Marine Le Pen, France’s far-right presidential candidate running on an anti-immigration and anti-EU platform and shunned by many European leaders over her policy positions, had her first-ever meeting with a foreign head of state this past week.
Le Pen arrived in Beirut on February 20 to meet with recently elected Lebanese President Michel Aoun, as well as Prime Minister Saad Hariri and others. For Le Pen, who has strived for years to make racism and Islamophobia an element of mainstream French politics, this advance into foreign policy is meant to bolster her credibility and raise her international profile.
Le Pen has very vigorously been campaigning against what she calls “uncontrolled immigration” to France, and has regularly claimed to be “fighting the Islamization of French society”. She has, on many occasions, voiced her support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Le Pen has also tried to brand herself as a defender of Christian minorities in the Middle East region.
For a country dogged, for years, by a burgeoning Syrian refugee crisis and, for decades, by sectarian civil strife, having Marine Le Pen visit is both divisive and polarizing. In reaction to her arrival, Beirut-based writer and political analyst Kareem Chehayeb wrote on Twitter:
— Kareem Chehayeb (@chehayebk) February 19, 2017
Anti-refugee sentiment has already been on the rise in Lebanon and an increased crackdown on Syrian nationals has been taking place since Aoun’s ascension to power. As Olivia Alabaster wrote for Al Jazeera, on Aoun’s impact on Syrian refugees, “[i]t has long been the formal policy of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement party – allied with Hezbollah, which is helping to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – that Syrian refugees in Lebanon must return home.”
This perspective is very much embraced by Le Pen, who has used it to justify her support for the Assad regime. “For me to protect Christians is to make sure the Christians stay in their countries,” not become refugees, she said, as reported by the AP.
On February 22 – her last day of meetings – a handful of protesters showed up to Zaytouna Bay in Beirut, where she was meant to hold a public press conference.
— Alex Rowell (@alexjrowell) February 21, 2017
While the Lebanese left has shown indignation over Le Pen’s visit to Lebanon, a petition that circulated a few days before her arrival, calling on Aoun and Hariri to cancel their meetings with her, gained just over 400 signatures.
During her visit, Le Pen refused to wear a veil to a planned meeting with the Grand Mufti of Lebanon. According to The Independent, her aides had reportedly been informed, before her visit, that she would be required to wear a headscarf – a common and traditional practice when meeting with Muslim religious figures. As video footage shows, Le Pen stood at the entrance to the Grand Mufti’s office shaking her head and almost theatrically walking away from the meeting. The meeting was not rescheduled. The publicity stunt has received widespread international coverage and praise, blanketing over the more dangerous implications of her visit and friendly relations with the Aoun administration.