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The Turmoil In France

If you haven’t yet read my colleague Scott McConnell’s dispatch from Paris, in advance of the April 23 French elections, please do. Note this:

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.

Roger Cohen has a much longer piece in the NYT today, reflecting with some anguish about France’s state these days. It is titled “France At The End Of Days” — note this well, ye readers of mine who accuse me of alarmism. Cohen’s piece justifies the headline. Here’s why (emphasis mine):

A Le Pen victory is far from assured, plausible if not probable. Returning to France late last month, to the glow of Paris and the gloom of the provinces, I was struck by how much Le Pen’s party, whose racist ideology was once taboo, has joined the mainstream. The pattern that has prevailed throughout the Fifth Republic — alternation of center-left and center-right — seems dead. The French are tired of increasingly indistinguishable Socialist and Republican presidents. President François Hollande, a socialist with a single-digit approval rating, decided not to run for a second term. As elsewhere in the West, traditional parties bereft of compelling ideas are in crisis, buffeted by social-media-driven mobilizations.

The first round of voting on April 23 is almost certain to send Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old upstart leader of a new catchall centrist movement, into the runoff on May 7: the xenophobic nationalist versus the pro-Europe neophyte.

In other words, the center is not holding anymore. This is a very big deal. And it is by no means the case that the first round will send Le Pen and Macron into the runoff. As of today, the polls show a statistical dead heat among the top four candidates, including François Fillon, the fading center-right standard-bearer, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left insurgent. Around one-third — one-third! — of voters are undecided. It is entirely possible that Le Pen and Mélenchon will make it to the second round, meaning the next president of France could be either on the far right or the far left.

Cohen says that on paper, life is pretty great for the French — but they are a miserable lot. More:

I headed east to Metz, in the Lorraine region of France. Outside the station, opened in 1908 when the city was part of Germany, I found French, German and European Union flags fluttering to mark “Metz Wunderbar” (“Wonderful Metz”) week, a celebration of French-German friendship. Such is Europe today: a shared house built over borders etched in blood. Lorraine closed its last iron ore mine a couple of decades ago. The region has struggled to replace it with service sector jobs. The National Front has prospered.

At a restaurant I ran into Thierry Corona, a sommelier from nearby Koenigsmacker who had come to attend a Le Pen rally. A blue rose, Le Pen’s campaign symbol, was pinned to his lapel. Corona was fired up. Le Pen would boost the wine industry by getting rid of a “politically correct” law curtailing advertising. She would end “the dictatorship of Brussels.” She would rebuild “France for the French.”

Koenigsmacker, Corona said, had been stripped of life. Small stores had been replaced by huge “hypermarkets” on the outskirts of town. Human contact was almost forgotten. “In the shopping malls the cashiers are lined up like cattle for the slaughter,” he said. Old people without cars were treated like human refuse. “And immigrants arrive and they immediately get handouts!”

Such provincial alienation is widespread. The most talked-about political book these days is Christophe Guilluy’s “The France of the Periphery,” a devastating portrait of what he calls the “total cultural fracture” between the networked milieu of Paris and a few other cities, and the declining dystopia outside them. If America has New York and Trump country, France has Paris and Koenigsmacker. The red state-blue state chasm, in various guides, is the core cultural condition of the West.

Think about that: the core cultural condition of the West. When people try to tell you that the culture war isn’t real, or is something right-wing people made up to sell fear and alienation, you can probably assume that those are blue-state people who think their own views are normative for all the great and the good.

Here’s a quote from Macron:

“Modernity is disruptive,” he declared, “and I endorse that.”

Well, so are earthquakes. Whether or not a disruption is worth endorsing depends on what — and who — is disrupted. As Zygmunt Bauman has written, the kind of people who thrive in “liquid modernity” — the condition of permanent disruption that we all live in today — are those who have no ties to people, places, or creeds. Nothing that could keep them from going with the flow, wherever it takes them.

Few people can wish to live like that. It’s not human. On the other hand, stasis is unsustainable. Cohen writes:

But the comprehensive French welfare state — financed by mandatory contributions for pensions, health and unemployment benefits that push up wage costs — tends toward inflexibility. Firing anyone can be tedious and expensive, so there’s reluctance to hire. Youth unemployment stands around 25 percent. Over 31 percent of gross domestic product is spent on health, unemployment and other benefits, compared to 24.6 percent in Germany. France has in effect made a structural choice for unemployment. Everyone knows this. But because attachment to the model is fierce, honest discussion tends to be taboo.

A good friend left his French homeland in the late 1990s, headed to the US in pursuit of starting his own company. He said the entrepreneurial environment in France was deadly. Nothing but stagnation through over-regulation and a mindset that was very conservative (he wasn’t talking politics, but rather the general approach to life, and to the prospect of change). Now, in 2017, the company he co-founded is worth almost $400 million.

All those jobs he has created ought to have been French jobs. But he saw no hope of being able to build his company in his native country, because of the regulation. This is the land of “immobilisme” — paralysis — that a young small entrepreneur in Cohen’s story decries:

An argument ensues. Cyrille Jacquiot opened the restaurant last year and is working a 75-hour week. He thinks France’s problem is not the fraying welfare state but the fact that “there are too many acquired rights and too little will to work.” Jacquiot tells Dufour and Meunier they are deluded. If France is the land of “immobilisme” — roughly paralysis — it is because the French know they are protected. “If you want less unemployment, you need more flexibility,” he says. “People need to know they can be fired. Otherwise all sense of responsibility is lost. You have to decide in life: Do you want to work or not?”

Cohen is very much on the side of Macron. He continues:

Could he do it? I want to believe he can, in part because I take seriously something he had said earlier: “I want to help with Muslim integration. If you follow the line of Marine Le Pen, you create a civil war.”

In “Submission,” his best-selling novel, Michel Houellebecq writes: “The growing gap — an abyss — between the population and those who spoke in its name, politicians and journalists, had necessarily to lead to something chaotic, violent and unpredictable. France, like other western countries, had been heading for a long time toward civil war.”

In the book, frantic maneuvering to keep Le Pen from power leads to the victory of an imagined Islamic party led by a telegenic character Mohammed Ben Abbes. Houellebecq’s France is culturally exhausted — a land of desperate sex and spiritual emptiness — and so it succumbs to a movement driven by faith and conviction.

Cohen goes to the grim Muslim-dominated suburbs of Paris, and finds a Muslim who tells him, “I know people who are ready to vote Le Pen just to break something.”

Read the whole thing.  It seems the height of naiveté to think that the presidential election will solve anything in France. It seems that whoever wins will preside over the start of some very serious troubles. Does anybody — left, right, or center — think the problem of Muslim integration that nobody can really talk about is ever going to be solved?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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