Banners reading “No Platform for Nazis” smacked on the bonnet of Marine Le Pen’s BMW as she drove through a crowd of several hundred protesters outside the Cambridge Union. With a large police escort, she stepped out and walked in through the front door.
Ten years ago, her father Jean-Marie, from whom she inherited the leadership of France’s far right “Front National” Party, snuck in through the back. The mob was larger then, and angrier, but this one wasn’t short on vitriol either. Many of them were French, with French banners and French chants.
“Are you a Nazi? Or just thinking about becoming one?” Tony Woodcock, a trade union official who helped to organise the protest, asked students as they queued to enter. A little unfair, especially as two of his targets were black French students there to take her to task.
“Free speech?” said Mr Woodcock. “What they stand for is illegal in many countries in Europe. Its illegal in Austria and Germany. This protest is not about shutting them down. It’s about why invite them? It’s just some idiot in the Union deciding to get a bit of publicity.”
Whether or not the Cambridge Union did indeed provide a platform to Ms Le Pen was somewhat open to debate even after she had finished speaking. With her speech in French being simultaneously translated into English at the other end of the room, translator and speaker talking aloud at the same time, neither the English speakers nor the many Francophones present could make out what was being said. For the most part the students just either looked bored or laughed. Sitting through hour long lectures you don't understand a word of is an integral part of student life after all. But a few phrases cut through.
“The nation must be a sovereign...It is a strong state that is able to contain people...The European union is one of the causes of our weakened state.”
As she spoke, the banging of drums, the blowing of whistles, and the chanting, in French of “Down with the National Front” from outside grew ever louder.
“My family has nothing to blush about,” she insisted in answer to one student. “What we have done for our country? My grandfather died throwing his body on a German mine. My father was a member of parliament. He left to fight the war in Algeria. This is in contrast to such a large proportion of people who sit on their hands and don't fight the fight. We have not stolen from the national coffers as many politicians have.
“If we don't have a radical break with the system, France as such could disappear. Civilisations are mortal. They can go under. And if France continues on its economic path. On the way down. If it loses all its know how. All its savoir faire. Its excellence. If the lure of its services sucks in so many people from outside, the identity will disappear.
“Now France has 200,000 illegal immigrants arriving per annum. There are 5m unemployed in France already. 1.2m on waiting lists for social housing. Our health services crumbling under the demand. It is stupid. We must slam on the brakes. The people are coming have hopes and aspirations. They will be disappointed. There is nothing for them.”
It is classic far right stuff. For an immigrant, Ms Le Pen thinks, coming to France, “entails an abandonment of part of themselves. It is an essential sacrifice to become part of the country. You have to be prepared to work together in a common destiny.”
Your average Cambridge undergraduate can probably see through this. In fact most were present merely to point this out. “I don’t like her any more now than I did before, which wasn’t much,” was one Union official’s verdict. If any of Ms Le Pen’s 6m French voters were in the chamber, they kept decidedly quiet about it, and it seems highly unlikely she should have recruited anyone else to the cause.