The allegation that the mainstream media disseminates “fake news” about the Trump administration often can seem overwrought, even a kind of caricature. Yet the nearly universal media response to President Trump’s news conference at which he addressed the Charlottesville violence can only reinforce it. One day this response may make a rich subject for future historians analyzing it as earlier historians probed witch-burnings, pogroms, and other outbreaks of mass hysteria. They likely will focus on the spectacle of sophisticated, experienced, well credentialed people—Chuck Todd, Jake Tapper, Joe Scarborough, to name three of dozens—responding to Trump’s comments on the tragic weekend as if they were, say, undergraduate social justice warriors at Middlebury College.
First, the transmission of facts, which might be the essential point of journalism. Trump approached the Trump Tower podium Tuesday afternoon hoping to talk about infrastructure. The media wanted to talk about Charlottesville (ignoring, not surprisingly, Chicago, where nine people were murdered over the weekend).
The meat of Trump’s answer can be broken down into parts. First, he praised the young woman who was murdered, called the driver who ran her over a disgrace to his country, wasn’t certain of the semantics whether he should be accused of terrorism or murder.
Second, he asked a reporter for a definition of the alt-right, a term probably as imprecise as “socialist”—and perhaps a reasonable way of expressing uncertainty about the actual center of gravity of a seemingly elastic group that includes such disparate ideological figures as Trump’s own American nationalist aide Steve Bannon, the white nationalist Richard Spencer, and the neo-Nazis Spencer has invited into his tent. Third, he reaffirmed the statement he made on Saturday, condemning in the strongest possible terms bigotry and violence.
Then he fatefully threw out the red meat, denouncing what he called the “alt left,” or “Antifa,” which showed up in Charlottesville, without a permit, intending, as was evident to anyone paying attention to the group’s past actions, on physically attacking those attending the alt-right demonstration. He reiterated his previous statement that there was “blame on both sides.” He repeated his disdain for “neo-Nazis and white nationalists,” saying they should be “condemned totally.” Then he noted that some people had come simply to protest the taking down of the Robert E. Lee statue, erected over a hundred years ago.
So how did the media report this message, in which he singled out for condemnation white nationalists and neo-Nazis, lamented the violence on both sides, and posited that many people involved were “fine people” demonstrating for relatively normal things—that is, for the maintenance of a statue, or protesting against the alt-right’s bigotry?
It was hard to miss. Headline after headline streaming on the news chyrons on CNN and MSNBC asserted that Trump had defended Nazis, while the transcript (and a video) shows plainly and unambiguously he had done nothing of the sort. Commentators on the two major cable channels were hysterical, some guests labeling Trump a white supremacist, wondering why Jared and Ivanka or the minority members of his administration had not abandoned him. A New York Times story records the “chills” experienced by Chuck Todd upon hearing Trump, the shock of Jake Tapper.
Joe Scarborough said on his TV show that congressional Republicans should essentially go on strike, telling the president they will not pass any legislation whatever until Trump convincingly assures them that he regrets his remarks. New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush on Morning Joe accused the president of being an anti-Semite who “besmirches and insults” the faith of Jews. The Times blatantly misrepresented Trump’s remarks with a frontpage headline: “Trump Gives White Supremacists an Unequivocal Boost.”
Trump had committed the unpardonable sin, in their eyes, of denouncing left wing extremism. Those who watched video of the event could see, quite plainly, that the antifa were intent on instigating violence, far more than the LARPing Nazis or pathetic Klansmen.
In his sometimes clumsy way, Trump was making the same point as New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg, who was on the ground in Charlottesville covering the event. She noticed that the far left counter-protesters were intent on instigating violence and tweeted that “the hard left seemed as hate-filled as the alt-right. I saw club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists being led out of the park.” Later, perhaps sensing she was in danger of transgressing some sort of unofficial party line, she amended her thought. She added that the leftists were “violent, not hate-filled. They were standing up to hate.” Of course, “standing up to hate” (of whites) is exactly what the alt right would say they are doing as well.
Stolberg’s original tweet, and her need to amend it, are telling. There has been a huge upsurge in left wing violence during the past year. At one extreme, a Bernie Sanders volunteer recently tried to murder the GOP congressional leadership, severely wounding Congressman Steve Salise. Murders of police officers are accelerating, in some cases cold blooded assassinations by Black Lives Matter supporters. Right wing speakers such as Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray and Ben Shapiro are regularly prevented—by violence—from speaking on college campuses. Pro-Trump rallies have been cancelled under threat of leftist violence in “tolerant” Portland. Those attending a pro-Trump inaugural ball, “the Deploraball,” were pelted by batteries and bottles and chants of “Nazi Scum” by the same antifa who were protesting in Charlotte. (My wife and I were among those targeted). The Deploraball organizers had in fact gone to considerable lengths to bar white nationalists from involvement in the planning or speaking; it was a pro-Trump, multicultural, and multiracial celebration. But for the antifa, and the vast swarm of left wing social justice warriors, any kind of Trump supporter is “Nazi Scum” by definition, people whose First Amendment rights to speak and gather should be denied.
It was probably Trump’s awareness of this—an extremely important social fact sedulously ignored by vast legions of mainstream media—that prompted Trump to speak out against the violence of both sides. In doing so, he displayed a far more sophisticated understanding of the overall context of political violence in this country than the media mavens who ritually disdain him.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
What would you do if you were Palestinian? In 1998, Ehud Barak, then in the running to become Israel’s next prime minister, said that if he were a young Palestinian he “would have entered one of the terrorist organizations and fought from there”—a statement that became a flashpoint in the campaign (which Barak went on to to win). Of course the moral problems with killing innocents are obvious, which is one reason terrorism is seldom effective as a political tactic. Yet the fact that Barak’s candor didn’t sink his political career suggests an underlying Israeli understanding of why Palestinians fight to retain their land.
But if you don’t want to kill random Israelis, what avenues of struggle for Palestinian independence are available? In the occupied West Bank, peaceful protests against Israeli land seizures typically are met with tear gas, skunk spray, rubber bullets, and arrests. The United States generally shields Israel from UN criticism.
That leaves the most recent peaceful Palestinian-led tactic—BDS, or the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, which was initiated twelve years ago. It seeks to build an international boycott of Israel, its private and public emissaries, and its products. BDS is modeled on the campaign against apartheid South Africa, which succeeded in isolating the Pretoria government until it was forced to accede to most of the ANC’s negotiating demands. And, while BDS hasn’t been successful in harming Israel’s economy—which is booming and hardly paused in the 2008 recession—it has made a splash on American and European campuses, and has become a focal point for criticism of Israel. BDS worries Israelis, and some of their American supporters, because despite its flaws it seems to be growing.
The most salient criticism of BDS comes from figures who are themselves critical of Israel. Norman Finkelstein, who has few peers among American scholars in documenting the crimes Israel has inflicted on Palestinians, is one forceful opponent. He notes that BDS seeks not merely the end of Israeli occupation but the unimpeded return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel; not a negotiated return or compensation, not a sovereign Palestinian state on the West Bank, but rather promotion of the “rights” of return of all refugees. This is an indirect but quite clear way of saying that Israel has no right to preserve itself as a Jewish-majority state or to control its borders. No Israeli politician is likely to agree to this, (regardless of how popular open borders have become among American liberals) and Israelis rightly see such a demand as a blueprint for the end of Israel. In this sense BDS marks a step backward from the huge concession made by the PLO under Yasser Arafat: Palestinian recognition of Israel in return for a Palestinian sovereign state.
Unfortunately that grand bargain, the implicit basis for the Oslo peace negotiations of the early 1990s and the famous Arafat-Rabin handshake on the White House lawn, was never fulfilled. Since the handshake, Israel has moved half a million settlers into the West Bank occupied territory, making a two state solution difficult to implement, to say the least.
This capsule history explains why BDS arose and why it is gaining ground in both America and Europe. It explains also why this boycott strategy won’t be the basis for a realistic diplomatic solution.
But in the meantime BDS’s advances worry Israel and its most uncritical U.S. supporters. Benjamin Netanyahu has called the movement an “existential threat.” Early this year AIPAC (America’s main pro-Israel lobby) has actually helped draft a bill (S. 720), The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which mandates civil and criminal penalties for participating in an anti-Israel boycott. The ACLU, which usually steers clear of any implicit criticism of Israel or its lobby, has denounced the legislation, saying its impact “would be antithetical to free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment.” There is a complex legal debate about how damaging this legislation would be to the basic rights of American citizens basic rights.
Some supporters of the legislation claim it is little more than an elaboration of longstanding American efforts to counter the longstanding economic boycott of Israel by Arab countries. But the authoritarian spirit in which anti-BDS laws are likely to be enforced can be seen in the campaign of a Long Island assemblymen to prevent Roger Waters (the rock musician who is a BDS supporter) from performing at Long Island Coliseum.
Given the relative hardiness of the free speech culture in the United States, it is not surprising that the anti-BDS crowd has sought to advance its legislation under the radar. In writing about the bill last week, New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan noted the remarkable stealth in which it gained bipartisan sponsorship in the Senate:
Look: I’m not in favor of boycotting Israel when we don’t boycott, say, Saudi Arabia. But seriously: making it illegal? Every now and again, you just have to sit back and admire the extraordinary skills of the Greater Israel lobby. You’ve never heard of this bill, and I hadn’t either. But that is partly the point. AIPAC doesn’t want the attention — writers who notice this attempted assault on a free society will be tarred as anti-Semites (go ahead, it wouldn’t be the first time) and politicians who resist it will see their careers suddenly stalled. I doubt a single sponsor of this bill will go on the record to oppose it (so far, none has). That’s how complete the grip of AIPAC is. And pointing out this special interest’s distortion of democracy is not the equivalent of bigotry. It’s simply a defense of our democratic way of life.
Arguing that the criminalization of political activity is the hallmark of authoritarianism, Sullivan asked his readers to imagine the liberal outrage if Trump had proposed it.
Happily, the flight towards turning this profoundly illiberal measure into law is encountering at least some resistance. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, sometimes touted as a future presidential contender, had been one of S720’s first co-sponsors. But, when confronted about her stance at a town hall meeting, she agreed to reconsider her sponsorship. Last week she announced she couldn’t support the legislation in its current form—a rare instance of a prominent politician allowing some daylight between herself position and AIPAC on a major issue.
Even those who oppose BDS as a political tactic should consider it shameful that U.S. senators automatically sign on to AIPAC-drafted legislation, often without even being aware of what is in it. Maryland Senator Benjamin Cardin, another of S720’s cosponsors, apparently was unaware the bill he was cosponsoring called for criminal penalties on those targeted.
BDS advocacy on American campuses obviously isn’t going to destroy Israel. But if Israel is truly worried losing ground in Western public opinion, it has a perfectly good option available: resurrect the Oslo consensus, which remains the existing international consensus on Israel and Palestine. Every American president since the Israeli occupation and before Donald Trump has opposed the building of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The idea has been that Israel should stop its settlement enterprise; offer the Palestinians a viable, contiguous state in the West Bank and Gaza (with some equitable land-swaps if and where necessary and appropriate); offer fair compensation to the millions of Palestinians Israel has displaced; demand in return recognition of Israel’s legitimate place in the region by the Palestinians and the wider Arab world. BDS may well be conceived and supported by some who don’t want Israel to exist at all. But support for it would dry up overnight if the occupation ended and Palestinians had their own sovereign state.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
In the end, Emmanuel Macron won by a landslide, 66 to 34 percent, exceeding by four points Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 drubbing of Goldwater. His victory had been expected, but a week before the vote it seemed quite possible the National Front could pick up 40 percent, and after Le Pen’s successful press conference announcing an alliance with Debout La France’s Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, I thought 42 or 43 percent was possible. None of my FN contacts shared that view.
Then came the debate on the evening of May 3, after which a snap poll announced Macron the winner by 64 to 32 percent. I thought the debate far more even, that Marine Le Pen scored well by attacking Macron’s weakness toward terrorism, his support from various ambiguously Islamist groups, and more generally his identity as candidate of an unchecked and “savage” globalization. But I could see Le Pen fumble technical questions on withdrawal from the euro and France’s withdrawal from it—an issue that reflects a genuine split within the National Front itself. Many French voters found Le Pen overly aggressive during the debate, too sarcastic, using rhetoric more suited to a rally than a debate; several observers claimed that the entire years-long effort to normalize or “de-demonize” her party was set back by her performance.
It’s hard to say what works: French presidential debates (Mitterrand v. Giscard) can reach genuinely high intellectual levels, but most do not. But to many, Le Pen’s performance lacked the lofty or pedagogical tone that France expects of its presidents. In any case, one FN contact described to me the evening’s performance as “honestly, a shipwreck”—which was not what I thought I had seen at all. In the days remaining, nothing Marine Le Pen could do would reverse the outcome. One must recall that she was running against virtually the entire French media and political establishment, thousands of well-positioned, ideologically committed professionals working to ensure her failure. The fact that roughly half the country supports her on the issues (and more than that on immigration) might have counted for more. But the strategy of demonizing Le Pen, or creating an emotionally charged word cloud where Marine Le Pen and Vichy, Le Pen and Nazism are pushed together, is omnipresent in the French media. It’s a misrepresentation of course, but there is enough in her party of her father to give it continued life, a lie with very long legs.
Macron has impressed many people, and it’s certainly true that there is a yearning in the French establishment to end formally the increasingly fictive left-right division in the establishment. For years Marine Le Pen has elided the UMP (the former initials of the center-right party) and the socialists (the PS) as “UMPS”—in order to illustrate that the false cleavage between the two well-established parties gave French voters no real choice about the direction of their country. Now Macron has essentially reified this campaign joke, promising to govern as neither right nor left, and in the process dispatching the two main political parties deep into ditch. One or both will recover, but the political landscape will be changed.
