A battle to save France from her non-existent foes

Far from representing a return of left and right, the French presidential campaign confirms the ascendancy of the politics of fear.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Commentators go green with envy when they look upon the French presidential election campaign. Where most Western European political offices are stuffed with samey politicians, here’s a campaign which seems to pit right against left, even hard right against far left, in a teeth-baring battle for the soul of France. Observers distressed by the post-political era they find themselves plonked in see in France the resurrection of the left-right divide, the return of that familiar-feeling, old-world clash, which could define ‘the future of Europe’.

This is wishful thinking. Because what the French candidates share in common is far more important than what seems to distinguish them. Behind the fireworks, behind the self-conscious use of left-right rhetoric, the candidates are united in their belief that the French Republic is threatened by external actors and that it falls to them to defend France’s honour. In short, this campaign doesn’t signify the resuscitation of old principles – it confirms that the politics of left and right has been superseded by the politics of fear, and that modern politicians have developed a seriously bad habit of political displacement.

The election appears to have everything a political junkie could wish for. There’s a right-wing sitting president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is known as the ‘bling bling president’ for his love of stuff and his allegedly neoliberal tendencies. There’s his left-wing challenger, Socialist François Hollande, who rails against the financial markets and EU austerity packages drawn up by ‘Merkozy’ (Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel). The closeness of the results in the first round of voting on 22 April – where Hollande won 28.63 per cent to Sarkozy’s 27.08 per cent – has led to excitable discussion of a close-run ‘political fight’.

Even better, in the first round there was an intriguing sideshow involving a sassy, so-called neo-fascist, Marine Le Pen, and a loudmouthed left-winger, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Le Pen, leader of the right-wing Front National, hit the headlines with her attack on certain immigrants and their cultural habits (though she disappointed many hardliners by not being nearly as xenophobic as her dad, Jean-Marie). Meanwhile, Mélenchon, who stood for a Left Front, thrilled radical observers with his denunciations of bankers and ‘Anglo-Saxons’ with their ‘stinking money’. The campaign was ‘shocked into life’ by these ‘fringe performers’, reckons one writer.

In truth, no amount of political rhetoric can disguise the fact that the candidates represent simply different variations on the same theme, that they’re alternative expressions of the same paranoid, principle-free mode of politics that is widespread in modern Europe. Most strikingly, all the candidates have been driven by a profound instinct to externalise the crisis facing the French Republic, to depict France’s travails as a consequence of infiltration by foreign elements, whether Muslim immigrants or ‘stinking Anglo-Saxons’. That is, each candidate has played a version of the fear card, attempting to drum up support by depicting the Republic as a threatened entity which needs a saviour-style president. This is a clash of competing fears, not a clash of divergent visions.

Listening to the candidates, you could be forgiven for thinking it is 1792 again and that external armies have lined up to invade France and undermine her values. Sarkozy has got a lot of flak for his anti-immigrant rhetoric, for his promise to ‘secure France’s borders’ against the arrival of ‘tribes [which will] impose the sort of behaviour we do not want on French soil’. Yet this anti-immigrant posturing is closely mirrored by Hollande’s sabre-rattling about the threat of ‘globalisation’. In Hollande’s view, French borders need to be fortified not only against immigrants, but also against the behaviour of ‘foreign markets’, which he claims ‘undermine French national identity and culture’.

Sarkozy and Hollande are united in their fear of globalisation, whether it takes the form of movements of labour (immigrants) or financial transactions (markets). The most striking thing about Sarkozy’s border-defending rhetoric is not that it is anti-immigrant, but that it casually flits between scaremongering about immigrants and scaremongering about markets. ‘I do not want to let France be diluted by globalisation’, he said after the first round of voting, explicitly echoing Hollande’s leftish rhetoric. Whether he’s panicking about ‘tribes’ importing problematic cultures or about France being ‘diluted’ by globalisation, Sarkozy is clearly driven not so much by an old right-wing loathing of immigrants as by a profound feeling that the modern French Republic is a porous entity, threatened by alien practices.

This outlook was shared by Sarkozy and Hollande’s fringe opponents in the first round. Left-winger Mélenchon, like his nemesis Sarkozy, was obsessed with protecting French culture against external denigration. Only in his view the spectre haunting modern France is ‘les Anglo-Saxons’ with their ‘stinking money’. Mélenchon said France is threatened by the ‘curse’ of ‘the finance economy’ and the ‘religion of competition’, all of which are undermining ‘French values of love and humanity’.

This viewpoint was almost indistinguishable from Le Pen’s. She also railed against the ‘princes of finance and the banking world’ and the ‘deadly effects’ of globalisation seeping across France’s ‘porous borders’. It is remarkable how much the far right and far left share in common today. Le Pen and Mélenchon were actually singing from the same hymn sheet of cultural paranoia. Their unwitting meeting of minds provided a striking insight into the sense of siege and fear that is shared by both the zombie left and the far right in modern Europe, where both movements have an instinct to batten down the hatches against either evil American culture or foreign immigrants.

The theme of this campaign is not ‘Should France be run according to left-wing or right-wing principles?’, but rather ‘Is France most threatened by Eastern immigrants or Anglo-Saxon culture? By poor foreigners or the princes of finance? By global jihadists or the “global mafia” (Le Pen’s term for the banking industry)?’. All the candidates share an obsession with the porousness of French borders, a feeling that the Republic is fragile and that it is all the fault of various ‘tribes’ or ‘mafia’. Here, we can glimpse the most significant thread in the campaign: a profound misunderstanding of what is driving the crisis of values in modern France, and a lack of any serious political language with which to address it.

All the candidates look outside of France for the source of the republican crisis. They correctly sense that the values upon which modern France was founded – democracy, equality, liberty, universalism – are held in low esteem today. But they wrongly pin the blame for this fact on either immigrants who refuse to embrace French culture or on a foreign-imported ‘religion of competition’. This is clear from Sarkozy’s proposal to make all immigrants do an exam in ‘republican values’. As a colleague of Sarkozy’s has said, ‘Integration has broken down. The Republic has lost its values. Who can deny that France is disorientated?’ Yet rather than uncover the source of this republican disorientation, French politicians try to overcome it by waging ostentatious wars of words against those who are crazily judged responsible for wrecking the Republic – immigrants who can’t pass a test on ‘republican values’, ‘princes of finance’ who undermine ‘French humanity’, and so on.

This is an extraordinary spectacle of displacement. If the Republic is fragile, it’s because the French elite itself is incapable of upholding the values upon which it was built, not because some Muslims have turned up or because Anglo-Saxon bankers are running riot. It is the inability of French leaders in our relativistic era to assert republican values unapologetically which leads them to launch phoney wars against fantasy external infiltrators instead. Even Sarkozy, in one of his attempts to uphold the Republic against foreign ‘tribes’, insisted that he was not saying the republican way is ‘superior’, just that it is ‘different’ – ‘and we want that difference to be respected’. The republican crisis is a product of intellectual cowardice and moral disarray in France itself, not of outside antics.

In this campaign, we’re not witnessing the re-emergence of old divides. We are seeing what happens when politics becomes denuded of ideological content and when politicians have no vocabulary with which to understand or discuss their national problems – moral posturing becomes prominent, fear comes to the fore, and wannabe leaders compete to make people feel scared rather than enthused.

A final point. Hollande is the most interesting candidate, because he represents a trend gathering pace in Western Europe: the mainstream co-option of the populist, democratic reaction against the EU. For 10 years, populations in France, Holland, Ireland and elsewhere rejected the EU in referendums and were lambasted by political elites for doing so. Now, however, in those same countries, politicians like Hollande are seeking to make mileage out of anti-EU sentiment by standing on an anti-‘Merkozy’ or anti-austerity ticket. This is not a positive development. Because the populist reaction against the EU was instinctive rather than fully politically formed, it can easily be taken in unpredictable directions, and Hollande is taking it away from its positive, democratic origins and down the route of a cynical, anti-globalisation outlook shot through with self-pity. If he is victorious in the final vote on 6 May, even those of us implacably opposed to the EU may have to accept that we are witnessing the institutionalisation of a problematic variant of anti-EU rhetoric.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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