Roquefort is a fictional town, obviously. This is Le Pin. Photo: Getty
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Deep in Macron Country

We must now confront an uncomfortable question. Why did so many French people vote for Emmanuel Macron? Was it a lack of economic anxiety, or a lack of racism?

As I step off the train in Roquefort, southern France, I sniff the air appreciatively. It's so good to be out of the Paris bubble, meeting some authentic French people to answer the biggest question in European politics: why did so many people vote for Emmanuel Macron? Was it a lack of economic anxiety, or a lack of racism?

Either way, their concerns deserve to be heard. Some might find them unpalatable, but history has taught us that repressing such views only makes them more virulent. It might not be pleasant to hear them, it might offend our sensibilities, but we have to share our towns and cities with pragmatic centrists, so we must strive to understand them. Too often, during this French presidential cycle, an out-of-touch media elite has failed to understand these people, connected to the political process, broadly trusting of the mainstream media, and what has driven them to vote for a liberal, globalising ex-banker who wants to deregulate the economy.

Arriving at the nearest patisserie, I ask the owner, Claude, if she knows where I might find some Macron voters to talk to. "They are probably at work right now," she says. "Or picking up their kids. Are you sure that it's not Le Pen voters you want to meet? That's what the journalists usually say."

Just down the street I run into Joséphine. "Are you angry?" I ask.

"Yes, I am fuming!"

"I suppose you are deeply resentful of immigrants and their effects on wages - or perhaps seized by an intense yet vague sense of national decline?"

She stares at me.

"No. My bicycle has been stolen."

I try a local bar. Three older men sit around a table outside, smoking and drinking that horrible French spirit which goes cloudy when you add water, like TCP does.

"Excuse me, gentlemen," I say. "I'm here from a British magazine to discover why this populist surge has swept France."

One of them, Jean-Luc, pauses for a long moment. "I would say that perhaps France has some experience of what happens when a country elects a right-wing authoritarian who likes to blame everything on people from a religious minority." He leans in. "My father was in the maquis."

On his left, Antoine takes up the tale. "The thing is, the political class don't listen to people like us. People call us extremists, but we just want someone who will make sure that the lights stay on and not do something stupid, like take us out of the European union. Beyond that -", he shrugs, "I am relatively happy. This is a great time to be alive, isn't it? I still have all my teeth. There is no war."

The final man, François, chips in. "I remember the "good old days". Merde! Did you know our service stations only gave up those toilets where it's two footplates and a hole about 15 years ago?" He shakes his head. "I would like a little more globalisation, frankly."

The waiter brings over more drinks. Tahar is in his 20s and a Muslim. He has a simple explanation for Macron's triumph. "These Le Pen voters are trapped in a exurban nativist bubble. They are out of touch with the needs and values of real French people, like me." He is right. There are deep forces at work here, which have caused the triumph of innumerable centrists around the western world over the past few decades. Only a blinkered fool would try to deny this uncomfortable truth. Perhaps, I begin to wonder with prickling unease, it is just as legitimate an electoral strategy to appeal to young people, ethnic minorities and social liberals as it is to go for the votes of nativist whites? I shake my head to clear it. No. Saying that would be like saying that there is no hierarchy of citizenhood, and that every voter is of equal value.

Finally, in the bookshop, I do find someone who is angry. "We are tired of our traditional culture being mocked and derided," says Pierre, angrily setting aside his Proust omnibus. "Does Marine Le Pen not understand that being French is all about being insouciant, not shouting endlessly about how terrible it is when women wear veils? The only article of clothing a Frenchman should be against is the sock with the sandal." He shudders. "We are not . . . Germans."

However, walking around town, I also notice a disturbing phenomenon. A lot of people simply don't want to talk to me about their political views. These are the Shy Macronists, living proof that our media climate is hostile to those with a pragmatic, centrist outlook. They know their opinions are unfashionable, and the casual insults thrown at them are exactly what drove so many to vote for the 39-year-old. "Do not use my name," says one young man, looking nervously down the street. "Here in France you cannot speak openly about your love of the European Union. Politicians are scared of tackling the subject, even though we know this is what many people in the country think. It is - how you say? - political correctness gone mad."

Outside, I run into a rare Le Pen voter, stepping out of his battered Renault. Why did his candidate lose, I ask him. "I blame the mainstream media. All the way through this campaign they have reported fairly, exposing Fillon's strange financial dealings, giving due weight to the charges against Le Pen and, finally, refusing to go stark raving insane over an extremely mundane dump of Macron's emails on the eve of polling day." He jabs his finger in my direction, nearly dislodging the bottle of Panaché I bought at the Monoprix. "And also I blame the other candidates! What kind of rightwing politicians are these, who throw their weight behind a centrist in the final round? They should have pandered to her more, in order to prop up their own bases. And I blame the system! Why do we not have something like the electoral college, where the votes of a thousand angry white people in a few towns have a wildly disproportionate effect on the result. It is abominable."

Walking back to the train, I reflect how strange it is that I should run into a series of broad French stereotypes who confirmed my pre-existing views. Still, I shrug, pulling out a Gauloise, putting on my beret and adjusting the string of onions around my neck, you just have to go where the story takes you.

*with thanks to Jessica Elgot and @CatalinMU

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 

 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.