society of the spectacle.”


It may be somewhat appropriate–albeit in a very twisted sense–that DeBord’s own country is where Madonna’s penchant for the spectacular gets her into trouble. But it’s not any of DeBord’s situationist co-thinkers or any others on the left seeking to challenge the queen of pop. It’s their polar opposite, the worst kind of hateful, racist, xenophobic trash.


Marine Le Pen, who took over leadership of the far-right Front National from her notorious father Jean-Marie, first put Madonna in her sights in June. At the opening show of her “MDNA” tour she, true to form, had a massive screen in the back of the stage projecting images designed to incense. Among these was a picture of the younger Le Pen with a swastika imposed on her forehead; the image then morphed into one of Adolph Hitler.


“If she tries that in France, we’ll see what happens,” Le Pen told a journalist, the implication being that legal action would ensue. Well, on Madonna’s recent tour stop in Paris, she did try it. She used the exact same slide show, and Le Pen, true to her promise, is suing for defamation. 


There is something truly absurd in all of this. Namely that a politician who routinely tells outright slanderous lies about the French Muslim and immigrant communities can be offended by having her own stances reduced and simplified to their logical extreme.


What seems truly odd, though, is that some are of the mind that Le Pen and the Front National may very well gain from a possible court showdown. Bruce Crumley, writing for Time magazine, lays out the logic thus:


“[I]f the singer gets mostly applause from international audiences who identify Le Pen as Europe’s best-known face of xenophobic right-wing politics, she may find herself with fewer allies in France as a result of associating Le Pen with Nazism. The reason? Though Le Pen presides over a reactionary and Islamophobic party, she’s also clearly not a fascist, not a Nazi and not Hitler.”


The rationale is, at least at first glance, convincing. Madonna has made a victim of the politician, thus further cementing her underdog image as France’s political “bad girl” (which is not my term). Sympathy is fomented, votes for the FN rise, and all of the awful, racist, Islamophobic much that are their core politics are bulldozed through as law.


The problem with this line of reasoning, however, is twofold. For one thing, it assumes that bullies like Marine Le Pen are somehow convinced not to be bullies by acting rationally with them. For another, commentators like Crumley are severely, horrifyingly mistaken in treating the Front National as just another bourgeois conservative party, subject to the same rules as the rest of us. In fact, there’s little to lead us to believe that the FN isn’t a fascist party.


Quibbles over whether the FN perfectly fits into the term “fascism” too often forget that they have very real history and character. More dangerously, it’s left out that the FN’s rise is part of a terrifying trend in an uptick of avowedly anti-immigrant, Islamophobic parties across Europe. 


Some of these parties might be better described as “right-wing populist,” such as Geert Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party. Others, like Greece’s Golden Dawn and the Hungarian Jobbik Party, make no bones about their fascist sympathies. 


Still others, such as the recently-fractured British National Party, maintain a fascist core that they go to great lengths to hide. Martin Smith, a leading anti-fascist campaigner, calls this “the Euro-Nazi strategy.” He recalls a young former BNP recruit who volunteered to go undercover for Unite Against Fascism at a party meeting.


“After the meeting, he still has his camera and his little hidden microphone inside his shirt, the organizer for the BNP meets him… and he says to him ‘look, Nick Griffin [the BNP chairman], what he’s told you just now is a crock of shit. He has to say that in case there are any spies from the left around… But trust me, we’re going to have to get rid of the Asians in this country, even if it means another Holocaust like Hitler produced.’”


The French Front National can most accurately be lumped into this final category (and indeed, there is a history of collaboration between the FN and the BNP). In fact the elder Le Pen was an innovator of the Euro-fascist strategy, at one point calling it “enlever le pied-noir” (taking off the jackboots). The party also continues to use the “tricolor flame” as their symbol; modeled off the logo of the Italian Social Movement, an open fascist party formed after World War II by admirers of Mussolini.


Has this fundamental nature changed in the eighteen months since Marine Le Pen assumed leadership from her father? She is widely regarded as more democratic than Jean-Marie, and has said she merely wants to greatly curb immigration as opposed to abolish it. 


She is however certainly willing to use the same racist generalizations about Muslims–that they’re criminals, un-learned in western ways, a threat to the French way of life. The party base, estimated at around 50,000 is full of white street gangs more than willing to commit violence against Africans and Arabs. At this point, there’s little to suggest that slightly tamer rhetoric means anything significant. Madonna’s Hitler comparison, while perhaps clumsy, isn’t completely out of left-field.


Still, the change in tactic, the shoving of straight-arm salutes and blackshirts into the party’s back seat, has been an effective one, as it has been with the FN’s counterparts across Europe. It would have to be if Florian Philippot, the party’s vice president, is able to say of Madonna’s stunt (and get away with it) that “We can’t accept this despicable association… Marine Le Pen [will] defend her own honor, but also those of [party] members, supporters and millions of National Front voters.”


Thus, the absurdity: an organization guilty time and time again of defaming people of color, immigrants and religious minorities, is claiming defamation itself because an artist made a far milder simplification of the party’s leader.


Of course, anyone who gives a damn about free speech and fighting racism must condemn the attempts by Le Pen and the FN to drag Madonna into court (though there’s a good chance the singer will simply send lawyers to argue her case). If for no other reason than a victory for Le Pen would mean increased confidence for racists in and around the FN. 


In a country where vicious Islamophobic scapegoating is scarily close to the norm, this has real consequences. French courts were all-too-happy to bulldoze fines and legal injunctions onto the general strikes over pensions in the fall of 2010. In the run-up to the notorious passage of the “hijab ban,” these same courts were all-too-happy to sanction restrictions on Muslim dress. It’s not far off that they’d be all-too-happy to give Le Pen and the Front a wider platform to spew their filth. 




There is a difference, however, between unconditional opposition to the FN and uncritical defense of Madonna. The distinction is an important one to make, especially because lately, Madonna herself has done a great deal to make the tasks of Le Pen’s ilk–namely empire and Islamophobia–a lot easier.


Nobody can deny that Madonna’s music and performances once broke a very strict mold in the early ‘80s. These were the years when MTV was still something of an upstart, and gave her videos had the room to do what they did. Plenty of debate has flown around among varying camps of feminism over whether Madonna’s work was liberatory in its unavoidable treatment of female sexuality, or if it simply reinforced some of the system’s worst sexist dreck (in this writer’s view, it probably did both to various degrees). 


And certainly, if a well-known French politician–however opportunistic–has been spurred into sanctimonious outrage, then there’s at least a kernel of Madonna’s provocational spirit that remains intact. But what the queen of pop originally brought to music thirty years ago has become the norm now. It’s hardly shocking to see a woman singer scantily clad, gyrating dance moves that simulate some kind of female stimulation. The difference is that now, its common place in the music industry (which remains it stubbornly male-dominated) has made it thoroughly exploitative.


In other words, Madonna’s repackaged rebelliousness obscures more than it reveals. Case in point: her show in Tel Aviv, Israel, where she launched her tour and first came to the attention of Marine Le Pen. She was quite public about her decision to perform there, and was equally public in brushing off the demand for her to observe the Palestinian call for cultural boycott of Israeli apartheid.


Madonna’s claim was that her concerts promote “world peace.” The contradiction was glaringly obvious, even to many who defended the Tel Aviv show. While pie-in-the-sky platitudes were spouted about the power of music to bring people together, Israel’s government was touting the show as a hasbara (propaganda) victory. Israel’s occupation of Palestine and apartheid treatment of Arabs was rebranded as a matter of two equally misunderstanding sides. Colonialism was never confronted from the stage, and neither was the gutter anti-Arab racism daily spewed by the state of Israel.


This, in a nutshell, is the reality of culture and politics under capitalism. What seems rebellious can be so easily twisted back to bolster the system. Bigoted politicians are painted as underdog victims. Pop stars who once may have shocked the system become its most prominent apologists, and the cause of world peace is used to paper over crimes against humanity.


It’s been said that taking on the far-right requires a short-term and long-term strategy: facing them down wherever they rear their ugly heads, and presenting an alternative society where the conditions that allow fascists to thrive are done away with. That means not only denying bigots like Marine Le Pen and the Front National any kind of platform, but making the case for a fundamentally different world. That’s a world where our art isn’t so crassly used to run cover for racism and empire.  

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