Prejudice poses its greatest threat to humanity when the dislikes and hatreds of people are carried over into politics.
At its least damaging, the politicization of prejudice is likely to harden and inflame existing societal tensions. It will lead people to define their interests along religious, ethnic, and racial lines and to treat those different from themselves as political enemies.
But in its extreme forms, this same phenomenon can result in the use of state-sanctioned power to repress, or even eliminate, unpopular societal minorities. Of all the political excesses of humankind, probably none have been as vicious as those motivated by politicized hate and bigotry.
Unpopular and vulnerable minorities have all been subjected to malicious and defamatory political attacks, but recently in Europe, Canada, and the United States groups that feed upon irrational hatred of society’s “others” have recently gained alarmingly in strength. They have collectively attracted millions of followers, elected scores of candidates to office, and succeeded in having their dangerous prejudices written into the law.
Yet prejudice seldom enters into the political process as an isolated phenomenon. People who support a politics of prejudice generally hold other intolerant and unenlightened beliefs as well.
In what French commentators are describing as a “political earthquake,” Jean-Marie Le Pen, the 74-year-old leader of France’s extreme right-wing National Front Party, recently beat the socialist French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to come a close second to French President Jacques Chirac in the first round of France’s presidential elections.
“France has been wounded, and, for a number of French people, humiliated, by this result,” the journal Le Monde commented on its front page. It described the foundation of Le Pen’s politics, which assert that “immigration… from the South, which is forcing the welfare state to be rethought, threatens the cohesion of certain communities and is the vehicle for all manner of fears and fantasies.”
France has the largest population of Arab origin of any country in Europe, the majority of which comes from North Africa; Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. This population has been disproportionately affected by the unemployment and poverty of recent years, and many immigrant families live in poor conditions in crime-ridden suburbs of major French cities.
Le Pen, who had early links with right-wing paramilitary groups involved in the French colonial war in Algeria in the 1950s and the neo-fascist New Order group in the early 1970s, is known for his racist and xenophobic views.
But political extremism represents a reaction to the frustrations of life. The supporters of extremist movements have typically felt themselves to be deprived, in that they have never gained their proper share of status and power in society, or feel themselves to be losing it.
Fear lies at the root of the Front National’s electoral success, as it does in the case of extreme-right parties elsewhere. The most targeted groups now are Arabs and Muslims. Front National election slogans, for example, included “La France aux franéais” (France for the French) and “franéais d’abord” (French first). Le Pen has made no secret of his desire to “send back the immigrants,” by which he has meant chiefly non-white immigrants from former French colonies in Arab North Africa and in sub-Sahara Africa, whom he has accused of being responsible for France’s social problems.
French anti-racist NGOs are mobilizing their campaign against the Front National in May’s run-off elections, and the Socialist Party leaders are urging their supporters to forget political differences and vote for incumbent President Chirac. A further seven-year term in the Elysée Palace now seems certain for him — or is it?
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.