Marine Le Pen and the Politics of Despair

Le Pen

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.

LibertyEqualityorDeath

 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.

 

Reality Check

trump_stagespringtime-for-hitlerMore 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-1Marine 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’.

Farewell chivalrous knight of Islam

Malek Chebel

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.

 

 

 

Afterwards

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.

Move over for France’s next generation

Part II

This ‘Y’ generation, frequently called spoilt and idealistic by its supposedly realistic elders, has been displaying an unassuming heroism that has taken the government of François Hollande by surprise. I became aware of the particular quality of this heroism on the night of the attacks when Jack sent me a link to Reddit, the online bulletin board. One young survivor of the Bataclan siege described, with heart-wrenching simplicity, the horror of his ordeal. He ended with these words: “I’m not adding any essential info with this message, but writing it helps me. It’s frustrating to be at the heart of the event and be of no use, lying face down against the floor/a leg/an arm/ for two or three hours without helping.”

“Since that night, the number of young people seeking to join the French military has tripled,” says Pierre Servent, a colonel in the Army Reserve. His book Extension de domaine de la guerre (a play on the title of nihilist French author Michel Houellebecq’s first novel) goes to press as I write. A project he would have sold to his publishers as a prediction has, he said, become a survival manual for a “cancer which attacks the soft tissue of our world.” When we spoke, Servent had just been through his manuscript changing all the tenses. Two of his daughters, in the same age bracket as Jack and Ella, live in the area and, like my own children, escaped the attacks.

“I have confidence in this generation,” he said. “They don’t have the anti-militarist prejudices of the old French left… They’re hip, open, international, collaborative, but they’re not weighed down by the post-colonial guilt that has prevented such a large portion of my own generation from seeing the growing threat that is salafi-jihadism.”

Servent invoked the unexpected success, among the young, of Hollande’s idea of a National Guard of Reservists, which the President talked about in his speech to the Congress of Versailles three days after the attacks. “Designed,” he explained, “to cope with a natural catastrophe or a terrorist attack,” the National Guard—the anti-terrorist aspect of it, that is—is also dear to Marine Le Pen’s National Front, and as a result is unpopular with France’s left-leaning media. The day after the Versailles congress, Le Monde deplored the idea: “[Hollande’s] overzealous security-minded discourse has rather killed the spirit of Charlie Hebdo (l’esprit Charlie).”

Earlier this year, the same newspaper defined l’esprit Charlie as “a liberated tone, a satirical humour, an irreverence and pride built around solid left-wing values where the defence of secularism (laïcité) often comes first.” I’m pretty sure that this is not the definition my children’s generation would give of l’esprit Charlie. For them the whole point about the extraordinary show of national unity in the aftermath of the 7th January attacks, and the thing that made the million-strong marches across the country that followed so unique and uplifting, was their apolitical nature and the spirit of tolerance towards France’s religious minorities, a tolerance that had been absent from mainstream public discourse.

That someone like Servent is saying he has faith in France’s next generation should be cause for celebration. Until now, no one has been listening to them. France’s “Generation Y,” or  the “millennials” as they’re sometimes called, are far better equipped for the modern world than the generation that clings to the reins of power. Unlike their elders, these well-travelled young people —who have studied abroad on Erasmus programmes and have grown up watching HBO in the original English—are unafraid of globalisation. They embrace the digital culture and believe in progress. Sadly, however, they still have no voice in France.

Who does? Members of the ’68 generation such as France’s principal bird of ill omen, Alain Finkielkraut, a philosopher. Finkielkraut was interviewed in the wake of the attacks by the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro, under the headline “We’re living the end of the end of History.” His harrowed face, gazing out at us from the pages of France’s biggest-selling broadsheet, said everything about the paralysing neophobia of the generation to which he belongs. “His rigorous words,” Le Figaro declared by way of solemn preamble, “find a deep echo in the collective unconscious. How he is listened to. How he is read.”

Not by the next generation he isn’t. For them, thinkers like Finkielkraut howl in the wilderness that is the past, still railing against an enemy that no longer has any teeth: the third-worldist leftists of the same generation. As Servent pointed out, Generation Y is not anti-militarist and does not suffer from post-colonial guilt. They’re a generation of pragmatic humanists who can see the world around them for what it is—multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multifarious—and they have a deep mistrust of grand ideas and highfalutin’ rhetoric. When the Dalai Lama suggested that the solution to the problems that led to the attacks on Paris lay in a lot more than just prayers, I noticed how often his quote was posted on the walls of my young French Facebook friends: “We need a systematic approach to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony. If we start doing it now, there is hope that this century will be different from the previous one. It is in everybody’s interest.”

It’s a measure of how keenly the ruling generation feels the millennials snapping at their heels that Hollande and Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, feel the need to muzzle Emmanuel Macron, their very pragmatic 37-year-old Economy Minister. Grudgingly accepted for his undeniable talent as an economist, he is constantly being slapped back into line by both his President and the rank and file of the Socialist Party (as he was when he suggested abolishing the 35-hour week or called into question the feasibility of jobs for life in the public sector). After the latest attacks, he went to Place de la République with Sigmar Gabriel, the German Economy Minister, and called for “concrete proposals” to tackle inequality, announcing, much to the outrage of people like Finkielkraut, that France is “in part responsible” for what happened on 13th November. “The soil on which the terrorists managed to nourish this violence, and recruit certain individuals, is that of defiance,” he said. “I believe that it’s the rigidities in our economy, in our society, the lost opportunities, the glass ceilings, the interest groups that have grown up and which both nourish frustration on an individual level and lead to inefficiency on an economic level.” Macron is in the Socialist Party simply because there’s no other place for him. His belief in new economic models does not make him the kind of conservative who might be at home with Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republicans. The measures he has taken to help digital start-ups have gone against the grain of French attitudes towards the internet.

Thirty-year-old Adrien Aumont is co-founder of KissKiss BankBank, a successful crowd-funding platform which he set up with two friends in 2009 and which has, since its creation, given more than €41m to projects ranging from films to music to bakeries and restaurants. Their tagline, “Libérons la créativité!” (“Let’s free creativity!”), expresses a very French belief in culture, but Aumont, who left school at 14 and is a fierce critic of the education system, is also highly critical of its ruling elite. “France is basically healthy,” he told me. “The only people who are not are its mainstream politicians and journalists.” Despite them, and thanks to people like Macron, there’s an extraordinary dynamism in his world. “There are so many structures in place now to help startup companies like mine, so much good will.”

You won’t hear Aumont and his friends in the mainstream press. Their forum is YouTube, where you’ll hear people like Elodie Vialle, another 30-something “digital native” who defines herself on Twitter as “journalist / teacher / media consultant.” She extols the virtues of “participatory” economics and refers to the “quête de sens” (quest for meaning) that lies behind successful French companies such as BlaBlaCar, a site that puts anyone with a car going from A to B in touch with those who don’t have transport and want to travel the same route. Her generation, which came of age during the worst financial crisis since the Depression, have at least as much a sense of social responsibility as their elders. The difference is that they’re pragmatists looking for feasible ways of paying for it. For Vialle, the “économie positive” that blossomed in France in the shadows of financial collapse was an attempt to link social responsibility and economic realism. These young people have travelled abroad and can see that the French social model is unsustainable. They’re looking for ways to replace it.

Is there something in this quest for meaning common to young people like Adrien, Elodie, Ella and Jack that is shared by the “dead souls” who murdered their friends? In an age in which, according to some, monotheism is in its death-throes, is the thirst for transcendence something that those who were attacked on 13th November might have in common with those who murdered them? If you look closely at videos of 28-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian leader of the attacks, with his go-pro strapped to his chest, his endless selfies, his childish delight in the four-wheel drive he’s driving, can you not see, behind the monster he has become, an ugly parody of the millennial child? He, surely, is the uneducated version who found no traction in the culture in which he was raised, in whose “void of thought” evil fit so easily. I became convinced of this when I heard that the last words yelled out by 26-year-old Hasna Aït Boulahcen, the female member of the Paris commando, before she was shot dead by French special forces were not “Allahu Akbar,” but “He’s not my boyfriend!”

Perhaps one of the things the two sides of this millennial generation have in common is their radical divergence from the mindset and values of their parents. For how different could the handful of French Arabs who brought death and destruction to the streets of Paris have been from their gentle, submissive, browbeaten parents who struggled fruitlessly to fit in? What is certain is this: if there’s no political space in France to accommodate them, then its poor, ill-educated Muslims have not a chance in hell. As Ella put it after the attacks: “Islam has been attacked by Daesh, which is using it as a mask, so Islam must ask itself why. I, a privileged Parisian boho who has been attacked by my own generation, must also ask myself why.”

