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14 July 2021

France’s silent majority: How a political class was left behind

Low turnout in the June regional elections shows both Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have failed to attract the politically homeless.

By Andrew Hussey

In Paris, most non-essential businesses and café terrasses reopened in mid-May and you can now eat, drink or shop wherever you like. People are no longer required to wear masks in outdoor spaces and the 11pm curfew enforced across France has ended. Tourism is yet to return, but as you stroll through the city, weaving between overcrowded cafés and restaurants on the rue l’Échiquier in the north of the city, a sense of ease has ­returned. And yet, one of the biggest media stories in France over recent months has been the prospect of a civil war.

In April, the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles published an open letter from military generals addressed to ­French president Emmanuel Macron. In the “lettre des généraux”, 20 retired generals and more than 1,000 French soldiers condemned what they saw as an attack on French values, emanating everywhere from Islamism to “the hordes from the ­banlieues [suburbs]”.

The letter’s signatories targeted “anti-racists” who “speak of racialism, indigenism and decolonial theories”. “But behind these terms,” the letter said, “these hate-filled, fanatical partisans seek only racial war. They hate our country, its traditions, its culture and want to smash it into pieces.” The letter concluded that “a civil war will bring an end to the growing chaos, and the dead, for which you will be responsible, will be in the thousands”.

Général Francois Lecointre, the chief of defence staff and head of the French army, announced that all those who had signed the letter would face military discipline, and would be “delisted” or forced to retire. Florence Parly, the French minister for the armed forces, said the letter was “a call to insurrection” and “a naked insult” to ­thousands of loyal soldiers.

But Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) (formerly the Front National), said she understood the mood of the generals and called on them and their supporters to back her in the 2022 presidential elections. This was, she said, “a battle for France”.

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Commentators on the left and right noted ominously that the letter had been published 60 years after France came close to an actual civil war. On 22 April 1961, the 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment, led by the retired general Maurice Challe, announced that it had seized all government and military facilities in what was then French Algiers. This was a direct challenge to the presidency of Charles de Gaulle. The putsch, however, was quashed once the army declared its loyalty to De Gaulle, after the president had appeared on television in military uniform and called on the French people to help him.

Macron’s party, La République En Marche!, which he founded in 2016, cannot count on similar public support today. Following its publication, a majority of people – most of whom had never heard of Valeurs Actuelles – came out in favour of the letter. One poll reported that 73 per cent of French people agreed with the soldiers that France was “disintegrating”.

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Emboldened, Valeurs Actuelles, a small and hitherto relatively obscure magazine, published a second provocative letter on 10 May, this one signed anonymously by serving soldiers. The tone was bitter and emotive. The authors described themselves as a “generation of fire” who had fought and lost comrades in action in Afghanistan, Mali and the Central African Republic, as well as in counterterrorism operations in France in 2015 – the year of the Paris terrorist attacks at the Bataclan theatre and the Charlie Hebdo office.

The soldiers wrote about how in foreign combat operations they had been fighting Islamism, which was now gaining more “concessions” on French soil every day. “A civil war is brewing,” this second letter said, addressing the mainstream parties of the right and the left. It asked readers to sign a petition in support of its message. By the afternoon of 10 May, according to Valeurs Actuelles, 145,000 people had signed it.

It seemed like Valeurs Actuelles was playing a mischievous political game, trying to destabilise the Macron government in the run-up to the French regional elections that were held on 20 June and 27 June, and which were considered a dress rehearsal for the presidential elections next year. But what the support for the letters also revealed was the growing belief among many that the French republic is falling apart.

In publishing these two letters, Valeurs Actuelles had revealed the darkening public mood in France, one defined by a lack of faith in politics and in politicians to solve the critical socio-economic challenges that are destabilising the country; and a cynicism about democracy in the nation that claims to have founded the modern concept of it.

[see also: Why Emmanuel Macron is gambling on vaccine passports for France]

One of the most perceptive observers of the gilets-jaunes movement is the geographer and social critic Christophe Guilluy, who has charted in books such as Twilight of the Elites (2019) the alienation of the French working class. I met Guilluy one recent afternoon in a scruffy café on the Boulevard Saint-Martin in Paris. I had first interviewed him for the New Statesman in 2019, when the protests of the gilets jaunes were at their height. The movement began in October 2018 as a series of protests against a rise in fuel prices, the cost of living and proposed tax reforms. The demonstrations started in November, with protesters wearing the high-visibility vests that all French drivers are required to carry in their car by law (these “yellow jackets” are the gilets jaunes).

The demonstrations escalated over the next few months, with increasing violence and civil disorder in most French cities. The movement had no apparent leaders and drew supporters from all political affiliations, including the extreme right and the far left. Their only unifying cause was anger at Macron, whom they regarded as the “president of the rich”. In 2019, Guilluy’s argument was that the movement was a revolt of the French working class, which had been left behind by globalisation. According to Guilluy, this group is “globalisation’s losers, the invisible poor for whom wealth and influence are not merely remote but an impossible abstract concept”.

This time, we spoke about Guilluy’s latest book, The Time of Ordinary People (2020). In his late fifties and tall, slim and fit, Guilluy said “nothing” had really changed in French politics since our last conversation. “The pandemic has paralysed politics, but what is maybe slightly different is that working-class people now understand how much they are both despised and patronised by the ruling political classes. You can see this process at work with what has happened during the health crisis,” he said.

“During the pandemic the working classes have been praised by the ruling classes. The ‘deplorables’ have now become ‘heroes’. But they have been offered laughable pay rises for putting themselves in danger. The same applies not just to nurses and hospital porters but also to bus drivers, bin [collectors], shopkeepers, and all those who have had to keep going because they had no choice.

“These people couldn’t just pack up and get out of Paris, go to their second homes and do distance working. The pandemic made these social divisions clear.”

Did this explain why so many people had supported the generals’ letter in Valeurs ­Actuelles? “I do not believe, for example, that 73 per cent of the French population are fascists, or want a civil war,” he said. “But they are sick of the hypocrisies of this government. They are also tired of the traditional centre left, the Parti Socialiste, who have led leftist politics away from its real family, its real home in the working class.

“To agree with the letters from the ­soldiers is an act of defiance: they express the contempt of ordinary people towards the people who rule them.” This is reflected in the shift that many working-class voters have made in their allegiances from the left to the right, particularly to support Le Pen’s RN.

While pessimistic about France’s short-term prospects, Guilluy was more upbeat about its long-term future. “I believe in the power of the majority. To talk of civil war is maybe too dramatic. But there is real conflict here, and it is of course a class conflict.

“The polls revealed that the majority of ordinary French people are still angry. But the important thing is that they are the ­majority and that it is the majority who will eventually force political change, one way or another.” Guilluy calls this “the soft power” of the working class.

***

Raised in the proletarian suburb of Montreuil, Guilluy is a veteran of the French Communist Party and is still guided by the tenets of ­classical Marxism, but he has admirers across the political spectrum.

A few days after meeting Guilluy, I spoke to Elisabeth Lévy, a writer and polemicist, in a small, chic restaurant near the offices of Causeur magazine, which she edits. Causeur is an online publication that Lévy founded in 2007 and which developed a print edition in 2008. It is described by its enemies as “right-wing” and even as a media outlet of the extreme right. The magazine is conservative, but, similar to Lévy, it claims no political affiliation. Causeur’s defining attitudes are the long-standing French values of scepticism, irony and provocation; these are also its main weapons of resistance to what it calls “la culture woke”.

Causeur has a faithful following – its print circulation hovers at around 16,000. Its website attracts 500,000 individual visitors and 2 million page views per month. Lévy is mainly well-known in France because of her frequent media appearances. According to her enemies on the left, she is a crypto-lépeniste who has helped Le Pen “normalise” the RN. But Lévy is more of an old-fashioned satirist than an agent of the right; her sense of humour owes more to the long-standing Parisian tradition of gouaille – a specifically Parisian form of ­aggressive wit. She has said that “France will never give in to the demons of ­fascism”; beyond that her true political affiliations are a mystery.

Lévy is a writer and an intellectual. It is no accident that Causeur was partly founded by the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, a figure of hate on the left for his allegedly anti-Muslim views. One of Lévy’s closest associates is the philosopher Michel Onfray, who is best described as an apolitical contrarian. A Jewish friend of mine, another former Marxist, described Lévy to me as “brilliant and courageous”. In person, she was astute and quick to pick up on any contradiction in an argument, but always with a rapier wit. She is an excellent lunch companion and a formidable interviewee.

Born in Marseilles in 1964, into a family of Algerian Jews, Lévy studied at the prestigious Institut d’études Politiques de Paris and began her career as a self-described socialist thinker. She supported President François Mitterrand in the early 1980s and made her name as a journalist in the 1990s. One of her most important influences was the essayist and arch-ironist Philippe Muray; there were distinct echoes of Muray when Lévy told Le Monde in 2013 that her “only political identity is not to be on the left”.

This explains her move to the right; she has been disappointed at what she sees as a sharp swerve on the left to communautarisme, which describes a specifically French fear that the needs of individual minority groups (or “communities”) are being given priority over the universal values of France.

This fear has indeed been a contributory factor to the decline of working-class support for the left; the non-metropolitan classes in particular feel that their needs are ignored in favour of “communities”, such as LGBTQ+ movements, Black Lives Matter and immigrants.

I asked Lévy whether the publication of the generals’ letter had been a deliberate political manoeuvre by Valeurs Actuelles. She was not convinced this was the case. “I know the people at Valeurs Actuelles – they do not pay much attention to what other people think. I think the generals were acting alone, speaking for themselves. There was no precise political agenda. But obviously what they said created a political response.”

***

Similar to Guilluy, what interests Lévy about the whole affair is that so many people agreed with the letter. Lévy emphasised what she called “the divorce” between the elites in the media and the working and lower-middle classes in France. “The important word is ‘disintegration’,” she said, “and that’s why there is a fear of civil war.”

Lévy kept returning to this central point: ordinary people could see that France was coming apart. This is noticeable in the ­perceived breakdown in law and order. Officially, according to figures provided by the police, overall reported crime statistics went down in 2020. What has changed, ­however, is the perception that the killing of police officers is a war against all agents of the republic.

There was a similar response to the shocking murder of the schoolteacher ­Samuel Paty in October 2020, who was killed close to his own school, having been denounced by students for showing images of the Prophet Muhammad during a class. People were angered not only by the ­obscene violence, but by what was regarded as an attack on the republic itself.

The argument on the left, that many recent Islamist attacks have been random acts of criminality, represents a denialism that has hardened public anger. This is why the spectre of civil war is alive in the collective imagination and in French culture.

Michel Houellebecq’s novel Sérotonin (2019) ends with an armed conflict between riot police and disaffected farmers that leaves 11 people dead; the far-right author Laurent Obertone has written a bestselling series of novels under the rubric Guérilla, which depict a French civil war as a kind of ultra-violent video game.

As I walked home after my lunch with Lévy, through the afternoon heat and the early rush-hour traffic on Paris’s Right Bank, these novels still seemed like bleak and absurd melodramas.

But there are some real political dangers. The greatest threat to stability in France is that many people feel politically homeless. This is partly because politics has become more opportunistic rather than being driven by beliefs or ideology.

***

Macron, for example, has toughened his own positions on Islamism, drafting new laws against what he calls “separatist” Islam, which has led to Muslim organisations agreeing to sign up to a charter for an “Islam de France”. According to a recent French government survey, however, 46 per cent of Muslims believe that their religious beliefs take precedence over the secular values of the French republic.

By adopting these positions, Macron risks losing further support from the liberal centre that he claims is his political base. The policy is also liable to backfire in another way. France has a population of an estimated four million Muslims and Macron’s policies have made even the most moderate ­Muslims I have spoken to – friends and neighbours in my quartier – feel that they have been ­targeted and treated as if they are no better than the terrorists whom they despise. Guilluy told me that many of his Muslim friends, who valued their French citizenship, feel the same way.

[see also: What Macron’s clash with Islamism means for his presidency]

Le Pen may also have made a ­miscalculation by publicly supporting the generals. It has played well with her hardcore supporters; but if she is to win the presidency she needs to continue “detoxifying” her politics, taking voters from the “homeless” centre as Macron did in 2017.

Guilluy and Lévy hail from two distinct political tribes. But the space where their ideas and politics overlap is the most important battleground in French politics. They are both iconoclasts with a shared dislike of what they see as a refusal of the left and right to confront the real challenges of class, race and economics in France. They understand too that the letter from the generals is a symptom of despair as well as a plea for change. This will not come from the political shapeshifting of Macronisme – positioned as et droite et de gauche.

***

The widespread disappointment in Macron was expressed in the regional elections in June, in which his party captured 7 per cent of the vote – the lowest score ever of any party in power. Le Pen was equally disappointed that her party failed to take a single region, including in her political base in the south of the country.

The biggest winner was the centre- right party Les Républicains – old-style Gaullists, who have begun a modest resurgence under Xavier Bertrand, who served under Jacques Chirac and was close to Nicolas Sarkozy.

Since 2015, Bertrand has been president of the Hauts-de-France region in the north of France. His popularity has recently increased and he now has his eye on the presidency in 2022. The Parti Socialiste also showed signs of revival, holding on to its regions in the south-west.

On the surface, the old order has been re-established and warnings of political and civil unrest disregarded as wishful thinking from malcontents. This outward stability, however, masks the real mood in France. Most significantly, both rounds of the elections were characterised by a historic rate of abstention – around 66 per cent. Le Monde described this low turn-out as “indifference”, but it could just as easily be interpreted as the anger of the politically homeless. These are the feelings of the absent majority that Guilluy describes as the most radical voice in France.

In the pages of Le Figaro, Guilluy described the high level of abstention as “an example of working-class anger”. Martin Pimentel, senior editor at Causeur, wrote in his magazine that “France is a tormented country where traditional politics is in severe disorder”.

The “coming civil war”, however, is a chimera. In the work of a novelist such as Obertone it is simplified to a ­conflict between the police and the military and the lawless hooligans of the banlieues. The generals’ letter is not much more nuanced. It is an expression of frustration at the military’s inability to deal with political problems, but there is no serious plan, and no real enemy.

The social and economic tensions that have created the illusion that civil war is possible – rural poverty, criminality, discontent in the banlieues, the threat of civil disorder from left and right – are real, however. Set against these problems is an exhausted and mutinous police force which, similar to the fatigued health workers fighting the ­pandemic, feels alone and exploited. These are the factors and the factions that are in conflict with the French political classes.

There is an obvious chronology in French political history, from 1789 onwards, when change is convulsive, driven by a confrontation between a complacent ruling class and an angry disaffectedpopulation. Even the sober-minded Le Monde is aware of this, warning in the wake of the ­regional elections that “the democratic gap is widening”. The task now for all ­parties is to connect with the silent ­majority whose anger may not be soundless for much longer.

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This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook