Category Archives: National Front

France: Le Pen’s been beaten – so what now?

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The majority of French voters have rejected Marine Le Pen. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the elected president is a free-market fanatic whose programme inspired a record number of people to cast blank votes.

Election posters in Champigny-sur-Marne on 7 May 2017 Photo: Tony Cross

Had Le Pen won the presidency, another country would have succumbed to the revamped right-wing populism represented by Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Orban and Brexit – not fascism, in my view, but a new kind of majoritarian authoritarianism endorsed by popular mandate, fuelled by fear of the future and resentment of the establishment, finding its expression in xenophobia and prejudice.

Emmanuel Macron could hardly be styled a courageous defender of minorities but he did resist Le Pen’s racism in the campaign TV debates, which is more than can be said for the mainstream right candidate François Fillon and, for that matter, more than can be said for Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls while in office.

So we’ve escaped a national-level version of the discrimination, repression and racist rabble-rousing the far right has let loose on the towns it controls. And Le Pen’s National Front (FN) seems to have big problems ahead.

Crisis for National Front

The result, and Le Pen’s disastrous performance in the few days before the poll, appears to have plunged the FN into crisis.

In one sense, they don’t have so much to complain about. They achieved a record 10.6 million votes, nearly double their score when Marine’s dad, Jean-Marie, made it to the second round against Jacques Chirac 2002. That’s a lot of Islamophobes – or, at least, a lot of people prepared to go along with the FN’s hatred of Muslims, immigrants, Roma and other minorities to poke the “elite” in the eye, which should, but won’t, give the “elite” pause for thought.

But, and this is really worrying, they could have done even better.

Le Pen ran an effective campaign up until the last few days. Then she had the bright idea of picking a holocaust-doubter as her party’s interim president (he also thought that beating up commies was a good political education but that received less media attention) say that France was not responsible for the wartime rounding up of Jews, call Fillon and his party “shits” (the FN claims she just said they were in the shit) and, worst of all, behave just like her father’s daughter during the crucial final TV debate.

The debate performance – where she was caught out lying, blustered, bullied, slouched and grimaced like the chip off the old block she is – has probably destroyed the “dedemonisation” strategy that had been working pretty well for Marine and her pals.

The FN’s canal historique is already sharpening its knives. Its best-known representative, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, one of only two FN-affiliated MPs at the moment, said on Sunday evening that the party must consider its strategy in the election after the “disappointment”.

And, if reports are to be believed, the rank and file is in disarray. An anonymous FN official told the Mediapart website that a the party’s post-debate postbag contained a number of torn-up membership.  And the “fachosphere” – the far-right social media network – is full of recriminations, mostly against Marine Le Pen and Florian Philippot, the FN vice-president who’s seen as the Svengali behind the dedemonisation strategy and the party’s “social” turn.

One is tempted to ask whether Le Pen threw the debate deliberately. As a Trump admirer, she must have read his comment that leading a country is harder than he’d thought. Being the party of mean-minded, resentful opposition has been a profitable business for her family, making them millionaires. Had the FN watered down its opposition to the EU, the real point of difference with the Fillons, Sarkozys and other tough guys of the mainstream right, it could have undergone the same transformation as Italy’s MSI and joined a coalition government some years ago.

But no, the FN leaders were riding a wave of anti-establishment resentment mixed with xenophobia and seemed genuinely to believe they were on the road to power on their own terms. Hence the disappointment today.

It remains to be seen if the backbiting will hamper their campaign in June’s parliamentary elections. A good result there could staunch the crisis.

Macron and extremes

Something else revealed in that TV debate is that Macron is not a very skilful politician.

He’s an intelligent man, a skilled technocrat who knows his facts.

But Le Pen destroyed herself, he didn’t destroy her.

When she posed as a defender of gay and women’s rights during an attack on a Muslim group that supported him, he failed to remind her of her own party’s record on those questions – the potential for mockery was great but Macron doesn’t do funny. When she justified her claim that the wartime deportation of Jews was not France’s responsibility but that of the Vichy government, he let it go without even a mention the former collaborators who helped found the party. Apparently, he also doesn’t do history.

This is not just a historical quibble. Obscuring the party’s Nazi origins and airbrushing out its anti-Semitism are a key part of the dedemonisation strategy and Macron passed on an opportunity to deal it a powerful blow.

In short, Macron has no political culture, which is also the problem of his newly founded En Marche ! movement. Apparently, the political experience that his presidential campaign lacked was made up for by Socialist Party traitors, working against their own candidate, Benoît Macron, in the first round and even more openly for a republican front – nominally anti-fascist but in reality more pro-Brussels – in the second round.

That was also apparent in his speech after the result was announced. In what he imagined was an olive branch to supporters of Le Pen and left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, he told them they had voted for “extremists”.

Repeating the old canard of the “extremes” meeting up is hardly a way to win over the seven million who voted Mélenchon in the first round and Macron’s assurance that he understood voters’ “anger, anxiety and doubts” is undermined by his obvious lack of empathy with ordinary people on the campaign trail.

With 25 percent abstention, the highest since 1969 when France’s youth was radicalised by May ’68, and an absolute record of four million blank votes, Macron can expect trouble.

His programme, for the most part a collection of micro-measures and expressions of good intentions, is ardently pro-EU and pro-capitalist. Despite a promise to revive Europe’s connection with “the people”, Macron is determined to press on with reducing the debt through austerity, the very policy that has done so much to help demagogues like Le Pen. On the economy it’s more of the same – tax cuts and subsidies for employers, in the desperate and so far unrewarded hope that they will be bribed to invest, longer hours, later retirement and less social protection for employees.

He has promised to bring in more changes to labour law in the summer, his main proposal being to encourage company-level negotiations on working hours and other conditions, a further undermining of collective bargaining and trade union solidarity.

Mélenchon’s seven million votes mean that, for the first time for years, the left is not demoralised.

Rather it is in combative mood, witness all those blank votes. So strikes, demonstrations and social upheaval are guaranteed, indeed the first took place on the afternoon after the election.

Parliamentary elections – who know what will happen?

It’s all very well winning the presidency but afterwards you have to form a government.

For someone who doesn’t actually have a real party that’s a problem.

And, with the mainstream parties rejected by voters in the presidential election, everything’s up for grabs in June’s parliamentary election.

Will Macron succeed in destroying the Socialist Party, as seems to be his intention, with his assurance that En Marche ! won’t endorse any candidate standing under another party’s colours?

Will the mainstream right Republicans lose their more liberal MPs, tempted by the prospect of ministerial positions?

Will voters be as ready to reject sitting MPs as they were to turn their backs on their parties’ candidates in the presidential first round?

Will the FN pick up MPs in some of the 95 constituencies where Le Pen won more than 30 percent in that round?

Can Mélenchon and his allies build on the presidential campaign success and win more seats?

I don’t know the answers to these questions and I don’t think anyone else does, either.

Which means that the parliamentary poll is going to be another cliffhanger and, whatever happens, French politics will never be the same again.

Read my analysis of the result for RFI English here

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The white working class – does it exist and should you despise it?

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In the US, the Republican right have taken to sneering at the “white working class”. But they’re not alone. Middle-class liberals same and the media feel free to caricature “white trash” or “chavs”. Class hatred lives on … when it’s top-down.

It’s so difficult to hate in peace these days. Overt racism is generally frowned upon – even by racists (“I’m not racist but …”).  Islamophobia is having a moment, it’s true. And then there’s class hatred, as long as it’s de haut en bas, especially if you target the “white working class”, the subject of sneers from the American right recently but also portrayed by media and liberals as the repository of all bigotry, backwardness and bad taste.

Having created a monster, the Republican establishment is desperately trying to shift the blame for flipping the switch that brought Donald Trump to political life. Two writers in the New Republic have found the perfect suspect – “the white working class”.

“The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles”, writes Kevin Williamson, going on to decry “the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog”.

Cheering him on, David French claims Williamson has debunked “the idea that the white working-class (the heart of Trump’s support) is a victim class”. His church tried to help these people, he reports, but found its efforts wasted because they prefer welfare to work, drop out of education on a whim, shag the neighbour at the first sign of marital discord and neck prescription drugs with the same gusto that respectable people sip Chardonnay.

Reassuringly, French “hate[s] the mockery that poor and working-class people of all races endure” and doesn’t think that the drug-addicted fornicators are solely responsible for their fate. The government, the “cultural elite”, “progressive culture”, “progressive policies”, the “progressive welfare state” and the “elitist sexual revolutionaries” are not blameless, he adds … to no-one’s surprise.

For the New Republic, while both the causes and the guilt seem to be collective, the solutions must be individual – don’t claim disability, be faithful, stop snorting OxyContin move to get a job – and the way to achieve this is to give “white working class” – collectively – a good telling-off.

It isn’t just the right that lumps white working-class people into a homogeneous, contemptible mass.

“[S]ince Donald Trump’s charade of a candidacy caught fire, I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms ‘white trash’ and ‘trailer trash’,” writes US journalist Connie Schultz. “These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means.”

Jack Metzgar in In These Times points out that the statistics don’t bear out the assertion that Trump’s support comes disproportionately from non-college-educated whites, the definition of working-class adopted by a Brookings article that says it does, while Charles Davis of TeleSur claims that among white voters who make less than US$25,000 a year, it is Bernie Sanders who is in the lead by a margin of 15 per cent.

But Trump isn’t really the point.

“Every group has its ‘other’,” Schultz observes. “For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class.”

When Hillary Clinton was fighting Barak Obama for the Democratic nomination, she was accused of playing to racist sentiment to appeal to the white working class. In France the white working class is often blamed for the rise of the Front National’s support, as it is for Ukip’s successes in the UK, where “chav” is now a term of abuse and the poor are the given the reality-TV treatment. These are standard liberal media analyses, repeated again and again in various forms, but generally identifying a hazily defined racial-cum-socio-economic category with whatever prejudice is to be decried at any given moment.

My own experience is that there are selfish shits and bigots in all social classes, although upbringing and level of education may influence the degree of subtlety with which these characteristics are manifested. Generosity and open-mindedness can be found everywhere, too, although I’ve found solidarity, in the sense of standing together in the face of common oppression, is somewhat lacking in the middle and upper classes.

But, however you define it, the working class is not ethnically homogeneous.

So what is that adjective doing in front of that noun?

We don’t talk about the black female gender, so why would a socio-economic category have an additional racial characterisation?

I understand one can reasonably talk about a white bourgeoisie in some Latin American countries, we could certainly talk about a white slave-owning class in the southern United States and the Caribbean in the past but, despite racist employment practices, membership of the working class is not such a privilege that it is restricted to any one race.

When factories close workers of all ethnic groups are thrown out of work. When incomes are squeezed, the banks foreclose with a lack of discrimination that would be praiseworthy in another context.

Some working-class people may react to the loss of relative security with racism or other prejudices – as may middle-class business owners or professionals who feel the pinch – but, when they do so, they are identifying as white, not working-class. When you express contempt for someone who is less privileged than yourself, whether in education, income or status, you’re defining them by class. And that’s a form of bigotry, too.

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Death of a circumflex – France’s spelling-change panic and why we’re so conservative

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Panic in the cafés! Outrage in the offices! Furore on Facebook! France’s education minister has banned the use of the circumflex (^), decreed that oignon must be spelt ognon and sent out the language police to enforce 2,400 changes to the French language. Except she hasn’t. And the reaction to this non-revolution speaks volumes about our collective conservatism and social media’s power to reinforce it.

Agostino_di_duccio,_san_bernardino_organizza_un_falò_delle_vanità
St Bernadino organises a bonfire of the vanities, Agostino di Duccio

A shocked nation heard of the orthographic auto-da-fé on Wednesday, thanks to an article on the website of TF1 TV.

By Thursday Facebook, Twitter and all other social media accessible to agonised Francophones were abuzz with protests. A hashtag #Jesuiscirconflexe was launched – a hyperbolic comparison to mass murder that would have set the Twittersphere tutt-tutting in other circumstances.

Right-wingers, who are far from the reform’s only opponents, were quick to blame Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a frequent target for vilification who can look forward to even more now Christiane Taubira has left the government.

She “thinks she has the right to turn the rules of French spelling on their heads”, according to a statement rushed out by the hard-right UNI students’ union.

“It is no surprise that what was a speculative discussion a quarter of a century ago among 40 rather civilised, snobbish and reliably silly old men has been made into a sharp edict under the most ideological education minister France has known since the early 80s,” declared Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in the Daily Telegraph.

Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good scare

800px-Cardinal_de_Richelieu
Cardinal de Richelieu, who set up the Académie française, by Philippe de Champaigne

Now who are we to believe here? UNI and Anne-Elisabeth Moutet or the nearest thing France has to the Daily Telegraph,  Le Figaro?

Because Le Figaro explains that Vallaud-Belkacem had nothing to do with it. The changes were discussed at the end of the 80s – by a committee of representatives of French-speaking nations and communities – agreed by the Académie française – whom I take to be Moutet’s “civilised, snobbish and reliably silly old men” – 29 years ago and declared officially acceptable seven years ago. But it has taken France’s schoolbook publishers all that time to catch up. Although some of them incorporated the changes in earlier editions, the beginning of the next academic year will be the first time they all recognise them. Without any edict being signed.

Le Figaro’s article, and all other informed pieces on the subject, also explain that the changes are limited, affecting only 4% of French vocabulary, and optional. The circumflex may be dropped on “I” and “u”, except in certain cases, for example when it makes a difference to the meaning. But they don’t have to be. The effect will be that pupils who spell coût (cost), oignon (onion) and extra-terrestre (extraterrestrial) as they sound – cout, ognon, extraterrestre – will no longer lose marks.

To see more examples of the changes, click here for my article on RFI’s English website. 

The conservative paper also reports that the reform “isn’t working so badly for our Belgian and Swiss neighbours” and links to a report of its adoption Quebec … in 2010.

So the first lesson of all this that it’s always a good idea to read a little further than the headline.

Politics and the French language

IMG_1916
An Ottoman-era pavilion – with the now abolished Arabic script – in Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

Then we get to the politics.

Florian Philippot, who wants to render the far-right Front National fit for human consumption, texted a rhyming couplet that described the reform as “vile and stupid”, while the only slightly less right-wing Eric Ciotti, of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republicans, declared it a “race to the bottom”.

Moutet believes Vallaud-Belkacem has a nefarious plan to stamp out elitism in education and help the disadvantaged. In the 15 months since she was appointed, this has apparently reduced the majority of French students to a state of “near illiteracy” (not my experience with the students I teach at Paris 13 university).

“You don’t need to be George Orwell to see that there is something sinister in any regime that sacrifices the memory and structure of the language to convenience and political fiat,” Moutet writes, a bad choice since Orwell was an advocate of plain English and an enemy of archaisms. http://www.plainlanguage.gov/whatisPL/definitions/orwell.cfm

But I see nothing particularly sinister in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s switch to the Latin alphabet from the non-indigenous Arabic alphabet, whatever criticism one might have of the Young Turks’ identification of Europeanisation with progress. And it’s worked, although it necessitated the use of diacritics for the purposes of pronunciation that cause a certain confusion to foreigners. By the way, the sinister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be trying to bring Ottoman Turkish back, comparing its abolition to cutting Turkey’s jugular.

Nor did the Vietnamese adoption of the Latin alphabet, switching from the non-indigenous Chinese, wipe their history or culture from their memories or impair their ability to fight off French colonialism and the US war machine.

So the argument that France’s historical memory will be erased along with the accents does not really hold water. Yes, the circumflex tells us that there used to be an “s” in the word in old French and in the Latin that it came from. But, interesting as it is, linguistic history is not essential to communication, which is the function of language. If it was, why not have diacritics to indicate the words that came from Greek or Arabic? That would interest me but I wouldn’t want a kid to fail an exam for not dropping a diacritical hint to that effect.

The human brain is a conservative organ

Shakespeare
Shakespeare – the Chandoes portrait, although it may not be he

The argument that the changes are ugly seems misconceived to me, too.

Languages certainly have properties particular to themselves, as Moutet points out. But it is the use to which those properties are put that are beautiful.

Shakespeare was not a great playwright and poet because he worked in English but because of the skill with which he used the language and the ideas and feelings he expressed.

We can be sure that General Christian Piquemal, recently arrested for taking part in a banned Pegida demonstration  manages to make French sufficiently ugly when he wishes to humiliate a subordinate or insult a migrant, although one imagines he will adopt a mellifluous tone in court.

When confronted with change, we tend to confuse aesthetics and habit.

We have had to learn these spellings. We were happy to please teacher when we got them right, devastated by the red ink on our homework when we got them wrong. Me too. I’m fond of the circumflex, proud to know its history and afraid of being thought ignorant if I use it wrongly. But that doesn’t make the damn thing beautiful.

In general, we think that what we’ve been taught is the Right Way of Doing Things and that what we’re used to is just and beautiful. We find change disconcerting and dismiss the new as ugly. Just look at the history of art.

Our brains learn from experience, they conserve information and, when circumstances change, they take their time adapting. This makes us conservative creatures. Some of what we wish to conserve is worth hanging on to. Some needs to be adapted or dumped because it has become redundant.

The worldwide web has been a tool for innovation but, being a reflection of ourselves in all our glory and infamy, it has also been a means of propagating conservative prejudice. It has vastly increased our capacity to get our facts right. But it’s also vastly increased our ability to spread misconceptions and misinformation. With its facility of publishing and the hysterical tone it encourages, a moral panic can travel three times round the world before the truth has got its facts checked.

Mes chers #Jesuiscirconflexes, the experts are laughing at you.

Linguists and lexicographers know that languages evolve, that even two centuries ago the rules were much more fluid, that every language was a dialect, slang, dog Latin or creole when it was young.

“It’s vanity,” lexicographer Marie-Hélène Drivaud comments to L’Obs on the circumflex hooha. “People like the fact that they had to work hard to learn it, so future generations have to learn it too.”

Spelling was “much more flexible and dynamic” before the 19th century, she points out.

Will the language reform work?

Le_bassin_aux_nymphéas_-_Claude_Monet
Beautiful or ugly? Nymphéas or Nenufars? Claude Monet’s Water Lilies

Of course, if she does want to really enforce the reform, Vallaud-Belkacem could emulate the ancient Chinese emperor who is supposed to have burnt all the books, apart from two copies of each one that he kept, and buried 460 scholars alive in an attempt to impose his cultural reforms. But you know how it is these days. The usual politically correct bleeding hearts would kick up and we’d never hear the end of it.

Judging by the reactions of citoyens of all political persuasions and personal outlooks to the circumflex scare, I doubt if many people’s spelling habits will change – in the short term, at least – if no such drastic action is taken.

But the language will evolve, with or without permission from the Académie, the pedants or you or me, and what serves no purpose will eventually die out.

Nor do I believe  the chanves will encourage more foreigners to learn French, which was apparently the chief reason for initiating it. English is the global language principally for geopolitical reasons, not because of its properties, many of which are not at all user-friendly. (Anthony Burgess tells a hilarious joke in Language Made Plain about a Frenchman trying to learn English who committed suicide after reading the headline “Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap pronounced a success”. Think about it.)

The reform can be criticised for being a pretty complicated form of simplification, circumflexually speaking at least. Indeed, one could complain that it doesn’t follow its own logic to a conclusion, both with the circumflex and with some words that it neglects to change. “Nénuphar” (water-lily) can be spelt “nénufar” – why not? – but “nymphéa” must stay the same. Why? Because “nénufar” – let’s be modern here – comes from Arabic, while “nymphéa” comes from Greek. Since Greek has only one letter for the sound (Φφ) the logic escapes me.

What about English? Bring back thorn!

Witan_hexateuch
Anglo-Saxon king with his witan. Biblical scene in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch

Finally, an appeal for a modest reform of my own mother-tongue. I believe with all my heart that we should revive the letter thorn (þ). It was the Anglo-Saxon letter for “th” but was killed off (I suspect the Normans). It’s why you see signs saying “Ye Olde Tea-Shoppe” – that “Ye” is really “þe”. There’s obviously no reason why “th” should be used for this sound and using it this way means we can’t aspirate after a “t”. OK, we don’t do that in English but some Asian languages do, so it might come in handy.

We also can’t aspirate after a “p”, so, while we’re at it, we might want to emulate the French reformers and replace “ph” with “f”. It’s logical. And it could avoid some confusion when going to Phuket.

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Charlie and me – Islamophobia, racism, freedom of expression and equality in France

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It’s difficult to write frankly about Charlie Hebdo – it was difficult to do so in the aftermath of the massacre and it’s only a bit easier now. In France there was shock, of course, a kind of solidarity and, let’s be honest, a lot of self-righteousness. But the French don’t have the monopoly on self-righteousness, as the debate on Charlie abroad has shown. I think the experience has much to say about France – and the world – today.

Hommage_à_Ahmed_Merabet
Tributes to police officer Ahmed Merabet, killed protecting the Charlie Hebdo staff Photo: Azurfrog/public domain

Do I have to say I was horrified by the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and the murders in a kosher supermarket that followed? Maybe I do. It’s easy these days to find oneself accused of holding opinions one doesn’t hold and entertaining sympathies one has never entertained, of advocating when trying to analyse (for the record this piece doesn’t aspire to neutrality).

Last January Charlie Hebdo suddenly found millions of passionate defenders – many of whom had clearly never read it or, so far as the more famous among them were concerned, only done so in search of grounds for legal action. Of course, they had the right to be angry at the violence and to defend their perception of freedom of expression. But it was exasperating to be lectured on the nature of a paper one had once read regularly in formulations culled from press coverage rather than formulated from personal experience.

Then the debate took a different turn, in the English-speaking world at least, and I got exasperated with critics who had also clearly never read Charlie. No, anglophone friends, the paper is not entirely devoted to Islamophobic and racist bile. While there’s no defence for some of its cartoons – Riss’s latest on Aylan above all – others were satirising the attitudes many of you believed they were propagating. Like lots of things in life, it can be good and it can be crap.

Here’s my confession of a Charlie reader who gave up.

When I came to France 22 years ago I soon discovered Charlie Hebdo. And I loved it.

The schoolboy humour naturally struck a chord, me being a Brit. The politics was anarcho-leftist-Jacobin, which mostly suited me. And it is true that its contributors mocked everyone, although not equally, as some of the never-read-its claim. Not very much humour on the Holocaust, happily. And lots of scurrilous attacks on the Front National and its then leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, also happily.

But, after a while, it seemed to change.

There were more and more sneers at Islam. I didn’t analyse how many cartoons and articles were devoted to each religion or set of political beliefs – I just stopped reading it – but Islam seemed to me to be becoming an obsession and I found it a distasteful one.

After the Charlie attacks a TV journalist became a French YouTube hit by showing that Charlie Hebdo’s covers over a given period of time featured few cartoons attacking Islam. This quite literally superficial analysis has no pertinence whatever.

Firstly, there was plenty on Islam inside.

Secondly, as former Charlie Hebdo contributor Olivier Cyran pointed out in 2013, attacking a minority religion, associated with an immigrant-origin population that is disproportionately underprivileged,  is not the same as attacking the Catholic church, “which had – and still has – newspapers, MPs, lobbies, salons and enormous property holdings”.

Catholics, one might add, never have their very right to live in Europe challenged, nor is their religion declared foreign to European culture, despite its provenance.

I can’t put a date on when I gave up reading Charlie. Cyran says it took a radical turn for the worse after 9/11. And he tends to blame Philippe Val, an ardent supporter of Israel who was later appointed director of Radio by Nicolas Sarkozy (not so iconoclastic as all that, eh?), and Caroline Fourrest, a hypersecularist who is rarely absent from TV, radio and the written press these days, thanks to her support for gay marriage, her opposition to hijab and her penchant for sniffing out Salafist conspiracies.

On RFI, January 2015: How will the Charlie Hebdo attacks change France?

On RFI, January 2016: One year later, how have the Charlie Hebdo attacks changes France?

Sans-culotte
An idealised version of a sans-culotte during the French revolution, Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)

But this hypersecularism is not unique to Charlie. It is very widespread in France – in its arrogant rejection of religion and the religious it was a sort of New Atheism avant la lettre.

It turns out that secularism is one of those container words that you can fill up with any number of meanings, like Liberté, égalité, fraternité or democracy, for that matter.

And, when a term becomes a sort of dogma, no longer examined critically, it lays itself open for exploitation by all sorts of cynical demagogues and authoritarians manqués. We know that from the history of religion, don’t we?

You can see secularism as a truce between non-believers and believers – you keep religion out of my state and I’ll keep my state out of your religion – or you can see it as a more aggressive measure to keep religion completely out of the public eye. That view tends to segue into an apparent desire to wipe religion off the face of the earth. In which case it’s not really secularism, is it? It’s state-sponsored atheism, which hasn’t worked very well.

France’s 1905 law on religion is in fact the first of these alternatives – a more aggressive anti-clerical faction lost the argument – but many French people interpret it as the second, with a tinge of the third, increasingly so these days.

When I first went to Turkey, to cover the 2007 parliamentary elections, some supporters of the secular parties used the French term laïcité to distinguish what Mustapha Kemal Atatürk had put into practice in Turkey from mere secularism.

Like the French version, Turkey’s secularism was born from a violent rupture with the past.

It was an attempt to break the hold of religion on the minds of the masses and end habits regarded as backward according to the Young Turks’ identification of modernity with Europe.

You can understand this zeal in the context of the French revolution. The revolutionaries needed to break the power of a Catholic church that was a powerful part of the ancien regime and, if we bear in mind today’s revelations of clerical child abuse in countries where the church went unchallenged, there must have been an awful lot of residual bitterness over priestly abuses of power, which may explain the violence of some anti-clerical exactions.

Post-Ottoman Turkey, too, had to replace a regime of which religion was an integral part  and create a state capable of standing up to the Islamic clergy, although, if we look at Turkey’s current political and social condition, we would have to conclude that it has been a mitigated success.  The largest secular party, the CHP,  seems to have recognisew this and is revising its hardline position.

But where is the relevance for France today?

When right-wing Catholics and assorted bigots turned out en masse to oppose the Socialist government’s same-sex marriage law – singularly failing to mobilise Muslims, by the way, despite some efforts to do so – there were few appeals to secularism. Indeed, right-wing politicians who have seen fit to call for pork-only menus to be served in school canteens were happy to play fast and loose with the god-botherers.

