Le Pen views pegged back

November 1, 1996

Leading French scientists have reacted to recent comments on race from extreme right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen by holding a debate and publishing a declaration dismissing Le Pen's statements on scientific grounds.

The National Front leader said in September that he believes in "the inequality of the races".

There was a swift reaction at the time from over 500 scientists and historians who signed a text opposing Le Pen's views "in the name of scientific rigour".

That action was organised at the request of a leading anti-racism movement, the MRAP.

This time opposition to Le Pen has come from a group of distinguished biologists, who have countered his ideas on race in lengthy scientific detail.

Very few voices have been raised within academia against this approach. One critic, science historian Andre Pichot, has called it "pervasive biologism", which "instead of attacking the notion of inequality, tackles the notion of race".

However, among biologists there were no such reservations on countering Le Pen's statement with scientific arguments, according to Michel Solignac, general secretary of the Societe Francaise de Genetique, one of the organisers of the meeting and declaration.

"There was no opposition. Everyone felt science can always be so misused that it is not even worth taking precautions.

"After all, researchers do not hesitate to speak out about the scientific basis of gender even if their statements are misused by sexists," he said. The French Nobel prize biologist Francois Jacob and Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford University's department of genetics were among those who took part in the debate entitled "Race: A False Concept".

Professor Jacob reminded the meeting that back in 1981, Unesco, the United Nations agency for education, science and culture, had staged a colloquium, "Racism, Science and Pseudo-Science", which conducted a critical analysis of the different pseudo-scientific arguments being used at the time to justify racism.

"Either the apostles of a qualitative inequality between races . . . are ignoring the scientific evidence accumulated over decades, or they are padding out a political agenda which is short of other pretexts," said biologist Tommy Meo, a researcher at the national health research institute, INSERM.

The organisers of the debate invited students and journalists in an attempt to get the message over to the public.

"It is hard to find a way to convince the public that there is no scientific foundation for so-called racial differences," said Mr Solignac.

"The best way is to get information into the mass media and raise awareness among young people," he added.

Controversial legislation is before parliament in an attempt to make statements such as Le Pen's illegal.

Its critics argue that present legislation on acts of racism is adequate and restrictions on speech are counterproductive.

As controversy over Le Pen's "inequality of the races" statement peaked in France, the National Front score in a by-election soared.

"What we really need is a gene against hatred," commented Mr Solignac.

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