In 2004, French Muslims were told that they were not the target of the laws that banned the wearing of religious symbols in state schools, but few believed the denial. They knew that the vast majority of French people viewed the headscarf or hijab as a symbol of cultural backwardness and oppression, which had no place in French society. Needless to say, the ban has backfired. Having lived in Paris since before 1989, when the idea of the ban was first mooted, I have seen a very noticeable increase in the number of women wearing hijabs both in this city and its suburbs.

The millennials tend to feel uncomfortable with this kind of cultural hegemony. Take Léa Frédéval, the 25-year-old author of a controversial book entitled Les Affamés (“The Hungry”). Frédéval’s book was born, she says, out of a desire to explain herself and her generation to her parents. I first saw her interviewed on cable TV the week her book was published and was struck by the fact that she was speaking a completely different language to the smooth, Agnès B-suited baby-boomers who were interviewing her. They seemed genuinely shocked by her apparent lack of idealism and kept asking her to justify her pessimism. She said she preferred the word “realism” to “pessimism,” saying that she was fed up with hearing platitudes about “les jeunes” from people who had no insight into how she lived. When I went to see her after the attacks in her tiny flat in the 18th arrondissement, she was as indignant as ever about those making decisions on her behalf: “Our politicians need to start coming from civil society,” she said. “We need people of all ages, races, religions and sensibilities… They need to look at the country they’re living in, a country of blacks, Muslims, Jews, transsexuals and women with balls. How can you theorise about a country when you don’t even know what it looks like?”

A version of this post appeared in Prospect magazine in its January 2016 edition.

Move over for France’s next generation

PART I

I have not, until now, tried to describe how it has felt to live in Paris since the evening of 13th November, when a group of young men erupted on to its unseasonably balmy streets and began a killing spree that left 130 people dead, another 100 seriously injured and an entire generation reeling in horror.

To my family and friends in England I said it felt as though this violence had been moving towards us, slowly and ineluctably, for decades (ever since the 1990s when Khaled Kelkal, one of France’s immigrant children, planted bombs in Paris and Lyon in support of the Islamist militias in Algeria). This time, however, it felt much, much closer, as though, in striking at the heart of Paris’s boho youth, “they”—whoever this shape-shifting enemy is—had got right under our skin.

Like a lot of my Parisian friends, I felt that the attackers’ apparently obscure targets in the 10th and 11th arrondissements—four unassuming cafés near the Canal Saint-Martin, two cheap restaurants and a smallish concert venue called the Bataclan—must have been known to them, that they may even have rubbed shoulders with the young, open-hearted, multicultural hipsters they would end up murdering. Perhaps they’d once wanted to belong to this glittering group, before their longing mutated into the urge to destroy it.

This atrocity, carried out in the name of Islamic State or Daesh, as its Muslim opponents prefer to call it, was aimed at, and carried out by, a particular generation. The majority of its victims were in their twenties and thirties, as were its perpetrators—who were, we’re told, mostly French nationals ranging between the ages of 20 and 31. It’s the generation to which my two eldest children, Ella (27) and Jack (29), also belong, a generation of well-travelled “digital natives,” citizens of the world with a taste for adventure, blessed with the gift of adaptability, a generation, as the TripAdvisor website will bear out, whose warmth and openness has drastically improved the experience of holidaying in Paris.

Two weeks after the attacks, death is still all around my children, having touched their circle of friends. They both live in the area—Jack near the Place de la République and Ella within sight of the Bataclan, where 83 people were killed that night. Knowing the streets and cafés where the gunmen opened fire to be the very places where my children tend to go out, people close to me sent frantic emails to make sure they were safe. I wrote back: “Thank you, they’re shaken but they’re ok.”

At the time, “ok” seemed to be the right euphemism for the strange half-state which Jack, Ella and their friends have been in since the massacres, a state of psychological “containment” somewhere between mortal fear and the intense relief of being alive. I hear people referring now to “Black Friday,” attempting, perhaps, to objectify this atrocity and to signify their sense of a before and after 13th November 2015.

Only hours after the attacks, both my children made it clear to me that for them nothing would ever be the same again: “Don’t cry, Mum,” Ella said in a voice that was unsettlingly calm. “This is our struggle (notre combat). Not yours. And we accept it.”

The word “combat”—in the mouth of this epicurean, pleasure-loving young person wedded, like her brother, to the philosophy of nonviolence—saddened me. On the Saturday evening after the attacks, despite the state of emergency and the government’s ban on gatherings and demonstrations, Jack walked over to the Place de la République. (If I’d known, I would have tried to stop him.) When he got home he sent me an email describing the experience. “It’s incredible what human beings can transmit to each other without realising it,” he wrote. “We all wanted to communicate, not necessarily with words.” He described the square, filled with people from different nationalities and ethnic groups, and the police, making gentle entreaties to disperse but unable to bring themselves to interfere with all these “beautiful human beings. It felt as if the whole world was there, present and in harmony, wondering what to build and how to connect… I saw an Arab man sobbing in the arms of an old, slightly bemused, Parisian couple… Suddenly someone put John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ on their shonky laptop and soon it began to ring through the square. The calm, the particularly gentle energy, was indescribable. I’ve never experienced anything like it.” This was the kind of phenomenon Jeremy Rifkin, the American social theorist and one of the great gurus of Jack’s generation, had written about in his book The Empathic Civilization. Jack had believed in, but never before experienced, this kind of empathy: “Our fear of each other,” he concluded, “and of death, felt completely surpassed, annihilated.”

What has struck me most about the post-traumatic reactions of Ella, Jack and their friends has been this powerful upsurge of moral courage and a deep faith in humanity. It leads me to wonder if this section of Parisian youth, so long accused of superficiality, will now be able to teach the true nature of engagement to its elders, in particular the soixante-huitards, the generation of May 1968, still stolidly defending the moral high ground.

Amid multiple apologies for her privileged background, Ella wrote to her English relatives to try and explain what she meant by the word combat: “Beyond the fear and sadness, I need hope. We all feel first the shock, the anger, the sadness but I hope we’ll overcome it by just looking at the people around us and loving them. It starts now. The war starts now. In the street I tell myself, while getting your bio-juice, look at people. While sitting in a bar eating your seeds, look at your waitress, ask her how her day is going instead of looking at your Mac. Talk to the driver of your Uber instead of looking at your iPhone. Ask the guy in the épicerie down the street how he feels, actually hear his sadness when he says ‘Islam, my Islam is not that,’ and his voice tremble with emotion at what the coming days might bring for him. But also give him the opportunity to tell you how he felt yesterday when someone said, full of fear: ‘I’m Jewish. Can I buy from your shop?’”

This urgent quest for community, far beyond the lures of consumerism, that is blossoming in this hitherto easeful generation, was best expressed in the much circulated open letter written by Antoine Leiris to the “dead souls” who killed his 35-year-old wife, Hélène, at the Bataclan: “On Friday night you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you won’t have my hatred… Of course I am devastated by this pain, I give you this little victory, but the pain will be short-lived. I know that she will be with us every day and that we will find ourselves again in this paradise of free love to which you have no access…  We are just two, my son and me, but we are stronger than all the armies in the world.”

 

French Schools: is secularism the answer?

The Class

Since the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in Paris in January, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s indefatigable and impressive Education Minister, is everywhere. Ushered into the limelight by President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, she is now representing the French state’s official response to a trauma that has triggered a real crisis of national identity. “School,” the 37-year-old minister cried out in the National Assembly a week after the attacks. “School is on the frontline. It will stand firm!” Despite the rumble of approval from both sides of the chamber, the febrility of her tone was hard to miss. And she had good reason to be worried: the three jihadists were French, educated in the schools of the Republic.

Ever since the revolution, when its “Committee for Public Instruction” wrestled control of French schools from the grip of the Catholic Church, “l’Education Nationale” has been the state’s main tool for promoting republican values. Unfortunately, more than two centuries later, the French are deeply divided as to what, precisely, those republican values should be. Many feel that concepts like “liberté, egalité, fraternité” are too vague to be of any use in the multi-ethnic, multi-faith France of today, but that doesn’t stop politicians like Vallaud-Belkacem from reciting the tired old triad like a kind of mantra against growing unease.

The purpose of the Education Minister’s speech was to deplore publicly the reported refusal of some French school children from Muslim backgrounds to observe a minute’s silence in homage to the victims of the attacks. Clearly, France has not come to terms with the reality that was brought to light in 2004 by the “Obin report,” assembled by an inspectorate of the Education Ministry, which alerted the political class to the existence of “closed counter-societies” in France’s poorest suburbs in which “a large number of children of North African origin… perceive themselves as foreign to the national community.” According to the authors of the report, French Muslims referred to two categories: “Us and the French.” “Tell them they’re French,” they went on, “and they’ll reply that this is impossible because they’re Muslim.” When the Obin report was published, the official response was to ban the Muslim headscarf (and other “conspicuous religious symbols”) in schools, add the word “laicité” (secularism) to the “liberty, equality, fraternity” mantra and just chant louder.

“There were too many questions from pupils,” Vallaud-Belkacem said in her speech in the Assembly. “‘Yes, I’m Charlie, but what about the double standards?… Why defend freedom of expression for some and not for others?’ These questions are unbearable.” Unbearable, I realised, not because they expressed a legitimate grievance, but because they showed that the French school system, “which is supposed to transmit values,” had failed in its mission. I’m pretty sure that if I were a Muslim child growing up in France today, I too would be asking “unbearable” questions.

What is this mission, exactly, and what are these values? The answer lies in the national mythology surrounding the idea of liberté. Ever since the foundation of the Third Republic in 1870 and Jules Ferry’s laws on free, mandatory and secular public education, the notion of freedom has been equated in France with emancipation—above all from ignorance, obscurantism and religious belief. It became the state’s business to guarantee that every citizen be equipped with a rigorous, rational education that would offer protection against the dark forces operating outside the sanctuary of “l’école Républicaine,” the most dangerous of which was religion. School was and still is the place where the citizen is “shaped” (formé) in rational thought. Irrational belief systems that thrive in the family and the community have no place in school. Significantly, those who defend the legislation banning the Muslim headscarf argue that the hijab represents the patriarchal will to oppress women and that a ban is therefore justified in the name of republican freedom.

The problem is that not everyone is convinced by such arguments. French Muslims believe that behind the law banning the display in schools of conspicuous religious symbols of all kinds lies a desire to target the headscarf alone. This is why Vallaud-Belkacem’s position is so uncomfortable. After all, this is the woman who, five years ago, co-authored an essay entitled “Visible Plurality and Equal Opportunities,” which argued for the symbolic recognition of France’s ethnic minorities. In it, she praised her political opponent Nicolas Sarkozy, then still president, for his “strong and symbolic decision to surround himself with a government that looked more like society.” She also praised his nomination of Rachida Dati, who comes from a North African Muslim background, to the “regal position” of Minister of Justice. “The symbolic effect of such nominations remains powerful,” she said.

But as Hollande’s Education Minister, Vallaud-Belkacem must now toe the line and express the mood of her government, which, if her use of the word “unbearable” is anything to go by, is verging on the hysterical. “We will not take them lightly,” she told the chamber, referring to the hundred or so anti-republican incidents that school heads had reported to her ministry, 40 of which were passed on to the police or Gendarmerie. Indeed, shortly after the attacks, an eight-year-old schoolboy from Nice, who had the misfortune to admit in class that he was not “Charlie,” was reported to the police by his teacher and charged under a new law against vindicating terrorism (“apologie du terrorisme”) that had been passed in November 2014 in order to provide a legal bulwark against online recruiters for jihad. Questioned by the police, the little boy, named Ahmed, admitted that he’d said he was for the terrorists, and against Charlie Hebdo, because of their cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but that he was not, as the headteacher had affirmed, glad the journalists were dead.

The way Vallaud-Belkacem described the questions of children like Ahmed reflects a disturbingly authoritarian tone that has crept into political discourse in France. When I heard her announce her ministry’s plan for a “grand mobilisation of schools for the promotion of the values of the Republic,” I had to remind myself that I was in modern France and not in Maoist China. Between now and July 2015, she promised, “1,000 hardened teacher trainers will be schooled in secularism (laïcité) and moral and civic education, and deployed across the country.” These “reservists,” as they’re being called, will be armed with “effective, appropriate and hard-hitting tools,” including a series of short films about “the historic struggles for the values of the Republic.” What, I wondered, would these films put in and what would they leave out? By trumpeting the “universal values” of the French Republic, does Vallaud-Belkacem hope to mask the fact that the historic majority in this country is being portrayed as more legitimately “republican” than its more recent arrivals?

How, I wondered, has it come to this? An eight-year-old under arrest, teenage boys across France with no criminal records being denounced to the police by their teachers. In the aftermath of the attacks Vallaud-Belkacem sent a circular to state school principals asking them to encourage debate in the classroom. The goal, as she put it, was to free up discussion among the children (“libérer la parole”). With hindsight, and in the light of all the reports and denunciations that subsequently found their way on to her desk, the minister’s invitation to get the children talking takes on sinister overtones. How has this champion of cultural diversity and lesbian and gay rights, who has so often come under attack herself for her own Moroccan roots, become the main apologist for French state assimilationism?

Vallaud-Belkacem was born in the Moroccan Rif, second in a family of seven children, and was raised from the age of five in one of the poorest immigrant suburbs of the northern city of Amiens, where unemployment is over 50 per cent. She excelled at school, earned a degree in law and was accepted by one of France’s most prestigious graduate schools, the Institute of Political Science in Paris (known as “Sciences Po”). For someone like Hollande, she is a walking advert for the integrationist model and a living argument against the “communitarianism” or multiculturalism that the French see being championed in Britain. Ask most French people what “communitarianism” means to them and they’ll say rejecting the host country and living in closed communities.

Vallaud-Belkacem is brave and gifted. Her extraordinary communication skills have made her the Socialist Party’s main mouthpiece for its newest and most unpopular ideas (including same-sex marriage, which became legal in 2013). She’s Hollande’s best card, the embodiment of what he wants modern France to look like. And she is suitably grateful. When she was appointed to her ministerial job, she thanked “l’école de la République” for “making the little immigrant girl that I was into a minister.”

My own experience of the conformism and ideological uniformity of l’Education Nationale over the past 25 years—two of my children have been through the system and two are still in it—makes me a little suspicious of the Education Minister’s unequivocal advocacy of the system. It’s not as if she herself hasn’t suffered in a society which, while pretending to ignore her ethnicity (legally the concept “ethnic minority” doesn’t exist in France), manages to instrumentalise it by holding her up as model of integration, or else throws it back in her face. When she first became a minister in 2012, her supposed champion, Ségolène Royal, said of her appointment: “If she were called Claudine Dupont, she might not be here. She’d better assume her identity and be proud of it.” And then there’s the casual cruelty of her law professor to whom she confided, in the early 1990s, her secret ambition to try for Sciences Po: “Don’t harbour too many illusions, mademoiselle. You’re not up to scratch.”

If the reaction of my eldest son, Jack, to the French school system of the 1990s is anything to go by, revenge can be a powerful driver of ambition. Labelled around the age of eight as “en echec scolaire,” “failing at school,” and endlessly threatened with being made to repeat a year, Jack lived in a state of constant anxiety as a child. One of those little boys who oscillate between the daydreamer and the frenetically energised, he struggled through school until he was 17, when he finally left to study for his baccalaureate by correspondence. He was later accepted by the Sorbonne and earned a masters in philosophy, but he still feels that l’Education Nationale stole his childhood.

“Perhaps we’d like to imagine the killers as irredeemable little psychopaths in the making, but I have yet to hear convincing evidence of that.”

He describes republican schooling in his day as “violent, in that it was basically a regime of fear and humiliation.” He recalls the punishments (children were regularly forced to write lines, despite the fact that pensums had been formally proscribed by ministerial degree in 1890), the degrading rituals (teachers often chose to read out pupils’ marks in descending order), the quick and brutal pigeonholing (the school psychologist’s evaluation could make or break a child’s reputation) and the competitive divide-and-rule atmosphere that was maintained in the classroom. Apparently this kind of “poisonous pedagogy” can still be found in France’s public schools today. According to the lawyer of eight-year-old Ahmed, after the Charlie Hebdo incident in the classroom he was sent to the headteacher who lost his temper, hit him three times over the head, put him in the corner and then refused to give him his diabetes medicine. By the time the child’s statement was made public, Vallaud-Belkacem had already taken the school’s side.

When he saw the video of Ahmed’s statement, Jack sent me an email: “Gives a good idea of what’s inside the social pressure cooker.” Thinking of that little boy in the police station and the other young Muslims who have been forced to appear handcuffed before magistrates, I find myself wondering who the three killers, Said and Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, were as schoolboys.

Perhaps we’d like to imagine them as irredeemable little psychopaths in the making, but I have yet to hear convincing evidence of that. A close friend of the Coulibaly family described Amedy as having “always had an enormous need to belong. At the Collège Jean-Vilar [his secondary school], his schooling was a complete mess. He met neither the men nor the books he should have.” The French-born son of Malian parents, he was the only boy in a family of 10 children. He was encouraged at school to follow a vocational training, but harboured illusions of passing the more prestigious bac. He is said to have “changed suddenly aged 17,” when he took up drug dealing and armed robbery. Perhaps by then it had become clear to him that he would never fulfil his ambitions. Amedy was sent to prison, where he was, as we now know, recruited to the jihad. The prison’s psychiatrist spoke of “an immature and psychopathic personality with poor powers of introspection.”

Similarly with the Kouachi brothers, there has been little attempt to understand what might have made them so
vulnerable to radicalisation. There’s the statement given to the press by the Director of the Georges Pompidou Foundation home where social services placed the brothers as children, after the deaths of both their parents: “We’re all shocked because we know these youths. It’s hard to imagine these youths, who were perfectly integrated, could deliberately kill like that… During their time with us they never posed any behavioural problems.” Then there’s the statement from another “youth” who was close to the brothers for the six years that they spent in the centre: “The George Pompidou [home] wasn’t very cool… How can I describe it? It was very violent. We fought a lot among ourselves. Some care workers were scared of us. I heard Patrick Fournier, the Director, saying that everything was fine. Not exactly true!”

Of course, the killers’ “real natures” will forever remain a matter of speculation, but the glaring discrepancy between these two portraits does raise questions. Jack’s perception of the “violence” of the school system is linked to the persistent pressure exerted on him by teachers and psychiatrists to conform. I first became aware of this pressure when Jack was four and his kindergarten teacher tore up his drawing because he was still representing human figures as “hommes têtards” (people with heads, legs and arms but no bodies), a sign, to her, of his “regressive tendencies.” This normative pressure in French society makes its pre-eminent citizens, its experts of all kinds, very quick to judge. So it is with a certain amount of scepticism that I read Coulibalay’s psychiatric report: “A very deficient moral sense… a desire for omnipotence.”

Compare it to the account given by the family friend: “When he got out of prison I found him much more shut off, bitter. But he wasn’t someone who made you scared. For me, he was above all a youth who’d been punished a lot.”

One of the joys of the rousing manifestations of national solidarity in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris was that they seemed to express a very real spirit of tolerance. As I marched with my daughter through the streets of Paris on that cold, crisp January afternoon, I was struck by the messages I heard in the chants—“I am Charlie! I am a Muslim! I am a Jew!”—and on many of the banners: “In mourning; not at war.” The message politicians took away from these demonstrations was that something had to change and so it was that, soon afterwards, Vallaud-Belacem was standing on the podium of the National Assembly calling for that “general mobilisation” to reduce “the fractures” in French society and, as Valls had promised, “draw lessons from what isn’t working.”

The problem is that the old mantras are still being chanted and no lessons are being drawn. While Valls dared to say in public, two weeks after the attacks, that there was “a territorial, social, ethnic apartheid” in France, and even used the taboo word “ghetto” to describe the banlieues (deprived suburbs), the President remains in denial. “The Republic recognises all her children,” he said piously. “Wherever they’re born, or wherever they live. It’s her duty to make sure that each of her children can succeed in life without feeling segregated, separated, discriminated against, ignored, because he or she comes from a given estate or quartier.” The crucial question, he went on, is: “Do we have the capacity to live together?”

None of this feels like drawing lessons. Patrick Kanner, Hollande’s Minister for Towns, Youth and Sport, who heads an inter-ministerial project to reduce inequality in the suburbs, told Le Figaro recently that he was “not afraid” of the idea of “positive” (or affirmative) action to combat discrimination, another taboo concept in France. Talking of the “service civique,” a programme to help young job seekers get a foothold on the employment ladder, Kanner said: “There’s five times more demand than there are places available on the programme. We have to make sure that 100 per cent of the applications from the suburbs are honoured. The places must go first to them.” Hollande quickly made it clear that he did not agree with his minister: “I myself don’t recognise any communities. I say that every citizen of the Republic has the rights and the same obligations.”

You may ask why France could bring itself to introduce its highly effective parity laws to boost the number of women in parliament (now, 15 years later, ahead of the United Kingdom) but then displays an allergic reaction every time anyone raises the possibility of positive action to fight racism. The reason given is that the French are so attached to the ideal of equality before the law that they perceive any departure from that principle—including identifying someone as belonging to an ethnic minority—as a form of injustice. Given the culture of privileges and “régimes spéciaux” that pervades the French labour market, this looks either hypocritical or plain delusional.

One proposal has been to make it possible to gather data on France’s ethnic minorities in order better to combat racial inequality. French egalitarianism doesn’t recognise the concept of ethnicity, so it’s still impossible to assemble public statistics on ethnic minorities here. Last month, Hollande rejected the idea of changing that law: “There will be those who are for and those who are against, those who say, it’s discriminating to put certain people on certain lists who will have rights that others won’t have. The French will be considered according to their colour, their origins, their neighbourhood? No. We can see what’s happening according to where people live. No need for statistics on ethnicity. Look at where many of your compatriots live and you’ll see the problems of unemployment, education, success, even the ability to start a business.”

As is often the case in France, there’s a gap here between the ideal and the reality. Despite the official line, there are people gathering statistics with the aim of fighting discrimination. L’Observatoire des inégalités (Inequality Watch), an organisation based in Tours, is an online data-gathering resource. One of the consequences of the state’s refusal to acknowledge ethnicity as a component of identity is that ethnic minorities in France have few platforms on which to express themselves. Today, grassroots movements are working to remedy this. During the riots that erupted in the banlieues in 2005, the Bondy Blog was set up by a group of Swiss journalists who were interested in hearing what the inhabitants of Bondy, one of the burning suburbs northeast of Paris, might have to say about their situation. Today the Bondy Blog is a thriving online magazine that relays news from France’s previously voiceless immigrant suburbs. Behind these initiatives is a new generation of French people who believe, like the Martinican writer and academic Édouard Glissant, that identity in the modern world is “relational” rather than “fixed.”

Despite what Hollande says about the Republic recognising all children as equal, there is a chronic problem of educational inequality in France and it often follows ethnic lines. In its Survey of Adult Skills, the OECD found that France’s education system, while it produces an impressive intellectual elite, leaves a large proportion of its adult population barely able to read: 21.6 per cent of those surveyed in France scored the lowest level of literacy, compared to 15.5 per cent across 24 other countries. In a culture that puts such emphasis on academic achievement, the stigma of failure is, of course, that much greater. The OECD’s final report said of France: “The scores for French people [in literacy and numeracy] vary considerably according to training levels and social background, and this is to a far greater degree than the average across participating countries. The differences in literacy standards between individuals born in France and those who were born abroad are much greater than the average across participating countries.”

Last month I went to our local primary school in Paris to meet my 10-year-old son’s new teacher. Joseph had just joined her class of 27, having moved from a tiny village school in the Cevennes mountains, one of the wildest and least populated areas of France, where he had, for the past seven years, been taught in classes of 10. One of the appeals of this rural school was that most of the time it seemed to elude the reach of “l’Education Nationale.”

When I asked the new teacher if she ever praised the children, she pulled out four little stamps from a drawer and set them in a line on her desk. “I got them from Canada,” she said, with a guilty smile. “They’re smileys. One for good work, one for hard work, one for tidy work. And this one, this is their favourite, the smiley kitty, for big improvement!” Today, it seems that pressure is growing in France to place the individual needs of the child at the heart of the school system. For the past two years there has been considerable debate surrounding the wisdom of the “out of 20” marking system in primary schools, which many feel works for “good” students, but discourages or even “breaks” children who are struggling.

On the ground, more and more primary school teachers are refusing to give marks despite the President’s known attachment to them: “Marks are important as a means of keeping families informed,” he said recently. “Of course Hollande likes the marking system,” says Christian Chevalier, Secretary General of the teacher’s union, UNSA. “Hollande is himself a pure product of the marking system and selective sorting.” As for poor, beleaguered Vallaud-Belkacen—who last November said of an experimental secondary school in the Gers which had abandoned all marks: “I vigorously support the pedagogic innovations that come from the field”—she has now chosen her camp. Eager, perhaps, to hold on to her job as head of a ministry with a notoriously revolving door, she recently came out against any reform to the existing system.

The old guard in France, for whom l’Ecole de la République is still an extremely useful social tool, continues to resist grassroots movements that press for a more tolerant, accepting model. I think of the French state’s continuing refusal to accept the diversity—psychological, religious and cultural—of its citizens; I recall my own child’s indignation and the sense of injustice felt by those French Muslim girls being forced to leave their headscarves at home; the mute rage of all those teenage Muslim boys being told that they won’t succeed but they must conform—and I wonder how long the edifice will hold.

This piece was published in Prospect in March, 2015