France appears to be living through a strange transitional period that could be described as the waning of the Fifth Republic. It contains no sense of what a sixth republic might look like or why it might even be necessary. But today’s republic, with its unique electoral system, has achieved a summit of incoherence. The current president, Emmanuel Macron, has only one thing in mind: getting reelected in 2022 and maintaining the shaky status quo.
The Fifth Republic had a few moments of glory marked by at least three somewhat illustrious personalities who became president. The actions of these three men left a mark on the memory of the French. Their names? Charles de Gaulle, Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac. The only recent president to make a valiant but ultimately futile attempt to achieve their stature, Nicolas Sarkozy, was just this week convicted of corruption and sentenced to three years in prison.
Serious Politics Is Not About Recalibration
Macron hoped to surpass them all but has clearly failed. Instead of playing by the consecrated rules of the Fifth Republic dominated by powerful parties, he profited from a sudden and unexpected vacuum within both the traditional right and the traditional left to sneak through the cracks and create the illusion that a system permanently dominated by the “alternance” of right and left could be run from the center.
It was quite an achievement, but Macron failed to understand that modern French political thinking is not about vague ideas or even attractive personalities. It remains based on the notion of “engagement” (commitment) in favor of one or another strong position. The center Macron so proudly claimed to represent has always been seen as spineless and fundamentally unexciting. At best it reflects a commitment to bureaucracy, which the French have no respect for but cannot live without.
In 2017, it looked like a free ride for Macron that would last five years thanks to a guaranteed majority in parliament, no viable opposition and a public initially willing to entertain the centrist experiment. But it has become a living hell. Macron never managed to build his own party into something that could represent a political force, despite his massive majority elected to parliament on the coattails of his 2017 electoral victory.
Now, Macron finds himself embroiled in a controversy of his own creation. Its focus has been defining Islam as the enemy and intellectuals sympathizing with Muslims as the enemy within. In November 2020, The Atlantic reported that “Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has bemoaned the influence of American critical race theory on the French social sciences, blaming them for undermining France’s race- and ethnicity-blind universalism, and for giving comfort to ‘islamo-gauchisme,’ or ‘Islamo-leftism.’” Then, just two weeks ago, France’s higher education minister, Frederique Vidal, set off an uproar in the media and in academe itself when she demanded an “investigation” be carried out into “Islamo-leftist” influence within the universities and research community.
This spectacular initiative has ended up having a closer resemblance to QAnon than to traditional French intellectual creativity and freedom. Vidal now wants the French to believe that universities and research institutes are harboring a cabal that englobes the French left (irresponsible intellectuals with ideas no sane Frenchmen would endorse) and Islamist extremists (murderous jihadist activists) in an unholy alliance that is threatening the security of the Republic.
Why? Because a number of serious thinkers have dared to detect a link between the history of European colonialism, including the extension of some its practices into the present, and the rise of violent revolt by Islamic extremists against a system they believe to be oppressive of their people and their people’s well-being. Detecting historical links — or at least certain specific links — has become a crime that can no longer be tolerated.
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Macron’s desire to profit from the fear of Muslims that has attracted voters to his main rival, Marine Le Pen, is understandable, though risky since its anti-intellectual belligerence alienates many to the left of center. More surprising is one of its oddest features, that its promoters have coupled it with an appeal to a long-standing trend among the French of anti-Americanism. It claims to be anti-Islamic, anti-intellectual and anti-American, all at the same time.
It isn’t enough to attack French researchers who propose readings of history that make French colonial incursions into Muslim lands look inglorious. The Macronists are now affirming that this acknowledgment of France’s historical injustice toward its minorities is an example of slavish emulation of American “critical race theory” that has now infected the minds of a generation of French academics. It’s all the fault of American “wokism,” which has no place in French culture.
Le Monde has long been the serious newspaper of the intellectual rather than the activist left. Since the end of the Second World War, it has stood as the alternative to the other “serious” newspaper, Le Figaro, which reflected the positions of the establishment right and more specifically the Gaullists. De Gaulle, after all, was the founder of the Fifth Republic.
Macron claims to be neither right nor left, but his electoral strategy has clearly pushed him to commit to policies agreeable to the right. Responding to the proposal of an investigation into academic , Le Monde immediately published the appeal launched by 600 academics condemning Vidal’s obscurantist effort. The signatories included the immensely successful Thomas Piketty, highly respected on the left. No one would think of branding Piketty as an .
For nearly a century, the French have complained about the attack on the noble purity of the language of Racine and Voltaire by the importation of English words. In the past, governments have legislated to prevent modern French vocabulary from being overwhelmed by trendy American coinages. That hasn’t prevented French people, and especially professionals, from using the very “anglicisms” they are expected to patriotically deplore. “Low-cost” could simply be called “” but not by people in business, who prefer the English term. Buzz, open space, leader, flop, play-list, best-of and the verb “booster” (to boost) are commonly spoken. Many deem these words illegal occupiers, on a par with the postcolonial invasion of North African immigrants. Neither of them has any business being here and sapping French culture.
Interviewed by the magazine L’Obs, political analyst Olivier Roy provides an acute analysis of the French president’s absurd and futile attempt to strategize his reelection: “Emmanuel Macron believes he is playing a grand strategic game by aiming to reach the second round of the next presidential elections in a face-off against Marine Le Pen.” Macron’s ministers are no longer working for the French republic. They are working for Macron’s reelection in 2022.
Recent polls show Le Pen within two points of Macron. For Jean-Michel Blanquer and Frederique Vidal, to steal votes from Le Pen’s white working-class constituency, intellectuals on the left must be branded as traitors to the white European republic. They may be unhappy, but just as US President Joe Biden did with progressive Democrats, the Macronists count on the vast majority on the left to vote against Le Pen.
What Macron fails to realize is that his quandary is closer to the Democratic Party’s failure in the 2016 US presidential election than its success in 2020. Like Hillary Clinton in 2016, people now see him as a shabby, ineffective pillar of a discredited establishment. Nobody likes Macron enough to want to see him hanging around for another five years. As Roy points out, the strategy he has devised is absurd. He cannot win over Le Pen voters. His commitment to Europe has made him their enemy. And now polls show that many on the left will no longer be intimidated to vote for someone so committed to betraying them and their intellectual culture.
After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2022 promises to be the year of political pandemonium.