Because, excuse me for stating the obvious, it’s all about Islam. Nobody thought to ban “ostentatious signs of religion in schools, until a couple of Muslim girls turned up in hijab. (In that debate, which is now being recycled as a debate on cover in universities and workplaces, there is a strange confusion between those in authority and those over whom authority is exercised. Of course teachers should not proselytise, they represent the state, but why shouldn’t their pupils manifest religious convictions? Is it even realistic to expect them not to? In this respect the French are as prudish about religion as the British are about politics.)

On RFI i 2010 France’s burka bill, background to a bitter debate

That explains why many right-wing ideologues can one minute invoke Europe’s Christian or Judeo-Christian roots and the next pose as ferocious defenders of secularism, just as many of the political successors of the late 19th-century and early 20th-centur anti-Semites are now ardent defenders of Israel.

This form of secularism has become an assertion of the superiority of the Occident over the world it once colonised, tinged with class hatred, given that many of its exponents will happily mix with well-off, “integrated” persons of foreign origin, but like to whip up fear of a lawless mass in the banlieue.

Of course, Muslims are equal in France. Secularism applies to everybody just as “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread”, to quote Anatole France.

As Emmanuel Todd says in Qui est Charlie? – the book that earned him the singular privilege of a reply from the prime minister in the august pages of Le Monde – they face a pressure to conform from people of Catholic culture, who tell them “I have the right to blaspheme against my former religion, so you have to the duty to blaspheme against yours.”

The feeling of cultural superiority takes a distinctive form in France and has infected the left in a way it has not, in my experience, infected the British left.

To go back the two decades to my arrival in France I was struck by how in our globalised world – less globalised then, but still – national attributes continued to exist.

In my new home appreciating good food and drink was not considered elitist snobbery, it was not generally considered necessary to make room for other people when walking in the street, the arts were considered important enough to merit a slot on TV news bulletins, the customer was very definitely not always right, intellectuals felt under no obligation to pretend they were not intellectuals … and every French person was a bit of a patriot.

No matter how left-wing and in principle internationalist they were, they treasured in their hearts a certain conviction that French culture was superior to all others.

Of course, we all assume to some degree or other that what we’re used to is the natural order of things and I know that my new friends often found me quaintly British.

But I think France is the only country where former interior minister Jean-Pierre Chévènement could found his own little party to propagate a bizarre leftish form of nationalism, where the hard-left candidate in the last presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, could this year wax indignant about the Corsican regional council taking an oath “in a language I don’t understand” and where Prime Minister Manuel Valls … well I was talking about the left, so let’s leave Manuel Valls out of it.

It’s partly the fault of the French Communist Party, which at the time when it was France’s biggest party in terms of membership took the popular front accommodation with nationalism very seriously, played a heroic role in the resistance to German occupation, which inevitably led to a certain nationalist, even xenophobic, contagion, and after the war just couldn’t get out of the opportunist habit.

And, of course, there’s the revolution, without which the modern world would not exist.

The legacy of the revolution legitimises popular revolt. The slogans of the revolution represent a promise that is sufficiently vague to serve as justification for the established order and rallying cry for those who wish to overthrow it. The revolution has served as example, case study and inspiration for every generation of revolutionaries since.

And its centralist, nation-building aspects sometimes morph into the secular ultimatums, sneering and prejudice that find expression in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, which, despite its affection for the slogan “No god, no masters”, seems to have found it easier to come to an accommodation with the latter than with the former.

Because, despite the naughty words, the routine impertinence, the tits, bums and dicks, Charlie Hebdo is a bit of a court jester these days.

Viewed from the banlieue, as academic and journalist Andrew Hussey points out, Charlie is part of the establishment.

“What is seen in the centre of Paris as tweaking the nose of authority — religious or political — is seen out in the banlieues as the arrogance of those in power who can mock what they like, including deeply held religious beliefs, perhaps the only part of personal identity that has not been crushed or assimilated into mainstream French society,” he wrote in the New York Times after the attacks.

Indeed, one of the main reasons that Islam is resurgent is that the left has lost the leadership of the anti-imperialist and antiracist struggles. Secular nationalist and left-wing anti-colonial movements degenerated into corrupt dictatorships or neo-liberal democratic plutocracies. Mass socialist parties voided themselves of their class content.

The spectre haunting the world today is the spectre of fundamentalist jihad, violent, divisive, frightening, supported by a tiny minority of Muslims but filling a demand created by the arrogance of the West and the inadequacy of the left.

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Why is support for France’s Front National rising?

