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5 January 2022updated 08 Jan 2022 3:38am

We underestimate the appeal of nationalism’s dark fantasies at our peril

Fever dreams of domination and subjugation mark international politics as 2022 begins.

By Jeremy Cliffe

When Éric Zemmour, a far-right polemicist, announced his bid for the French presidency in November last year, he did so into an old-fashioned radio microphone, reading not from an autocue but from loose sheets of paper on the desk before him. It was an obvious allusion to Charles de Gaulle’s BBC broadcast to occupied France in 1940, one echoed in Zemmour’s words: “We will not let ourselves be dominated, subjugated, conquered, colonised.”

The pose was bizarre. France is not under occupation. It begins 2022 as perhaps the most influential state in Europe. And Zemmour is known for defending the collaborationist Vichy regime. But it does make a sort of twisted sense when you read his influential 2014 book Le Suicide Français (The French Suicide). This opens in 1970, and de Gaulle’s death – the turning point after which, Zemmour argues, the old France of the liberation and resistance succumbed to a bottom-up “subjugation” by the forces of feminism, LGBT rights, Europeanisation, globalisation, and especially migration and Islamisation.

Influenced by the Great Replacement, a white-nationalist conspiracy theory, Zemmour sees migration from France’s old colonies as a reverse invasion: “Subconsciously, and for some consciously, the conquest of territories on the old master’s soil serves as revenge, as counter-colonisation.” It is a dark vision of today’s France to which the novelist (and Zemmour admirer) Michel Houellebecq gave life in his 2015 satire Submission, in which a Muslim party wins the 2022 French election and proceeds to introduce Sharia law.

Such fantasies are prevalent in world politics as 2022 gets under way. In the US, the Republican Party is increasingly controlled by conspiracist extremists who consider the 2020 election stolen, style themselves as a resistance and see the violent storming of the Capitol last year as a first step in a national liberation struggle. “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more,” Donald Trump told the crowd beforehand.

In Europe, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński last month warned that the EU is becoming a “fourth reich”. As Hungary’s spring election nears, Viktor Orbán is presenting himself as a bastion against an imperialist EU and what he suggestively dubs the “Soros empire”. In Russia, the self-pitying domination narrative works differently, but is also important: Vladimir Putin portrays Ukraine as a colony of a US-imperialist Nato, despite his troops occupying part of the country, with thousands more massed on its borders and threatening to invade.

[see also: Éric Zemmour: the “TV-friendly fascist” who thinks he can be France’s next president]

What unifies these examples is their binary division of the world into the dominators and the dominated. As the journalist Fintan O’Toole writes in his book Heroic Failure: “In the imperial imagination, there are only two states: dominant and submissive, coloniser and colonised.” He ascribes Brexiteer histrionics about the UK languishing in the EU’s “shackles” to the distorted logic of: “If England is not an imperial power [any more] it must be the only other thing it can be: a colony.” It was a narrative that allowed elite figures such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage to recast themselves as resistance leaders, marching with the people to overthrow a quisling pro-European establishment.

Elsewhere too, fever dreams of occupation seem bound up with imperial experience. Zemmour’s family history, like that of the Le Pen family, is tangled up in the violent twilight of France’s own empire in Algeria. Putin’s paranoia draws deeply on the pathologies of Russian imperialism. Orbán and Kaczyński grew up in vassal states of the Soviet Union.

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But what is the appeal of such narratives? Surely people want to hear from their leaders that their countries are great and noble, not that they live under some sort of jackboot, oppressed, dominated and humiliated? Yet the truth is more complex.

For one thing, the language and imagery of resistance, or better still martyrdom, wield a powerful romantic appeal. Witness Enoch Powell, the most brilliant demagogue in recent British history, arguing in 1977 with regards to what was then the European Economic Community: “Patriotism is to have a nation to die for, and to be glad to die for it – all the days of one’s life.” (Or Zemmour: “The people is rebelling… It is struggling against the final destruction of its civilisation.”) Such overtures are implicitly flattering: it is precisely because the country is so great and noble that its supposed subordination is such a crime. And to be told one is living through a time of occupation and struggle, battles between the oppressed and the oppressors, is much more thrilling than hearing that one’s epoch means something more nuanced.

Then there is the psychology of domination itself. Its sexual dimension is beyond the scope of this column – though O’Toole draws an eye-catching comparison between the Brexiteer fantasies of vassalage and the huge success of the S&M thriller Fifty Shades of Grey. Even putting that to one side, it is obvious from history and our own times that a narrative of occupation and submission has a certain primordial appeal. It indulges the urges to luxuriate in the purity and fury of victimhood, to smash things, to defy power while giving oneself utterly to a prospective liberator. “The image of a brave man standing up against powerful foes is immensely appealing,” writes Madeleine Albright in her 2018 book Fascism: A Warning.

In the year ahead, politicians of various shades, though especially on the nativist right, will seek to tap into these yearnings and impulses, however hallucinatory. Many will fail. For example, it is highly unlikely that Zemmour will emerge from April’s election as France’s next president. Yet if the recent years have taught us anything, it is that we dismiss such deeper, darker forces of human nature at our peril.

[see also: Donald Trump’s endorsement of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán makes sense]

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This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance