Can Europe Make It?

French Republican hypocrisy and the long slow descent into reaction

Macron’s shift to the right appears to have been a long time coming. But recent events show how quickly a slide towards authoritarianism can take place.

Aurelien Mondon
Aurelien Mondon
30 November 2020, 12.22pm
Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy arrives at his trial on corruption charges at Paris' courthouse on November 26, 2020.
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Mehdi Taamallah/PA. All rights reserved.

As France battles the second wave of the Covid19 pandemic, it is telling that much of country’s news is dedicated to other issues as the Macron presidency continues to slide rightward, seemingly regardless of priorities. The cynical use of republican symbols and concepts for cheap politicking is nothing new in France, and in fact a common strategy in times of crisis, but the current government appears to be pushing these to their extreme, a potential point of no return, as the 2022 presidential election looms.

The government reshuffle in July 2020 marked a decisively rightward turn from Macron who had campaigned on a “neither left nor right” platform in 2017, a candidate who would go beyond politics as usual. As his presidency falters, politics has very much returned to business as usual, and his approach to French society, which may have seemed a breath of fresh air at first, now increasingly resembles more of the same of what has been served up since the turn of the century. Far from a renewal of politics, the new government is the rightful heir of Nicolas Sarkozy and his presidency (2007-12), which marked a decisive step in the normalisation of far-right politics. This consecrates an approach to politics and democracy based on a false political dichotomy between the far right Front/Rassemblement National and the rest, at the expense of all other alternatives.

Sarkozy was elected after a campaign in which he unashamedly hunted on Front National territory, promising that he would go and get Jean-Marie Le Pen’s voters “one by one” if necessary. That he did, and the old extreme right leader suffered a severe defeat. However, on the night of the first round, Marine Le Pen, his campaign director, declared that the defeat was irrelevant as the campaign marked the victory of their ideas.

A pseudo national identity crisis

This was prescient and during his reign, Sarkozy not only helped normalise the far right party through his tough discourse on security, but also entrenched a reactionary understanding of a number of key Republican concepts in public discourse. By 2012, it was accepted across the political spectrum that laïcité, which had consecrated the separation of church and state in 1905, was in danger and that stringent laws against certain communities must be passed to prevent its demise and that of the Republic itself. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Sarkozy and his government diverted attention to Muslim communities and a pseudo national identity crisis, which they believed would be more easily addressed than the economic one.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Sarkozy and his government diverted attention to Muslim communities and a pseudo national identity crisis, which they believed would be more easily addressed than the economic one.

This culminated in the 2010 Law banning face coverings in public spaces. It was clear then that the law was not about any and all face coverings, but targeted the burqa, and through it shone the spotlight on racialised Muslim communities who had grown increasingly vilified and demonised in the 2000s. The 2004 law against religious symbols in schools had already demonised young girls and their families by forcing them to remove particular garments, without ever considering these may be a choice and that their forcible removal was indeed a curtailment of both freedom of expression and religion, whilst serving to further isolate those who were forced to wear it, risking them being taken out of schools altogether.

As with the 2004 law, the law of 2010 was pitched as an emancipatory law, with Eric Besson, a former socialist at the head of the Orwellian Minister of Immigration and National Identity, declaring that it would be an opportunity for ‘social life and civilization to be explained’ to the victims. As always, there was no thought given to the agency of these women, or to the very simple fact that were they forced to wear the burqa, preventing them from wearing it public would most likely mean they would be forced into remaining in the private sphere, further limiting their freedom. Women wearing the burqa (less than 2000 by most counts) were turned into both threats and victims in typically orientalist tropes, and almost never consulted/given voice in discussions on the issue. As is always the case with liberal islamophobia and racism more generally, justifications based on potentially liberal and progressive tropes such as women’s rights are only ever truly anchored in the othering and demonising of Muslims. The irony wasn’t lost when ten years later face coverings would become compulsory in France…

The irony wasn’t lost when ten years later face coverings would become compulsory in France…

Pyrrhic victory

While Sarkozy failed re-election in 2012, the strong performance of Marine Le Pen in the election, beating her father’s record and running on a modernised platform and image demonstrated that Sarkozy’s victory over the far right was in fact a pyrrhic one.

Five years of a weak Socialist Party presidency under François Hollande, and with Emmanuel Valls – first as minister of the interior and then as Prime Minister and whose approach belonged more to a hard right party – did little to counter the trend. This failure of mainstream parties to address the many real crises France has been faced with in the twenty-first century led to their demise in the 2017 election. With hyped non-issues, fantasised divisions and reified threats, and once-progressive concepts perverted and turned on their head, what the French were left with in the second round of the election was a polished far right leader and a technocrat seeking appeal through his apparently apolitical position.

Macron’s triumph over Le Pen was less than convincing and his popularity appeared more a product of the aversion to the far right party than a real endorsement of his politics, whatever they may be.

Since the reshuffle in the summer amidst the Coronavirus crisis, Macron has taken a further shift to the right, as exemplified by the appointment of Jean Castex as Prime Minister and Gérald Darmanin as Minister of the Interior. This ideological positioning appears to have been a long time coming, as exemplified by the interview Macron gave to Valeurs Actuelles, a major far right magazine, in October 2019.

What is currently taking place in France is therefore not something that has emerged out of the blue, whether in terms of Macron’s own trajectory or the way in which French politics and public discourse have been skewed to the right since the turn of the century. However, recent events have demonstrated how quickly a slide towards authoritarianism can take place.

France in mourning

Following the Valeurs Actuelles interview, it was hardly surprising to witness the return of a reactionary understanding of laïcité to the forefront of French politics, despite Macron having attempted early on in his presidency to offer a more nuanced approach. In early October, the president, announcing a new action plan on laïcité, declared that ‘the country is sick from its communautarisme and from a political Islam that wants to topple the values of the Republic’. As France was mourning tens of thousands of deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic, this diversion was reminiscent of Sarkozy’s own shameless diversion on a pseudo national identity crisis as France battled its most severe economic downturn in recent history.

This diversion was reminiscent of Sarkozy’s own shameless diversion on a pseudo national identity crisis as France battled its most severe economic downturn in recent history.

The horrific murder of Samuel Paty and the terrorist attack in Nice made the diversion away from other, more pressing issues all the easier for Macron and his government, as it allowed them to tap into the reactionary understandings of free speech which have become normalised following the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015. ‘Je suis Charlie’ has become a national slogan in France, and it has become commonly accepted in public discourse that free speech simply means the right of the powerful to offend without any consequences or any potential criticism.

In this context, the government turned against any critical voices, those so-called ‘islamo-leftists’ who called for caution in the aftermath of more deeply traumatic attacks. On December 1, the Prime Minister declared chillingly: ‘I want to denounce here all the compromises that have been made for too long, justifications given to this radical Islamism: “We should repent, regret colonisation…” and who knows what else. The best way to win a war is to make sure that the national community is bound together, unified, proud, proud of its roots, of its identity, of our Republic, of our liberty’.

This line was taken up across much of the mainstream media which has been fuelling the idea that talking about Islam or race is taboo in France, while splashing across front pages or endlessly discussing on primetime TV or radio that it is impossible to talk about these issues. This culminated when Rokhaya Diallo, a prominent anti-racist journalist and writer, was accused on television by reactionary public intellectual Pascal Bruckner of having armed the Charlie Hebdo terrorists by taking a critical stance on the publication. Since then, Diallo and other critical voices have been hounded for highlighting the dangers of using potentially progressive concepts for reactionary and racist ends.

At the gates of power

But it no longer matters in French public discourse that this reactionary understanding of laïcité goes against the very essence of the revered but ignored law of 1905, which instead of being squarely against religion, was created to provide equal protection to those choosing not to have a religion and those choosing to have one, with fines and prison sentences promised to anyone who would impose one or the other onto anyone else. It no longer matters either that the secular hypocrisy has been expanded to a free speech hypocrisy, whereby the government uses terrorist attacks to impose laws that curtail the freedom of expression of its citizens.

At a time when police violence has been placed under intense scrutiny by the Black Lives Matter movement, the French government passed a law to criminalise the filming of such acts, thus removing what has become for many the only way to make the police accountable in increasingly authoritarian times. A mere five days after the law was passed, yet another shocking example of police violence took place in France demonstrating more than ever the need for full accountability and police reform.

France is at yet another crossroads where positive alternatives appear increasingly limited, while a slide towards ever more reaction is ever more plausible.

In the leadup to the 2022 presidential election, France is at yet another crossroads where positive alternatives appear increasingly limited, while a slide towards ever more reaction is ever more plausible. The first two decades of the century have shown that the risk is not merely a Front/Rassemblement National victory, but the internalisation of reactionary politics at the elite level, be it in politics or the media. The Le Pens have had limited agency in making the French political landscape what it is today and have instead been used by cowardly politicians as scarecrows and diversions away from their own failure and lack of imagination. It is therefore not thanks to their political savviness or the popularity of their politics that the far right finds itself at the gates of power, but through its cynical use by the so-called mainstream liberal elite as they attempt to retain power without ever reflecting upon (their) systemic failures.

If an alternative is to rise against this tide, it will have to be unrelenting and uncompromising in its refusal to engage in political battles on the (far) right’s terms. This will mean acknowledging that concepts such as laïcité, the Republic or free speech are just that: mere concepts. They can be used for progressive purposes, as they have been, but can also be used for reactionary ends.

This piece was first published on Aurelien Mondon’s blog on November 28, 2020.

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