Honestly very little is known about Macron’s leadership or political capabilities, and he may actually have them. His victory seems a little like a silent banking-community coup, made possible by the political collapse of the Socialists, a personal scandal enveloping the winner of the right-wing party, and the National Front’s enduring weaknesses. He will face the same difficulties France has had for years. He is likely to be forceful and successful in sweeping away long-established worker protections—he will do it by executive order when France is on summer vacation—which might make France more economically competitive while sapping what remains of a distinctive and appealing character of French life, one less attuned to the unforgiving rhythms of the marketplace than, say, the U.S.
He seems to be a committed multiculturalist, far more so than his socialist predecessor Francois Hollande, and the denationalization of France will proceed rapidly—until either it is halted or the process is irreversible. About French identity, Macron speaks in the language of the left-wing multicultural university—there is no such thing as French culture, but rather “cultures”; the colonization of Algeria was a crime against humanity. In the hacked Macron documents released by WikiLeaks before the election are proposals—in the idea stage, not yet formal policy—to reorient French education as to stress France’s historical ties to Morocco and Algeria, away from white Christian Europe. Something like this was the main initiative of the fictional Muslim president in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission. I can’t really imagine Macron will proceed in this direction, but it is in the idea set of some who will have his ear.
The National Front will face a reckoning. Many in the party (often grouped around Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen) were skeptical of the left-wing Chevènementiste elements in the platform: the emphasis on withdrawing from the euro, the efforts to swoop up former Communist Party voters by supporting union economic demands, and the concomitant short-shrifting of socially conservative themes. I think the Marine Le Pen line (in part created by her former advisor Chevènementiste Florian Philippot) was probably correct—but Philippot will face internal challenges to his authority within the party: everyone could see Marine Le Pen’s prime-time difficulties in explaining how France could leave the euro without damage to its businesses or savings accounts.
The best thing that could happen for the right, for France, and for the world is a working alliance and perhaps eventually a merger between elements of the National Front and the “souveraniste” elements of the right—Gaullists who are skeptical about France’s adhesion to Brussels and high rates of immigration. Younger French people of this orientation have already joined the National Front, but an older generation of established politicians has kept separate. Despite her drubbing this time, Marine Le Pen remains an extremely gifted politician, and I believe it’s not impossible to imagine that her best future role may be as an important ally to some souveraniste figure from the center-right, like Nicholas Du Pont-Aignan. The steps needed to arrive at such a reshuffling are difficult to imagine, but France does need a successful patriotic right in order to survive, and the forces to create one do exist.
The second-round French TV presidential debate, the one and only, was quite the battle. Two and a half hours of the two finalists on stage, sitting directly across from one another, two moderators. Cage-match-to-the-death format. American presidential debates are more formal: the candidates separated by more space, more moderators, more journalist questions. They are more like parallel press conferences than debates, and have nothing like last evening’s intensity.
I think Le Pen won on grand themes, Macron on economic specifics, and the result won’t be enough for Le Pen close the gap with Macron. Right afterwards French television weighed in with the establishment consensus that Macron had won and produced a poll confirming this decision. I really doubt the poll, but it surely has a self-justifying impact. Remarkably, no analyst—in a debate in which both candidates showed their strength—was willing to declare Le Pen the winner. It’s difficult for me to judge; I thought Le Pen didn’t have the knockout she needed but scored salient and eloquent points about France’s direction and implicated Macron in it. She was weaker on the specifics of her own program, and Macron was able to point that out. I would have scored it even; my wife (whose French is a good deal better than mine) thought Le Pen the clear winner.
Macron is a technocrat, and when the debate touched on specific measures about the unemployment rate, various tax and regulation adjustments for businesses of various sizes, etc., he was on his best terrain. When the debate got to terrorism, or immigration, or the logic of submerging France in Europe, or the degree to which the rules of the market should rule France, Le Pen did better. She is obviously seeking to make a systemic attack on the policies that brought France to its present situation, but at the same time has to convince uncertain voters that she has not only a persuasive general critique but specific programs to ameliorate the problems of the here and now.
Her gibe that France would be led by a woman one way or another, Madame Merkel or her, was funny and was quoted in trailers for several hours afterward. On the other hand, when Le Pen was asked what she would do about the unemployment rate, she attacked the record of the Hollande administration (where Macron was an economics minister), and then Macron pointed out she hadn’t proposed many specifics of her own. Her solutions, what she calls intelligent protectionism, are radical within the present context, but are hardly broken down into specifics. They imply a change of direction as yet to be spelled out. After the debate, six establishment journalists convened and agreed that Le Pen’s polemics against Macron seemed contentious; they were perhaps effective as polemics but not really “presidential.”
I think the fact that BFMTV managed after the debate to gather six or so journalistic commentators to say more or less the same thing is evidence perhaps of the network’s bias, but more importantly of the fact that Marine Le Pen has not yet succeeded in really dividing the French establishment and convincing a solid portion of it that France’s present course—greater and greater submersion in Europe, greater and greater openness to Third World immigration—is a disaster. Events are very likely to change that calculation one day, but not before May 7.
The odd thing is that Macron, though probably far more open to freeing France’s economy by stripping worker protections (many of which are clearly outdated) and ripping down barriers to capitalist enterprise than his former socialist patron Hollande, is also much more of a general believer in “Europe” and open borders than any prominent French politician. Macron seems genuinely to not have a nationalist bone in his body. Under some circumstances, that might a virtue in a leader—postwar Germany is the example that comes to mind—but I’m pretty sure it’s not what France needs now.
The other day a young National Front activist told me that if Marine Le Pen had another name, she would win the presidency by 10 points. It’s more or less indisputable that on the main issue of immigration, French sentiment is far closer to her views than to Emmanuel Macron’s; on the more complicated issue of Europe, public opinion splits more evenly. She has run a far better campaign than Macron, and would win hands down any “like to have a beer with” or “cares about people like you” contest. But the name, the stigma of being Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, remains an issue: the circumstance that gave her a media platform and an instant political base when she first became a public figure in 2002 is now a weight around her ankles as she hopes to rise beyond being the candidate of the extrème droit National Front.
For the last few days the campaign has turned around history—the history of the National Front and Marine Le Pen’s efforts to transcend it by forging an electoral alliance with well-respected center-right politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan; Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to keep the focus on the historic failings of the French far right, attending a memorial for Shoah remembrance on Sunday and today spending the morning at the place where right-wing militants pushed a Moroccan man into the Seine in 1995, where he drowned. I’m not sure these are the kind of historical questions French people are interested in.
As he has done regularly in recent years, Jean Marie Le Pen gave a May 1 speech before the statue of Joan of Arc. It’s in a nice square in the opulent center of Paris; on a holiday, perhaps 200 people, aging extreme-right militants or the simply curious, showed up. They were outnumbered by the French or international press: any attendee who wanted to be interviewed about what they thought about Jean Marie or France or Europe had ample opportunity to declaim before the cameras. As Alain Finkielkraut has pointed out, Marine Le Pen may have carried out the political murder of her father by kicking him out of the party, but the left (and, he might have added, the liberal press) insists on trying to resurrect him. At this point, Emmanuel Macron’s main electoral strategy is to link Marine Le Pen with the National Front, or with right-wing crimes committed long before National Front was born.
Still ready to play his assigned part, Jean Marie Le Pen, now 88, showed up wearing a bright red coat, paid homage to Joan of Arc, spoke some eloquent sentences about how we are all tied by cords to our parents and our nation and our history. At which point his microphone died, and no one could hear a word he said. He continued on, seemingly oblivious. Remarkably it took his team a full half hour to fix his sound system. When it was fixed, he gave some sobering statistics about French demographics and closed with a “Vive La France” and a slightly less emphatic “Vive la Republique.”
Jean Marie Le Pen was never an actual fascist; his play was to create a party where the various right-wing losers in France’s political battles—unreconstructed partisans of French Algeria, Vichyites, royalists—could find a political home without being ashamed of their roots and identity. It ensured him a platform and a permanent gadfly role in the French entertainment/political complex, and gave him a nice living; his actual impact on French political life was minimal.
The National Front became relevant only as it became obvious that conventional conservative politicians were failing to do what conservative politicians are elected to do—adapt to change, but preserve the institutions, the structures, the core national interests of the nations whose voters elect them. Marine Le Pen clearly recognized this, and set to work mainstreaming her father’s party. It’s a long process—you can’t fire everyone at once, and there are always surprises. This past week it was reported that the long-serving vice president of the party, known as a sort of diligent technocrat with little public role, had said something to an interviewer nearly 20 years ago questioning one of the accepted facts of the Holocaust (while distinguishing himself from out-and-out “negationists”). It was on allegedly on tape. He quickly resigned, but it reminded everyone that quarter of a century ago, Jean Marie Le Pen had created a scandal by minimizing the significance of the Holocaust, and one can assume he did not discourage those looking to advance in the party from doing the same. No one in the National Front expects Jean Marie Le Pen to help out his daughter by just shutting up during the campaign. Some claim he is jealous of his daughter’s success and hopes to undermine her. In the next week, the anti-National Front media (i.e., most of it) will give him ample access to the microphone.
While Macron was focusing on the Shoah (a kind of politics that Alain Finkielkraut, a child of survivors, thought profane to incorporate in electoral campaigning), Le Pen announced an alliance with Nicolas DuPont-Aignan and named him her prime minister if she won. DuPont-Aignan is one of those politicians who have hovered near the top for a while without quite breaking into the presidential tier. A good-looking graduate of ENA (the career equivalent of being a Harvard Law graduate if there were no other Ivy League law schools), a man associated with the Gaullist center until he broke and formed his own Euro-skeptic party Debout La France in 2008. He ran for president twice, obtaining a non-ridiculous 4.7 percent and finishing 6th in an 11-person field last week.
He endorsement of Marine Le Pen gives the latter something she had long sought and never quite achieved—an alliance with another, mainstream party, the ability to show that her National Front was a party like any other, and that those who agreed with it on many issues could form alliances with it. Dupont-Aignan is a better orator than anyone else the National Front has, and he is extremely persuasive in arguing that the long-standing division between the establishment right and the populist right must be transcended if France hopes to retain its sovereignty and confront its main problems. The alliance has made him an significant national figure while giving the National Front added credibility—a fact likely to endure whatever happens next Sunday. The old talking heads of the establishment right are having aneurysms denouncing DuPont-Aignan’s betrayal of “Republican values,” but to my ears at least, their protests sound rote and hollow.
Through all of this, Le Pen and Dupont-Aignan are hitting Macron hard. At her rally today Marine Le Pen reminded voters that five years ago, the socialist Hollande had said in a campaign rally that the “unnamed” enemy of France is “finance”—the big power of the big banks. Well, Marine declaimed, now we know the name and what do you know, it’s the name of Hollande’s poulain Emmanual Macron, the former (Rothschild) banker. The word means protégée, but also young colt or foal, and it sounds like it ought to mean “little chicken.” The 39-year-old Macron gets portrayed as young and weak and inexperienced and linked to timeless great power of finance at the same time.
It was discovered a few weeks ago that Macron’s campaign has some links to members of an Islamic organization, the UOIF. This too is talked about, and it’s an open question whether French voters are are more disturbed about links to ancient fascists or contemporary Islamists.
No polls have been published since Dupont-Aignan joined Le Pen. The latest ones had Macron still ahead by 19 or 20 points. Too much to make up in six days. My National Front contacts still say so. Nonetheless, if you just look at the images on TV, Le Pen should be winning.
On Thursday morning lycée students were out protesting in the streets of Paris. In districts that were once “populaire” and have now been gentrified by the new “boboisie” (David Brooks’s coinage “bobo” still resonates in France), they first blocked the doors to their schools (but were considerate about letting enter those in who had important exams to prepare for), then joined forces for a march toward the Bastille. It was a “ni, ni” or “neither, nor” march, young students suddenly awakened to the fact that France’s presidential choice had boiled down to a contest between “racist” Le Pen and the “banker” Macron. One of their placards, much streamed on TV news, was “Ni Patrie, Ni Patron“—“No Country [or perhaps “Homeland”], No Boss.” (I think it doesn’t hurt Marine Le Pen to represent the “homeland” side of this diptych.)
France is entering what some call a demographic crisis; parts of Paris seem to have been taken over by African-refugee street people, and some nearby suburbs have been quite thoroughly Islamicized. But the 18-year-old protesters marching on a school day between République and Bastille chanting leftist and anarchist slogans are as white as can be.
This is a reflection of the emerging social reality in France, which has been developing for years and has been spelled out by the geographer-sociologist Christophe Guilluy, whose work has made him the all-but-officially-acknowledged guru of this election. France is increasingly divided between the winners of the globalized economy and the losers—a new division that is now more important than the traditional “left-right” divide. The winners are concentrated in Paris and other major cities and work in fashion, design, or the knowledge industries and are linked to the world markets. There is some subsidized housing in the metropole to ensure the presence of “key workers”—cops and firemen especially—but the rest of the white working and much of the lower middle class has been priced out of the city. The service workers, those who clean apartments and cook meals and drive cabs are, for the most part, immigrants, and live in the huge public-housing blocs that surround the Paris. For Guilluy, these segregated housing developments represent a kind of government-subsidized “maid quarters” for the service employees of the new boboisie, a reference to the way the 19th-century bourgeois buildings were constructed, with grand apartments and a separate stairwell leading to a cluster of small rooms where cooks and maids could live near to the families that employed them. The white working class that once made the near suburbs a Communist Party stronghold has more less abandoned them, or been driven out, according to one’s interpretation.
The point is, to live in Paris now, or certainly to raise children there, you have to be well-off. So the kids out chanting the other day, with a little bit of window-breaking and fighting the cops thrown in, were more of less the class equivalent of children from The Dalton School chanting “no to racism,” “no to bosses.” But it’s France, so kind of typical.
Macron, by the way, scored 35 percent in the 11-person first-round race in Paris, while Marine Le Pen got less than 5 percent of this vote. That kind of division—in less stark terms—is reflected in the returns all over France: Macron does well in the French metropoles, which have benefited from globalization; Le Pen, whom I believe did not win a single city over 100,000 people (though she came in a close second in Nice and Marseille), does well in the la France peripherique, rural regions that have been generally the losers from globalization.
There is a political importance to the “ni, ni” slogan—for the only possible avenue for Marine Le Pen to win, or even to make it close, is for there to be massive abstention or blank voting (where you go to the polls and write in Charles de Gaulle or Maurice Thorez on your ballot). The candidate of the right-wing business classes, François Fillon, fell in line quickly and endorsed Macron, and so did all of the candidates he had bested previously in the LR (or Les Républicains) primary, including former heavy-hitters Alain Juppé and Sarkozy. There were occasional holdouts; Marie France Garaud, a veteran Gaullist advisor to Pompidou and Chirac, has endorsed Marine Le Pen, and many LR voters attended the Le Pen rally in Nice last night (according to French TV). But most of the French political class has lined up against Le Pen.
Not everyone however. If the “right” fell quickly in line, the leading left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has been more coy. He has announced he will speak to his voters over YouTube later today, but rumor has it he will tell them to abstain, or vote blank, or vote Macron according to their conscience. In other words, no reason for pro-communist voters to rush out and give a large landslide to the former Rothschild investment banker. There’s a film clip on the internet of a younger Marine Le Pen and Mélenchon fighting with one another on TV 15 years ago, and if you look at it you might well conclude that they don’t completely hate one another.
In any case, the young kids’ “ni, ni” represents a significant current in this election, which could matter in determining the outcome.
Marine Le Pen is a vastly superior candidate to Donald Trump. She knows the issues and she works hard, and there’s not the slightest reason to think (as there now may be with Trump) that she isn’t committed to her campaign positions. But the structural differences between what Trump faced in the fall of 2016 and Le Pen’s challenge now are large. Trump captured the Republican nomination, which ensured that a great many Republican officials would endorse him—they more or less had to for the sake of their own political skins. What if he’d received no Republican support apart from that which he had managed to gather by the end of February? What if every Republican senator save two had explicitly endorsed Hillary? That gives a sense of the uphill road Le Pen faces.
The latest polls have tightened somewhat—one published yesterday had Le Pen at 41 percent, which represents a three-point bump since last Sunday’s election. The press is still full of speculations that Macron (“little Macro” I cannot resist calling him) has gotten off to a poor start, and has to do better to make contact with voters, etc. I’m sure he will; for all his many flaws, he’s not dense. But what is at stake is the nature of the French right—whether it will led by the National Front and its allies, whether Marine Le Pen will be unofficial leader of the opposition. Many in the France establishment just wish the National Front would be forced back into its hole so they could revive the nonsense of a Front Républicain (a noxious and dishonest phrase which seeks to deny democratic legitimacy to the National Front’s issues and voters). That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. And then there’s a televised debate next Wednesday night, four days before the vote. You can be sure that Macron’s supporters wish there were some way their candidate could duck that one.
Marine Le Pen can’t possibly win. French friends on Twitter told me this weeks ago. I asked one souveraniste activist the other night; he said she will do well to break 40 percent, and might be held to 35 percent. The entire French political class is aligned against her. And to many people who might be broadly sympathetic, leaving the euro seems like a leap into the dark. A poll running across my TV screen now says that 75 percent of French business execs think leaving the euro would have a bad impact on their firms.
So, I concede, 11 days before the vote, a Le Pen win would be a huge upset, much more so than Trump or Brexit.
She is a really skilled candidate, a wonderful one. Last night she was on TF1, not the main news channel but the somewhat lower-brow government-funded one. The most popular channel in France. She was interviewed for an hour and 15 minutes. She was tag-teamed by two journalists, and then a third was brought in to take her on, from London yet. The grilling was all tasteful—the journalists seemed clearly to enjoy the role they were playing, that of picking apart MLP’s positions, and enjoyed as well her skill in parrying their efforts to trip her up. I think if you watch the video you can get a sense of her appeal without speaking a word of French.
She began skillfully, but stressing that she is not the Front National candidate. Yesterday she resigned from her FN presidency. She is the candidate supported by the FN, of course, but she was able to remind people that de Gaulle intended the presidency to be an office above the parties, to transcend the parties. It was a skillful move, associating herself slightly with de Gaulle (who was himself no big fan of Anglo-Saxon market economies, nor of mass immigration) and perhaps distancing her from the FN’s broadly unfavorable reputation.
What would a casual viewer make of her? That she opposes le mondialisation sauvage, the key phrase of her campaign. She opposes the view she ascribes (quite justly) to the former banker Macron, that the “market” should be the “big boss” of everything—above everything else, nation, family, identity. That France should be transformed into a giant public marketplace. She talks about Europe with some tact—“I feel myself European”—but proposes a new form of “freely executed” bilateral negotiations between nations, rather than rule from Brussels. But, as she makes clear later, she is no fan of the deference all French politicians pay to “Madame Merkel,” the way they all seek her benediction. She is of course fine with Madame Merkel when the latter defends the interests of Germany, which she should. Less so when she invites in a million and a half immigrants from who knows where, and no one knows where they are.
Quite obviously she doesn’t have the silver-bullet answer to the dilemmas of the French economy; her role in the campaign is more to point out that Macron does not either. But in terms of being a person who might, in the pollsters phrase, “understand people like me” she is miles ahead of Macron.
She gets in some jabs at Macron—who was quoted saying some nice things about an Islamist activist who plays some role in his campaign, and saying there is no such thing as “French culture.”
She has really tried to get around to the left of Macron on every issue except immigration, where she of course well to the right. It is a fundamental choice France faces—that of course is the one thing everyone seems to agree upon.
A flier stresses the common points, mostly concerning worker’s rights, between Mélenchon’s program and hers. FN spokesmen now seldom miss an opportunity to refer to Macron as spokesman for a France soumise (submissive France), on obvious effort to reach out to Mélenchon’s electoral movement, which calls itself La France Insoumise. On TV, she wonders how Mélenchon could possibly vote for Macron, who stands exactly the opposite of him on every issue in the campaign.
This morning’s news showed new polls stating that roughly 60 percent of voters thought Le Pen had made a “good start” on her campaign, while less than half thought Macron had begun well. (The dinner at “La Rotonde” is still being talked about.) Meanwhile the morning news showed workers, threatened with layoffs at a Whirlpool factory, preparing to greet Macron, who was coming to their plant to talk about his plans for “retraining.” It was an image that has been seen often in France the past 40 years, middle-aged workers threatened with job loss, men and women, standing outside of factory gates, angry banners, bonfires in garbage cans. No one seriously thinks Marine Le Pen has an answer to this problem, but at least she recognizes it is a problem, something which the banker Macron surely does not.
I know, I know, she can’t win. Everyone opposes her. But if you just came in from a foreign country and looked at the news, you might think she could.
Emmanuel Macron has a big lead over Marine Le Pen, and will almost certainly win on May 7. But he’s losing the first day of the 13-day sprint that separates the two elections, which leads one to think it’s not entirely impossible he could lose the second, and the third, and then polls show suddenly a significant tightening and who knows what could happen.
After Macron came in first on the first round, he held a dinner for his supporters at La Rotonde, a classy bistro in the 15th. Some of his nuts-and-bolts campaign supporters were invited, but so were a lot of bold-faced names of France’s super-banker/minister set. Jacques Attali was there. Was Dominique Strauss-Khan, or was that just a rumor? It seemed, perhaps, a not terrible gesture, akin to a celebration after winning a pennant, and as some pointed out, at least he didn’t have it at Fouquet’s, the ultimate Paris symbol of ostentatious dining, as Sarkozy did 10 years ago. But Sarkozy had won the actual election, not entry into the second round.
In any case, today’s television images were of Macron not giving his speech to his supporters at his hall, but bouncing between tables inside the plush red walls of La Rotonde. By contrast, Marine Le Pen was out greeting voters in Pas de Calais, walking through a simple market, taking selfies with workers. It produced a telling contrast of visual images, and hardly in Macron’s favor.
Then there is the endorsement dynamic. It doesn’t surprise anyone when Macron receives an endorsement; the establishment is supposed to stick up for its own. President François Hollande, whose approval rating are in single digits, announces his support for Macron. Does this hurt Le Pen? The way the Front National spokespeople jumped at the chance to talk about the endorsement indicates probably not.
But when someone doesn’t endorse, it’s a story. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left-wing surprise of the campaign, whose success basically destroyed the Socialist Party, made more news than Hollande by not endorsing anyone. Simply refused to say whom he would vote for, whom his followers should vote for. For the French bien-pensant class the non-endorsement was a thing of horror. Twitter irony: someone pointed that the same people who accused Mélenchon of planning to become an economic dictator were tearing out their hair over his refusal to tell people how to vote.
Of course it makes sense that Mélenchon and his supporters would not have any enthusiasm for Macron. Quite a number of people have noted that the main divisions in Western political life are increasingly between nationalists and globalists, not between left and right. Marine Le Pen is clearly making opposition to “savage globalization” a main theme of her campaign; but so it was of Mélenchon, who opposes Brussels, free trade, NATO, and in subtle, politically correct Marxist ways, mass immigration. Quite a few people wondered why Benoît, the candidate of France’s ruling Socialist Party, who finished, pathetically, under 7 percent, was unable to make a common front with Mélenchon: together this score for the real left, if combined, would have easily put them in the second round. The answer is that the two lefts are diametrically opposed to globalization and differ on France’s ties to Europe. Benoît Hamon’s party welcomes it, Mélenchon’s opposes. The Socialist Party may implode over Hamon’s poor performance, the high fliers in it moving on to Macronism.
What of the “right”—François Fillon’s center-right “Republicans”? It’s curious that Fillon was so badly damaged by a financial scandal of the sort that are fairly common in France politics. In departing—and this afternoon Fillon more or less bowed out of his public role in the party—Fillon slammed Le Pen and promised to vote for Macron. But it’s not clear how many Republican voters will follow his lead. A Republican deputy, George Fenech, was on TV saying that his voters were telling him they would either abstain or vote for Marine Le Pen, and he was inclined to listen to his voters. Unlikely he is alone among rank-and-file Republican elected officials.
To close, Diana Johnstone, a veteran left-of-center American journalist in Paris, has produced a devastating portrait of Macron, the man who seemed to come from nowhere. That’s another large contrast between Macron and Le Pen. Everyone knows where Marine Le Pen comes from. Many deplore it, and for some the stigma of her origins put her beyond any possible redemption. But Emmanuel Macron is a genuine man of mystery.
No surprises, the polls were correct. Macron did a little better than expected; Marine Le Pen ended up in second place, a solid but not impressive two points ahead of Fillon and Mélenchon. There isn’t much question about the outcome in two weeks: Macron will win, fairly handily. The issue is whether Marine Le Pen will shatter this idea that there should be some sort of broad “Front Republican” against her, of the sort that formed against her father in 2002. Jean Marie Le Pen had surprised everyone by getting into the second round against veteran center-right politician Jacques Chirac, and Chirac smashed him, holding him to less than 19 percent of the vote.
That won’t happen again. The entire establishment—most politicians, all the big media—will unite against Le Pen, but there are quite a few people who believe her direction for France is right, or more precisely that the Macronist direction is wrong, and she will get their votes. Closer to 40 percent than 20 percent. Perhaps more. She will probably establish the Front National as real force in French politics, not a right-wing protest party led by a charismatic family. She ought to make a lot of progress in two weeks.
I spent the first part of the evening at a Paris forum in the hip, boboish République quarter, where philosopher Michel Onfray discussed the election returns. Onfray is an atheist and has sometimes been labeled an anarchist, but he writes big bestselling books on large subjects, and with his emphasis on decentralization and opposition to Brussels he might be a bit of a crunchy con. He arrived on stage in jeans and an open black shirt. The audience is like anything you would find at a comparable event on Manhattan’s Upper West Side: elderly, somewhat professorial, definitely leaning left—I doubt there were any Le Pen voters there. Onfray announced he didn’t vote, hadn’t voted since 2005, when France held a referendum on the European Constitution and voted “No” by a decisive margin and the vote had precisely zero impact in slowing the advance of the European project. He held the stage for quite a while, basically deflating the idea that there was any pressing need to vote against Marine Le Pen. He obviously signaled some distaste for her (I couldn’t really tell if it was genuine, or a requirement of his position as a bestselling, non-right-wing author) but spent more time mocking Macron, the non-democratic system, French elites, the continuation of the Hollande regime through Macron, the left’s refusal to ever say the word “Islamic” when it discusses terrorism. From the questions and audience reaction the crowd seemed split—half of them probably believe Le Pen and her ilk are dangerous fascists who must be stamped out forever; the other half at least enjoyed his expressions of scorn for Macron and the French establishment political class.
Driving home in a cab, I heard Le Pen’s speech on the radio. A victory speech of sorts, though her first-round vote score wasn’t what she might have hoped for two months ago. She was genuinely powerful, calling for a real debate on the subject of French patriotism versus “savage globalization.” And for a genuine “alternance,” a genuine debate between competing political ideologies. She probably doesn’t have enough time or firepower to upend the entire French political establishment on these issues, but she ought to be able to do some real damage to the globalist consensus.
The election result is obviously a huge blow to the two biggest parties in France, the socialists (whose candidate Benoît Hamon came in far behind the patriotic far leftist Jean Luc Mélenchon) and the recently renamed “The Republicans” (the center-right party which once could plausibly claim a connection to Gaullism). Republican leader François Fillon wasted no time in telling voters he would vote Macron in the final tour. But many of his voters will not follow him.
Macron has tons of elite support, but hasn’t yet built a party. He will, and it will be free market, globalist, left-wing on social issues. The “bobo” party, the Tony Blair party, the Mark Zuckerberg party. Part of the old left truly and deeply hates all of this, far more than they ever did the Gaullists or Chiraquians. They won’t vote for Le Pen, but they won’t get caught up in an anti-Le Pen crusade.
Macron just finished speaking. One of his defining characteristics is that he never says much of anything. His most memorable assertions are those he’s had to retreat from: the colonization of Algeria was a “crime against humanity” (a phrase associated with Nazism and little else); there is no such thing as French culture. I’m pretty sure he will quite quickly evolve into an inept and unloved president; Hollande (who always seemed kind of dignified to me, though the French stopped listening to him a while ago) will seem impressive by comparison.
In any case, the next few days will be caught up in maneuvering over whether or not Macron can recreate the political consensus of 2002: that Le Pen and her party are beyond the pale. For Le Pen’s part, it’s whether she can overcome a hostile bipartisan establishment to make a powerful case for a resurgence of the French nation, distanced from Brussels and freed from the unrelenting flow of new immigration. It will particularly interesting to see the many substantial figures in French life—authors, retired politicians—who partially or largely agree with her on the issues decide to make French voters aware of that fact.
The first poll just shown on TV shows Macron beating Le Pen 62–38. I’m pretty sure she’ll do better than that.
When I walked into the offices of Causeur, I told editor Gil Mihaely the magazine reminded me of my feelings when I first read Raymond Aron 40 years ago. He was good enough to sit down with me and discuss the elections and general French political scene. I’ve compressed some of his answers, though most not radically.
TAC: Where does Causeur fit into the French ideological spectrum?
Gil Mihaely: What’s common to all who work with us is the belief that the nation-state is still the major dominant political fact in the world. The big consensus at Causeur is that there is no alternative political system which can sustain liberal democracy which is not national.
Some of us are more to the left, some are to the right, some are more interested in equality. But all believe in the framework of national sovereign states with borders, and with functioning democracy which can produce enough legitimacy to be effective. Borders doesn’t mean fences, but it does mean a community which can say what is inside and what is outside.
What is the most surprising thing about the election campaign so far?
That it’s not clear even now what is the key question. Usually when there is a long campaign, and our campaigns are now as long as America’s, usually at this stage you have one question, are you going to vote for or against this, Europe, taxes, for or against this person. That hasn’t happened this time. Instead it’s moved from one question to another. We even had a very theoretical debate on universal income, a monthly endowment for every adult citizen with no condition of whether he worked or not. Which is almost utopia. We even had that during the campaign. Yet still, people still find it difficult to decide, because there is no top question.
To what extent did the terrorist attacks of the last two years impact the campaign?
I think the impact faded away in the last few months, but it had a profound impact on the way France entered the election season. Marine Le Pen’s position, the fact that Fillon is the Republican candidate, and even the metamorphosis of Mélenchon are all related to deep currents related to the terrorism question.
What does this have to do with Mélenchon?
Well he never [in past campaigns] talked about the nation, he never talked about immigration, he was an internationalist, multiculturalist. He wasn’t communist left, he was New Left. His success in this campaign is because he is talking about borders like an old-school French communist; what he says about immigration is immigration is capitalists bringing in cheap labor. It’s the left’s way to avoid speaking about cultural problems but still for the public, the key words are pronounced. I don’t how he is going to do Sunday, but in 2012 he got 11 percent. The delta, the change, is related to that. He is much less “new socialism” trying to appeal to gays and minorities. Instead he found in his rhetoric a new synthesis which allows him to win blue-collar voters.
I think you answered what was going to be my next question, which is why doesn’t Hamon drop out and endorse Mélenchon.
Hamon is the new style socialist, in favor of multiculturalism, of open borders, he is appealing to those who are gaining from globalization, who are citizens of the metropolis, including the immigrants who live near the metropolis and can work for the wealthy or the middle class. All the rest [of the French working class] are far away, the social elevator doesn’t work for them. They are stuck.
So we get to Marine Le Pen and the National Front. Clearly she has changed the party from the days her father ran it. To what extent has she succeeded with dediabolisation? To what extent not? Was it even possible to succeed in this effort?
I’ll give you a concrete example. A week ago she was asked on the radio whether Chirac was right to repent, to recognize that France was responsible for the deportation of Paris Jews in 1942. What she said was exactly what everyone said until 1995, de Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard, and even Mitterand. France cannot be blamed for that because France was in London. What we had here was an illegitimate government of criminals which perpetrated a hideous crime. But what people heard, just because she said it, is something like what I read this morning in the Washington Post, an article by Sebastian Mallaby, the Battle for France, which says that the front-runner for the French presidency is someone who negates [denies] the Holocaust.
That’s a lie.
It’s not even an interpretation. She said Vichy was responsible for a hideous crime. She didn’t deny the Holocaust, she didn’t say there were less than six million. She said Chirac was wrong, She should have said it was the French state, not France. But to answer your question, when someone named Le Pen says the word “Vichy” it doesn’t matter what they say afterwards. People only hear what she is “supposed” to say. She went a long way with dediabolisation, but here we see the limits. When she was asked the question, she reflected. She understood it was a difficult position, and she decided not to give the politically correct answer, which would have been applauded. But she didn’t answer like her father. And yet, because she bears the same name as her father, people don’t really listen to what she says. You know in communication, if you say, “Follow me, don’t worry,” people only hear “worry.” She said “Vichy,” and she added, is “criminal.” But people just heard Le Pen said Vichy. It’s a very deep mechanism. I’m sure people who want Vichy to be rehabilitated heard that too, even though that’s not what she said.
So when Le Pen says, as she did earlier this week, that civilization is at stake in this election, how does that strike people? Overwrought? Or is there a more general sense that the issue, immigration, birth rates, all of that, is changing France in ways France is not prepared for?
If you look at the candidates who are speaking about immigration in a critical way, and propose measures to control and diminish it, Marine Le Pen, Fillon, to some extent even Mélenchon, and if you count the minor candidates, that is a solid majority, and that is unprecedented. It has became almost a banality to have a critical position on immigration. But of course her position is the most extreme. She is like the sun at the center of the French political solar system. All the other players revolve around her, she determines the agenda, she is pulling in some, pushing others away. But everything is arranged around her.
Except Macron, according to the polls, seems the most likely winner. And Macron is most borderless, the most Europe is great, immigration is great, candidate. How do you reconcile that?
I’m not sure he is going to win, we will see next week. But I’m describing a dynamic system. If I compare where we are today to 2002, you can see where the system is heading. What you can say about Islam, about immigration, about Europe, about the euro—what is considered mainstream is very different today. And I think that is largely due to the impact of the National Front.
Also to events, the flood of refugees, the terror attacks …
Correct, but events need to be labeled and explained and put into context. They are imposing certain questions, and more and more certain answers. Laurent Fabius, an old socialist leader, used to say that the National Front asks good questions but gives terrible answers. But you can say that today, people are also listening to the answers they give. Everyone is either trying to adopt some of their positions or to fight against them.
Tactically, by what scenario could Macron not win? I know things can change a lot, but we are now only a few days away.
I don’t know, everything is possible. He could find himself paired against Fillon. I don’t know after all we’ve been through, because so many people decide so late, many will still hesitate before the voting booth. The difference between the leading candidate and the fourth is 5 or 6 percent, not a lot. Many things can happen.
Because Macron might seem too young?
People assume he is capable and talented. But maybe it’s too early. He was never elected to any office. He is proving himself a master of getting elected, but that is only part of the profession. Then you have to get things done.
Where would his vote go if 10 percent of it evaporated?
Part of his electors might go back to Fillon. Fillon’s challenge is to convince voters to go from what French call a mariage d’amour to a mariage de raison. It’s as if your wife had an affair with another man, your first reaction is anger. Then two or three or months go by you and you start thinking and in many cases the marriage holds. It will never be like it was before. So the issue for him is if he can get back some of the people, who, upon hearing the news [of his financial scandal, hiring his wife to a no-show job] said “Get out, I don’t want to see you anymore.” It usually starts like that but doesn’t always end like that.
It’s getting late for that.
Yes, but there is a slight dynamic in that direction. Whether it is enough, I don’t know. But some of his voters went to Macron. You know Fillon has been completely transformed by the ordeal. For me he became like Bruce Willis in Die Hard. He doesn’t give up. Also there is a Catholic aspect to it, like the stations of the cross. Since he has a Catholic background. It is what the French call expiation. You purge your sins by suffering. And people see him suffering visibly. People see him paying for what he did. It’s very complex.
How much of the French electorate identifies as Catholic?
The Catholics are back in the game. Since the 2012–13 campaign.
Against gay marriage?
More against gay adoption. People were willing to compromise on marriage, but many are against adoption.
Is abortion an issue ?
Not really, People are talking about it, but it doesn’t catch. But even gay marriage, it won’t change. But the movement created a new political fact out of a preexisting sociological fact. Now we are seeing a young generation with a notion of Catholic Pride. “We are not afraid, we are outspoken, we say who we are, we are not like our fathers.” This new Catholicism, more outspoken and visible, plays an important a role in Fillon’s campaign.
That’s an interesting subject, seldom noted in America. To be explored another time.
Think what you will about America’s contentious identity politics; compared with France, the United States remains Mayberry, TV’s symbol of small-town innocence. We may have Black Lives Matter, massive resistance to a president seeking to enforce the country’s existing immigration laws, and urban riots. But in France the riots are bigger and last far longer. It has hundreds of thousands of people possessing French citizenship but evincing no discernible national loyalty. And there are few geographic barriers between itself and the sources of inundating immigration. No one can forecast with confidence the American future—whether it be a more or less successful assimilation of large streams of new immigrants or a transformed country where ethnic division is a norm underpinning every political transaction. But whatever the fate of Western civilization—whether it be a renaissance, or, as Pat Buchanan has predicted, its death—that fate will be revealed in Paris before New York or Chicago.
And that’s why France is the epicenter of today’s fearsome battle between Western elites bent on protecting and expanding the well-entrenched policy of mass immigration and those who see this spreading influx as an ultimate threat to the West’s cultural heritage, not to mention its internal tranquility. In France it is a two-front war. One is the political front, where Marine Le Pen’s National Front has moved from the fringes of politics into the mainstream. The other is the intellectual front, where a new breed of writers, thinkers, and historians has emerged to question the national direction and to decry those who have set the country upon its current course.
Americans have always had a special affinity for France. It was critical to the American founding by way of Lafayette’s mission. In the 20th century many artistic and upper-class Americans embraced Paris as the site of and model for their own cultural strivings. France’s 1940 fall to Nazi Germany dealt the first real blow to American isolationism. After the 1945 victory in Europe, U.S. links to Paris, London, and Europe generally rendered postwar Atlanticism more than just a strategy: it was a civilizational commitment that helped define who we were as Americans.
Paris remains beautiful, though crime has been rising for a generation and the city has the trappings of wartime, with heavily armed soldiers visibly guarding sensitive targets—museums, schools, newspapers—against Islamist terror. The approaching elections, where the National Front will surely exceed its past vote totals, mark a tremulous new era.
Indeed, serious people have for some years been contemplating whether France is nearing the precipice of civil war. That’s probably unlikely, at least in the near future, but few would be shocked if the political and communal conflicts exploded into violence not seen in decades. And that has spawned a radically changed intellectual climate. The French intelligentsia and its cultural establishment still lean, in the main, toward the left, as they have since the end of World War II, or indeed since the divisive Dreyfus affair of the Third Republic. But today, France’s most read and most discussed popular writers—novelists and political essayists—are conservatives of one stripe or another. They are not concerned, even slightly, with the issues that animate American “mainstream” think-tank conservatism—lowering taxes, cutting federal programs, or maintaining some kind of global military hegemony. Their focus is France’s national culture and its survival. When they raise, as they do, the subjects embraced by American paleoconservatives and the so-called alt-right, that doesn’t mean the French debate has been taken over by extremists. The authors driving the French conversation are in almost every instance prominent figures whose views would have put them in the Gaullist middle or somewhat left of center at any time in the 1960s or ’70s. But France has changed, and what National Review in the 1990s called “the national question” has been brought to the very heart of the country’s national debate.
At the moment, France’s most important political intellectual on the right is probably Éric Zemmour, a former editorial writer for Le Figaro. A natural polemicist, he is a descendant of working-class Algerian Jews who fled to France in the 1950s. Though he demonstrates serious intellectual breadth, Zemmour’s particular passion is polemical battle. He was fined under French anti-racism laws in 2011 for publicly referring to racial discrepancies in crime rates. No one questioned the accuracy of his statistics, but discussing them in a way that was seen as contravening French anti-defamation law was an absolute no-no. Three years later, he reached a pinnacle of influence with the publication of his 500-page Le Suicide français, a modern national history that sold 400,000 copies within two months and became the top-selling book in France. Weeks later, when attacks by French-born Islamists on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket outside Paris stunned the nation (while being greeted with shocking indifference in the predominantly Muslim Paris suburbs), Zemmour’s book was there to explain how France had arrived at that dismal intersection.
The literary technique of Le Suicide français seems made for the internet and social media. The book marches, in short vignettes, from the death of de Gaulle in 1970 through the end of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency in 2012. Zemmour takes an illustrative event—sometimes no more than a demonstration, a film, or a pop song—and shows how it reflects national decline or actually pushed that decline onward.
One central theme is that the young bourgeois nihilists of the May 1968 street revolution prevailed. Not in politics or at least not immediately: de Gaulle’s party remained in power for more than a decade after. But the cultural victory was decisive. De Gaulle as a father figure was overthrown, and so was the traditional idea of the father. As the traditional family weakened, birth rates sank. In short order, France embraced legalized abortion and no-fault divorce; the father, when he didn’t disappear altogether, began to behave like a second mother. Traces of the shift show up in pop music. The singer Michel Delpech gave his blessing to his wife leaving for another man in one popular song:
You can even make a half-brother for Stéphanie
That would be marvelous for her.
Or as the comic Guy Bedos put it, “We separated by mutual agreement, especially hers.”
Such shifts coincided, in symbiotic ways that few understood at the time, with the advent of mass immigration. Zemmour writes, “At the same moment the traditional French family receded, as if to compensate symbolically and demographically, the most traditional type of Maghrebine family, the most archaic, the most patriarchal, is invited to take up its role. To come to its rescue. To fill up the places it has left vacant. To replace it.”
Like the immigration narrative of every advanced Western country, the story is complex. France had welcomed and assimilated immigrants from eastern and southern Europe for a century. In the 1960s, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou, encouraged by an industrial elite seeking cheaper manual labor, recruited to France each year hundreds of thousands of workers from Spain, Portugal, and North Africa. Rural Maghrebine workers were preferred; they were seen as less Frenchified than workers from Algerian towns, more docile. After worker recruitment was stopped during the recession of 1974, family reunification as a humanitarian policy was instigated, and hundreds of thousands of North African women and children joined their husbands in France. Zemmour concludes that this represented a kind of posthumous victory over de Gaulle by the partisans of Algérie Française, the blending of France and Algeria which de Gaulle had rejected—for reasons of sociology and demography as much as for peace. As he told Alain Peyrefitte in 1959, “Those who dream of integration are birdbrains, even the most brilliant of them. Try to mix oil and vinegar. Shake up the bottle. After a while, they separate again. The Arabs are Arabs, the French are French.” In the same interview, de Gaulle said the Algérie Française would result in massive immigration to France, and his town Colombey-les-Deux-Églises would be turned into Colombey-les-Deux-Mosquées.
When the 1974 recession struck, French politicians discovered it was far easier to start an immigration flow than to end one. Social-service providers were overwhelmed by the needs of the new families. When Prime Minister Raymond Barre sought to suspend family reunification, he was blocked by a French high court. When Barre finally arranged for cash payments for immigrants who voluntarily repatriated, Spanish and Portuguese workers pocketed the checks and left, while the North Africans remained. Despite the tangible difficulties of assimilating Maghrebine immigrants, France bien pensant and celebrity culture had by then swung behind the newcomers. French singer Pierre Perret produced a 1977 ballad, “Lily,” about an immigrant girl from Somalia facing the trials of racism in Paris. In Dupont Lajoie, one of Isabelle Huppert’s early films, a character seeming to stand in for lower-middle-class white France (the film’s English title was “The Common Man”) rapes and accidentally murders a young woman and then tries to frame some saintly Algerian workers for the crime. For Zemmour, the film’s message to the public was, “We are all Dupont Lajoie.”
By the 1980s, the temporary workers, their families, and their children were granted permanent residence, but the notion that most of them would somehow blend into the larger French community was discreetly abandoned. Zemmour traces the left’s adoption of an accusatory anti-racism to a need to compensate for its inability to pursue any kind of socialist or pro-working-class economic program in a period of neoliberal capitalist ascendance.
On one cultural front, the crimes of Vichy collaboration after France’s 1940 defeat became a kind of national obsession. Zemmour singles out the work of American historian Robert Paxton for transmitting a far more damning narrative of Vichy’s conduct than most French had accepted before. (I note, as a former student and an admirer of Paxton, that Zemmour distinguishes Paxton’s work from that of his less nuanced French epigones.) The record of Vichy’s conduct is shameful, though perhaps also arguably defensible in one ambiguous respect. Most French Jews survived the war, in sharp contrast to the fate of Jews in other Nazi-occupied countries. But Vichy also collaborated with German campaigns to deport non-French Jewish refugees and carried out its own anti-Semitic policies without German prompting.
De Gaulle promoted a national narrative based on the idea that Vichy did not represent “real France,” and most of his people embraced this narrative in the early postwar decades. But by the 1980s it became fashionable for educated young Frenchmen to believe that racism and anti-Semitism were stewed into France’s very essence. Remembrance of the Shoah, through trials, films, books, and journals, permeated the political culture. Zemmour argues that young Jews were especially affected, to the point of rejecting the assimilationist model that their parents previously had embraced. This produced wider political consequences, particularly on the left, where celebration of whoever or whatever was not French became a default position. When the François Mitterrand government in the late 1980s rounded up some illegal immigrants from Mali and put them on a flight back home, the left likened the policy to the trains exporting Jews to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Among activists and celebrities organizing themselves in support of illegal immigrants, the undocumented were transmuted into France’s ultimate symbol of victimhood, an “ideal Jew,” in Zemmour’s phrase. With sardonic irony, he concludes: “For all the French who could not, or would not, or dared not, or wished not to save Jews in 1942, History benevolently provided them with a second opportunity.”
By the 1990s, it was becoming inescapably evident that the new immigration was not going to be normalized in the sense that the children of the new groups would be slowly absorbed into France. Official France acknowledged this in various ways. In 1993 it scrapped a French law, seldom enforced, requiring the first names of French newborns to come from an official registry. Soon “Pierre” and “Nicole” were replaced increasingly by random names such as “Ryan” or “Enzo,” then far more frequently by “Mohammed.” Rap music exploded onto the French pop scene and was much celebrated in the French media. “Nique Ta Mere” (“Fuck Your Mother’’) was a popular group; a song called “Nique La France” was a big hit in the early 2000s.
The first large riot in the immigrant suburbs erupted in 2005. By that time the French state had partially dissolved itself into Europe, stripping itself of many powers it might have used to turn into Frenchmen the sons and daughters from the migrant flows. Fighting the last war, Europe’s technocrats had sought to submerge forever the nationalist passions which had once nearly destroyed Europe. The result was representative bodies without power (the old nation-states) and power without representation (the technocrats of Brussels). The embrace of this movement by the French political elite, who managed to persuade the populace that getting rid of France’s currency would solve all its economic problems, makes amusing reading.
In his conclusion, written on the eve of the first 2015 terror attacks, Zemmour pronounces France to be dying, even dead. But one doubts he fully believes that. He is still writing, still doing TV, still arguing for the survival of a certain Greco-Judaeo-Christian-French nation, as if the French Suicide remained far from an accomplished fact.
As Zemmour’s work surged to the top of France’s best-seller list, the novelist Michel Houellebecq was already there. The most renowned French novelist since Camus, this winner of the Prix Goncourt is a cultural reactionary with vaguely socialist economic leanings. One of his close friends, the left-wing economist Bernard Maris, considered Houellebecq one of France’s shrewdest critics of modern capitalism.
Still, the writer is no progressive. His 1998 breakout novel, The Elementary Particles, presented a withering picture of post-1968 family life, where hedonistic parents pursued self-actualization and largely abandoned the raising of their own children. This had been Houellebecq’s personal experience after his mother essentially left him and his brother with grandparents so she could explore exotic pursuits. Mark Lilla writes that he heard of the book from French friends who had had it pressed on them by their children; he had been surprised that this tale of adult sexual libertinism and the emotional carnage it wrought struck such a deep chord with French adolescents.
Submission, published on the very day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, is governed by a similar narrative voice. Its protagonist, François, is a modestly successful Parisian academic, an expert on the 19th-century novelist Huysmans. He is seemingly incapable of love or emotional commitment or finding much pleasure in life. He finds himself in the midst of a political crisis, set seven years into the future, as France totters on the edge of civil war.
The rough plot of Submission has been often described: a skillful moderate Muslim politician named Ben Abbes is elected president with the support of the establishment left and business-oriented right-wing parties, which have combined against the National Front’s candidate. For some French, there are unanticipated compensations to a soft Islamic regime—the prospect of polygamy for more successful men, for example. Also, implied but never stated, French women could get a respite from the sexualized and professional treadmill of Western postmodernity—in other words, from the duties and expectations of modern feminism. François eventually converts to Islam to protect his job at the Sorbonne. Perhaps the prospect of several young wives will be a kind of compensation for this lonely man.
But much of the novel involves scene setting before the victory of Ben Abbes. As the electoral showdown begins to take form, François encounters a young right-wing professor (named Lempereur) at an academic cocktail party. Out of practice in how to talk to right-wingers, he asks “You’re what? … Catholic? Fascist? Both?” Then the sound of distant gunfire shakes up the gathering. Leaving, the two professors walk past the Place de Clichy—seeing some fires, burnt cars, riot police in Kevlar. Nothing is reported on the news. François learns that Lempereur was in his youth involved in far right “identitarian” groups. The younger man explains that the far right is trying to stir the pot, produce provocations; the more there is open violence, the greater the National Front’s chances. He goes on to explain that the far right has been galvanized by a new group called “Indigenous Europeans,” which rails as much against “Muslim occupation” as against American companies and the new capitalists from India and China who are “buying up our heritage.” European nativists feel that “sooner or later we’ll see a civil war between the Muslims and everyone else. They conclude that … war had better come as soon as possible.” Though the demographic rationale for sooner rather than later needs no elaboration, Lempereur adds that the question is somewhat complicated by the French military, the strongest in Europe, capable of suppressing any right-wing insurrection. The political wing of the Indigenous Europeans, he explains, wants to delay a civil war until it can gain political control of the military through systematic mass enlistment.
This fictional conversation is not far remote from speculations taking place today among some Frenchmen. Parisian friends have told me that Lempereur is modeled on a real person. His Islamist counterparts want the same thing. Gilles Kepel, France’s foremost analyst of contemporary Islam, has explained that the recent wave of terror attacks launched in France, Belgium, and Germany have a doctrinal basis in the writings of the “third-generation jihad” theorist Abu Musab al-Suri. Terrorism is intended not only to kill, but also to provoke anti-Islamic sentiment and policies in order to turn the Muslim populations of Europe into a manpower reservoir for the jihadists. Both sides are alert to the demographic questions; everyone knows that the white France of Christian (and Jewish) background is, in relative terms, shrinking.
How quickly it is shrinking remains a critical question. The French government publishes few figures on ethnic background, ostensibly because such classifications are considered to be, variously, throwbacks to the invidious religious classifications of Vichy, or simply racist, or foreign to the spirit of a non-racial French Republic. Statistics about France’s demography thus tend to be murky, with the liberal establishment often suspected of lowballing Muslim or immigrant numbers. Nonetheless everyone knows there are parts of France that feel less and less French, and that these are growing.
Last year Michel Gurfinkiel weighed conflicting estimates (between three and six million) of the number of French Muslims in the mid-1990s and contrasted them with present estimates. He concluded that the current figure is roughly six million, or 9 percent of the population, and that it is growing at a much faster rate than the French population as a whole. As early as 2010, fully 20 percent of French under 24 were described as Muslim. A more recent poll in the liberal French weekly L’Obs reported that more than a quarter of French youth described themselves as Muslim.
Because the government does not publish statistics about race, some curious researchers have looked at the number of newborn babies screened for markers for sickle-cell anemia, a test given if both parents are of African, North African, or Sicilian origin. The figure has risen from 25 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2015. In the Greater Paris region it has risen from 54 percent to 73 percent. One understands why Houellebecq’s right-wing professor says he wants the inevitable civil war to come “as soon as possible.”
Neither Houellebecq (and certainly not his far-right characters) nor Zemmour is quite at the intellectual center of French life, but Alain Finkielkraut may be. The 67-year-old Parisian writer, recently admitted into the prestigious Académie Française, has been a fixture in French literary and political debate for nearly four decades. Author of some two dozen books, a frequent participant on the intellectual sparring sessions of French TV, and for many years a professor at the École Polytechnique, he has a voice that France has listened to for many years on moral and political questions. The child of Polish Jews who escaped the Holocaust and married in France after the war, Finkielkraut was a ’68 generation protester and a decade later one of the so-called nouveaux philosophes who broke with Marxism in the era of The Gulag Archipelago and the Khmer Rouge genocide.
Sometimes described as a liberal in the English press, Finkielkraut projects many attitudes of early neoconservatism, when the movement was more engaged in pushing back against the falsehoods and hysterias of the New Left than it was in encouraging military interventions in the Mideast. When he cites American authors, which is not frequently, he chooses from those loosely in that orbit: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick.
But what is striking about Finkielkraut’s views today is his recognition, which he has made a central theme of his writing, that France is unhappily going through a crisis of identity, the consequence of Muslim and other Third World immigration, and that much of the French establishment refuses to accept that there is anything of value to fight for in the traditional French identity.
He approaches these questions in his unerringly gentle style—literary, discursive, almost encircling. A discussion of the headscarf issue, a major dispute in France, commences with a detour through the memoirs of an envoy sent by the Pasha of Egypt to Paris during the Bourbon Restoration. He was astonished by how well women were treated, codified in the customs of chivalry that marked interactions between the sexes. Finkielkraut then winds his way to observing that the general flows of hatred and aggressiveness that seem to permeate the immigrant suburbs are perhaps not due entirely (as per the official narrative) to the lack of jobs or to social exclusion. Rather, he suggests, it might owe something to the exclusion of women from immigrant-dominated public spaces and the emotional wasteland that results. Finkielkraut wonders whether the violence is “a consequence of the denial of sensitivity, the rejection of courtesy towards women which these neighborhoods impose … [the effect] which collective misogyny has on every individual.” No matter how much the liberal intelligentsia has tried to frame the 2005 suburban riots as “May ’68 for the popular classes,” they could not quite avoid the contrasting images of ultraviolent young men who put forth no verbal demands or slogans and the highly rhetorical and sexually mixed spring of 1968.
