Show caption Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Composite: Observer Design/AFP/Getty Images France The future of France: can Macron’s centre hold? With Macron back as president and the legislative elections looming, we ask French writers and historians to assess the state of an increasingly divided nation Sun 5 Jun 2022 07.00 BST Share on Facebook
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Photograph: Catherine Helie
‘Our key assumptions about the stability of French political life are now unravelling’
I was in Paris at the time of Emmanuel Macron’s official inauguration at the Élysée Palace in early May 2022, and watched the ceremony on television with a group of French friends. They had all voted for him, some because he was their preferred choice, others just to keep out Marine Le Pen. But I was struck that those who were most disappointed with him that morning were his own supporters: they complained about his uninspiring campaign, his absence of vision for the next five years, and (a typically French criticism) his lack of eloquence. On the night of his re-election, he read out a dull speech littered with cliches and vague promises of new beginnings. The Macron of 2017, whose campaign book was entitled Révolution, and who had pledged a radical transformation of the political system, seemed to belong to a distant past.
There were other ghosts at the ceremony, most notably Macron’s two predecessors, the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and the socialist François Hollande, stiffly trapped next to each other in the Salle des Fêtes by the obligations of protocol, and barely capable of making polite conversation. The embittered ex-presidents symbolised the greatest change achieved by Macron since 2017, effectively eviscerating what had been the two dominant governing parties of the Fifth Republic. But nothing ever completely dies in French politics, and these two men were also a reminder of Macron’s own plasticity. He remains an elusive figure, but can plausibly be seen as a mélange of the talents (and limitations) of his two predecessors: he combines Sarkozy’s ambitiousness, energy and amoralism with Hollande’s fondness for micromanagement, political triangulation, and technocratic solutions. Hence his appointment as prime minister of Élisabeth Borne, an engineer with a long career in public administration. Macronism, in short, is the triumph of a depoliticised politics.
This should not come as a surprise: Macron’s greatest difference from his predecessors is that he does not hail from a conventional political background: before 2017, he had never held national or local elected office. In this sense, his re-election confirms the depth of populist sentiment in France: in the first round of the presidential elections, two-thirds of the votes went to anti-system candidates. Indeed, many of our key assumptions about the stability of French political life are now unravelling. Presidents are no longer commanding figures, in the way Charles de Gaulle and his immediate successors were. Their parties may win elections, and even large majorities, but their appeal is much more limited, whether intellectually, socially, or territorially. Macron’s movement (now rebranded “Renaissance”) has not produced any notable political talents, has failed to make any significant inroads in local elections, and enjoys little support among low-income voters. Most tellingly, the system’s centre of gravity has shifted – the main opposition to Macron comes from the democratic socialist left and the far right. The repeated successes of the far right in presidential elections since 2002 show that the Fifth Republic is now unable to contain political extremism. The only sweeping visions on offer in 2022 were the racist conspiracy theories of the far right about the “great replacement” of French natives by immigrants and the threat of “Islamism” (an entity all the more terrifying for never being clearly defined). The doomy Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, fittingly enough, is entitled Anéantir [Destroy]: it evokes a future France plagued by moral decay and political stagnation.
Away from the venomous rhetoric of politicians, a lived, everyday multiculturalism is quietly growing
French politics is inherently contentious. In the century that followed the 1789 French revolution, the nation went through cyclical conflicts over the republican character of its government, and during the second half of the 20th century there have been repeated clashes between the state and civil society. These democratic crises are typically resolved in two ways: by a sudden and elite-led transformation of the state (as happened in 1958, when the Fifth Republic was created by De Gaulle), or by a powerful social movement that ushers in new elites and innovative ways of thinking (as occurred in the aftermath of May 68). The problem at the moment is that neither scenario looks likely. Macron has not delivered on his promise to overhaul France’s political institutions; in fact, like the socialist François Mitterrand in the 1980s, he has reinforced French presidentialism, as it serves his interests. And, while it momentarily unsettled him, the social contestation of the gilets jaunes movement in 2018-19 was not powerful enough to impose any major changes upon the president and the political elite.
It is unclear how this stalemate will be resolved in the years to come, and it is worth remembering that the full political effects of May 68 took more than a decade to materialise. One glimmer of hope is the revival of the left under the leadership of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The democratic socialist candidate came a close third in the 2022 presidential election, and symbolises France’s hunger for social, political, and environmental reform, as well as the popular frustration with the nation’s established elites. Mélenchon bears witness to the creativity and the contradictions of modern French political culture: a middle-class champion of the working people, a former senator turned radical reformer, a transformative visionary driven by memories of past glories, a digital geek steeped in classical learning, an inveterate critic of presidentialism who is himself a charismatic leader, and a 70-year-old veteran who counts the young among his primary constituencies. He mobilised support in deprived inner-city areas, and was the only major candidate who unambiguously denounced racism and Islamophobia, and defended a multicultural vision of Frenchness which, borrowing from the poet Édouard Glissant, he labelled “créolisation”. He has seized the political initiative since Macron’s re-election and forged a programmatic alliance of progressive parties (left and Green) for the June parliamentary elections, positioning himself as a future prime minister if he secures a majority. If, against the odds, he pulls off this victory, he has promised to do away with the hyper-presidential Fifth Republic and replace it with a more democratic, pluralist, and parliamentary regime. That would be a revolution.
Another potential sign of hope is the contrast (also characteristically French) between the abstractions of public language, which tends to divide the world into binary oppositions (us and them, good and evil, grandeur and decadence) and the concrete realities of social and cultural life. Away from the venomous rhetoric of politicians, for example, there is a lived, everyday multiculturalism that is quietly growing, as shown by the rise in the number of mixed marriages, the emergence of an ethnic-minority middle class away from the banlieues, and the popularity of figures such as the footballer Kylian Mbappé and the actor and Lupin star Omar Sy.
Equally significant is what is often called “the French paradox”: the dissonance between collective pessimism and personal optimism. When asked about the country’s future, people often express downbeat views – but I have often noticed that the same individuals feel far more sanguine about themselves, their friends and their family lives, and their professional and local environments. This separation between the public and private realms is likely to strengthen in the years ahead. It is connected to the country’s political stagnation (people tend to be more pessimistic if they live in or near Paris, for example), but also expresses some long-standing elements of the French way of being: their indomitable individualism, their cult of the past (hence the enduring attachment to the nation’s patrimoine, or heritage), their love of gastronomy, and their celebration of culture (a recent poll in the Figaro Littéraire showed that nearly a quarter of the French people have thought of writing a book). It is no accident that the French writer with the greatest readership is Virginie Grimaldi, whose elegant, feel-good novels are bestsellers; her latest, Il nous restera ça, is the story of three bruised individuals from different generations who find themselves sharing an apartment, and learn to co-exist. Not the prospect of an exalted future, but one that nonetheless offers a glimmer of hope: perhaps this is what the French will settle for in the years ahead.
‘People are ready, more than ready, to embrace a new form of Frenchness’
Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer
I bought a T-shirt a few years ago from the French designer Vanessa Seward. UNE FEMME FRANÇAISE, it says, in an 80s all-caps font. I think I saw it on a French actress in a magazine. I tracked one down secondhand (too expensive to buy new) and planned to wear it ironically, as a statement of what a French woman can be – I was not born, but became French. The first time I wore it out in the anonymous context of the streets of Paris, though, I worried that as a white woman in that T-shirt I could potentially be mistaken for a Le Pen voter. How were passersby to know I was wearing it to challenge the idea of Frenchness, when it looked like I was shoring it up?
I moved to France from the US in 1999, and finally became a citizen in 2015, after two unsuccessful applications. At my naturalisation ceremony, they showed a video of actors playing out great moments in French history, though it wasn’t immediately clear what some of them were referring to. Some men on a boat wearing frilly shirts and short trousers? Something to do with Henri IV? It was a mystery. This is your country now, the narrator said. This is your history now.
Though I embraced my adoptive country wholeheartedly, I was sceptical of the video’s claims. Is this really my history now, I thought. Henri IV and Louis XV and revolutions and Vichy and the Algerian war? What about the country I was born in? Do I have two histories now? Two responsibilities? The burden of land theft, genocide and slavery on one continent, and of land theft, genocide and slavery on another? What about people who come here as refugees? Haven’t they been through enough without having to take Charles de Gaulle into their hearts?
The future of France urgently depends on relinquishing a monolithic view of Frenchness – the famous universalisme
What I took from the video was this: that a nation is a narrative in which we decide to share, one that is rewritten as the values of that nation shift and evolve. And the language we use to tell that story shapes our individual or collective futures within it.
In France they have a phrase for the femme française I’m not: française de souche. The word souche refers to roots, in the genealogical or etymological sense, and also the stump of a tree. Its own roots are not in Latin, as is the case for most Romance languages, but in Gaulish and proto-Germanic. This etymology locates the germ of Frenchness – or being franco-français – deep in the soil of northern Europe.
Franco-français sounds redundant, but it’s a handy way of designating white people born in France, with no other ethnic or national identity. It’s usually employed when trying to distinguish someone obviously French from someone who really isn’t. To counter this, I have lately started giving my nationality as Franco-American, which is mostly a provocation; the French don’t have the concept of compound identities, like we do in the US: Irish American, African American, etc. In my view, the future of France urgently depends on relinquishing a monolithic view of Frenchness – the famous universalisme which tries to shelter all manner of difference beneath its umbrella, but which too often devolves into white supremacy – and acknowledging hybridity as part of the national story.
In the first round of the recent presidential election, I voted for the socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, partly because she was also born outside of France and also holds dual citizenship. In a campaign that saw the far right attract record numbers of voters, in which Marine Le Pen’s platform included a proposal to discriminate between the rights of native-born French people and “foreigners” (including those with dual citizenship), it meant something to me to be able to vote for someone who was française par décret and not by birth.
Most people of my political inclinations voted for Mélenchon, but I couldn’t bring myself to support someone who has an “Accusations of anti-semitism” section on his Wikipedia page. Then at a dinner party the other night, I heard a renowned leftwing French academic explaining why he didn’t support Mélenchon’s presidential campaign. “He’s so nationalistic,” the academic said, “always waving the flag around.”
It was a relief to hear him say this. I would love to see France turn toward a conception of identity as – that old Marxist word – internationalist. Even Macron, who is the opposite of a Marxist, values the European Union and understands that France’s success is intimately bound up with the wellbeing of the community beyond its own borders – and with the porousness of those borders.
But in response to this international outlook, far right voters double down on some fictional notion of Frenchness to which only they, and not the people they dislike, can attain. Never mind that the notion of France as a unified country, and French as a thing you could be, was invented in the 19th century out of a plurality of regional identities, and in contradistinction to the “natives” in the colonies the country was busy maintaining and exploiting.
I had the chance to see an exhibition by the Franco-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira at the Scottsdale Museum of Art in Arizona last summer, and was struck by one piece in particular, a video installation called Mother Tongue (2002). Three screens hang on the wall, each with a set of headphones attached. On the right, the artist’s mother speaks Arabic to her daughter, which the granddaughter doesn’t seem to understand; she looks down. They both look slightly uncomfortable, or look towards the artist behind her camera, as if to say, why are we doing this? In the centre, the artist tells her daughter in French about her school days in the Parisian suburbs, which her daughter seems to understand, but she asks questions in English. On the left, the artist’s mother speaks to her in Arabic and the artist answers in French. As we read from right to left (as we would if we were reading Arabic), we see the language fade out across the generations, in a radical break from grandmother to granddaughter. And if we read from left to right, as we do in English and French, we see a confrontation with the language of memory: the struggle to understand the past made literal.
Sedira was born in France in 1963 and moved to London for art school, where she’s been based ever since. This year, she’s representing France in the Venice Bienniale, and her show, Dreams Have No Titles, won special mention at the awards ceremony last month. It is no small thing for France to be represented by someone with Sedira’s multiple, betwixt-and-between sense of identity and language. “When do you think France will nominate a Franco-Algerian artist to the Biennale?” Le Monde asked the artist Mohamed Bourouissa in 2019. “I don’t think they will, people aren’t ready,” he answered. But he was, thankfully, wrong.
I think people are ready, more than ready, to embrace Sedira’s form of Frenchness, and I think the growing progressive movement will continue to make inroads towards acknowledging the country’s shameful histories, redefining how a generation understands liberty, equality and fraternity. I am encouraged by the fact that Macron has begun implementing the historian Benjamin Stora’s recommendations for the “reconciliation of memories” between France and Algeria, and that the new minister of education is Pap Ndiaye, a historian specialising in race relations – whose sister is the Goncourt-winning writer Marie Ndiaye, whose novels have probed so carefully the subtle and at times lacerating process of self-construction as hybrid French citizen.
The “ambiguity” of naturalisation, according to the academics Didier Fassin and Sarah Mazouz, is that “at the moment it produces sameness, it produces otherness”. It is perhaps the task of those of us who have become French to help the franco-français understand that they have never all been the same; that French identity is a story that is long overdue for a retelling. If their history is now my history, it is not the triumph of universalism, but its total undoing.
‘Between Paris and the provinces, it’s a case of Je t’aime… moi non plus’
Mahir Guven’s parents were refugees – his mother from Turkey and his Kurdish father from Iraq; he grew up in Nantes. His novel, Older Brother, won the Goncourt first novel prize in 2018
Photograph: Eric Fougere/Corbis/Getty Images
He looks a decent sort, Macron. That’s why the French elected him. He is the ideal son-in-law, the kind who never forgets to bring flowers for granny and plum brandy for great-uncle. For the past five years, he’s been a president just like all presidents of contemporary liberal democracies: they promise a lot, wave their arms around, give orders, let it be known that they barely sleep, and in the end, fulfil but a handful of promises.
Is he an exceptional man? Certainly. He understood all the workings and failings of politics necessary to run France. In this country where we are taught history through the actions of great men, he donned the costume of the eternal saviour while continuing to persuade us that France is in crisis (it’s the world’s seventh-largest economy). Here we pinpoint what foreign commentators call “the French paradox”: that endless passion for depression and lamentation in what, seen from outside, appears to be heaven on Earth. My compatriots are convinced that the country has lost some of its swagger, and that “it was better before”. Conservative types contrast the French republic of the 21st century with the empire of the 17th and 18th centuries. On the left, they’re nostalgic for [early 20th-century socialist leader] Jean Jaurès, the Front populaire of the 1930s, the postwar period, Mitterrand in 1981, the people’s victories over power. And from Dunkirk to Perpignan, folk lament that France no longer produces great industrialists, writers, thinkers and artists. In short, we’re convinced that we have a destiny, we complain of not having one any more, and we secretly dream of becoming once again the most admired people on the planet.
As for me, I was born in France, acquired French nationality at 14, and always feel both part of the country and slightly on the sidelines, except when I’m living abroad – it’s then that I realise how miraculous France is. A pot-pourri of landscapes, cultures and histories that have managed to unite thanks to the genius of a small circle of people residing in Paris, around a language and some laws.
Today, France suffers from this centralisation. Economic, political, media, cultural and intellectual power is concentrated in Paris, while the rest of the country is consigned to the background, an imbalance that worsened with deindustrialisation. To illustrate this with a personal example, I started a publishing company, La Grenade, hoping to enrich the French literary landscape with the work of writers from different backgrounds. My starting point was the fact that 80% of young authors were native Parisians. At the launch of the company, many people in publishing thought the imprint was championing literature produced by ethnic and cultural minorities – what they call “diversity”. To me, diversity is all about the stories and experiences, not just the colour of the skin. Among other themes, I looked for a great account of the major political event of the past five years: the gilets jaunes crisis. Without success. Outside of Paris, people write less, probably because they can’t imagine ever being published.
