The Year That Broke Emmanuel Macron’s Republican Front

On April 21, the far-right magazine Valeurs
Actuelles launched the kind of perfectly timed volley that sends French
political and media life into overdrive. It took the form of an open letter,
what the French generally refer to as a “tribune.” Titled “For a return to
honor of our governors,” the tribune was signed by a group of high-ranking former
military officials, including 20 retired generals, who warned that “the
situation is critical, France is in peril, several mortal dangers threaten
her.”Many of the signatories have long lingered on the
fringes of French politics, grumbling over the Republic’s lapse into decadence
and decay. Christian Piquemal was one of the higher-profile among them. In
2016, General Piquemal was stripped of his retirement benefits and formally
discharged from the forces after participating in a march on the migrant camp
at Calais alongside the novelist and fascist polemicist Renaud Camus. Camus is
one of the principal disseminators of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory,
according to which a globalist cabal is supplanting Europe’s white population with
African migrants.The open
letter was the latest salvo in a raging culture war within France on Islam,
race, republicanism, and all things in between. “Disintegration” is the
leitmotif of the soldiers’ diagnosis of contemporary France. “A
disintegration,” they write, “which, through a certain form of anti-racism, has
one single goal: spreading on our soil a general malaise, a hatred between
communities. Today, certain people talk about racialism, indigenism, and
decolonial theories, but beneath these terms hateful and fanatical agitators
want a race war. They disdain our country, her traditions, her culture, and want
to see it fall apart by taking away its past and its history.” The letter peddles the old right-wing fantasy of a
fifth column of rootless cosmopolitans disarming the country against its enemies,
both internal and domestic. The generals then go on to name the cause of France’s
supposed national rot: “Islamism and the hordes of the banlieue,” a reference
to the predominantly immigrant neighborhoods on the outskirts of French cities.
These forces are “leading to the detachment of multiple parcels of the nation
and transforming them into territories beholden to dogmas contrary to our
constitution.”Apart from a few particularly incendiary phrases (“race
war,” “hordes”) the letter is remarkably close to the hardening line in France
on a bevy of entangled issues, including multiculturalism, terrorism, and secularism.
The scale of attacks that have struck France in recent years may have receded from
the gruesome peak of 2015 and 2016, but the threat of terrorism, and the fear
that hangs over French politics because of it, has grown more diffuse. This has
had the effect of switching the focus of the debate on terror from the problem
of security and deterrence to the vague question of intellectual complicity. The scale of attacks that have struck France in recent years may have receded from
the gruesome peak of 2015 and 2016, but the threat of terrorism, and the fear
that hangs over French politics because of it, has grown more diffuse.This shift has allowed the far right to conjure ever
more menacing threats and conspiracies and to propose ever more radical
responses. The signatories declared that “if nothing is done, laxism will
continue to spread inexorably throughout society, provoking finally an
explosion and the intervention of our active-service comrades in a perilous
mission for the protection of our civilizational values.” The end is nigh, they
warned: “There is no longer any time to wait, and if we do, a civil war will be
the result of the mounting chaos, and the deaths, for which you will be
responsible, will count by the thousands.”A tragic coincidence had the effect of giving a
certain degree of relevance to the generals’ protest. On April 23, two days after the open letter’s circulation by
Valeurs Actuelles (it had originally surfaced on the far-right military blog
Place d’armes), a lone-wolf terrorist
attacked a police bureau in Rambouillet, a town west of Paris, killing an
administrative worker. The alleged
perpetrator, a 36-year-old Tunisian man who arrived illegally in France in
2009 before receiving papers in 2020, was entirely unknown to anti-terrorist
units in the Interior Ministry hierarchy.French media lives off scandals of the kind brought
about by the Valeurs Actuelles letter. These stories reinforce the
effort to pigeonhole France’s politics into an inescapable confrontation
between President Emmanuel Macron’s republican center and the ultranationalist
right. On April 27, the news network BFMTV held a roundtable discussion on the
generals’ tribune, framing the debate as a question of whether the officers’
initiative was “irresponsible
or patriotic.” This was a curious way to deal with a text that implies in
hardly concealed terms the circumventing of republican rule of law.It now seems almost inevitable that the 2022 election
will be cast as a showdown between Macronism—whatever that might currently mean—and
the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who quickly came out in support of the  phalanx of officers. “As a citizen and as a
politician, I subscribe to your analyses and share your concerns,” she wrote in
an op-ed
relayed by Valeurs Actuelles. “Like you, I think it is the duty of all
French patriots, wherever they come from, to rise up for the recovery and even,
let’s say it, the salvation of our country.”Worryingly for Macron, 58 percent of respondents to a Harris
Interactive poll published on April 29 said they sympathize with the
generals’ position. What’s perhaps even more telling is that as many as 64
percent of those polled said that they had actually heard of the
tribune, a sad reflection of the degree to which the media has become a mirror
and mouthpiece of the ramblings of what the French call the “right of the right,”
the ecosystem of political cliques that gravitate around the more organized
forces behind the Le Pen family. Macron, too, has gone that extra mile to make
Valeurs Actuelles something of a fixture in the French media landscape. In a
2019 feature interview with the far-right weekly, he praised it as a
“very good magazine.” Whichever way you look at it, the situation is
indeed critical in Macron’s France.This past coziness with far-right media hasn’t
prevented the government from using the scandal to portray the
president as a Charles de Gaulle–like defender of France’s constitutional
order, a firm executive bravely guarding the Republic from extremes on the left
and the right. One of the implications of the tribune is that the officers are
speaking on behalf of soldiers in the active service. Of the roughly 1,500 individuals
who signed the tribune, only 18 were identified as figures in active service,
though many of the remaining signatories are still eligible to be recalled in
the event of a national emergency. The tribune attests to the existence of a
core of officers within the armed forces and the recallable reserves who would
be willing to “take the situation into their own hands,” as the political
scientist Jean-Yves Camus (no relation to Renaud Camus) put it.Camus doesn’t think this will actually happen. “Frankly,”
he said, “I see nothing that could actually lead to the reversal of an army
which is, all in all, very republican, loyalist, and respectful of its
subordination to the civil authorities.” But it is in the media’s interest to
sensationalize the scandal as much as possible. It was precisely to further
drum up the scandal that Valeurs Actuelles released a second
open letter on May 9 reaffirming the original, though this new tribune,
anonymous and unverifiable, professes to come from officers in active service. To cap off what was already a masterstroke in
right-wing news cycle management, Valeurs Actuelles timed the release of
the original tribune perfectly. April 21 was the sixtieth anniversary, to the day, of a failed putsch in 1961, when generals
stationed in Algeria staged a coup attempt to avert France’s withdrawal from
one of its last colonial footholds. It was a rebuke of de Gaulle, the president
they had shepherded into power only years earlier but who had slowly come to
terms with the reality of Algerian self-determination.“The context today in many ways has little to do with
what was happening 60 years ago,” said Grey Anderson, a researcher at the École
Polytechnique and the author of La guerre civile en France, 1958-1961.
But by selling himself as a bold modernizer, the sole arbiter of France’s ingrained divisions, and a rampart against extremes, “Macron clearly enjoys
claiming the legacy of Charles de Gaulle,” he said.Police officers hold a portrait of Stéphanie Monfermé, who was killed in a lone-wolf terrorist attack in April. The attack bolstered the right wing’s case that France’s culture is under assault.LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images“It’s in the interests both of Macron and Le Pen to
have these sorts of scandals taking up space in the public debate,” Anderson added,
“rather than the continued parceling out of what remains of France’s industrial
sovereignty, or the management of the pandemic.”Macron’s allies have leaned into the juxtaposition. Prime
Minister Jean Castex asked,
“How can people—and Madame Le Pen, in particular—who aspire to hold national
democratic office approve something that leaves open the possibility of
undermining the State?” Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, like Castex a
Macronist transplant from the old center right, said, “Marine Le Pen shares her
father’s tastes for jackboots on the street, and it’s very worrisome.” This was
a reference to the fact that Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, was both a veteran of the
Algerian War and the father of the modern far right in France. According
to Marlène Schiappa, a Cabinet-level official and “citizenship” czar, “We
see the real face of [Marine Le Pen’s National Rally Party], which is a party
of putschists.”But the attempt to turn this latest scandal into a
morality tale about Marine Le Pen’s unfitness to govern and to consolidate
Macron’s position as the natural and sole leader of the “republican front,” is already
backfiring. In addition to public support for the generals, center-right
figures like Rachida Dati, mayor of Paris’s wealthy Seventh Arrondissement, remarked in an interview on FranceInfo that “what is
written in this tribune is a reality.” For Valérie Pécresse, the
president of the capital region of Ile-de-France, there is indeed an “immense
crisis of authority in France.”  Of course, it would be incorrect to dismiss this all as
a pseudo-scandal. Political extremism within the police and military apparatus is
a real problem, as a number of investigative journalists have revealed. These
sectors have likewise been shown disproportionally to support the National
Rally, and they are clearly emboldened. There is at least a cosmetic difference
between the right-wing extremism of the isolated rank and file and the Valeurs
Actuelles letter, which is a secretion of the more highbrow reactionary
thinking found among elements of the officers corp. For wealthy Catholic
families of the type who like to vaunt their descendance from the aristocracy
of old, it is still something of a matter of pride to send a son to an elite
military school like Saint Cyr.    
But it would be easier to take the government’s alarm
at Le Pen’s alignment with the officers more seriously were it not for the
full-fledged Kulturkampf that has been led, over the last year, by Macron’s own
government. The far right’s show of force is the only too logical
conclusion of the concerted effort—by Macron’s communications team, his
highest-ranking ministers, and the media establishment—to bring French
conservatism’s deepest anxieties and most hackneyed talking points to the
forefront of the public debate.The onslaught began last summer. Covid-19 cases were
again on the rise, after a brief lull. The new school year was approaching,
with no concrete plan for French students from primary school level up to
the universities. Little had been done to reinforce a thinly stretched health
infrastructure, which had been close to the brink of collapse just a few months
earlier as patients crowded hospitals. With fall approaching, there was no
dearth of major problems to be addressed.Political life also seemed to be reawakening. On June
16, hospital
workers took
to the streets to
demand that public acclamations of their heroism and sacrifice be backed up by
improvements in benefits and working conditions. The murder of George Floyd reignited
similar debates in France on structural racism and police violence. On June 2,
at the instigation of the Adama Committee, which had made public the
findings of an independent investigation contradicting an official medical
report on Adama Traoré’s 2016 death in police custody, thousands of people contravened protest bans to
rally in front of Paris’s main courthouse.Gérald Darmanin assumed control of the Interior Ministry
in July 2020. Darmanin had gained his political footing in the early 2010s alongside
Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s conservative law and order president from 2007 to 2012, and his promotion from a prior role as budget officer was another
confirmation that Macron was betting his political survival on carving up the
right.The attempt to turn this latest scandal into a
morality tale about Marine Le Pen’s unfitness to govern, and to consolidate
Macron’s position as the natural and sole leader of the “republican front,” is already
backfiring.Less than three weeks after taking power, Darmanin
began a media blitz decrying the “ensauvagement”
(literally, the act of “making savage”) of French society, caught in the grip
of general incivility and low-level crime. It hardly mattered that there was no
noticeable increase in crime rates. In a July 24 interview with the
conservative daily Le Figaro, Darmanin denounced France’s “crisis of
authority.” In late August, Valeurs Actuelles ran an issue with the
headline “Ensauvagement, 60 days in the France of the new barbarians” spread
across the cover. Marlène Schiappa, who would later call the National Rally a
“party of putschists” for its support of the generals’ letter, acknowledged
that “petty crime is rising in France, in what might be useful to refer to as
an ensauvagement.” Macron fashions himself as staying above the media
fray and likes to leave the task of managing
the news cycle to his ministers and Cabinet officials. In a major October 2 speech in Mureaux, however, he took up the
baton, announcing the government’s new campaign against the problem of
“separatism.”The Mureaux speech was the launching point of what
would become proposed legislation “reinforcing republican principles.” Staunchly
criticized by the left-wing opposition and an array of nongovernmental organizations, the proposal,
which was formally presented in December, increases government oversight of
private schools and homeschooling outside the purview of the public education
system. In a bid to clamp down on donations to schools and associations that
receive funding from foreign countries—notably from Muslim countries—these
actors will have to declare their funding to the state. Associations seeking
public subsidies will be asked to commit to a “contract of Republican
engagement.”In October, the relaunch of the culture war was
out of step in a country hurtling toward a second Covid lockdown. Back in
March 2020, Macron had called for something of a political ceasefire, tabling his
controversial retirement reform package—pre-Covid, the object of
national attention and cause for a large wave of strikes from December 2019 to
the onset of the pandemic, bringing to a crest a cycle
of political organizing opened up by the Yellow Vests. “We
are at war,” Macron declared,
in his mid-March speech announcing the first lockdown.The disconnect between this second war on “separatism,”
ensauvagement, and incivility and the reality of life in a sanitary and
economic crisis would perhaps have been an embarrassment for the government,
were it not for a string of horrifying terror attacks later that same month. On
October 16, the middle-school history teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by a Muslim
terrorist of Chechen origin near the school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine where
he taught, in retribution for a lesson he had given on free speech and the
right to caricature figures such as the Prophet Mohamed. On October 29, just as
France was preparing for its second lockdown, a terrorist stabbed and killed
three people inside the central basilica in Nice.The main thrust of the government’s response to these
attacks was to rage against individuals and groups deemed complicit in terror.
Jean-Michel Blanquer, the minister of education, youth, and sports, led the
charge. “Our society has been too permeable to currents of thought,” Blanquer
warned in an October 22 interview with Europe-1 radio. “What goes
by the name of ‘Islamo-leftism’ is causing mayhem, is ravaging our
universities.… They tolerate an ideology that leads ineluctably to the worst.
When we consider this latest event [the Samuel Paty murder], this is not the
case of an isolated assassin. He’s a murderer who has been conditioned by other
people, who are to a certain degree the intellectual authors of this murder.”This clearing of the ground for the Valeurs
Actuelles media coup was a function of cynical political opportunism and
craven groupthink. Take the example of Frédérique Vidal. When she was appointed
minister of higher education and research in 2017, some vaunted that, at long
last, this position was coming to someone outside the world of Parisian party
politics. Vidal to that point had a largely undistinguished career as an
academic biologist. But having formerly served as president of Sophia Antipolis
University, outside Nice, she could pass for someone who knew the realities of
France’s two-track higher education system, cleaved between overcrowded and
cracking universities and a pocket of well-funded Parisian grandes écoles.In other words, she did not have a reputation as an
ideologue. In late October, when the government’s main line, spearheaded by
Blanquer, was that the academy was being plagued by “Islamo-leftism” and a culture
of victim-worshipping inspired by American “critical race theory,” Vidal objected.
“The university is not a place of radicalization,” she said on October 30, “the university is a place where we can debate everything, but debate with
methodological doubt, which represents the very foundation of what research is.
That there are studies that focus on the question of postcoloniality in the
Anglo-Saxon sense, yes of course that exists in universities. It’s normal that
this takes place!”Vidal was forced to backpedal. In mid-February of
this year, she ordered a report from the National Center for Scientific
Research on the “Islamo-leftism” that purportedly is “infecting” France’s
research establishment. On the cable network C-News, she pontificated
on February 14 that “Islamo-leftism is infecting society in a general way, and
the university is not immune to this because the university is part of
society.”“What’s going on today,” said Majdi Chaarana, who
studies law in Paris and is treasurer of the Union Nationale des Étudiants
de France, “is that the far right is successfully diffusing
its ideas well beyond its traditional base around Marine Le Pen.” In March, the
UNEF found itself again in the crosshairs of the government’s onslaught, when word
got out that the union had sponsored race-exclusive meetings for its members to
discuss particular issues. Blanquer declared that activities such as these “are
bringing us toward a thing that resemble fascism, which is very worrisome.”“When they say that we are attacking the republic,”
Chaarana said, “that’s a huge problem, and it means we’re in a very dangerous
moment.”In the context of the pandemic, concrete issues that affect
the lives of the French—precarity, isolation, widespread sickness—are being
brushed under the rug by the government, which is waging a cultural crusade over
trivial and benign phenomena such as safe spaces on university campuses. It is
one thing for the Republican Party in the United States, a morally bankrupt
institution led by a lying plutocrat, to obsess over “cancel culture”—it would
be quite another if President Joe Biden and the ruling Democratic Party, which
claims to stand for moderation and common sense, did the same.This is the situation in France, where the ostensibly vital
center has also been captured by right-wing culture-war talking points. It
could be argued that the government taunted the far right into this latest
media coup. On February 11, Gérard Darmanin faced off against Marine Le Pen in
a televised duel on France 2. Le Pen was caught in a moment of genuine
speechlessness when Darmanin, who
was then guiding an omnibus law reinforcing police powers through parliament, said that he found her “a bit soft, a bit shaky”
on Islamic extremism.The attempt to use the open letter to reapply the
stigma of anti-republicanism back on the far right, after months of stamping
the seal of illegitimacy on minorities, student groups, and left-wing intellectuals,
has left Macron’s government in a position of perfect nonsense. It turns out
that if you devote the government’s energy to invoking the specter of
“Islamo-leftism” and screaming about the dangers of “critical race theory,” the
political field and a rubber-stamping press will follow. Further down the line,
voters might actually believe you.Jean-Yves Camus told me the “republican front”—long a
euphemism for the trans-partisan bloc opposed to the far right—is losing its
meaning and appeal. “People are increasingly dissatisfied,” he said, “to vote
for a candidate simply to prevent someone else from getting into power.” It
only adds insult to injury when the government adopts the themes and anxieties
of a political force that is otherwise deemed beyond the pale of acceptable
republican politics. By publishing the generals’ tribune on April 21, Valeurs
Actuelles had picked another landmark date in contemporary French history. On
that day in 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen broke through to the second round of France’s
presidential election. Though some 82 percent of voters united by default
behind the center-right candidate, Jacques Chirac, this was an early sign of the
breakdown of the French party system. After a year of culture wars, this reorganization
is continuing apace, taking the form of a sea change in how the French perceive
 “republican” legitimacy—namely, who
counts as an enemy of the Republic, and who a defender. 

2021-05-24 | The Soapbox, Politics, France | English |