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  1. The Weekend Essay
15 June 2024

The roar from below

How Emmanuel Macron turned France to the hard right.

By Christophe Guilluy

On Sunday, 9 June, France went to the polls in the 2024 European Parliament election. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) emerged as the clear winner. In response, President Emmanuel Macron surprised the Republic and dissolved the National Assembly. France will soon vote again, for its own parliament, at the end of the month – and the RN will, potentially, redefine the electoral map once again as it did in last week’s ballot.

In the European election, Le Pen’s party finished first in 94 per cent of France’s districts, above all in the small and medium-sized towns and rural areas where what was once “the middle class” has suffered 30 years of cuts and redundancies which have turned swathes of the country into hotbeds of populist discontent. Surrounded by this “peripheral France” stand the metropolitan citadels, besieged electoral islands in a geographic division that herald the collapse of the West’s reigning economic and cultural model.

The RN’s recent electoral surge serves as confirmation of the almost clinical division between France’s metropolises and their hinterlands, of the geographical, social and cultural fracture that has intensified over recent decades. It is nothing less than a rupture of one country into two – a cultural schism between the lower and middle classes and “those at the top”. It is this schism which lies at the origin of the democratic crisis now afflicting every European country; more: it is the primary cause, almost always overlooked, of the loss of vitality and direction which now defines the West as a whole.

This fracture between the many and the few has created cultural and geographical siloes that no longer speak the same language. Like oil and water, they don’t mix. And contrary to what the people who govern us may think, the majority of the population is not some appendage on the body politic, but its lifeblood. It is this grave misunderstanding made by what Nassim Taleb terms the “intellectuals yet idiots” which is one of the main reasons why people vote RN. In France – and everywhere else in Europe – populism thrives on these geographic and cultural siloes, taking the lack of communication between them and radicalising public debate.

This schism is also behind the apparent inability of the managerial classes and various experts to grasp what is happening – to understand that there has been a change in the nature of a political movement which represents a titanic, existential challenge to the status quo. It is a grassroots movement drawn from the deepest parts of society: there is no single party, no trade union at its head, and there are no intellectuals to guide it. It is driven by a profound feeling of economic, social and cultural dispossession. A long time coming, it is conclusive proof that the current societal model is not viable.

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Viewed in this context, the RN’s “shock result” in last weekend’s European elections in France is actually just another roar from below, and in no way due to the “talent” of the party leadership. In France, as in western Europe and the US more broadly, populists are not trying to shape, win over, or lead the masses; they are not leaders, but rather followers, happy to let themselves be carried along by the groundswell of the unstoppable movement. For decades now, the populists have been riding this tide, adapting at a moment’s notice to the social and cultural demands of the majority of ordinary people. There’s no particular trick to their success – and it is made all the easier for them by the fact that, imprisoned by their own voter bases, ideologies and strategies, the mainstream parties have failed to identify the source from which this groundswell is surging.

Focusing on the form of various protest movements (the bonnets rouges or the gilets jaunes, for instance), most parties and commentators overlook the underlying sentiment of social and cultural dispossession among the lower and middle classes, a powerful emotion always ready to resurface whenever there is a reform, a referendum, or, as was the case last weekend, a European Parliament election; next, there will be elections to the National Assembly.

The core question of our age is about the cultural autonomy of the lower and middle classes. It is what explains contemporary political dynamics and why so many around Europe have trouble understanding them. Today, the opinions of most ordinary people are no longer shaped by media outlets or politics. The masses don’t just passively wait for things to happen, are not completely lost to all reason, and are not totally lacking a moral compass; they are “elsewhere”, but still very much “here” in that they influence debate. If I had to try and sum it up, I’d call it “the soft power of ordinary people”.

This groundswell began in the 1980s, when the French elites decided to bet on a new model: a country without factories, without workers, without smallholdings and their farmers, where wealth would be created in big cities with tertiary industries. What a wager! Now, several decades on, the social strata that once made up the bulk of the middle classes in most of the country have been undermined and eroded by sustained deindustrialisation.

As a result – automatically, mechanically – these classes have, industry by industry and profession by profession, become part of the movement of the dispossessed. First it was the factory workers, then the small farmers and agricultural labourers; next, the intermediaries a level above them, not infrequently local government employees; now, increasingly, people on low pensions are joining its ranks. What these people have understood is that, with an industrial sector that now makes up only 10 per cent of GDP, a national debt of €3trn (£2.5trn) which it costs €55bn (£46bn) to service every year and 5 million unemployed alongside 9 million living in poverty, the current model is broken. They have also understood that, in a country that no longer produces goods of any kind, all they have to look forward to is the final collapse of the welfare state and a precipitous drop in their standard of living. Taken in the context of waves of large-scale migration welcomed by big business, this is the reality that is fuelling the populist surge.

With actual resources scarce, people are turning to cultural autonomy in an effort to at least conserve some social capital: simple politeness and common decency are revealing themselves to be the antidote to the spectacle staged by the soulless figures who govern us. By no means innate, these “everyday morals” have been imposed by material constraints – and explain why the lower classes are seeking to impose limits on market forces and rampant individualism. Everywhere in Europe, this growing need among the worse-off for cultural and social boundaries, for economic barriers, is one of the forces driving populist parties forward.

France’s major cities are now nothing more than pinpricks on an electoral map, dwindling into nothingness in the political twilight of Emmanuel Macron. You can watch Macronisme melting away, see the world of the elites and urban classes dissolve as it loses its allure – and, unable to get a grip on reality, its credibility.

Born of the neoliberal order, these new upper classes have proved to be a self-interested bourgeoisie wholly indifferent to the common good and in thrall to a cult of individualism. Having benefited from an economic orthodoxy that pulverised the very notion of limits, boundaries and borders, these classes are convinced that “anything is possible” and that what is good for them must be good for everyone else, for humanity as a whole. As such, they see any imposition of limitations as backsliding, regressive and an affront to their personal liberty. Hunkered down in its metropolitan citadels, today’s bourgeoisie can now be seen for what it is: selfish and aloof. To retain power, it has replaced morals with its own ideological considerations, saturating the media with various -isms all claiming to be on the side of “good”, but whose sole aim is actually to justify the current model: wokeism, environmentalism, anti-racism and a corrupted form of feminism (in the past, nationalism, patriotism and socialism were co-opted in the same way).

Increasingly, however, the illusion of “good” is fading, and what seemed like solid political centrism is becoming a weak spot – an eminently burstable cultural bubble that can only be sustained in apartments in nice parts of town. Its invasive discourse which, for a time, seemed to permeate the very air we breathe, has lost its power and remains dominant only in select circles. Gripped by a suicidal urge to ignore the obvious, its last roll of the dice has been to label debate on any issue about which the average French citizen is concerned as “right-wing extremism”. The result is that it has turned reality into “right-wing extremism” – and backed itself into a corner. After all, this supposed centrist block is actually a structural minority now doomed to advocate for a system rejected by the majority. The only remaining option is to radicalise debate.

By dissolving parliament – and getting his comms teams to supply a suitable narrative – Macron is not so much trying to respond to the state of democratic and cultural crisis as to make it invisible. His strategy is simple and relies entirely on extreme polarisation and an oversimplification of the national debate: this election is a choice between social democracy and fascism.

The problem for Macron, however, is that the strategy of labelling every uncomfortable issue “right-wing extremism” has worn thin. By refusing to take the concerns of ordinary French people seriously – their feeling of vulnerability (both physical and cultural), the influxes of migrants, the welfare state and national sovereignty – Macron is in fact pushing a majority of the electorate inexorably into the open arms of the RN. By making reality itself into “right-wing extremism”, he is curtailing his power to the metropolitan citadels and limiting his electoral base to the well-off retirees and senior white-collar workers who inhabit them.

Deciding to take on the hard right at the ballot box is a risky move. As in previous elections, Macron’s wager is that, brandishing the spectre of the far right, he can borrow enough votes from both the left and right of centre to conceal his political bankruptcy. Yet it would seem that he has overseen a crucial point: in the second round of the 2022 presidential elections, Marine Le Pen got 42 per cent of the vote – 13 million people gave their support to the hard right’s candidate; 13 million more didn’t vote, and another 2 million opted to leave their ballot paper blank. As such, a total of 28 million French people – 58 per cent of the electorate – showed they no longer consider the hard right to be dangerous, and it is on this potential majority that the RN’s current surge is built. Already, some pollsters think that Marine Le Pen could win in the 2027 presidential election as the RN is now starting to take chunks out of demographics previously impervious to it – primarily the professional classes and even pensioners. Thus far, the retired have voted for Macron, and the grey vote will be the battleground on which the vote in 2027 will be fought.

History is never written in advance – and ordinary people have, time and again, proved that they are not easily manipulated, that they are not automatons. Yet, ahead of this next populist surge, it is astonishing how resigned parts of the elite are. This fatalism in the face of the president’s high-risk strategy is a symptom of the nefarious nihilism spreading through the upper classes of the West. Today, it no longer seems to be “those at the top” who are confident and hopeful – not the political class either, or the intellectuals, and least of all the ideologues. Understanding this should alert us to something important: the concerns of ordinary people are not a problem, but a solution. Carried onwards by an instinct for survival and in upholding the greater good, the grassroots movement of the dispossessed is the guardian of a powerful counter-culture, of an alternative to today’s destructive model, of a response to this nihilism from on high.

Translated by Brian Melican.

[See also: Why the West should stop talking about the “rules-based order”]

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