The deep-rooted cultural divide between the immigrants and the French, Finkielkraut argues, is hardly immutable. But it demands a prodigious French effort, initiated in the schools, to wear it down. The problem is that there is no will in France, nor anywhere in Europe, to make that effort. In L’identité malheureuse, Finkielkraut probes Europe’s politically correct elite attitudes, especially the new passion for “diversity.” For some it clearly means that the essential identity of Europe is to be diverse, or cosmopolitan, which means it should have no identity—in other words, an identity based on a kind of denial of identity. To be true to this desired self, Europe must deny its own origins. The consequences emerge frequently—for instance in the brouhaha over a proposed Museum of History of France. Multiculturalists wanted the new structure be named the Museum of History in France, so that no extraneous appeals to strengthen national identity were transmitted. As Finkielkraut concludes, this is the first time in the history of immigration that those who are being welcomed reject the idea that those welcoming them have the right to represent the welcoming country. This has produced widespread concerns about France’s direction: “France has changed, life has changed, even change has changed … where it was once undertaken, now it is fated, where it was once what we did or what we desired, it has become instead what happens to us.”
Finkielkraut is accused frequently of having turned into a reactionary. At the time of his election to the Académie Française, a socialist deputy charged, “If Finkielkraut was not Jewish, he’d be a spokesman for the National Front.” When he sought last year to visit Nuit Debout, a months-long leftist protest and teach-in at the Place République, protesters forcibly escorted him and his wife out. He counters with wry observations about the left: “At the moment when Marine Le Pen kills her father, the antifascists spare no measure to revive him.” This is a reference to the political establishment’s refusal to acknowledge the deep changes the party founder’s daughter has wrought in the National Front, not least by expelling her father from the party. He notes also the left’s belief that “‘the people’ are admirable when they act as a class, but despicable when they act as part of a nation.” Finkielkraut is not part of the populist right, nor does he consider civil war inevitable. He advocates reforms designed to save France, particularly in the schools. These include putting French history, language, and culture at the center of the curriculum in the immigrant suburbs. But there isn’t much chance any of this actually will be implemented.
The three men discussed above are the tip of a cultural and political iceberg. We could easily include Finkielkraut’s friend Pierre Manent, author of Situation de la France, which lays out a blueprint for coming to terms with an Islam that was invited, without preconditions, into France. He suggests flexibility on headscarves; accommodation for separate hours for girls and boys in gym; firmness in rejection of the face-covering hijab; and absolute support for freedom of speech. At the same time, he bemoans the reality that France’s adherence to the EU deprives the state of the strength and flexibility needed to facilitate a deeper assimilation. Others in this new school of French cultural identity include the historian Jacques Julliard, the famous onetime revolutionary theoretician Régis Debray, and prominent writer Pascal Bruckner—all major intellectuals, all now labeled reactionaries. Last year Eugénie Bastié observed in Le Figaro that Nov. 13, 2015, the date of the Bataclan massacre, marked a decisive breaking point for French intellectuals, generating a dichotomy between, on the one hand, those who thought it essential to see the world as it truly was; and, on the other hand, those who doubled down on the cause of anti-racism because they thought it was just and because, above all, they must not “play the game” of the National Front. Some described this as a battle between “the Good and the True.” This split will certainly endure after this May’s presidential election, whatever the outcome. But it can’t be denied that the influence of those bent on “seeing things as they truly are,” represented in some form by Zemmour, Finkielkraut, and Houellebecq, among others, had grown tremendously over the past five years.
It is worth noting also that it surely isn’t an accident that two of the three men discussed here are Jewish, and that a Jewish character (Francois’s girlfriend Myriam) plays a pivotal role in Submission when she decamps, with her parents, for Israel. To be sure, neither Zemmour nor Finkielkraut spends much time writing about French Jewish “communal” issues. But Zemmour was correct in arguing that the 1980s intensification of French guilt over Vichy and the Shoah played a significant part in pushing much of France’s cultural and political establishment toward a view that they had a moral obligation to reject traditional France. Some saw replacing it with new immigrants as a kind of providential opportunity. But there has emerged also a growing sense that this new France, redeemed, as it were, of all the provincial, nationalist, and petty racist sentiments that suffused both Vichy and Gaullism, now threatens French Jews in very concrete and undeniable ways. The Jewish population of France is roughly half a million, less than 1 percent, but its weight is larger in the French intellectual and cultural worlds. And many French Jews, for very understandable reasons, have developed sensitive social antennae for perceiving the advent of societal danger.
In France today this growing societal danger is undeniable. Roughly half of the country’s government-acknowledged hate crimes are carried out against Jews. Islamist terrorists have struck many general French targets, including Catholic ones. But about half of their attacks have been against specifically Jewish targets: schools, museums, kosher supermarkets. Perhaps more ominous is the rise in violent crime, now part of the general background. Public schools in the Paris suburbs, once filled with Jewish children, are now nearly empty of them. According to one recent estimate, 40 percent of Jewish students go to Jewish schools, while another 35 percent attend Catholic academies; their parents don’t believe French public schools are safe for their children. In recent years, France has been losing annually some 2 to 3 percent of its Jewish population to emigration to Israel. Reports proliferate of Jews leaving medium-size cities for the relatively greater safety of Paris, but in Paris one sees synagogues and Jewish schools under military guard.
While this is just one aspect of the growing concern within French society about the seemingly intractable assimilation issues facing the country, it is a significant one. Beyond it is a host of more general popular fears and cultural anxieties focused on the France of old and what will be lost when it is gone. It is not surprising, therefore, that we are seeing in French intellectual circles a fresh appreciation for the habits, culture, virtues, and even flaws of the historical French republics. No one should be fooled into thinking that this intellectual ferment in France, centered on the protection of the country’s traditional culture, is a phenomenon peculiar to this particular European nation. Just as we see echoes of Le Pen’s National Front in the politics of other Western countries, including the United States, we are likely to see a growing intellectual focus on such political controversies. A powerful new debate has opened up in the nations of the West, and writers, thinkers, essayists, and polemicists of various stripes and viewpoints will be pulled into it. But France is the country to watch because it is the vanguard.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.
I’m sensing a little boost for Marine Le Pen. She was just on for a pretty lengthy interview on BFMTV, the main news station. The host, who is surely no Le Penist, asked her a lot of questions about her life, growing up as the daughter of France’s most prominent extreme-rightist, etc. She is always very good on such topics, coming across as both normal and wise. She’s led a full life and is raising three kids as a divorced mom. She was appealing in talking about her decision to keep them out of the campaign limelight. She’s attractive but no knockout; I think she is very relatable not only as a populist tribune, but as a woman in full navigating the shoals of a modern life. I liked it when the host asked her what she was reading, and she laughed and said nothing but campaign-related dossiers and reports. My guess is that none of her opponents would come across so well in this format, and it can’t hurt her that clips of it will be rebroadcast all day on the main news channel four days before the first round.
Some in the press have had Le Pen in a little bit of a slump: a slight dipping in the polls, an inability to bring the campaign to focus on her subjects. One observer noted that she seemed a bit outside-looking-in during the televised debates; she would say something bold or provocative and no one would respond. That’s not the case this week; she’s back in the center. She did it by doubling down hard on her key issue, immigration.
On Monday evening she spoke at big rally at the Zenith, on the edge of Paris. Paris is not a Marine stronghold, so she filled an arena of 5,000, perhaps a third of the size of Macron’s rally earlier that day. But she made news with real proposals—so, in contrast to Macron, the papers were full of Le Pen headlines for the next two days.
The Zenith is on the northeast edge of Paris, near the suburbs where riots are always possible, and leaving the subway I was not unhappy to see a full contingent of riot cops. I got into the arena early, but shortly thereafter the “antifa” assaulted rallygoers with Molotov cocktails. When we left, the cops told us to use one subway station (there was another possibility) because it was “fully securitized.”
The Le Pen crowd in Paris has that embattled group which has been on the outs for a while. But it gives them a kind of esprit de corps. A few parents brought children though this was an evening rally at the end of a holiday weekend. Among the older faces, there was a working-class, or what in New York would be an outer-borough, feel; the younger Le Penists looked somewhat hipper.
As music to warm up the crowd before the speakers, Macron’s rally deployed somewhat sanitized rap; Le Pen went with Ravel’s Bolero.
Finally Marine Le Pen strides onstage, wearing black pants and a scarlet jacket. She talks for an hour and a half, from prepared text but with some real rhetorical power. She speaks mostly about immigration and globalization: “civilization is at stake” and she will protect France and the French. The crowd regularly breaks into the Le Penist chant “on est chez nous“(“We are at home”)—a chant of defiance to globalization, something that would make sense only to a people whose sense of being at home in their country felt actually under threat.
Globalization of course is a vast subject, and she can dip into one corner of it after another without ever sliding into genuinely racist discourse. France will either put itself in order and reclaim its identity or become a little planetary village. “In France we drink wine whenever we want. In France we do not force women to wear the veil because they are impure. In France we get to decide who deserves to become French.” We will not be “dispossessed our our history, our memory.” This last incites long rolling chants of “On est chez nous!“ from the crowd.
As president Le Pen vows to end the Schengen agreement, which allows open-borders travel between the countries of Europe. Schengen has “made our country a railway hall for all the migrants of the world.” Massive immigration is “not an opportunity for France, but a tragedy for France.” 240 killed by terrorists in the past two years. She will end birthright citizenship; she will impose a moratorium on all legal immigration. (This a hardening of the line she put out in proposals several months ago.) The burkini (the Muslim swimming suit) is “not a religious garment but an Islamist provocation.” “Give us France back” she exhorts. She reminds the crowd that Fillon supported Turkey’s entry into the European Union, which would grant unlimited residency rights in France for Turkish citizens. And after Turkey, she notes, tomorrow we could have Algeria and Morocco. She doesn’t mention this, but this was the ambition of the moderate Muslim French president elected in in Houellebecq’s novel Soumission.
At one point Le Pen had said that Mohammed Merah, one of the many French born Islamic terrorists, wouldn’t have had French citizenship if her preferences had been in place. This provoked a shame-on-her-editorial from Le Monde, which contrasted Le Pen unfavorably with George W. Bush of all people—for trying to make political capital out of terrorism.
I have to admit I thought Le Pen’s speech was fine. Her ideal France isn’t attacking any foreign countries, brandishing aircraft carriers and nuclear missiles, threatening regime change. It wants simply to be able to be itself. But in the forced march to a world without borders, that is considered an extremist and shameful ambition. It shouldn’t be.
He’s been called a political UFO, or the candidate of “marketing”; he’s never held elected office, but 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron is more likely than not to be the next president of France. Last week there were rumblings of worry among Macron’s supporters, as if his Blairite neoliberalism would be seen, ultimately, as hollow by French voters. But he filled Bercy, a venue the size of U.S. pro hockey arena, Monday afternoon in Paris with a slick, well-produced rally, and he leads this morning’s polls. “We’re going to win” (“on va gagner“) and “Macron President” were the most popular chants for the Macronists, slogans devoid of much ideological content.
Macron is a bright young man of the technocratic center. If Mark Zuckerberg proves to have any talent as a speaker, it’s what his presidential campaign will look like. Macron is smart; he’s comfortable with intellectuals; he believes in the market, in modernity, in France’s future, in Europe’s future, in everyone’s future. He was a successful investment banker, became a top economic minister in François Hollande’s very unpopular Socialist government, pushed through some pro-business measures to no great effect, left to form En Marche, his own centrist party. Anti-Macron posters have shown up around Paris recently, showing Macron looking into the mirror and seeing Hollande, one with a photo of the two in embrace. Hollande has intimated he would probably vote for Hollande, rather than the more left-wing candidate (Benoît Hamon) of his own party.
I signed up on the internet for a ticket for the rally, then got into the wrong line out of the subway, the line reserved for core supporters, who would be on the floor of the hall, right in front of the podium. I got through the frisking part of security fine with my American passport and ticket, but subsequently realized I didn’t have the orange plastic bracelet everyone else around me had. But there was no way to leave or go around to the main entrance, against the flow of the crowd though the gates. I spoke to one of the middle-aged Macron rally aides, identified myself as a journalist (but with no French credentials) and prepared to leave and go have a sandwich and a beer once the entering crush died down. But shortly thereafter a Macron aide approached me and snapped one of the special orange bracelets on my wrist. I could attend, and be part of the inner circle yet!
The rally was loud and slick. The crowd was warmed up with speakers and videos, a French-Algerian former rugby star who had become a successful businessman was the first and particularly effective. The crowd was a melange of Paris bobo (David Brooks’s phrase “bourgeois bohemians” has caught on in France in ways it never did in the United States) and the traditional socialist electorate of teachers and civil servants. A fair number of blacks, maybe 5–10 percent, reflective of the French population, many in mixed couples of both sorts. I saw no one who was self-evidently Muslim. In one of the campaign videos, there’s a three- or four-second cut of Macron sharing what appears to be a very good private joke with a woman in a headscarf, but I didn’t see anyone like that in the actual crowd.
Macron is a good enough speaker. His party’s themes are hope and confidence for the future. No to Sens Commun (the traditionalist mass movement that arose in opposition to gay-marriage legislation) yes to abortion, yes to belonging to Europe, yes to what the French call le mariage pour tous.
When Macron came on, there wasn’t that much new to say. He had, I thought, one telling line: France needs “not Thatcher, not Trotsky, not Maurras”—an amusing and effective way of caricaturizing his three main opponents, Fillon, Mélenchon, and Le Pen. Above all France should be be confident in its future, Europe should be confident. The future of France will be as bright as its past. We are the heirs of a France conquerante et confidente.
He paid an homage to the ’68 generation (of Dylan and Walesa and Havel) including with them Rocard and Mitterrand, socialists who are a good deal older. He praised those who had vanquished totalitarianism. He praised innovative France, and the France that renews itself. He spent a long time quoting a letter Diderot wrote to his mistress, in the fading candlelight. “Know, above all, that I love you” was the punchline, and the crowd burst into applause.
Macron is an appealing candidate in many ways and would be more so under different circumstances. It would be hard to feel angry with the people who flocked to Bercy Monday afternoon, all of whom seemed like nice people. The question of course is whether France is in sufficient state of crisis that some modernized and appropriate dose of Thatcher and Maurras—well not really Maurras, more de Gaulle—and probably not too much of Trotsky is what the country seeks, and needs.
I rushed to the Le Pen rally as Macron was wrapping up, and will write about that later. But as a hint: she was effective, she really stands for something; I’m already waffling on my previous prediction she won’t make the second round. I’m including some photos of the Macron event.
Update: Since I left the Macron rally right before the end, I didn’t see that he apparently brought on stage next to him a young woman in a headscarf for the final, exultant, group singing of the Marseilleise.
Today is a holiday in France, the day after Easter being taken as a day off by nearly everyone in the post-Christian nation. I plan to go to two rallies, Macron’s in the afternoon, Le Pen’s in the evening, and will try to get a sense of the crowds and enthusiasm. As I’ve written before, the top four candidates are grouped around 20 percent, and anything can happen. There is slight sense in the media that Le Pen’s campaign is a little bit flagging, as if she’s perhaps uncertain how much to stress her newer themes, such as the need to withdraw from the EU and the euro. Is this a priority, or an option? Does this frighten more of her potential voters than it attracts?
My guess is that Le Pen’s comment last week that “France” was not responsible for the round up of Jews at the Vel d’Hiv in 1942, but rather it was a crime committed by those Frenchmen in power at the time, was not a gaffe but intentional. Her position was one long maintained by both de Gaulle and Mitterrand (for whom Vichy was not “France”), though it had been contradicted by Jacques Chirac in a famous 1995 address, where he took responsibility on behalf of the French state for the terrible act. So, by taking a position supported by both de Gaulle and Mitterrand, she places herself in opposition to the increasingly dominant bien pensant concept of the eternally guilty France that can redeem itself only by drowning itself in a sea of antiracism and multiculturalism.
On the other hand, her statement led to days of tabloid headlines associating Le Pen’s name with World War II crimes, which is of course not great for a candidate who has tried so hard to distance her party from the Vichy-apologist milieus that were present at its founding. It’s as if she got herself caught up in a French version of the McCarthy era joke:
Witness: “But I’m an anti-communist.”
Interrogator: “I don’t care what kind of communist you are.”
Then there are the other things. I have a vague sense that the public disgust with Fillon’s financial scandals, which smashed his polls numbers two months ago, has peaked. Le Pen is harassed by questions about a lesser scandal, the putting of FN party operatives on the European Parliament payroll. That’s an annoyance and a steady minor drip, but it gets in the way of her getting her message out.
In any case, a reader asked me a few days ago to make predictions. So I predict the most boring of possible results, Macron and Fillon making it to the second round, with Le Pen just behind and Mélenchon pulling about 18 percent to finish in fourth place. But I’ll have a better sense after the two rallies today. And of course anything else can shift things. Poll numbers frequently change by as much as six points in the last week of the campaign.
Two blocks up from my apartment is St. Pierre du Gros Caillou, a Catholic Church whose first stones were laid in 1733. This being Good Friday, this morning on my way to buy the papers I saw two policemen armed with assault rifles take up positions inside. I don’t know if they will be reinforced later for Easter services, or if two will suffice, or how many French churches now have that kind of protection.
France is having an odd presidential campaign. If you take note of the major books written, the sharpest intellectual debates, and the most loaded private conversations, you might conclude that the identitarian issues facing France somehow predominate. But instead, in this otherwise quite interesting presidential campaign, one has the feeling that no one wants to address them. It’s as if every wants to pretend France is basically fine, and argue about the economy, or Fillon’s corruption or Macron’s ties to the unpopular François Hollande.
Of course few candidates are making much of an overt appeal for the Muslim vote: some saw Macron’s depiction last month of the colonization of Algeria as a “crime against humanity” as a subtle bid in that direction, and the socialist whose campaign is failing, Benoît Hamon, has been campaigning in the Paris suburbs. (Asking a marketplace crowd why they thought Marine Le Pen was so naughty—méchant—Hamon quickly recoiled when someone his audience replied, “Because she’s Christian.” No, no, no, that’s not the reason, he quickly interrupted, cameras rolling.
In any case it is only Marine Le Pen who tries to press the issue. She called today for the banning of a weekend meeting of national Muslim organization, the Union des Organizations Islamique de a France; she asserts that it has over the years invited many extremist speakers and fount of hate speech against women, Jews, and homosexuals. That is probably true, but somehow banning a meeting, or type of speech, doesn’t seem a very satisfactory solution in a democratic country. And it’s a large organization. This weekend, at an exhibition hall outside Paris, 150,000 people are expected to spend some time at the UOIF’s annual gathering.
The larger issue is that the people represented by the group, a substantial minority of French Muslims, have a considerably different way of viewing the world than Marine Le Pen or any other French politician, and banning their meeting will hardly change that.
Another problem for Le Pen is that when she is invited on TV, no one wants to talk about such proposals, whatever their merit. TV journalists are more inclined to press her on her various legal difficulties. (Whether she arranged for some National Front party workers to be paid by the European Parliament has been subject to a long and continuing investigation.)
In any case, Le Figaro today published its investigation of the state of the Muslim vote in the campaign. It is still quite small, a million perhaps, but growing. Of course all the candidates have at least put forth some ideas of how to deal with radicalization: Muslim imams should be trained in French universities, so that they absorb “the values of the Republic” (Macron); Muslims who go abroad to fight should be stripped of their nationality (Fillon); support the values of laïcité, protect the girl who wears shorts as well as the one who wears the headscarf (Hamon); the left-most candidate Mélenchon warns against the “instrumentalisation” of laïcité against Islam, which I suppose is is a nice way of saying he doesn’t plan to do anything. Le Pen, of course, has a long list of ideas, ranging from the aforementioned dissolution of the UOIF, to banning the wearing of ostensible religious signs or garments, shutting down Salafist mosques, the requirement that sermons be preached in French and the creation of a special surveillance agency to keep track of radical prisoners. To see these ideas written out makes me suspect no satisfactory political solution is going to be reached any time soon.
In its survey, Le Figaro makes the point that the Left can’t be assured of picking up the Muslim vote, that 86 percent of Muslims voted for President Hollande last election and yet feel “disappointed by the Hollande years.” But it’s fair to say the disappointment goes both ways, and the fact that heavily armed policeman are needed to guard religious services on Good Friday is an expression of what the politicians understand but don’t want to talk about.
My favorite French election headline thus far is from Liberation: “1 Femme, 3 Hommes, 6 Possibilities,” which not only has that faint “wink wink, you know the French” connotation, but also expresses clearly the utter uncertainty of what is going on. On April 23, the French will go to the polls to cast their ballot for one of eleven candidates, four of whom are polling at or near 20 percent. Two weeks later, they will choose between the top two vote-getters. Any of the top four could conceivably make it to the second round, and their chances are altered in ways no one can precisely calculate by which candidate they end up running against. Fully one-third of the electorate say they are undecided. Do you vote for the candidate you like most, or the one most likely to defeat the one you fear most? It’s complicated!
France’s political situation is deadly serious, but none of the leading candidates is especially beloved by much of the electorate. There is Emmanuel Macron, the youngish former Rothschild banker and Socialist minister who has never been elected to anything before, who promises a fresh-faced, middle-of-the-road neoliberalism and globalism: a France “open to all” is his slogan. Astonishingly, given that the number of Frenchmen who want a France open to all is no majority, he remains the odds-on favorite to win the presidency.
His main competitors are François Fillon, the candidate of the established center-right party, who was the favorite three months ago until he was put under official investigation for putting his wife on the state payroll for various well-paying no-show jobs. It’s possible to argue the Fillon is a victim of changing standards, and that 20 years ago no one would have cared about such things. Possible also that Fillon crossed some unclear line about blatantly stealing from the state, where a more modest salary for his English-born Penelope and an occasional office appearance by her would have been perceived as unremarkable.
Fillon looks tired—he has large bags under his eyes (one French woman told me he ought to have that fixed). But that aside, he probably is what a great deal of what both middle-class and establishment France wants—a harder line on immigration, a hard line on “totalitarian Islamism,” greater fiscal discipline, a tempered deregulation of the economy. He did after all win the primary of “Les Republicans” (the renamed center-right party) against more centrist figures.
Then there is the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, whose singular and perhaps historic accomplishment is to take her father’s rather fringy right-wing party and bring it into mainstream of French politics. Le Pen is a tenacious worker, disciplined and ambitious. She actually had to purge her aging father from her party because his remarks to the press undermined her efforts to rid it of its somewhat “fashy” reputation. “Dediabolisation,” or de-diabolize, has been her watchword over the past five years, and she has more or less succeeded. She is the candidate for Brexit and Trumpism and far stricter immigration controls, and is pro-worker-rights in ways that have allowed to recoup some former communist voters. (Thirty or forty years ago, the French Communist Party was a steady 20 percent force in French politics.) She expresses strongly the desire for the greater immigration control many French yearn for—a few years ago she described the staid images of Muslims holding prayer services in the street felt “like an occupation.”
But Madame Le Pen is a decent campaigner, not a great one. Her speeches lack a certain flair and spontaneity; she hasn’t rolled over her opponents in the free-for-all debates. She has emphasized (perhaps to not seem to be obsessed with immigration) French withdrawal from the EU and the Euro, which might be plausible, but frightens many middle-class people. (Curiously no one seems really scared anymore by her anti-Islam suggestions; they seem kind of normal.) In any case, Marine Le Pen polls well in the first round, but poorly when it comes time to add to her existing 24 percent against any of her potential opponents. This year at least, her role might be to put her party on the political map as a major contender for power and lay the groundwork for a powerful parliamentary presence (which the National Front now lacks). But then again, who knows, and she is certainly far more prepared—in terms of understanding politics and issues—than the current American president.
Finally there is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, French flavor of the week. To be clear, he is to the left of Bernie Sanders (the latter of whom, in his campaign, refrained from praising Castro and Hugo Chávez and never proposed a 100 percent tax on high salaries). Mélenchon, 66 years old and a former socialist from the party’s left wing, occupies the political space that the French Communist Party once did—and as I mentioned, it is a considerable space in France. But he doesn’t have the burden of the Soviet Union on his shoulders and is an attractive campaigner, acknowledged by all to be the best orator in the race. In the last weeks, he has benefited from outperforming the Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon in debates and on the stump, and has suddenly seen his polls rise from 10 or 12 percent to nearly 20. He could make it to the second round. He could win.
There are seven others on the ballot, a mixture for the most part of of fiery leftists and former Gaullists—all of whom were able to gather 500 signatures from elected officials to qualify. In a tight race, whether the entertainingly insouciant leftist auto worker Phillipe Poutou receives 1 percent of the vote or 2.5 has an enormous bearing on which two candidates will make it to the second round. If you like politics as theater, it’s hard to beat.
In a few months, it will be 15 years since Pat Buchanan, Taki, and I first met to talk about starting TAC. The need for a non-neoconservative voice on the right, beyond the estimable Chronicles, had been clear for quite some time, but the 9/11 attack and the establishment response crystallized it. It was then clear that almost the entirety of right-wing media, at least the media that anyone in Congress or a position of power saw, was going to, at least for a while, uncritically go along with the neoconservative agenda—which was, as Norman Podhoretz candidly put it in the Wall Street Journal, regime change in the Mideast from Teheran to Rabat. “We may willy nilly find ourselves forced to topple five or six or seven more tyrannies in the Islamic world,” he wrote, after first destroying the governments of Iraq and Iran.
This kind of thing was being broadcast all the time, and the voices of opposition were scant. There were paleocons, grouped around Chronicles and the important website antiwar.com, and plenty of normal or moderate Republican realists who under their breath voiced their doubts in the halls of the Council of Foreign Relations and (for a few) in Congress. But with Netanyahu receiving rapturous applause in the halls of Congress, the War Party seemed politically omnipotent and unstoppable.
At TAC, of course, we couldn’t stop it, but we could analyze the domestic and international situation and try to understand how we—as conservatives—had arrived at that tragic juncture. It may have taken far too many trillions of dollars wasted, and far too many lives of Americans (and Iraqis) destroyed, but there is now at least a solidly based party of skepticism beyond the left about the stupidity of regime change as a strategy. The evidence so far is that President-elect Donald Trump shares it too!
Of course now, 15 years later, the tasks of a realistic conservatism—and a journal and website seeking to aid and abet it—are different. It is clear that the concerns voiced in Pat Buchanan’s Death of the West, published the same year TAC began, have arrived at the forefront of conversation. In Europe especially, it is not clear that what we have always known as a Western space—culturally Christian, with separation of church and state and a high regard for individual rights—will survive at all. And multiculturalism in the United States is not always a day at the beach, and may possibly turn into a recipe for endless strife. At the same time, the voices calling for a militarized foreign policy, of challenging every conceivable foreign power all over the globe all of the time, are as loud and insistent as ever. So, as it did 15 years ago, it falls upon TAC to fight both these battles, for a realistic and restrained foreign policy, for the survival of an American nation not torn asunder by the ever-escalating demands of multicultural extremists. Guiding both a sense of the limitations of men (and women). No, everything is not possible.
TAC has found financial backers during its life, but it could never have survived without support from readers. That remains as true today as it did in October 2002, when our first issue appeared. We’ve been influential, but to remain so we need funds—to pay writers, to hold conferences, to get our (and your) message out. Please do what you can!
