There is a certain irony that, on Holocaust Memorial Day (on which I have blogged here), today’s Sunday Business Post reports that Jean-Marie le Pen, leader of the far right wing French party Le Front National, has delayed his trip to Ireland due to media coverage of the invitation extended by the UCD Law Society to him to speak against the Lisbon Treaty. As a contentious politician who seems to thrive on the publicity generated by controversy, I am sure he expected some objections, but it seemed to me that neither the reaction nor the coverage was particularly virulent. For example, during the week, the Irish Times reported that the College authorities in UCD strongly criticised the students’ Law Society for inviting Le Pen (for other press reaction, see Breaking News on Ireland.com | BreakingNews.ie | Indymedia; for other coverage online, see also here | here | here | here). The political reaction was also relatively muted. Sinn Féin MEP, Mary Lou McDonald said that Le Pen’s apporach to politics is “not welcome” in the No campaign against the Lisbon Treaty and that he would
most likely end up helping the Yes campaign. While we cannot stop Mr Le Pen from coming here and we are all supporters of free speech it would be preferable if Mr Le Pen stayed away as I fear he will only damage the No campaign with his narrow brand of xenophobic politics.
On the other hand, Fine Gael MEP Gay Mitchell issued a press release in which he argued that
the French racist leader’s extreme views would be exposed in debate.
And that’s about it. Hardly a firestorm to strike fear into the combative heart of the pugnacious ex-paratrooper. In any event, and for what it’s worth, I entirely agree with Mitchell’s position. I’m not surprised that students seeking a publicity stunt should have found an excuse to issue the invitation, just as the Oxford Union found one to invite David Irving (on which I blogged here). And just as I argued then that the best answer to Irving’s speech was more speech, so the best answer to Le Pen would be to engage him in debate, and to demonstrate to fair-minded observers just how vile his views really are. And this goes double in a university environment, where academic freedom should be founded upon and foster freedom of expression, even – especially – in the student body. The fact that Le Pen now seems intent on ducking the invitation, under the spurious guise of a hostile press, is therefore a very great pity.
Even if he were still coming, he should not be prohibited from attending. If le pen (freedom of expression) truly is mightier than le sword (the police power of the state), then the best response to his likely presence in UCD would be to engage with him rather than to ban him. On the other hand, Le Pen’s response to the rather tame public reaction to the UCD Law Society’s invitation demonstrates that he is hardly mightier than anything.