Once Europe’s liberal hope, Macron is now prey to France’s toxic populism

Show caption Emmanuel Macron has found himself impossibly squeezed. Photograph: Eliot Blondet/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock Opinion Once Europe’s liberal hope, Macron is now prey to France’s toxic populism Will Hutton Racist contenders are stirring Islamophobic fears in their rush to take the presidency Sun 9 Jan 2022 07.30 GMT Share on Facebook

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France is both beautiful and brutally bleak. It is a country studded with towns and rural vistas that take your breath away, but pockmarked with districts of soulless, desolate concrete, especially in the suburbs of its cities, the banlieues. It’s as though French planners and architects, in their embrace of modernity, lost touch with what it means to be human. It has been an important trigger for a toxic brew of Islamophobia and wider cultural despair.

The political consequences, now playing themselves out, will ricochet around Europe and the west. The presidential elections this spring will be dominated by the right, overtly mouthing implacable opposition to immigration that even Nigel Farage, who shares similar sentiments, dares not use so openly in Britain.

French socialism has collapsed before the onslaught, while the mainstream right candidate – Valérie Pécresse – is compelled to shore up her position by echoing the same tropes.

The pace is being set by presidential candidate and TV celebrity Éric Zemmour, who burst on to the scene last autumn. He is a hardline Islamophobe who argues that France is about to be overrun by Islam, dignified as “the great replacement”. He is joined by the longstanding representative of the nativist right, Marine Le Pen, who has been saying similar things, echoing her father, for years. Extraordinarily, together they command just over 30% of opinion poll support.

President Emmanuel Macron, seen only five years ago as representing a new, self-confident majoritarian blend of liberal social democracy and liberal conservatism, is only just ahead of them both, polling around 24%. It is hardly a ringing endorsement of his years in office or his aim to transcend left and right.

Muslims are crowded into the soulless concrete jungles of the banlieues

Macron may have governed competently, but the abolition of the wealth tax and an attempt to create more consensual trade unions have trashed whatever reputation he had on the left, while on the right he is seen to temporise too much on immigration, asylum and Islam. France is home to Europe’s biggest Muslim population, but many French people think Islamic values are incompatible with core French values – notably laïcité, born of the 1789 revolution, that religion should be kept out of public and cultural life, to which a fading Catholicism presents no threat. Islam should fade too.

French Muslims, for their part, are disproportionately crowded into the soulless concrete jungles of the banlieues – marginalised, segregated and isolated into what the 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 there is the perfect recipe for a dark, vicious circle of marginalisation that is feeding Muslim extremism.

Macron has found himself impossibly squeezed. No extra powers to deport, to investigate, to arrest, to attempt to assimilate before this evident threat are enough for the Islamophobes. Speeches proclaiming faith in republican western values seem beside the point. And all against a wider sense that France is in decline. It is potent material for ideologues. Terrorism has risen 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 Economics and Peace. At the last count, 47,000 out of a prison population of 67,000 were Muslim. The unemployment rate of 14% among Muslims is almost twice the national rate.

France’s political and media culture exacerbates the problems. Zemmour made his name on cheap chat shows on the multiplicity of tiny TV stations that screen current affairs discussion as inflammatory infotainment; think a plethora of GB News channels, only worse. An electoral system organised around presidentialism, with a first and second round of voting, encourages a figure such as Zemmour to build a personality cult, just as Macron himself did in 2017. Macron created En Marche. Zemmour has created Reconquête. It is sheer racist poison. Reconquête is so named to “reconquer” a France at risk of being “overwhelmed” by Muslims. Zemmour celebrates the “great leader” doctrine of history, a France led by Napoleon, Joan of Arc and de Gaulle. The country now needs another great leader – not the weird centrist Macron but passionate Zemmour – to recover its lost greatness, but based on racial and cultural purity. Assimilation should be complete, down to changing forenames. Immigration should cease. All welfare support and budgetary aid for anything foreign should stop. Free trade is anathema. He would freeze relations with the EU and pursue an independent foreign policy. Only the disaster of Brexit has checked the ambition for a “Frexit”, once pushed by Marine Le Pen.

In post-Brexit Britain, opinion polls show some softening in anti-immigration views

Somehow, the politics of tolerance and of mutual respect have to surface, and triumph, otherwise western democracies, with their multiracial populations, are in real trouble. Macron’s compromised decency and competence are of course preferable to the politics of hate and exclusion that can only lock France – and Britain, if it were in any way repeated here – into a self-fulfilling vortex.

Aid to Europe, France and even Britain is coming unexpectedly from the unfolding, self-defeating debacle of Brexit, driven by parallel anti-immigrant instincts morphing into near racism. Without its grim warning, Zemmour and Le Pen’s grip on French politics, even if they lose to Macron or his probable rightwing challenger Pécresse, might undermine France as a pillar of the EU. As it is, the threat remains all too real.

Equally, in post-Brexit Britain, opinion polls show some softening in anti-immigration views. We may live in rightwing times, but one of the right’s greatest triumphs – Brexit – may prove to be the trigger for a rebirth of a better, less hateful politics. Pray Macron, battered perhaps, survives.

• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist