I did French A’ level back in the eighties, so at 18 I had read a handful of French novels, all of them in English and could speak almost no French at all. What I did know was that I liked French. I liked the sound of it, what it did to my rather tight English mouth, and the way it made you feel when you managed to complete a sentence. Desire, I believe, is the only prerequisite for learning a language: if you find yourself imagining you can speak it, then one day you will. I learnt French the easy way: by marrying a Frenchman. Romance is the shortest path to a foreign language, not only because of all the extra curricular activity but because being in love provides the greatest incentive to learn. I remember, in the days leading up to my marriage, bursting into tears over Balzac’s Le Pere Goriot: “I’ll never do it,” I told my fiancé despairingly. Five years and several hundred Parisian dinner parties later, my French was as good as his English. Five years after that I was not only dreaming in French but arguing in it with a petulance and a grandiloquence that English simply doesn’t offer. Ultimately, I believe that impersonation is the key to success. Cast off your English embarrassment, throw yourself into the pouting vowels, the slightly high-pitched intonation and – like Eddie Izzard – just do the French thing. The rest will follow.
There are two places left on the writing course I’m hosting, early summer in the restorative wilds of the Cevennes Mountains. The course, ‘Writing From Life‘ is suitable for people who are working on both personal narrative and fiction. It will run from June 21st – July 1st 2017. So go on. Give yourself a break, come to France, and and let your material come to life.
Gardoussel, the place where I hold the retreat, is exceptional for its beauty and isolation. Beside a chrystal-clear river, close to a waterfall where we swim (when we’re not writing) the old stone house is surrounded by walks through sweet chestnut forest and green oak. At this time of year, we often work outside in the morning sunshine, in a walled garden and in the evenings we sit and talk around the ‘chimenea’ (the outdoor woodburner).
We also work. Quite hard. And at the end of the week people are surprised, when they feel so rested, by the number of pages they have covered with words. That’s because writing when you’re in a beautiful place and in a benevolent group, which for some reason it always is, can be pretty therapeutic.
Whether you’re poised for the opening line, or midway through your seventh draft, coming to Gardoussel for a week will untie the knots and help your work to flow more freely. It won’t banish self-doubt, which is a kind of ‘sleeping partner’ for all writers, always there however experienced you might be and however well-published, but it will put it in its place.
For writers of all levels of experience, the ‘Writing from Life’ course is designed, through its morning workshops and late afternoon feedback sessions, to help you better access your material, explore new techniques and give you the kind of benign distance from your work that you will need to keep on writing.
What I never mention, but is very important, is that the food at Gardoussel is both healthy and exceptionally delicious.
‘If you’ve ever wondered if you can write a memoir, retreat for a week in Les Cevennes with Lucy. Enjoy the moments – serious, funny, emotional and warm – with an inspirational teacher. She started me on the next chapter of life, with ideas, techniques and prodding to dig deep, recapture those memories, write straight from the heart. With her encouragement, openness and honesty, writing is not something I think about, it is now part of who I am.’ (Jenny Cater)
“Taking a writing course with Lucy Wadham is like working with a professional writer who is also a good friend.” (Diana Manley)
For Parisian bourgeois society at least, the fact that the wife of France’s presidential hopeful is old enough to be his mother does not raise even the flicker of an eyebrow. Nor does the fact that she was his teacher on whom he had a massive teenage crush, or that she ended up leaving her husband for him when she was 52 with three children just about his age (then 27). Even France’s celebrity magazines don’t report this story as scandal. It is simply a bit of colour. If anything a feather in Emmanuel Macron’s hat, a sign of something a little classy about him.
For this chronically romantic nation, there’s a whiff of ‘the grand passion’ about the Macrons that makes them uniquely appealing in an otherwise pretty drab line-up of contenders. Not just for the educated bourgeoisie, but for the nation as a whole, the couple now gunning for the Elysées embodies one of the romantic fantasies of mainstream French culture – that of love conquering all, including public censure and parental disapproval. Macron’s mother, Françoise Noguès-Macron with whom he seems always to have always had a strained relationship, is said to have told Brigitte Macron all those years ago, “I forbid you to see him until he’s 18!” Warning off the then young wife and mother with a stinging and pre-emptive reproach she went on, “You don’t understand. You already have your life. He won’t be able to have children.”
For my Parisian girlfriend Hortense, to whom I always go for her take on matters of the French heart, the Macrons echo the French romantic literary tradition of the older (married) women being pursued by the young, ambitious hero. “Emmanuel is Julien Sorel in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (a 19th century bestseller that explored the duel fires of social ambition and romantic passion) and Brigitte is his Madame Arnoux [the older woman loved by the hero of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education].”
When I asked Hortense about rumours that were circulating during Macron’s campaign about his secret homosexuality, she swept them aside. “Non, non. He’s not gay. I think he’s not into sex. It’s the passion of power. I think he has always sublimated his sex drive.”
This view seems to be close to the opinion of Macron’s biographer, political columnist, Anne Fulda. Invited on to French television she boldly described Macron as “an asexual Don Juan,” a man constantly in search of new adventures and conquests but of a non-erotic kind. Indeed, the fact that Macron was the kind of 17 year-old capable of announcing to his teacher, Brigitte, on the eve of his departure for Paris to continue his education, “Whatever you do, I will marry you!” suggests exactly the kind of ‘sublimated sex drive’ you’d expect to find in a 19th century romantic hero.
Brigitte Macron herself, in a televised interview about the early phase of their relationship, uses a line of which Madame Bovary herself would have been proud: “Little by little, he overcame all my resistance with an unbelievable patience.” If tabloid journalists are too intrusive or smutty in their line of questioning, she quotes Beaumarchais at them: “Calumniate, calumniate; there will always be something which sticks.”
A great brain in her own right, Brigitte Macron is not likely to hide her light under a bushel. All through the Macron campaign she has been omnipresent, frequently on tour with him as he was canvasing across France, or in the first row at his rallies, or hosting salon-style dinner parties to take the pulse of the Parisian intelligentsia. She will be by Macron’s side if he gets into the Elysées, coaching and cajoling and generally making sure he doesn’t misstep, as he did on campaign when he controversially called France’s colonial past in Algeria, ‘a crime against humanity.’ There were plenty of jokes in the French blogosphere in the aftermath of that blunder calling on Brigitte to “check Emmanuel’s homework” before letting him loose on public life.
There is nothing modern, then, in the eyes of the French public about this couple. It’s the old archetype of the strong woman behind the man. Indeed it very much feeds into both France’s romantic and its enduringly patriarchal traditions. The nation is a very, very long way away from something that really would be taboo, the figure of the woman pushing open the doors to the Elysées Palace with her much younger lover and intellectual champion at her side.
A version of this post appeared in The Times T2 Section on April 25th 2017
Could it happen? Could France fall to the extreme right for the first time since Vichy? Until this moment I would have said no. Recently, however, I have lost my certainty. In January, a YouGov poll indicated that 38% of French people thought a victory for Marine Le Pen – leader of France’s far right party, Le Front National (FN) – was “probable”; this even though not a single poll is predicting that she will actually become president. Why this gap between what so many people, including myself, know to be likely and what we believe?
I fear Marine Le Pen could win. Not just because in a world of Brexit and Trump anything is possible, but because for the first time in its Fifth Republic, France’s main crash barrier against the lure of extremism – her electoral system – no longer feels entirely reliable.
Introduced by referendum under de Gaulle in 1962 and designed to keep extremists out of power, France has a two-round voting system in which candidates must receive an absolute majority, or else go to a run off between the two people who have received the most votes. The result is that French electors have tended to use the first round to vote with their hearts – expressing things like hope, desire, rage or downright blood-mindedness – and the second round to vote with their heads. Something about the way in which Marine Le Pen has managed to hijack the political conversation of this traditionally idealistic nation and infuse it with despair, makes me doubt the efficacy of that crash barrier for the first time.
Ever since I first moved to France in the mid 80s, I have watched the FN grow in support and legitimacy. I’ve seen its base increase and the gap closing with mainstream parties. In April 2016 there were 57,000 paid up members of the FN compared with 86,171 in the Socialist Party (PS), which, since 2012, had lost 40,000 members. I’ve seen the FN put down roots in town halls across the south and in the post-industrial north and east, pushing out the extreme left from those blue collar communities thwarted by globalisation and forgotten or ignored by mainstream politicians. I’ve watched its scores improve in successive local, legislative and presidential elections. And In 2002, when its founder, Jean Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the presidential elections against the incumbent, Jacques Chirac, I watched with relief as the “republican pact” kicked in and left and right wing politicians came together and provoked an uplifting show of cross-party solidarity to keep the extremist, anti-republican Le Pen out of power.
That was the first time I saw my own children, Ella and Jack, then 14 and 16, get out onto the streets. Armed with a banner saying FN, NON! they joined an 800,000 strong, anti-Le Pen march in Paris. I remember feeling pleased to be raising my offspring in an environment where this kind of political mobilisation was still possible. The fact that nearly 17% of the electorate could come out and vote in favour of a man like Jean Marie Le Pen simply reminded me that France likes to play with fire and in a world where political belief was rapidly disappearing, that felt like no bad thing. The safety barrier would hold.
Fifteen years later the atmosphere is very different and there is little passion to offset the depressive mood gripping the nation. The excitement that drove my teenage children onto the streets is hard to imagine today. Jack, now 31 and Ella, 29, are both approaching this election from a place of disenchantment. Jack, who in the 2012 runoff between Sarkozy and Hollande, put in a blank vote for want of what he saw as any decent option, will in the first round pick Benoit Hamon as the only candidate who seems to have concern for the environment (as well as a few new ideas) and in the second round for anyone but Le Pen. Ella, who voted socialist in 2012, will vote in the first round for Hollande’s former Economy Minister, Emmanuel Macron – a 39 year-old ex-banker who has never been elected – and in the second round for anyone but Le Pen. Both Ella and her brother believe that a victory for Le Pen is possible. So does their cool-headed, pragmatic father Laurent, who has always had faith in the republican pact.
To reduce Le Pen’s chances of victory, Laurent, who voted socialist last time, had planned to vote for Francois Fillon of the centre right republican party (LR). That was before “Penelopegate” broke and it became clear that Fillon’s Welsh wife, Penelope (in France it’s pronounced penne-lop) had received 680,000 euros of public money for a parliamentary assistant job for which she appears not to have shown up, or at least not often. Laurent will now vote, without much enthusiasm, for Macron.
Like many of his peers in the Parisian elite, Laurent is all the more disgusted by Fillon for the fact that he had sold himself as the incorruptible honnete homme of this campaign. Next to Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been under investigation twice for nepotism and illegal political financing and Alain Juppé who was convicted for abuse of public funds as mayor of Bordeaux, Fillon seemed squeaky clean. Choosing the now ironic campaign slogan “Le Courage de la Vérité” (Courage for the Truth), Fillon promised to offer “a covenant of sincerity and honesty” to the French public. “Honour,” he said. “Must be the main virtue of the right. It’s one of the conditions of public confidence, one of the conditions too for re-establishing the authority of our institutions whose credibility we must restore.”
When it became clear that Fillon wasn’t going to resign over the scandal, Laurent was outraged: “He’s a terrible person, who’s taken France hostage with his pride.” At a dinner Party in Paris last week, Laurent heard someone saying that he felt so angry about Fillon’s behaviour that he’d probably vote for Le Pen if Fillon were in the second round with her. Five years ago I would not have believed anyone in this circle of bourgeois liberals capable of thinking such a thing, let alone saying it out loud.
My own family’s distress and its tangled voting intentions are a measure of just how bleak and chaotic the political landscape is in France. All the traditional boundaries have fallen and the old binary logic traditionally used to understand French politics no longer functions. French history has been driven by the confrontation between opposing political families representing two sets of ideals: Jacobins and royalists, Bonapartists and monarchists, moderate and radical republicans, the Popular Front and the nationalist leagues, resistants and collaborators, left and right. Today, to the dismay of pollsters and political analysts, French voters swing from left to right and back again and the electoral map seems to have become a mosaic of complex allegiances based, not on ideas but on such obscure and subjective criteria as whether or not you’re afraid of the future, or whether or not you’re inclined to take risks.
There is no question that the depressed mood is in part an expression of the collective trauma after the Islamist attacks of 2015 and 2016. Still living under a state of emergency, this nation built on ideals is structurally ill equipped for adversity, for which a pragmatic mind-set is much more useful. The emergency regime – which should have ended in July last year but was prolonged after the truck attack in Nice that killed 83 people on the night of the Bastille day celebrations – creates moral discomfort in politicians on both left and right. Measures like the outlawing of public demonstrations and the legalising of nightime house searches evoke to many the darkest days of the Occupation. Indeed it was interesting to note how France’s MPs – torn by the desire to live up to the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity – rarely missed an opportunity to criticise the coercion laws proposed by the Valls government, while voting massively in their favour.
There is, in post-Freudian thought, a word for the special lure of despair. It is Thanatos, the Greek personification of death. Some psychoanalysts argue that trauma will trigger one of two competing unconscious drives in us, Eros ‘the life drive’, which controls the libido and strives towards pleasure and survival and Thanatos, ‘the death drive’ which unleashes rage, risky behaviours or despair (acedia from the Greek akedia – ‘without’ + kēdos ‘care’ or hope) and strives towards destruction of self or others. I’m reminded of the fact that the slogan of the French revolution was initially, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ou La Mort. The word Death was cut in 1794, after La Terreur (Robespierre’s reign of terror) in a bid, perhaps, to quit the realm of Thanatos for that of Eros.
France’s response to the Nazi invasion of June 1940 makes sense when you look at it through the lens of the death drive triggered by trauma. It took six weeks for the Wehrmacht to overrun the country, sending millions fleeing from their homes. France’s lack of faith in its own institutions was at its lowest ebb. Paul Reynaud, head of an unstable government, resigned and parliament self-destructed by calling in an angel of death in the form of the ‘Victor of Verdun’, Marshall Petain. Striking a pact with the occupiers, the 84 year-old Marshall launched his own ‘National Revolution’, a four-year anti-parliamentarian regime of terror, bigotry and state-sponsored anti-Semitism.
Marine Le Pen denies she is Petain’s ideological heir and has worked tirelessly to hide any such sympathies, both in her party’s ranks and its history and even rejects the extreme right label for the FN. Claiming to be ‘neither left nor right’ but ‘republican’ Le Pen began paving her way to the mainstream in 2011 when she ousted her father as party president. So skilled has she been over the past six years at moral shape shifting that she clearly believes she can convince people of anything, including the idea that she is, actually, the rightful heir of de Gaulle.
It happened discreetly, on a beautiful weekend last September at an FN rally in Frejus where it runs the Town Hall. Marine Le Pen, bronzed and highlighted after a summer holiday on Corsica, subtly appropriated France’s Gaullist heritage. In a speech dripping with Gaullist language she cried, “On our soil are enemies that plan to impose their values on us (…) French policy is being dictated from abroad, by Brussels, Washington, Berlin! (…) What makes us grow is our concern for France…Our concern for la France libre (Free France)!” Wild cheering.
La France Libre was the name for de Gaulle’s government in exile in London from where he organised and supported the Resistance against the Nazis. Note how Le Pen chose the definite article – La France Libre and not une France libre – thereby making the reference absolutely clear. If you were ever in doubt that this was a rally of the extreme-right, however, the spontaneous chant that followed the applause would set you straight: “On est chez nous, on est chez nous!” (This is our land).
Marine Le Pen is France’s Thanathos, her ‘angel of death’. Perhaps her oponents instinctively know this and it explains why the socialist nominee, Benoit Hamon chose the impassioned slogan, Faire Battre le Coeur de la France (Let’s make France’s heart beat) and why Macron chose the dynamic, vital En Marche! Which means ‘walking/marching’ as well as ‘functioning’. Despite Le Pen’s plausible, professional exterior and an image of respectability that has been brilliantly achieved over her 23 years in politics – even with the extremely unfavourable legacy of her unrepentantly xenophobic father, Jean Marie – there’s no doubt that a vote for Marine Le Pen will be a manifestation of the unconscious drive towards risky or destructive behaviours. As Benoit Hamon rightly predicts, “If she comes to power, it will be a guaranteed firestorm in the suburbs,” and her pledge to leave the euro would, it seems, be a form of economic suicide.
According to a recent report by the liberal thinktank, L’Insitut Montaigne, a return to the franc would lead to a likely 15 % drop in the value of France’s currency compared to the euro, followed by a rise in interest rates and a massive flow of capital out of the country. France’s GDP, the report finds, would reduce by 2.3 % in the first year and by between 4% and 13% long-term. The cost of leaving the monetary union is evaluated at 7000 euros per French worker and the number of jobs potentially destroyed in the first year could reach the tens of thousands and, in the long term, as many 500,000. While the majority lamented the disappearance of their currency in 2002, a poll in 2014 found that 56% were hostile to its return. Still Le Pen, and those tempted by her, like to flirt with danger.
Although Marine Le Pen clamours her republican values, most French people know that the FN remains a party of the extreme right, one that builds its central thesis around the idea of France as a nation in decline, that blames ‘foreign’ forces on this decline, forces that include immigrants, the EU, the multinationals or “the banking lobby” (which, although no longer voiced in public, still evokes to many French people, as Le Pen well knows, the so-called ‘Jewish lobby’ that obsessed her father). The solution Le Pen proposes to France’s decline is to “put French people first” and to link a person’s civic rights to their origin, thereby establishing norms of what it means to be French.
Whatver her true colours, Marine Le Pen has managed to set the political agenda, which now revolves around her favourite subjects: immigration, security and national identity. Despite France’s founding equality myth, there is an underlying xenophobia in its culture, which has morphed from the anti-semitism that dominated in the 20th century, to the Islamophobia, which found its roots in France’s colonisation of the Maghreb and dominates today. Le Pen has learnt to tap this underlying prejudice without even naming it.
All politicians are aware of this xenophobic seam or ‘negative energy’ as Emmanuel Macron, a man partial to New Age terminology, might put it. Back in 1986 Mitterrand cynically manipulated it to his advantage in time for the general elections by re-introducing proportional representation, the only electoral system that would enable the FN to win any seats in parliament. The result was that Jean-Marie Le Pen’s party won thirty-five seats in the Assembly. By turning the FN into a legitimate political force for the first time, Mitterrand had split the newly elected right between those willing to form an alliance with an extreme right party and those who were appalled by the idea. Mitterrand at the same time delivered a fatal blow to his former allies on the extreme left, which has been losing voters to the FN ever since.
Years later Nicolas Sarkozy would tap the same dark vein by making eyes at FN voters during his presidential campaign of 2007. In 2009, he stoked the flames of national dischord a little more by calling for a “grand debate” on the question of national identity. “We are proud to have restored an unashamed conversation about national identity” and “what it means to be French.” Shortly after this, he announced, “the burqa is not welcome in France,” and in 2011 he banned wearing one in public places. In February 2011, strong in the knowledge that 42% of French people now believed Islam to represent a threat to their nation, Sarkozy launched another ‘grand debate’ on ‘Islam and secularity’. In 2012, after Marine Le Pen expressed her outrage that state school canteens should be serving halal meat, Sarkozy called for stricter rules on labelling and confirmed that serving halal meat in schools was in contradiction with French secular values. Sarkozy’s pusillanimity worked for him at first, but in the end backfired. People realised he was not ‘the real thing’ and votes began flowing back to Le Pen.
In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote that behind the conventional parties lies “the slumbering majority,” or what Nixon would later call “the great silent majority,” which remains invisible as long as public attention focuses on the parties themselves. When faith in the party system breaks down, this entity, Arendt argues, emerges as “one great disorganised, unstructured mass of furious individuals.” Clearly France has reached this point and Marine Le Pen – who changed her campaign slogan from “La France Apaisée” (France at Peace) to “Au Nom du Peuple” (in the name of the people) – is talking straight over the heads of mainstream politicians to these furious masses.
Le Pen was already speaking to France’s silent majority in 2009 when she gunned for a former coal-mining town in the north east of France called Hénin-Beaumont. In an election that year to replace the incumbent Socialist mayor who had resigned after a corruption scandal, her party took first place in the first round with 39% of the vote. Her speeches started referring to “France’s forgotten ones” or “France’s invisible ones” and two years later this town in a region where unemployment hovers around 13%, fell to the FN.
Marine Le Pen also knows that out there lies a rich seam of untapped despair, legions of potential supporters ignored or despised by mainstream politicians: “neutral, politically indifferent people,” wrote Arendt. “Who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls.” Indeed it is as though Le Pen knows instinctively what Hannah Arendt learnt in her observations of Stalinism and Nazism, that “masses are not held together by a consciousness of common interest and they lack that specific class-based articulateness for determined, limited, and obtainable goals.” In a way Le Pen is telling the truth when she says she is neither left nor right. Her target voters are simply demoralised individuals who do not like the world as it is. And if they are not yet demoralised, she will do her best to make them so.
One of Le Pen’s most effective techniques for spreading despair has been to harness the doctrine of “tous pourris”, (they’re all rotten). Borrowed from Coluche, France’s most popular comedian, the idea that politicians are instrinsically immoral no longer makes the French laugh. Increasingly, it makes them vote Le Pen. Financial scandals among the political classes help the contagion of despair but this is another miracle of Marine Le Pen’s brand: she herself is still perceived as ‘clean,’ despite the fact that she is under investigation for tax evasion and fraud. In 2013 a fraud case was brought against ‘Jeanne’, the micro-party that was set up by her entourage in 2011 to fund her presidential campaign. Last month she was called in for questioning by the French tax authorities who believe the Le Pen family – namely Marine, her elder sister, Yann and their father, Jean Marie – owes the treasury at least 3 million euros. The police now wish to question Marine Le Pen on a case involving her chief of staff and a fictional employment contract with the European Parliament (EP).
Le Pen’s reaction to this fake employment scandal is to call the investigation “a political cabal” and refuse to show up for questioning by the French judiciary police. It indicates just how untouchable she feels and how effectively she has eroded, not only the moral credibility of all things European, but the reputation of the French judiciary that she’s getting away with it. The Socialist Prime Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, told AFP that if she wishes to hold the highest office Marine Le Pen “cannot place herself above the laws of the Republic (…) No political leader can refuse, if they are a republican, to answer a judicial summons. Respect for the authority of the state and its institutions begins there.” But it seems she can, for as most people know, Marine Le Pen is only a republican when it suits her.
Why do I fear that the republican pact, that old crash barrier, may not hold this time? Because thanks to the success of Le Pen’s message, in this mood of collective disgust, voting instructions given by mainstream politicians who have lost their moral ascendancy are more likely to be ignored. Because the ‘republican pact’ is no longer universally perceived as a rampart against extremism but has become, for many, the undemocratic manouvreings of a political elite clinging to power. Because this same republican pact may simply reinforce Marine Le Pen’s status as an outsider, a victim of ‘the system.’ Because this faux union of opposing political families to keep her out of power also feuls her new narrative for France as divided into two groups: the privileged few who are in favour of globalisation and the ‘forgotten’ masses who are against it, a strategy that not only masks her party’s extreme-right heritage but feeds the despair on which she depends.
A version of this post appeared in Prospect Magazine‘s April 2017 issue.
More than a week has passed since that most surreal of mornings when many of us woke to find that the world was entirely different to the one in which we had gone to sleep. My initial shock at Donald Trump’s election has been slowly replaced by a kind of frozen comic detachment at its continuing awfulness. As if with each successive news item featuring Trump I’m being made to watch Mel Brooks’ Springtime for Hitler over and over again.
It took me days to pluck up the courage to ring my American friends and ask them how they were feeling. “You know what?” my Chicago-born girlfriend said. “It feels like ever since Nixon, we’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Well finally it has. No one is pretending that the American Dream exists any more. That’s it. We’re done.”
I’m not sure she’s right. I think the American Dream is still live and kicking. It’s just a matter of defining our terms.
This was James Truslow Adams’ definition in 1931:
“Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
We have been led to believe that this dream of prosperity is rooted in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that, “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Clearly the American Dream holds within it an opportunity for two radically different interpretations, each one favouring opposing aspirations – towards equality and towards wealth. Given this inherent paradox, which of the two definitions of the word dream now best applies to the American Dream? Is it a cherished aspiration, ambition, or ideal (that every citizen should be treated as equal) or is it an unrealistic or self-deluding fantasy (that everyone should be wealthy)?
The morning after the election, in the climate of barely contained hysteria that was characterising most media output on the subject, I was asked to write about the possibility of Marine Le Pen becoming the next president of France. I declined for a number of reasons but if I had written it, this is what I would have argued: beyond the simplistic observation that in the current climate anything is possible, it is my view that thanks to the two rounds of the French electoral system and the strong likelihood of a republican pact against her in the second round, Le Pen’s chances are pretty slim. The editor would not have found this argument very sexy and in this day and age, who wants well-founded when you can have sexy?
Marine Le Pen on the BBC
The Sunday after, I watched the BBC’s revered Andrew Marr interviewing Marine Le Pen on his Sunday morning programme. He was widely criticised for having invited an extreme-right politician on Remembrance Sunday but he argued well in favour and I was confident we would all see her wriggling on his hook. Nothing of the kind. Marine Le Pen did not wriggle. She cut through the water like a marlin, dragging Andrew Marr behind her.
Of the two, Le Pen, not Marr was the more considered and plausible. His opening question was soft: “A lot of people are saying that the victory of Donald Trump makes the victory of Marine Le Pen in France much likelier. Do you agree with them?” Her answer: “He made possible what had previously been presented as impossible, so it’s really the victory of the people against the elite.”
Rather than ask how on earth Donald Trump with all his billions is not a member of the elite, Marr pitched this rather pathetic question instead: “You have the reputation as a party of being racist and your own father used the phrase ‘a detail of history’ to describe the holocaust. Have you really changed as a party?” I groaned. In the 30-odd years since her father made that remark she’s had plenty of time to build an excellent defence. “Listen,” Le Pen replied, summoning all her indignation. “I cannot let you say something so insulting. As it happens, the National Front has never been guilty of racism and in fact I would like you to tell me exactly what sentence, what proposal in the National Front’s programme is a racist proposal.”
Well, for one, in 2010 Le Pen compared the practice of French Muslims – who, unable to find space in mosques, were praying in the streets – to the Nazi occupation of France. But Marr, instead of coming back with a list of all such nasty racist slips and slurs that she and her party have made in recent years, let her move on to the injustices of globalisation and thus talk straight past him to the many in Britain and beyond who hanker to return to a golden past.
Watching Marr’s hubris in interviewing Le Pen without having done his homework was another Springtime for Hitler moment for me. As I watched, ironic detachment kicked in to shield me from disgust and despair. Apparently, in our current world of surface and posturing it didn’t really matter that Le Pen had got away with talking about the need for French Muslims “to comply with our codes, our values, our French way of life” (“notre mode de vie francais” was mistranslated as “our French lifestyles”). Marr didn’t bat an eyelid at this. Instead he allowed her to couch herself in another layer of respectability. Clearly for him, the coup was simply having her on his programme.
I, with most of my peers, have become addicted to box sets so I know from my own lifestyle over the last decade, that there has been a gradual slide away from the real, the concrete, the factual, towards the heightened, the fantastical, the entertaining. If we, the soi-disant chattering classes prefer to numb our minds every evening Netflix’s beautifully accomplished The Crown rather than meet up and talk about the disaster unfolding in the world around us, then what hope do we have? I fear my Springtime for Hitler moments are a kind of existential paralysis in the face of the real and that Trump’s victory is not just an American symptom but a global symptom. A sign of the times. It’s the triumph of appearance over reality, the lure of the dream. And that’s “dream” as in self-deluding fantasy, rather than aspiration, ambition or ideal.
A version of this post was published in Prospect Magazine‘s online edition on 17/11/2016 under the title, ‘Watching the World Fall Apart’.
Photo by Benjamin Chelly
The wise and wonderful Algerian-born thinker, Malek Chebel – who argued valiantly for an enlightened Islam, himself a shining light in French intellectual life – has died.
We met the week after the Charlie Hebdo attacks and became friends. I shall miss him.
This is the interview of our first meeting:
An emotional shock often makes us look for some kind of echo, some proof in the world around us that everything has changed but the morning after last week’s terrorist attacks on their city, Parisians woke to pristine winter sunshine and a clear blue sky.
Crossing town to meet Malek Chebel, one of France’s most prominent Muslim intellectuals – a man who always meets fanaticism, wherever it hails from, with the same reassuringly sagacious smile – I thought of the tears in my daughter’s voice when she’d called me from work the day before. Her office is not far from Charlie Hebdo‘s and she said she could hear the sirens. “No one’s scared, though,” she told me. “People are crying at their desks.” That evening she left her own desk and went straight to the Place de la République, along with about 35,000 others, and called me from the vast square.
“It’s such a beautiful, poignant atmosphere. And it has nothing to do with patriotism or politics. It really gives you hope.” I didn’t ask her how many Muslims she thought might be out on that square, but that was what I was thinking as I spoke to her.
I met Malek Chebel in the “English Bar” of the Hotel Raphael in the 16th arrondissement – a quiet, oak-panelled room with crimson velvet upholstery and antique Persian rugs, designed to look like the French idea of an English gentleman’s club. Chebel was visibly delighted to be there. It was only 10 o’clock and he’d already given four interviews. “I’m usually called in at times like these to calm things down,” he said. “Out there it’s a Greek tragedy, everyone’s passions unleashed.”
Later that afternoon he’d been invited to a televised debate with the right-wing polemicist, Eric Zemmour, whose terrifyingly successful “misery essay”, Le Suicide Français (which has sold 400,000 in three months) argues that ever since de Gaulle, French identity has been irredeemably corroded by feminists, homosexuals and Arabs. That day in particular, I looked forward to seeing Chebel dismantle Zemmour’s “passions” with his usual skill and charm.
With his religious upbringing in Algeria, followed by his two French doctorates in social anthropology and psychology, Malek Chebel has passports into both worlds. He earned his reputation in Arab society by translating the Koran into French in an edition that won the approval of all the key Muslim clerics from the Maghreb to Indonesia. But he has also tackled the two subjects closest to French hearts: sex and psychoanalysis.
Chebel’s titles include The Arabic Kama Sutra, Arab Eroticism, and the just-published The Islamic Unconscious. Impressively, he has to date no fatwa on his head. “That’s because few Muslims have actually read the Koran. It’s a very, very difficult text. I gave 10 years of my life to studying it and that earned me people’s respect.”
Using his erudition to spread a message of liberation from what he calls the dangerous ideologies that have taken possession of his religion, Chebel regularly cites the learned and inclusive Islamic society that was established under the Abbasid caliphates of the Middle Ages as proof that Islam can be reformed.
I asked Chebel if he’d experienced much racism in his adopted land. He told me that when he’d first arrived in France from Algeria in the mid-1970s he’d gone to see the Alps with his girlfriend at the time. They had stopped in a remote village and an old woman, after circling him several times, had approached him and offered him some household bleach for his skin. “Something remains of that woman’s desire in many French people – the desire to wash us all whiter than white,” he said with a forgiving smile.
When I asked him whether he thought France was Islamophobic, his answer was coy and rueful: “I’m afraid there’s a subtle system of thought in place here, which lends itself to an Islamophobic atmosphere.” Chebel was talking about France’s obsession with la laïcité, which in English means “secularism” – as in the separation of church and state. This translation, however, doesn’t quite cover it. Today, the word in French carries with it a history of deep antagonism and mutual distrust between the worlds of political belief and religious faith. It’s a visceral hatred that was fuelled by the excesses of the Catholic church under the ancien régime, nurtured by the Revolution, reignited under the Third Empire and, even after the official separation of church and state in 1905, has flared up regularly ever since. “Unfortunately, la laïcité has become a dogma in this country which often masks a posture of intolerance.”
This intolerance is not only expressed towards Muslims. A Jewish friend of my daughter’s, who has recently begun practising her religion in defiance of the disapproval of her forcefully laïc parents, as well as nearly all her friends, told me that to be a practising anything in this country requires real strength of character.
That laïcité might be seen as a form of oppression would be deeply offensive to many French secularists who pride themselves on their egalitarian values. These are the people who supported the ban on French Muslim girls wearing their headscarves at school, and of course the law against wearing a burka in public. Their main argument in support of these measures (which many outside France perceive as an infringement of personal liberty) is somewhat paradoxical: young French Muslim women must be protected from patriarchal oppression (of which the headscarf is a symbol) by being told what they can or can’t wear in public.
In fact, as Chebel pointed out, France’s allergy to the Muslim headscarf may have more to do with France’s own patriarchal traditions, which make the idea of a woman choosing to cover up her charms distinctly unpalatable.
“Perhaps Islam’s function in the French collective unconscious is to mask its own regressive tendencies,” Chebel suggested. “The French patriarchy can hide behind Islam, which everyone thinks of as a patriarchal and misogynistic religion.” He said he was against headscarves in schools at first and supported the ban, but has since changed his mind. “When I realised that many Muslim girls wear the headscarf because it made them feel more comfortable, I could no longer oppose it.”
What’s not often discussed here is whether religious intolerance is just another form of racial discrimination. According to a study carried out by the French institute of national statistics in April 2014, a candidate with an Arabic-sounding name here is still considerably less likely to be called back for interview, even if he or she has better qualifications, than a rival with a European-sounding name.
When I mentioned the idea of positive action to counteract this kind of discrimination, Chebel expressed the view of the majority of French people: “Positive action signals an admission that, in a society of equal opportunity, the person you’re favouring is weaker. It’s a mark of disdain.”
Chebel’s argument echoes the prevailing egalitarianist orthodoxy – the same orthodoxy that supports France’s law against gathering data about ethnic minorities, even as a tool to combat discrimination. The argument is that the French are so attached to the ideal of equality before the law that they perceive any departure from that principle as a form of injustice.
Chebel’s caution towards his host culture is very occasionally replaced by a gentle mockery. When I brought up the horror that had spread across France when it was revealed that non-Muslim children had been given halal meat in their school cafeterias, he said, “The reason for the violence of that reaction was their unconscious belief that we were invading them from the inside. And we were using meat to do it, which of course is sacred here.”
As we settled into the conversation and Chebel realised, perhaps, that my prejudices might not be the ones against which he had armed himself so carefully, he began to lower his guard. He confessed that, wedded as he was to the idea of freedom of expression, he’d felt that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons had indeed been offensive. “There are millions of Muslims in this country who felt deeply insulted. Of course death should never be the consequence, but we must have more understanding.
“In today’s multicultural society, France’s secularist doctrine creates an unbearable tension and behind this dogmatic form of laïcité there often lies a fundamental lack of acceptance of other cultures. The trouble is,” he added. “France no longer just wants integration, it wants assimilation and that’s just not acceptable. I think the British model, which practices tolerance towards all minorities, is wonderful. But we’re still a long way from that.”
When it was time for him to face Zemmour, we walked together to the nearest Metro station. On the Place de L’Etoile, a young man recognised him, came up to us and made a heartfelt speech about his horror at the terrorist attacks: “I’m a Muslim but I’m well-integrated,” he began, his hand on his heart. He went on to say how the shootings had made him feel physically sick, how that wasn’t Islam, how grateful he was to France for welcoming him in (from Morocco), for giving him a job (he was a waiter in a nearby café), and for helping him to educate his children.
After Chebel and I had said goodbye, I remembered the young man’s words: I’m a Muslim but I’m well-integrated. I tried to imagine a British Muslim making that kind of statement today. I realised that it was something you might have expected to hear back in the 1960s from someone who’d just moved to Britain from Pakistan.
It’s true, I thought as I descended the steps into the Metro – for all France’s beautiful ideas and high moments of popular fervour, there is, in practice, a long way to go before its practising Muslims will feel at home.
It’s hard for me to separate the external changes Paris might have undergone from the internal ones I’ve felt in myself, but more importantly in my family. The anxiety is palpable. My youngest children, boys of 11 and 8 have both been having nightmares since the attacks, the 11 year-old often dreaming that his younger brother is shot or harmed by a terrorist at school while he looks on powerless. They came home for the holidays in December each with a leaflet put out by the Education Ministry about what to do in the event of a terrorist attack, and my youngest kept checking that I had read it. On the other hand they both joke now about not-very-bright people blowing themselves up in suicide vests.
My eldest two are of the Bataclan generation and live a stone’s throw from where the November attacks took place. My daughter who knew people who were killed had to take time off work and my son, a philosophy graduate, who has never been interested in religion, now believes that the biggest intellectual challenge of his life is to combat Islamist ideology by spreading ideas of tolerance.
I’ve lived in this beautiful city for thirty years and have experienced along with Parisians plenty of terror campaigns that can all be viewed through a geopolitical lens. In the 80s it was what we now know to be a series of bombings and assassinations backed by Khomeini’s Iran to force France to honour a nuclear energy contract made with the Shah. In the 90s it was spillover from the Algerian civil war. Now it’s fallout from the chaos in the Middle East but that no longer feels like a sufficient explanation. What feels different about these latest attacks is that we seem to be feeling them in our bodies, in our nervous systems, infecting our sleep, so that we don’t look for geopolitical reasons this time but for existential ones. People’s questioning runs along the lines of, what have we done to them that they hate us so much? How can we live better, safer lives? At their dinner parties my Parisian friends are not talking politics as they would have done in the past but wondering how best to live.
It’s not easy to make generalisations about something as nebulous as the feeling of a city after a collective trauma, but people do. The American-born French writer, Julian Green argued that the ignominies of the Nazi Occupation on a population that was wedded to the pursuit of pleasure and, unlike Londoners in The Blitz say, ill-equipped for adversity, left a nasty scar on the city and made post-war Parisians rude and selfish. What strikes me most about the atmosphere in this city since November 13th is a new gentleness and thoughtfulness among the people. Shaken to the core, perhaps Parisians no longer have the stomach for the brash invulnerability for which they’re famous.
I’ve also observed that the particular generation of Parisians that was targeted by the attacks reacted in the aftermath in new and uplifting ways. The mass demonstrations after Charlie Hebdo were wonderful in many ways but they were not new. Demonstrating is what the French do best. By contrast, after Nov 13th there is a feeling that the young – though sadly not the political cast – are searching hard for new ways to respond to this horror, ways that include grass roots initiatives, which make use of the diffusing power of the Internet. This is a profound and radical departure in a culture used to the state providing all the solutions. What November 13th showed the educated young in France is that the State does not have the answers, nor does that mythological entity le peuple, but they, as individuals working together, do.
Provided, that is, that the French state lets them.