As anticipated, Tuesday’s talk by the far-right former French politician Marion Maréchal at the Oxford Union was met with protests. As the granddaughter of the founder of the Front National and niece of the former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, Maréchal is a prominent member of the Le Pen family, known for her controversial views on Islam and same-sex marriage.
At around 60 persons, the demonstration was smaller than the anti-Bannon protests from last term, and the protestors were unable to delay the talk by preventing entry to the Union as they did in Michaelmas. Though it is believed that many were deterred from the demonstration by the weather, the extensive pre-emptive police operation that began at around 1:30pm kept the protest contained.
Assisted by large numbers of security guards, police cars, riot vans, and around thirty officers were deployed on Cornmarket and St Michael’s streets. Mounted units arrived as the protest got underway, and the police moved quickly to seal off the Cornmarket end of St Michael’s in order to control the flow of people. Inside the Union, students were warned that they may not be able to leave the premises once the protests had begun.
The police drew much of the protestors’ ire over the course of the afternoon, with chants about Maréchal and her views being interwoven with shouts of “shame” and “Who protects the Nazis? Police protect the Nazis!” Some of the chants were particularly aggressive, with demonstrators inviting Maréchal to “kill yourself like Hitler did” and announcing that “if it wasn’t for the coppers you’d be dead”. Students passing through the crowd to enter the Union were called “fascists” and “scum”. Despite this, the protests were largely peaceful. Though there was a small scuffle between individuals and police at the start, no arrests were made.
A small counter-protest, led by the Oxford Society for Free Discourse, also took place. George Lee, a member of the society, said that the Oxford Union had a duty to invite “politically relevant” speakers. Arguing that “Oxford sets an example to the world”, Mr Lee also argued against no-platforming, asserting instead the rights of paying Union members to attend the talk and engage in debate.
Though the shouting from outside could be heard in the chamber, the talk progressed largely without interruption. Among other topics, Maréchal spoke about the family, Islam, and the need to “defend Christian values of Greco-Roman civilization”. When pressed on the question of assimilation in light of Pew Center research which found French Muslims integrated better than any other European country, she responded that there is still a threat from “radical Islam” financed from places such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Their influence is such that almost 20% of young Muslims favour sharia law to French law, she argued. “I fully agree they are a minority but it is an active and aggressive minority”.
Ahead of the demonstration, the organisers signed a collective statement that said “We are confident that Tuesday’s protest will further demonstrate that the Oxford Union represents no one but its tiny clique of elite members and that Oxford is, and always will be, an anti-racist city.” Oxford Anti-Fascists went further, telling The Oxford Student that “Alice Weidel cancelled in fear of planned protests. Steve Bannon barely made it inside. We are mobilising today to show she [Maréchal] is not welcome.
The Union’s decision to invite Maréchal has continued to draw significant criticism. Though community safety was the main concern, there is growing anger over the waste of police time and resources—particularly considering the protest’s small scale. Anneliese Dodds, Labour MP for Oxford East, decried “the utter waste of police resources that will be required by her visit, at a time when our hardworking local police officers are already having to cope with strained resources.”
This was a view echoed by Cllr Tom Hayes, Executive Board Member for a Safer and Greener Environment on Oxford City Council. Speaking to The Oxford Student, Cllr Hayes argued that “Every time the Oxford Union irresponsibly invites fascists into the city, they place a huge burden on Oxford’s police force. Crime levels are rising because officers numbers have been cut, yet the Union are requiring our cash-strapped, overworked police force to stretch their scarce resources even further.
“I’ve asked the Police for their estimates of the costs of diverting officers away from their day jobs for each of the Union’s stunts. I imagine the total to be very significant indeed and the Union must reflect on their obligations to Oxford and our community safety, as well as their role in legitimising hate and prejudice.”
The use of police resources is expected to come up at the forthcoming confirmation hearing for the new Chief Constable on the 1 February.