France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, may be unique on today’s world stage in an era marked by the rise of populism. He came to power in 2017 as a centrist maverick. He had no established party, ideology or tradition to guide him or fight for his future agenda. And yet, in the midst of that uncertainty, the rules of France’s Fifth Republic’s presidential regime gave him a stable position to govern from for a full five years. It was an enviable position. The media could not accuse the centrist Macron of the political sin of the age: populist extremism.
In 2016, following Brexit and Donald Trump’s election in the US, populist extremism appeared to have overtaken the English-speaking world. It was rapidly spreading across Europe and elsewhere. The most obvious populists are branded right-wing. They demonstrate a taste for nationalism, authoritarianism and majoritarianism. They include Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson, Rodrigo Duterte, Narendra Modi and Viktor Orban. The left-wing populists appear as reformers and even revolutionaries, ready to upset the status quo and alienate any number of vested interests. They include Bernie Sanders, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
In 2017, Macron miraculously parted the waters of the French political Red Sea when he managed to split the political spectrum down the middle, neutralizing the traditional ruling parties on the right and left. As a centrist, he claimed to be capable of embracing the diversity of the nation. During his electoral campaign, he reached out to Barack Obama, who publicly supported him. This bolstered the image of Macron as an open-minded, globalizing liberal. The former Rothschild banker also had his neoliberal credentials, affirming his identification with the mainstream values of the existing economic superstructure, the traditional enemy of both right-wing and left-wing populists.
Emmanuel Macron’s Campaign to Stifle Debate in France
So why is Macron now embracing Islamophobia, the policy most clearly associated with right-wing populism? Can it be that the centrist Macron, who has built the strongest part of his reputation on the anti-nationalistic idea of strengthening the European Union, is at heart a populist?
Writing in The Conversation, Charles Barthold and Marin Fougère describe what may be called the populist method of French president: “Macron crafts his speeches to cater to the emotions and demands of the public, be it through ramping up the rhetoric on climate change or pushing for further European Union integration — whether or not he actually has the policies to match his words.” He shares with pure populists a deep sense of electoral opportunism. He simply lacks the fanatically loyal base that they cultivate and seek to excite.
With the trial of the authors of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in the news, Macron has decided to use his pulpit to instruct the nation about the largely discredited thesis Samuel Huntington famously launched in 1993: the clash of civilizations. In what sounds like a call to arms, Macron says “we must attack radical Islamism.” He offers this deliberately vague but hugely provocative historical judgment: “Islam is a religion experiencing a crisis today, everywhere in the world.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Experiencing a crisis:
The usual diagnosis made by those undergoing a crisis against those whom they seek to use as a scapegoat to explain their own crisis.
Macron attempts to clarify the nature of the crisis when he explains that it concerns “tensions between fundamentalisms.” What does he mean? Is he referring to the rivalry between Sunnis and Shia? Are the “religious and political projects” he mentions those of the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran? He never clarifies this. His aim is less to elucidate historical trends than to exploit a sense of fear.
The full text of Macron’s speech reveals his intentions. He introduces his remarks on the crisis of Islam by proudly pointing to his own “humility.” He admits he is not a specialist. In other words, what he is about to say has no scientific authority. Instead, he generously offers “to share his understanding of things as he sees them.” After all, who needs experts when everyone knows that what counts are the subjective feelings of a leader? The method resembles Donald Trump’s, who routinely excoriates experts as frauds. The gentler and subtler Macron uses the prestige of his office to simply leave the experts on the sidelines.
Macron follows this up with a laughably incoherent allusion to a nation he calls “our friend, Tunisia.” He explains that “Thirty years ago, the situation was radically different in the application of this religion, the way of living it, and the tensions that we live in our society are present in this one which is undoubtedly one of the most educated, developed in the region.” Is he more surprised by the fact that some things change over time or that some educated people may not think and act in the same way he does? Both can be attributed to a special form of French, and Macronian, hubris.
Macron resorts to the method of sounding logical when he announces: “There is therefore a crisis of Islam.” “Therefore” implies that the evidence he has presented concerning Tunisia is conclusive. The debate is over. He has made his case. That enables him to lament a “reinvented jihad” which he oddly defines as “the destruction of the other.” He then describes the litany of horrors routinely cited by Islamophobes across the globe. He even obeys the command enjoined by hosts of Fox News or Bill Maher to “say the words” and identify the evil: “We must name it.” Naming is blaming, and clearly Islam is to blame, a message he expects the non-Muslim voting majority of France to appreciate.
Macron clearly believes Islamophobia is a winning strategy. But France, unlike the United States, is a nation that also appreciates intellectual nuance. And so the president goes on to admit, in a way that Trump would never be tempted to do, that his nation bears some of the blame for today’s evils by allowing ghettoes to be created and failing to realize mixité, a French word for integration. He even refers to the failure of France to come to terms with the trauma of its colonial past, while at the same time demonstrating his own obvious failure to do so.
Macron’s party, La République en Marche! (Republic on the Move, or EM!), is an example of what the French call bricolage, meaning basically cobbling things together and hoping they work. The fact that his party is still more or less intact says less about Macron’s political skills than it does about the sclerosis of the Fifth Republic’s political institutions and the dominant, if not regal role of the president.
From the start, EM! was a dog’s dinner. Now it is at risk of spilling out of the bowl at any moment. That may explain why Macron occasionally feels the need for a populist fix, and Islamophobia is the only reliable fix for a centrist. For decades the Le Pens, both father and daughter, have deftly exploited the growing anti-immigrant sentiment of the working class. Thanks to that strategy, Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly National Front) managed to capture what was once the Communist Party’s working-class constituency after it had fallen into irrelevance.
The difference between Macron’s electorally convenient Islamophobia and Marine Le Pen’s becomes clear in his discourse. He wants Muslims to integrate, to become ordinary French people, whereas Le Pen — like Trump in reference to certain young, darker-skinned legislators — simply wants them to “go home.” Presumably, Macron and Le Pen would be satisfied if the Muslims simply stayed out of sight. But that would pose another problem. It would remove the convenient distraction of blaming another culture for the failures of one’s own.
France and other European nations share with the United States an underlying problem rooted in their history. Just as the US has never managed to come to grips with its slaveholding past, former European colonial empires have never worked out how to deal not just with their own colonial history. To some extent, this reflects and incapacity to deal with history itself, whose reality they prefer to deny. This is especially true of France, a nation that, like the US, believes its own political culture of human rights and the championing of freedom represents universal norms. Both the French and the Americans should ask themselves this question: Who is experiencing the deepest crisis today? The answer should be obvious.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.