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The French election is all about imperialism. Here’s why

With oligarchs using their media outlets to promote far-Right presidential candidates, France is being haunted by its own ghosts

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
6 April 2022, 12.00am

Government capitulations to the far Right have only aided Emmanuel Macron’s opponents

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Victor Joly/Abaca Press/Alamy

To understand the coming French election, we need to start not with the incumbent president Emmanuel Macron, nor with any of his rival candidates, but with a billionaire called Vincent Bolloré.

Like many oligarchs, he started out by inheriting a family business founded by his ancestors – in this case, in the 1820s. These days, the eponymous Bolloré is one of the 500 biggest companies in the world, and has a stranglehold on West African trade, controlling 16 major ports down the coast from Mauritania to Congo-Brazzaville.

The firm doesn’t just have its claws in France’s old colonies. In 2015, Bolloré took control of the French media giant Canal Plus, with Vincent himself taking over as chair. In 2017, the company relaunched its 24-hour news channel as a sort of French equivalent of Fox News, now called C+.

Often leading its headlines with law and order stories and moral panics about migrants, it became famous for its raging debates between far-Right regulars. With its new, controversialist format, it doubled its audience, and it is now the second most watched news channel in the country.

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Its star commentator, editing and appearing on its daily panel show 'Face à l’Info', was the writer and now presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, who became prominent through his column in the tabloid Le Figaro. Which connects him to a second oligarch.

Le Figaro is owned by the Dassault group, plaything of the billionaire Laurent Dassault, who inherited it from his grandfather. The main thing the Dassault Group does is manufacture military jets, selling them around the world.

Historically, these oligarch families have been linked to the traditional Right-wing party Les Républicains – Laurent Dassault’s brother Olivier was a Républicains MP until he died in a helicopter crash last year. Vincent Bolloré is good friends with the disgraced former Republicans president Nicolas Sarkozy, who was sentenced to jail late last year for illegal campaign financing.

But with France’s old parties floundering, there is space for political entrepreneurs – as Emmanuel Macron demonstrated last time round.

Now Zemmour has stepped into that space, announcing his candidacy last year.

Zemmour won’t win the election. But he has already dragged France into a poisonous wasteland

Zemmour is famous for pushing the racist ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory, which claims that France’s elite is trying to replace the white population with people of colour, and which has motivated white nationalist terrorism in New Zealand and the US. He has also argued that women’s and LGBTQ rights have ‘feminised’ France, leading to its decline; and been convicted of incitement to racial or religious hatred three times.

But Zemmour is merely a product of his patrons – without them, he would just be another angry bigot raving in some bar. And they are merely products of their ancestors – with success built on wealth inherited from a previous era of French history.

As with Britain, mountains of capital left lying around from the age of empire gravitationally warp French politics. Zemmour won’t win the election. But he – and, more significantly, the oligarch-owned networks that promoted him and his ideas – have already dragged France into their poisonous wasteland. They have conjured a sense of French decline, the memory of a time when the country got rich from the plunder of its colonies, to sell a retrograde vision of a more racist, chauvinist, and bigoted age. And those ideas are like noxious fumes.

In the first round of their candidate selection, members of Les Républicains put Éric Ciotti at the top of their ballot. Ciotti is from the far Right of the party, and is described by academic Philippe Marlière as a ‘carbon copy’ of Zemmour on immigration and Islam. Ultimately, the party selected former minister Valérie Pécresse as its candidate. Supposedly more reasonable, even she has used the words ‘Great Replacement’, and has attacked migrants and Muslims in her speeches. She has criticised those who are French ‘on paper’ but not ‘in their hearts’ – following the billionaires’ bully boy down the path of bigotry.

The biggest beneficiary of France’s rush to the Right, though, has been the royal family of French fascism, represented for the last decade by Marine Le Pen. With the debate tipping onto her turf – she has vilified Muslims, called for a ban on the veil, and pushed for a referendum on migration – she has thrived. When Russia invaded Ukraine, she had to quickly shred a million leaflets showing a photo of her with Putin calling her “a woman of conviction”, but she’s managed to benefit from the war and its impact on the French economy. Mixing her hardline xenophobia with a gentler note of economic nationalism at a time when energy costs are rising, she has soared in the polls.

Not only is she currently looking like she’ll easily make it to the second round, but some have her running Macron close when she gets there.

Macron too

Just as a leech’s veins are filled with the blood of whatever species it suckles, this is the era of French politics on which Emmanuel Macron has come to parasite.

In 2018, he sought to placate France’s fascists by praising the First World War bravery of Philippe Pétain, the leader of the Nazi-collaborating regime during the Second World War. In 2019, he gave an interview to the far-Right magazine Valeurs Actuelle.

Along with his ministers, M. Le President has spent much of this presidency giving speeches and making public statements denouncing Islam and trying to attack the French Left for not being anti-Muslim enough. Last year, Macron’s higher education minister demanded an investigation into so-called ‘Islamo-Leftists’ at French universities, a direct threat to academic freedom and an assault on the world’s second-biggest religion.

After French teacher Samuel Paty was murdered by a Chechen Muslim for showing his class cartoon images of the prophet Mohammed, the French president went further, reaching out to Vladimir Putin in an attempt to build an Islamophobic alliance with the Kremlin.

In an election debate last year, Macron’s interior minister Gérald Darmanin even accused far-Right leader Le Pen of being ‘too soft’ on Muslims.

These capitulations to the far Right have only aided Macron’s opponents. After all, if he means what he says about Islam, why not support mass deportations of Muslims, with a candidate like Zemmour? When politics becomes an argument about the boundaries of national identity rather than a discussion about how to live together, the far-Right always thrives.

But Macron has also suckled from the Left. Most of his vote in the 2017 election came because the traditional social-democratic party, the Parti Socialiste, collapsed – going from winning the 2012 election with François Hollande to coming fifth, with just over 6% of the votes.

“We had a [Parti Socialiste] government from 2012 to 2017 and it was pathetic,” says French activist Arthur Vincent, who organises in migrant communities in the northern suburbs of Paris. “It was a social democrat lie of pretending they’re Left-wing during the campaign and basically having Right-wing policies all along. It was totally pathetic – it destroyed the Left.

“[Parti Socialiste’s] lead on the Left was made a thing of the past, and the centre-Left all went for Macron,” he adds.

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Last month, Macron tried to shore up this vote and confront soaring energy bills by proposing nationalisation of many of France’s power companies, including the giant EDF.

In June last year, he announced a significant draw-down of France’s military presence in the Sahel region of Africa, after his forces were criticised by the UN for bombing a wedding party in Mali, and under pressure from the socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came a close fourth in the 2017 presidential election, and is aiming to improve on that this time.

While campaigning for president in 2017, Macron called France’s colonial history in Algeria a ‘crime against humanity’ and, as president, launched a ‘memories and truth’ commission into it. Around five million French people have connections to Algeria, and the traditional far-Right was built by organising returning colonists after the country secured independence in 1962 – Jean-Marie Le Pen was a paratrooper in the France/Algeria war. So this was a brave step indeed.

In the end, too brave – Macron ended up apologising to the families of Algerians who fought alongside French troops, and were defeated, but not to the Algerians against whom France committed those war crimes.

Instead, Macron has tried to reach out to the Left by promoting himself as a leader on climate change. “He wants to please everyone,” says Arthur.

The climate movement

“The climate movement has grown a lot,” says Arthur. “People are aware of what’s going on. Macron has presented himself as being concerned about these issues.”

My wife is half-French and, ahead of those elections, we visited family friends in the rural south of the country. There, activists for Macron’s En Marche were distributing leaflets about their party’s environmental policies – protecting their Left flank from a Green surge. Last summer, Macron called for a referendum to enshrine emission reductions in the French constitution – a move blocked by the Senate.

Three weeks ago, tens of thousands marched through Paris in an attempt to push the issue into the centre of an election that much of the media has insisted is about race. Another march is planned for Saturday, the day before the election, says Arthur.

The battle over these votes is a “rivalry between Greens and [Left candidate Jean-Luc] Mélenchon,” says Arthur. There is a possibility of Green MPs being elected in metropolitan constituencies such as Lyon and Bordeaux, but – since the start of March – Mélenchon has risen from around 10% to 15% in the polls, and from fifth to third place, overtaking both Zemmour and the Republicans’ Valérie Pécresse.

At around 5%, inflation isn’t as high in France as it is in the UK. But for people who were already on the edge, this rise in the cost of living is another shove into poverty – and for Macron, a reminder of the yellow vest movement, which rocked the early years of his presidency.

Leading ex-politicians are being locked up for corruption and the billionaire-owned media is promoting actual fascists

In March, Mélenchon threw his support behind a policy that’s been pushed by numerous candidates over the years – replacing France’s whole political system, the ‘Fifth Republic’ founded after the war by Charles De Gaulle, with a Sixth Republic, whose constitution would be drafted by a jury of citizens. This might sound extreme to outsiders, but in fact it has pretty broad appeal.

“We have a presidential regime – some would say a monarchic regime – where there is so much power in one person,” says Arthur. “Everyone is so obsessed with that single guy.

“We really need to change this system. So many things are wrong – we need to have a proportional system to elect MPs; we need less powers in the hands of the president; we need a parliament with real powers, not just a rubber stamp.”

In its response to the pandemic, he points to the fact that France’s COVOD rules were set by the Public Health Defence Council, part of the national security infrastructure that is attached to the president’s palace. “Parliament didn’t do anything. There was no transparency,” he says.

“France [was] in Mali for nine years; there was just one vote in Parliament. Essential parts of national policy have never been discussed by Parliament.”

Whoever wins this election, the calls for a Sixth Republic are likely to get louder.

The Fifth Republic was built on the assumption that France had a two-party system. In this election, those parties – Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains – will only get around 10% between them. Leading ex-politicians are being locked up for corruption and the billionaire-owned media is promoting actual fascists.

This doesn’t look like a healthy political system, but a country that’s got caught up in its own lies about its past. Much like Britain, its current political era has been a march out of empire into nation state. But that period must be brought to a close, and a new one opened. It’s time for France to accept it’s just another country.

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