I wanted to read about the people’s revolt on the roundabouts, the demand to be listened to and respected by Paris. In response, the president embarked on a grand tour of the nation, and I was exasperated by the disdainful comments of influential people, in the cafes of Paris, on these millions of citizens screaming their anger. So how are we to keep our democracy alive? Particularly when our president and his inner circle have denigrated our parliament to such a degree. They saw it as a hindrance to their genius, when it’s actually a democratic valve. When that valve stops working, all that remains is the street.
Extreme centralisation does not foster new talent. To succeed in France, you have to “go up” to Paris, and once there, compete with the natives who know the place so much better than you do. A friend of mine, Oxmo Puccino, a poet turned rapper and a native Parisian, often tells me that a provincial who has managed to settle in the capital is worth 10 Parisians. But in order to make it, you really need to know what you intend to do there and how to go about it. When, on a friend’s advice, I put my suitcases down in Paris at the age of 19, I convinced myself that it was up to me to adapt to the city. I felt I was saying something stupid every time I opened my mouth. With the passing years, I see increasingly clearly the cultural gap between them and us. Parisians are seen by provincials as pretentious twits, pointlessly sophisticated, stressed and always in a hurry, whereas the capital’s denizens consider the rest of the French to be bumpkins with simple pleasures, who’ve inherited some splendid scenery, along with glorious land and gastronomy. Two worlds, two mentalities, a “Je t’aime… moi non plus”, as sung by (the Parisian) Serge Gainsbourg, that’s so French.
Now, for the next five years, I dream of a country in which our intellectuals focus seriously on the issue of the centre and the peripheries, but I can already picture the nightmarish media theatricals. It will be the seventh or eighth season on the condition of the blacks, the Arabs, and the Muslims, and we may get an episode about the working classes, but again they’ll get the bad parts. As for the other minorities, the Vietnamese, Chinese, Turks, Kurds, Portuguese, Romanians, Pakistanis, Roma, and now Ukrainians – they still won’t get to step on stage, and will remain the great invisible ones of a country still haunted by the colonial question.
As to my country’s future, no need to be a seer, the “Anglo-Saxon” world is always 10 years ahead of France: you know what we’ve got coming. Yesterday I talked about all this to a psychiatrist friend, who listened to me carefully. I was sure I was suffering from severe depression caused by my imagined clear-sightedness. He reassured me: “You’re just French.”
• Translated by Hildegarde Serle
Hervé le Tellier
‘We are still waiting for a dose of democracy’
Hervé le Tellier is a French writer, mathematician, teacher and linguist, and a member of the international literary and maths group Oulipo. His bestselling novel The Anomaly won the 2020 Prix Goncourt
Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
“Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”. Gaul is divided into three parts. Thus begins Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. His division was geographical, the current division is political. France is indeed divided into three blocks, each representing around 30% of the voters: a far right around the figure of Marine Le Pen; la Macronie, a territory with blurred contours but which, unlike in the 2017 campaign when Emmanuel Macron intended to sow confusion, few people now associate with anything other than the right; and finally, a somewhat comatose left, gathered around the party called La France Insoumise (“France unbowed”), which benefited from tactical voting and to which the other leftwing parties deferred.
Guessing the composition of the future Assemblée Nationale is a pollster’s delight, but it would be presumptuous to predict Macron’s second quinquennat, when the legislative elections have yet to take place and Macron still seeks a majority in the assembly.
There are many unknowns. How much harm can be done by a far right that, to say the least, has now been “un-demonised”? Will the left, or what is left of it, be able to unite to the point of obtaining real power in the assembly? And does the “traditional” French right, caught in a deadly stranglehold between the Rassemblement National party (formerly the Front National) and the Macronian nebula, still have a chance of saving anything from the wreckage, or “sauver les meubles” as we say in French?
One thing is certain: the French electoral system, which – let’s not forget – was tailor-made more than 60 years ago for a “supreme saviour”, General de Gaulle, has been an anomaly for decades. Let’s briefly recall how it works. In the presidential elections, after a first round, the two candidates with the most votes remain in the running. Thanks to the scattering of the leftwing vote, the far right of Marine Le Pen (or of her father, Jean-Marie, in the past) has been a force since 2002, apart from the Sarkozy parenthesis, which managed to woo enough voters from it in both 2007 and 2012. Each voter, in this strange set-up, comes up with their own personal strategy to avoid what he or she considers to be the worst second-round outcome.
A seismic change has clarified the game: goodbye to the two parties that have constituted French politics for 40 years, and to which presidents Mitterrand, Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande belonged. The “natural” right is at less than 5% in the polls, the socialist left has fallen to less than 3%, which is enough to make you both laugh and cry.
The system crushes minorities, and more than 40% of voters in round one have no one in the assembly to represent them
France is preparing for the legislative elections. Over two rounds, each constituency will elect its deputy. These are like mini presidential elections, with the difference that, here, any candidate with more than 10% of the vote can progress to the second round. Some will opt to do harm, others to negotiate. Again, the system crushes minorities, and more than 40% of the voters in the first round have no one in the assembly to represent them. For decades, the French have been promised a “dose” of proportional representation, but every pretext to limit or postpone this measure has been used. We are still waiting for a “dose” of democracy…
Voter abstention seems to be at just 20%, but this doesn’t tell the full story. The very young feel remote from the polls, as do the most disadvantaged, and an “anti-system”, populist vote is now well established. Anger is accompanied by a rejection of institutions. An example: the voters in Martinique and Guadeloupe, who, in the first round of the presidential elections, voted massively for La France Insoumise, chose Le Pen in the second round – to the astonishment of those who still want to be astonished. So detested is Macron, perceived as arrogant and at the service of the powerful.
When Macron beat Marine Le Pen in 2017, it was thanks to the transferral of almost all leftwing votes.With that help an asthenic amoeba would have won, but Macron made out, against the evidence, that he had been elected for his plan, which was all about liberalism. As covid raged, the government continued to cut hospital beds. Emergency departments are overcrowded, the salaries of carers, as of all civil servants except the police, have not kept pace with inflation.
Yet France is a country where the state retains a central place in the imagination. When asked, the vast majority of French people, despite being moaners, fraudsters and awkward customers, are in favour of free schooling, free health care, and the protection of their pension system. This doesn’t stop them voting without even reading the manifestos of their candidates – as is probably the case everywhere. But despite widespread hedonism and social “uberisation”, there remains a strong desire for the collective in France, which sometimes deviates into nationalist populism, but is inherited from a past of struggles and revolutions, and expressed by the slogan Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, still emblazoned on the facades of many schools and town halls.
Last month was the hottest May on record in France. And yet the main victim of the presidential debates was the environment. The war in Ukraine, the explosion of fuel prices, the fall in purchasing power, all overshadowed the essential question of the decade to come. Everyone knows it: a lot will be demanded of citizens, in France as elsewhere, to save the planet and prevent the collective suicide of the aggressive primates that we are.
This will also be Macron’s challenge for the next five years: to adopt strong, fair and emblematic measures, convince people that sacrifices will have to be made, and demonstrate to everyone that it won’t always be down to the same people to make them.
Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse
‘Strange that those who are so endlessly spoken about are themselves unheard’
Born in Butare, Rwanda in 1979, the novelist and poet Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse moved to France as a teenager and later studied political science. Her debut novel, All Your Children, Scattered, won a number of prizes
Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
The lineup for Emmanuel Macron’s new government was announced while I was visiting a class at a lycée. At the end of my testimony, a pupil asked me whether my status as a genocide survivor made me more entitled to denounce racism in France, too. When I arrived in France in 1994, that’s not at all how I felt. What lesson could I give to the world, coming from a country where one section of the population had wiped out another? It took me two decades to realise that, more than survival, it was the experience of what had happened in Rwanda before the genocide, the gradual increase in hatred sustained by the propagandist media, that made me particularly sensitive to the advance of fascist ideas in my new country. Today, I sometimes feel like a look-out tasked with warning those younger than me: “First they exclude with words, making out that others are a threat to national identity, but one day they can go as far as driving them out, or even killing them. Resist sickening speeches, think for yourselves.”
The sickening speeches didn’t begin with the presidential campaign, and the far right, for the third time, reaching the second round. There’s been a ground swell slowly dividing French society. Playing skilfully on the association with jihadist movements, whose terror attacks have plunged France into grief in recent years, more and more voices claiming to be “republican” have besieged media channels with their paranoid fantasy of “the great takeover”. Faced with anti-fascist and anti-Islamophobia movements, they just come out with the usual “you’re not allowed to say a thing any more”. An army of politicians and leader writers monopolise the media to denounce the arrival of supposed “equality extremists” from an illusory land, “Wokistan”, and, with staggering subterfuge, present the threat as coming from anti-racists, renamed “Islamo-leftists”. Strangely, those who are endlessly spoken about are themselves unheard. “You’re not allowed to say a thing any more”, but racism is everywhere, and totally at ease with itself.
In spring 2020, the murder of George Floyd prompted demonstrations in France, too, against racism and police violence. But for espousers of the French version of “colour-blind” universalism, France remained above the fray and had nothing to be ashamed of. And then I was flabbergasted to hear President Macron say that anti-racism was “unacceptable when hijacked by the separatists”, and: “Don’t speak of repression or police violence, such terms are unacceptable in a constitutional state.” Move on, nothing to see here. The problem is other people.
The presidential campaign was the perfect illustration of the banalisation, or trivialisation, of racism. Far-right views were hijacked by the majority of the political community, who saw them as a godsend to impose a debate on national identity, rather than discussing the real problems: ecology, health, wealth distribution, education. And to provide scapegoats.
To protect my mental health, I’ve stopped watching the news on TV.
Then came that fortnight between the two rounds of voting. Le Pen at power’s door. The forming of a front républicain, a republican alliance to stop her going any further. For two weeks, racism and fascism were finally treated as threats. Many of us voted to block her. Le Pen lost. But for how long? How can one ignore the symbolic victory of her ideas? The first time he was elected, Macron vowed to defeat common xenophobia and racism. Not only did he fail, but his government contributed towards promoting them. And that failure partly secured his re-election in 2022.
Can we expect a turnaround from the new executive? The surprise appointment of Pap Ndiaye, a historian specialising in the black condition, as education minister was seen as evidence of things moving in that direction. But it is also part of an electoral strategy, a few weeks from the legislative elections in which a leftwing coalition threatens the government. This appointment saw racist reactions resurface, recalling the appalling outburst over the country’s previous black minister, Christiane Taubira. Will the government go beyond the catch-all rhetoric of “commitment to the values of the republic” to denounce the racism targeted at one of their own? Is it easier to defend a minister accused of rape (there are two in the current government) than a colleague who is a victim of attaques négrophobes? I wait to see.
Our country needs long-term anti-racism policies, not just for a fortnight every five years. It needs those who claim to support democracy to halt their frenzied race for far-right votes, which generates liberty-killing laws and trivialises racism. It needs to recognise the moral bankruptcy of listening religiously to survivors, but refusing to see the resurgence of the roots of the very evil that struck them down.
• Translated by Hildegarde Serle
‘It’s a chilly political ménage à trois’
David Foenkinos has written 18 novels including the bestsellers La Délicatesse and Le Mystère Henri Pick. His new book, The Martins, is published by Gallic Books on 15 June
Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
When I see certain films in English, I hear the French expression “ménage à trois” left in the original. France remains, irredeemably, a wonderful cliche of the mongrel romanticism of perversion. But I never imagined that I would one day be using the term to describe the political situation in France: to tell the truth, there’s nothing particularly exciting about the rise to power of extremes. We have to admit that we’ve shifted from a pretty classic two-party system to a trio of balanced forces.
Is Emmanuel Macron’s incontestable political victory, that of annihilating the historical government parties, a victory for the vitality of our democracy? I fear not. France, fractured in this way, is entering an era in which reconciling opposite blocks will be a very complicated matter. On the far left, Clémentine Autain, a La France Insoumise deputy, says: “What we don’t get from the ballot boxes we will get in the street!” Has she rejected the idea of democracy before it even got as far as her brain? It’s utterly irresponsible to come out with such words, and yet we have a sense that they are a harbinger of something. Macron is in the minority, so he’s not legitimate in their eyes. Our country, traumatised by the gilets jaunes crisis and the attack on the Arc de Triomphe, is still bathed in the scent of insurrection. We would have to add that Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise takes certain South American leaders as models. I don’t think he has any real desire to govern. Criticising is more cost effective.
That may be the point that he really has in common with Marine Le Pen’s far right. She often seems to be elsewhere, wandering about an empty kingdom in spite of the 41% she got in the second round in April. Having had her death announced so many times, she is being reborn from the ashes. Abandoned, she has never been so popular. In France, they love losers. A piece of advice if you want to be elected: get yourself betrayed. Her masterstroke was to put the question of purchasing power at the centre of her campaign. She even managed to do a whole interview without mentioning Islam, which is quite something.
In France it’s easier to cut people’s heads off than it is to change the constitution
So, between the amphetamine-fuelled campaign of the far left and the far right’s campaign on antidepressants, Macron found himself in the centre. It’s clear that many people voted for him out of fear of the others. But would you want someone to fall in love with you because they’re fleeing another suitor? This ménage à trois promises to be a chilly one. Even if Jean-Luc Mélenchon pursues his whole campaign already proclaiming himself prime minister, it’s still very likely, in terms of electoral coherence, that the majority will go with the president.
So how’s this going to play out? Macron will listen to everybody’s ideas. He’ll announce that his tenure is going to be ecological principally in order to listen to people on the left, and he’s bound to harden his immigration measures in order to listen to rightwing France. He’s like someone trying to organise a wedding in which several family members hate each other. In his desire to bring people together he is going to create a huge split. But this attempt to please everybody suggests to me a patchwork that will end up disappointing everybody. The announcement of the new government will be criticised by all sides.
Basically, Macron’s re-election cannot be sold as a new adventure. It all makes for a lukewarm and unenthusiastic atmosphere. We should fear the worst. There is clearly a lot of hatred for Macron in France. Clearly ofr a lot of people it’s intolerable to have a cultured, dynamic, modern president who braved contempt to marry a woman much older than himself. You may not agree with his ideas, but there’s a ceaseless caricature of his personality. I confess that I belong to that endangered species: the Macronists. To defend Macronism is to face an army of malcontents, whom I also understand. But there’s often a lack of nuance. People are going to hate him because he lowered student housing benefit by five euros (an enormous error), forgetting the millions given out in grants during Covid. So his personality crystallises a mobilisation of fury. In France it’s easier to cut people’s heads off than it is to change the constitution.
Yes, I fear violence and chaos. That’s what emerges from all the conversations that I’ve been having, particularly with booksellers who are feeling the financial strain. In that sense the legislative elections will be decisive. Without a referendum, he will never be able to launch large-scale pension reform. But whatever happens I’m very worried about the future of our democracy. Precariousness and disillusion are getting the upper hand. Yes, I know, I’m writing a pessimistic text. Certainly, summer isn’t propitious for a fight. The sun is a calming force. But September will be explosive. After the events of May 68, which paralysed the country for weeks, there was a big demonstration of support for General de Gaulle. It’s not impossible that this pattern will repeat itself, with a wave of support for Macron. After a bruised autumn, we’ll end up loving him even with his wounds. Fear will finally make him human. Chaos and resurrection will be the byword of the coming months in France.
• Translated by Shaun Whiteside