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
President-elect Trump’s State Department selections have managed to trigger opposition from two distinct and opposed camps. The neocons and anti-Russians oppose Exxon chief Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state designate, as too inclined to accommodate Putin. The disparate but occasionally united liberal, arms-control, and realist types are equally alarmed about John Bolton’s apparent selection for the number-two deputy secretary of state slot.
The problem with Bolton is simple. If you liked George W. Bush’s foreign policy, especially the Iraq War and the idea of regime change carried out by the American military on a multi-country, pan-regional scale, and you want get that kind of policy going again, the search is over: he’s definitely the guy. Most of the upper-middle-level officials who plotted the Iraq War have retreated quietly into private life, but Bolton has kept their flame alive, claiming quite recently that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, writing incendiary op-ed pieces about the desirability of bombing Iran, and seemingly (before a pro-Israel student group at the University of Chicago) encouraging Israel to launch a nuclear strike on Iran. In every realm where Trump—for all his Jacksonian bluster—has consciously sought to reassure us that he understands the radically extreme danger of nuclear-weapons use, Bolton has done the opposite. Where Trump quite courageously—before a hawkish South Carolina audience—criticized the Iraq War as an unmitigated disaster fomented by officials who consciously twisted intelligence findings, Bolton was one of the twisters, actively propagating the falsehood that Saddam had an active nuclear-weapons program. There may be literally no issue where he doesn’t take an extreme position: in 2002, as a Bush under secretary of state, he made the charge, later debunked, that Castro was engaging in advanced biological-weapons activities.
As always, one is reduced to making guesses about the Trumpland personalities whispering in the ear of the president-elect: does Trump feel he needs a rabid hawk to keep the right wing of the GOP in line? Does he simply appreciate Bolton as a TV foreign-policy personality? Does he fully recognize that Bolton, in the key State Department managerial position, would shape the department at its middle levels for years to come, effectively ensuring Trump’s own stated views were marginalized and received no bureaucratic support? It’s almost as if Trump is being counseled to let #NeverTrump form his administration, leaving the president-elect to glory in “Making America Great Again” while keeping an eye on his lovely golf and hotel properties.
The best—though hardly an adequate—reason to designate Bolton for such an influential position is that it might divert fire from Rex Tillerson, who seems an interesting and quite possibly inspired choice for secretary of state. Tillerson is obviously a brilliant man and a superb manager; you don’t rise to the top at Exxon without that. He comes with high recommendations—from Jim Baker, Condi Rice, and Bob Gates, according to Joe Scarborough.
Perhaps most importantly, he seems relatively untouched by the current Beltway fad of treating Vladimir Putin as a dire and irredeemable enemy. One can find it quite plausible (as I do) that the Russians preferred Trump’s election to Hillary Clinton’s: Clinton, after all, has been an active foe of Russia for years, and her State Department played a major role in fomenting the Ukrainian coup d’etat on Russia’s doorstep. This is hardly uniquely a Hillary failing. Washington is now full of people who would be justifiably outraged if China instigated a “people’s democratic revolution” in Mexico and made plans to bring Mexico into a China-dominated anti-U.S. military alliance, but utterly fail to perceive how their campaign to foment “color revolutions” and expand NATO up to Russia’s Western borders might be perceived in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
As for “interfering” in the U.S. election, spare me the tears. The U.S. crowed about interfering in Russia’s elections in the 1990s, helping to persuade Russians to vote for a man who oversaw the looting of Russia’s nationalized industries and a genuinely tragic rise in the country’s mortality rates. If some Russian intelligence agency imagined that leaking John Podesta’s emails would help Trump, it probably did Americans (now beginning to suffer a similar kind of unexplained increase in death rates) a favor.
The politicians and voters of Western Europe seem to be fast recognizing that their social systems are far more threatened by uncontrolled migration and terrorism than than they are by Moscow’s fumbling efforts to retain political influence in its near border areas. That is eminently sensible, and one hopes that some variant of this conclusion make its way across the Atlantic. Perhaps, with Trump’s election, it already has.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Last week’s Harvard faceoff between Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri produced one deeply revealing exchange. Before an elite, politically sophisticated audience, Palmieri claimed that if winning the election meant providing a “platform for white supremacists,” she was “proud to have lost”—and that she would “rather lose than win the way you guys did.” In her best Tess McGill accent, Conway retorted, “No you wouldn’t Jen, no you wouldn’t,” and then challenged Palmieri: “Are you going to look me in the face and tell me that I provided a platform for white supremacists?” Palmieri nodded yes.
The exchange was striking for the raw emotion on view between two middle-aged political professionals, women who had reached the top of their profession in career paths unlikely even a generation ago—but also because of the freight of the term “white supremacist,” which has become a surprising arena of contention, much like its more anodyne cousin, “alt-right.”
At one level, Palmieri’s purpose was plain enough: to trace a line from Steve Bannon’s casual comment last spring that the “alt-right” had a “platform” at Breitbart, to the fact that white nationalists and white supremacists do constitute a segment of the alt-right (though not of Breitbart), and connect both to the Trump campaign. The phrase “alt-right” is probably as imprecise as the term “socialist” might have been during any phase of the Cold War, spanning a range between campus anti-political-correctness rebels to hardcore white nationalists and play-acting neo-Nazis. One suspects that if the definition of “alt-right” congeals around the latter groups, as many liberals insist it should, it will disappear from common usage in the next year or so, simply because there are not that many hardcore white nationalists.
But Palmieri’s use of the term “white supremacist” to describe a victorious presidential campaign is interesting at another level, because it echoes an important shift in the term’s meaning. When I was growing up, white supremacist meant, first of all, those in the South who opposed equal rights for African-Americans: the right to vote, to swim in a public swimming pool, to enroll in the University of Mississippi. White supremacists may have ranged from openly terrorist to legally elected segregationists, but in terms of their beliefs, there was a very clear idea of what the term described. Internationally, apartheid rule in South Africa was a variant of white supremacy. So too was European colonialism, by then in its final throes. Even at that time there were complicating voices (such as Norman Podhoretz in his “My Negro Problem—and Ours”) suggesting that issues of ending white supremacy and racial integration would prove far more vexing than most of those working to end de jure segregation believed. But such doubts played no part in my (northern California, progressive) upbringing. In the 1960s, white supremacy was being brought to a welcome conclusion.
Suddenly, several decades later, the term has returned with a vengeance. Conor Friedersdorf explores its shifting meaning in The Atlantic, after discovering that Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum and Bernie Sanders were both charged with invoking white-supremacist arguments, Sanders by criticizing Democrats’ over-reliance on identity politics and Drum by defending him, in part by noting that the charge of “white supremacist” was in danger of becoming so broadly used as to become meaningless. The crux of Friedersdorf’s argument (which is substantial and nuanced) is that Drum was utilizing something very close to the standard dictionary definition of “white supremacism,” using the term the way I understood it in the 1960s. Friedersdorf noted that when that he asked six customers at a coffee shop on Manhattan’s notoriously progressive Upper West Side what they believed the term meant, they responded with something like the traditional definition.
But, he notes, the term has been revived and stretched out in the covens and crannies of left-wing academia. There we encounter a definition of white supremacism, drawing on “critical race theory,” in which the term can refer to a political or socioeconomic system where white people enjoy a structural advantages over other ethnic groups. The term no longer means hatred of non-white groups or any effort to discriminate against them. Basically it has been stretched to mean that almost any institution where whites predominate—race-neutral or not—is racist. Law enforcement is of course presumed to be white supremacist, because people of different races are arrested and convicted for committing crimes at different rates. But so are academic aptitude and achievement tests, which yield less than racially proportionate outcomes. So are classroom regulations, which result in racially disproportionate rates of students’ being disciplined. One suspects that science itself will be targeted eventually.
Not all of this is new: there was a lot of ideological anti-white hatred in the ’60s too. Susan Sontag, who probably changed her mind later on, once wrote that the white race was the cancer of human history. But there is now a web of intellectuals with tenure whose job, basically, is to reiterate and institutionalize in academia variations of Sontag’s argument.
In the past election, there were numerous signs of seepage of various kinds of race extremism into the presidential campaign. One could point, as countless commentators did, to the many instances of white nationalists’ embracing Donald Trump, and of his not always disavowing or denouncing them with the force and alacrity demanded by his opponents. But there were just as many signs of “critical race theory” seeping into Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It is evident in Jennifer Palmieri’s striking charge of “white supremacism”—unsupported by anything said by Donald Trump, or for that matter ever published on Breitbart, despite the tens of millions of words posted on that site.
One could see traces, or perhaps they should be called dog whistles, in Hillary Clinton’s own rhetoric. In January, she claimed it was a reality that police officers see black lives as “cheap.” In a February debate, she accused the state of Wisconsin of “really systemic racism” in education and employment. After five police officers were murdered in a Black Lives Matter protest in July, her bizarre response was to urge whites to “do a better job of listening” when blacks talk about the “seen and unseen barriers” they face every day. She then reminded voters that the murdered officers were, after all, “protecting a peaceful march”—seemingly to distinguish them from other, presumably less innocent, police officers. Hillary of course never went so far as to echo the protesters who explicitly celebrate the murder of white police officers, but her campaign had far more winks and nods to that species of rhetoric than Trump ever gave to white nationalists.
The United States is entering into period of demographic transformation, where whites, politically and demographically dominant for all of the nation’s history, will become a smaller majority, and perhaps then a plurality. Whether this transformation will be assimilative or anti-white, peaceful or violent, remains to be seen. Those in the upper reaches of the Democratic Party throwing around loose charges of “white supremacism” are certainly doing nothing to make it go smoothly.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Wow. Just wow. I’ve never been more shocked by anything in politics. Monday night my friend and former colleague Freddy Gray, now at the Spectator, called and I told him that there wouldn’t be any Brexit-type shock, that most journalists were biased but the pollsters were skilled and professional, and that I doubted I’d take a 25–1 bet for Trump for real money. Of course, I added, I’d vote for him, thought his campaign was on balance pretty wonderful, etc. But the point was to build a base for next time, when a more normal politician—Christie, Cruz, Tom Cotton, Pence, or an as-yet-unknown figure from outside politics—would take up Trump’s issues, especially immigration, and run with them.
Working-class counties all over Pennsylvania and the Midwest that Obama had carried comfortably went for Trump—something that should, but won’t, give pause to the progressive commentariat now inundating us with their lamentations about racist America. I voted for both men myself, and hope dearly the meeting between Obama and Trump on Thursday is substantive, wry, and interesting to both in ways neither would ever have anticipated. For months I had been visualizing the moment, sometime in 2017, when Obama realized that Hillary, with her hawkishness and neocon coterie, threatened to undermine the basic tenets of his foreign policy. That now is never going to happen. So conversely, I hope that Obama now finds it in him to tell Trump, “you know you’re probably right about Russia, and I gave the Hillary and the neocons in the State Department too free a hand in trying to expand NATO right up to Russia’s borders.” After which Trump can reply that the Iran deal is something that shouldn’t be scrapped and ought to be built upon. One can hope, anyway.
Trump’s eloquent speech in the early hours of the morning carried in it all the seeds of an effective beginning to his administration. He made clear we would seek hostility with no country. He has a clear mandate to nominate Scalia-like justices to the Supreme Court and to stem illegal immigration—beyond that, he has a clean slate to move in almost any direction. Now the important thing is to hope and pray Trump governs well, and to do everything we can to make that happen. I hope his administration reaches out to some of the reformocons, Reihan Salam and his group, and that they don’t give him a cold shoulder. Progress toward peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict is obviously off the table: Trump received the support of many right-wing Zionists, who are very much with him on several important issues. But it doesn’t matter in the short run—no American president was going to bring about a two-state settlement anyway. In the near to medium future, Israel will face growing pressures to allow West Bank and Gazan Palestinians to vote, but that’s Israel’s problem.
It gets lost in the campaign hurly-burly, but Trump has shown extremely good judgment in reaching out to Washington insiders on some issues. I was glad Jeff Sessions was mentioned explicitly last night, and brought on stage: he is the most knowledgeable figure about immigration in the Senate, and his former aide, Stephen Miller (who joined the campaign) played a key role in drafting Trump’s formal immigration positions. There is already a Capitol Hill intellectual infrastructure concerned with immigration that bypasses “white nationalism” and bigotry of any sort, centered on the Center for Immigration Studies, run by Mark Krikorian. If Trump had started out speaking about high immigration rates by noting, dryly, their impact on American wages, school budgets, infrastructure, and government-assistance payouts, no one would have noticed. Instead, in his announcement last June, he said something demagogic. It worked. But formulating an immigration policy that serves the interests of the American people—rather than people all over the world—is very much a possibility, and requires no demagogy at all. It’s a very normal thing for a country to do.
More than most presidents, Donald Trump needs our help. He doesn’t bring with him a big network of policy people, professional politicians, and their staffers. He forged a campaign on the triad of issues Pat Buchanan wrote three books about—trade, immigration, and foreign policy—and took the correct (i.e. Buchananite) positions when no one else in the Washington establishment did. That demonstrates either uncanny political judgment or astonishing opportunism—or some combination of both. But putting together a team to implement this agenda, or part of it, rather than a default Paul Ryan-style agenda will take diligence and skill. The transition—the staffing of a Trump administration—will be critical. Trump is a smart man, and sensitive in unexpected ways. He is also a loner, brash, intemperate. He will soon find the limits of the presidency.
Americans are setting off into uncharted territory. We needed to do that. The trajectory we were on—good working class jobs disappearing, accelerating entry of unskilled immigrants, the creation of an ultra-liberal Supreme Court that will shape the law for generations, collapsing infrastructure, rising crime, escalating attacks on police officers, political correctness enforced at increasingly insane levels—was simply awful. Had it continued, the America most of us grew up in would be gone forever. Now we have a chance to Make America Great Again.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.