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.