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As I write French voters are casting their ballots in the first round of regional elections, although turnout will be much lower than in presidential or legislative elections, so a sense of proportion is needed when analysing the results. Nevertheless it looks almost certain that the Front National (FN) will do well, possibly even taking control of one or more regions after the second round next week. Why is the FN’s vote rising and what does it actually represent these days?

  • The main difference between the FN and the mainstream right is not racism or Islamophobia but hostility to the EU. A short quiz. Who said the following?

“There is no Islamophobia in France. There aren’t any anti-Muslim acts — or no more than acts against women . . . or short people. But there is a rise in anti-Semitism.”

”Someone who comes to us must assimilate, adopt our lifestyle, our culture …. Do you keep your shoes on when you visit a mosque when you’re abroad?”

The first is FN leader Marine Le Pen, the second is Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the ex-UMP now rebaptised the Republicans. But it could have been the other way around, couldn’t it?

True, some members of the Republicans – Sarkozy’s rival for the party’s presidential nomination Alain Juppé, for example – are alarmed by Sarkozy’s appeals to Islamophobia, which this year have included the proposal to drop alternative meals for religious minorities in school canteens and to extend the ban on the hijab already enforced in schools to universities. It’s also true that Sarkozy can hardly be accused of consistency, sometimes trying to create a state-sponsored Islam or cultivate Muslims who will toe his line, and that the party from time to time reins in individuals like the slightly deranged Nadine Morano. But the appeal to prejudice in the name of a selective laïcité is now as likely to be heard at a Republicans rally as in one of Le Pen’s almost incessant radio and TV interventions.

What makes further rapprochement between the two parties impossible is not racism, Islamophobia or any other prejudice but the FN’s hostility to the EU, stance that is unacceptable to the French establishment, the Republicans, the Socialist Party, François Bayrou’s Modem and all the other mainstream politicians.

  • The FN is no longer a fascist party. The FN plays on prejudice, is authoritarian in office and, like the fascist movements of the ’30s, has stolen aspects of the left’s social policy to consolidate a popular base. But, although it was in its origin a far-right coalition dominated by fascists, it is not really fascist now, unless you are one of those people for whom “fascist” just means “nasty”. In fact, the mainstream right – sometimes risibly called the “centre right” – now shares many of the attributes listed above. The FN has no militia, does not physically attack or murder trade unionists or left-wing activists, does not appear to have a plan to create a corporate state. No reasonably sized party in Europe has these characteristics today because it is no longer necessary to atomise the working class, as Trotsky, in my view correctly, described the task of fascism, because that has already been accomplished democratically, thanks to globalisation, the decline of heavy industry in western Europe and the US, the weakening of trade unionism and the labour movement, consumerism and the brand in individualism that goes with it, the ideological offensive against collectivism and the rise of neoliberalism, and the confusion on the left that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The FN would certainly be authoritarian and whip up intolerance if it ever formed a government. How authoritarian I don’t know and I don’t think it does, either.
  • Support for the FN is a perverse revolt against the establishment. Obviously, the 13 November Paris attacks have boosted the FN, part of the polarisation that Isis wants to take place in Europe. But the FN’s steady growth in areas that were once strongholds of the left are a sign that an atomised working class believes that the mainstream parties have failed to defend their interests and, in fact, despise them. The Nord, which could fall to the FN, has seen its heavy industries destroyed over decades. Mining, steelmaking and other heavy industries have been destroyed, sometimes deliberately thanks to EU policies based on economic projections that failed to foresee a rise in world demand for steel that led to the Chinese buying, dismantling and importing entire abandoned steel plants. The main parties leaders live comfortable lives, insulated from the daily problems that assail most of the voters, they are frequently caught with their hands in the till or breaking the very laws they or their predecessors have passed and they and much of the media lecture the petit peuple on morality and “republican values”. FN voters are certainly conscious of the party’s racism and mean-mindedness but many, especially the new ones, see their ballot as a poke in the establishment’s collective eye.
  • The Socialist government has betrayed its voters. If any French party is centre-right, it is the Socialist Party, even if its voters and some of its members are left-wing. The first-ever public declaration of ministers’ wealth revealed that eight cabinet members were millionaires. And their policies have protected their and their fellow Croesuses’ interests. The government has stuck to the austerity line, combined with massive tax cuts for businesses, despite their manifest failure to reduce unemployment or revive the economy. The only time it has faced down the right has been over same-sex marriage, a measure that proved perfectly acceptable to Britain’s Conservative Party.  One of the main reasons for the FN’s increased share of the vote is that left-wing voters are completely demoralised and have stayed at home.

To read my article on Marine Le Pen’s efforts to clean up the Front National’s image on the RFI English website, click here.

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