Once a liberal hope of Europe, Macron has now fallen prey to France’s toxic populism | Will hutton
FFrance is both beautiful and brutally dark. It is a country dotted with breathtaking towns and rural landscapes, but riddled with soulless and desolate concrete neighborhoods, especially in the suburbs of its cities, the suburbs. It’s as if French town planners and architects, in their embrace of modernity, have lost touch with what it means to be human. This has been a major trigger for a toxic mix of Islamophobia and broader cultural desperation.
The political consequences, which are now being played out, will ricochet in Europe and the West. This spring’s presidential elections will be dominated by the right-wing, openly expressing a relentless opposition to immigration that even Nigel Farage, who shares similar sentiments, does not dare to use so openly in Britain.
French socialism collapsed before the assault, while the right-wing candidate – Valérie Pécresse – is forced to consolidate her position by echoing the same tropes.
The pace is set by presidential candidate and television star Éric Zemmour, who burst onto the scene last fall. He is an outright Islamophobe who maintains that France is on the verge of being invaded by Islam, worthy of being “the great replacement”. He is joined by longtime representative of the Nativist Right, Marine Le Pen, who has been saying similar things, echoing his father, for years. Extraordinarily, together, they add up to just over 30% of opinion polls.
President Emmanuel Macron, seen only five years ago as representing a new, self-assured majority mix of liberal social democracy and liberal conservatism, is only narrowly ahead of them, with a poll of around 24%. It’s hardly a resounding endorsement of his years in office or his goal of transcending left and right.
Macron may have governed competently, but the abolition of the wealth tax and an attempt to create more consensual unions undermined his reputation on the left, while on the right he is seen as too temporized on immigration, asylum and Islam. France is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, but many French people believe that Islamic values are incompatible with core French values - notably secularism, born of the revolution of 1789, that religion should be kept away from public and cultural life, for which a declining Catholicism poses no threat. Islam should also disappear.
French Muslims, for their part, are disproportionately crammed into the soulless concrete jungles of the suburbs – marginalized, segregated and isolated in what former Prime Minister Manuel Valls called “territorial, social and ethical apartheid.” . Add to the mix the fallout from the rise of militant Islam in the Middle East and you have the perfect recipe for a dark vicious cycle of marginalization that fuels Muslim extremism.
Macron found himself incredibly stuck. No additional power to expel, investigate, arrest, attempt to assimilate in the face of this obvious threat is not enough for Islamophobes. Speeches proclaiming faith in Western Republican values seem irrelevant. And all of this against a larger feeling that France is in decline. It is powerful material for ideologues. Terrorism has increased exponentially – the fastest rise of any country in Europe. France arrests four times more Islamic suspects than any other country in Europe, according to the Institute of Economy and Peace. At the last count, 47,000 out of a prison population of 67,000 were Muslims. The unemployment rate of 14% among Muslims is almost double the national rate.
France’s political and media culture exacerbates the problems. Zemmour has made a name for himself in inexpensive talk shows about the myriad of tiny TV channels that present current affairs talks as inflammatory infotainment; think of a plethora of GB News channels, only worse. An electoral system organized around presidentialism, with a first and a second ballot, encourages a personality like Zemmour to build a cult of personality, just as Macron himself did in 2017. Macron created En Marche . Zemmour created Reconquête. It is pure racist poison. The Reconquest is thus named to “reconquer” a France at the risk of being “submerged” by the Muslims. Zemmour celebrates the doctrine of the “great leader” of history, a France ruled by Napoleon, Joan of Arc and de Gaulle. The country now needs another great leader – not the odd centrist Macron but the passionate Zemmour – to regain its lost greatness, but one based on racial and cultural purity. Assimilation must be complete, until the change of first name. Immigration should stop. All social support and budgetary aid for anything foreign should cease. Free trade is anathema. He would freeze relations with the EU and pursue an independent foreign policy. Only the Brexit disaster has thwarted the ambition of a “Frexit”, once pushed by Marine Le Pen.
One way or another, the politics of tolerance and mutual respect must surface and triumph, otherwise Western democracies, with their multiracial populations, are in danger. Macron’s compromised decency and competence are of course preferable to the policy of hatred and exclusion which can only shut up France – and Britain, if that were somehow repeated here. – in a self-fulfilling vortex.
Aid to Europe, France and even Britain unexpectedly comes from the self-defeating Brexit debacle, driven by parallel anti-immigrant instincts turning into quasi-racism. Without his grim warning, Zemmour and Le Pen’s hold on French politics, even if they lose to Macron or his likely right-wing challenger Pécresse, could undermine France as a pillar of the EU. As it stands, the threat remains very real.
Likewise, in post-Brexit Britain, opinion polls show some softening of anti-immigration views. We may be living in a right-wing era, but one of the right’s greatest triumphs – Brexit – could prove to be the trigger for a renaissance of better, less hateful politics. Let us pray that Macron, perhaps beaten, survives.