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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Donald Trump's cartoon nuclear rhetoric draws on a culture of American jingoism

Senior Republicans avoided condemning Trump's incendiary speech, and some endorsed it. 

From recent headlines, it seems as though Donald Trump isn't content with his Emmy-by-proxy. The US president told the United Nations General Assembly this week: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Trump’s speech raised eyebrows for its bellicose tone, especially when contrasted with his predecessor’s endorsement of a war-averse approach. 

A widely circulated image of Trump's chief of staff John Kelly with his head in his hand might suggest that most listeners loathed the speech. But Trump said many outrageous things on the campaign trail and voters - at least a critical number of them - agreed. So how did his words go down at home? 

My contacts in international security were unwilling to go on the record condemning it. They were mainly Americans in their twenties, hoping for a government job one day, and fearful of saying anything that could be interpreted as "un-American".

The one person who would speak to me asked for their name to withheld. A former military analyst in the US Department of Defence, they told me that “the US has the military capability and legal responsibility to address threats to itself or allies". What Trump said, they suggested, should be seen in the context of the wider US institutions. "While Trump may have advocated for isolation in the past, the political and military forces he leads are built to enforce the adherence to international law and regional security," the former analyst said. "They provide a real counterweight to the bombast in Pyongyang.”

Trump's speech may have been colourful - his nickname for the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, "Rocket Man", is a reference to Elton John’s mid-Cold War musical hit – but the speech should be seen as yet another reassertion of US military dominance. North Korea may boast of its Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) development,  but its arsenal is simply not well-equipped enough to present the same existential threat to the US that the USSR did at its peak. 

Rather than lacking comprehension, the analyst said of the speech: “Trump's rhetoric is intended to galvanise recognition that the current rules based order is threatened by North Korea's actions”.

Trump’s jingoism is not unique amongst the current American elite. Back in 1983, in his book, The Wizards of Armageddon, the liberal journalist Fred Kaplan characterised the hawkish US military strategy as simply ejaculating combative statements without a long-term plan. Kaplan quoted Herman Kahn, one of the early nuclear strategists, who called one proposal targeting the USSR a “war orgasm”. 

The US Senate recently passed a defence policy bill to increase military spending to $700bn, which includes $8.5bn for missile defence purposes. Overtly catastrophic language, meanwhile, has long been a staple of US foreign policy debates. In 2015, Trump's rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Ted Cruz, made headlines when he vowed to carpet-bomb Isis until he found out "if sand can glow in the dark". While most leading Republicans chose to stay silent after Trump's speech, a few, such as Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, publicly endorsed the message. Cruz, despite the rivalry, was among them. 

On social media, the American public are vocally divided. Some called for Trump to be denounced for his inflammatory speech, but others tweeted #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. Even some Trump sceptics agreed that the North Korea “nuclear summer” needed to be kept in check.

By contrast, overseas listeners have perceived the speech, and this administration’s foreign policy, as unnecessarily incendiary. Matt Korda, a Canadian research assistant on strategic stability at the UK-based Centre for Science and Security Studies,  told me: “Kim Jong-un perceives his nuclear weapons to be the only thing guaranteeing his regime's survival”.

“He will never give them up, no matter how much Trump threatens him," Korda added. “On the contrary: Trump's threat to ‘totally destroy’ the entire country (including millions of innocent and oppressed civilians) will only tighten Kim's grip on his nuclear weapons”.

The effects of Trump’s speech are yet to fully play out, but it is clear that his words have rallied at least a section of American society, and rankled everyone else. The Donald may seem to be mirroring the culture of nuclear recklessness his North Korean opponent helped to create, but this is also the kind of hostile and hyperbolic rhetoric which fuelled his rise to power. In reality, once Trump’s unpleasant vernacular is decoded, he can be seen to be echoing the same global view that has long pervaded the collective American consciousness. Trump's speech was not addressed at his UN doubters, but rather at his domestic fan base and his allies in the South Pacific. This is not a shift in US foreign policy - it is tradition with a spray-tan.

 

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman