After watching the video of a street battle raging directly below the Paris apartment I once occupied at a time when François Mitterand was president, I turned to The New York Times’ editorial board’s response to President Emmanuel Macron’s accusation that The Times and other English-speaking media have been unfair in their coverage of Macron’s campaign against Islamist separatism.
In an excellent article examining recent developments in France, Glenn Greenwald is far too generous when he suggests that the proudly authoritarian Macron is acting either “out of political calculation, conviction or some combination of both.” For the past three years, most people in France have been wondering whether in fact their president has any convictions beyond electoral calculations. Just ask the gilets jaunes, whose legacy is far from over. The yellow vests have been seen reemerging to accompany the current protests against Macron’s new law on global security.
To defend his policies, Macron has frequently quoted Jean Baubérot, a historian of laïcité, the French ideology of secularism. In an interview with the journal L’Obs, Baubérot excoriates the president, notably calling into question Macron’s pompous invocation of the “values” of “la République.” But as Baubérot notes, Macron’s idea of values “could disguise less than honorable intentions.” At the same time, the historian reminds the president that values are communicated by “convincing rather than constraining.”
Macron’s Problem With the News in English
Baudérot goes even further when he compares Macron to the revolutionaries of France’s Reign of Terror who worshipped the goddess of reason. He accuses Macron of attempting to turn laïcité itself into “a goddess of which France would be her chosen people.” No one has forgotten Macron’s ambition of becoming a Jupiterian leader. The supreme god must have his goddesses.
Macron’s pagan religion is clearly incompatible with Islam, but, as Olivier Roy and Régis Debray have pointed out, it is also incompatible with democratic rights and especially the freedom of expression. Roy points out that Macron’s latest initiatives brutally stifle the freedom of expression of schoolchildren as well as of an entire community bullied into conformity.
The Times editorial board thinks that the issues Macron is concerned about “should be open to debate, both within France and among mature democracies.” In an effort to sound conciliatory, The Times agrees that “the debate cannot cross into any notion that any victim of Islamist terror ‘had it coming.’ Mr. Macron is right to reject any such suggestion.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Had it coming:
An expression used by individuals and even political leaders — such as George W. Bush with regard to Saddam Hussein or Hillary Clinton with regard to Muammar Gaddafi — to justify not only acts of war but also their own gruesome terrorist methods.
The Times editorial board politely makes its own significant point about President Macron’s simplistic approach to complex problems when it notes that “he goes too far in seeing malicious insult throughout the ‘Anglo-American media.’” Macron may not like this critique, but most lucid observers agree he “had it coming.” And it may be getting worse with the approach of the 2022 election.
As he always does, Emmanuel Macron insists on keeping his word — not to others, but to himself. This is his idea of remaining consistent with his convictions. He does so, especially when those who are directly concerned by his authoritarian measures express their disagreement. He then has no choice but to wait for the explosion and watch everything go up in flames.
That is what happened when he chose to repeal France’s wealth tax and compensate by raising the tax on gas. It led to the yellow vest revolt. He claimed that it was all about ecology when it was essentially a means of shifting the tax burden from the rich to the poor. It happened again with the stubborn promotion of retirement reform. The imminent explosion was only averted by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in March that halted the legislative process.
Even when Macron proclaimed that Islam was in crisis to justify putting France on a war footing against 10% of its own citizens, he admitted that the nation had failed its Muslim population by permitting their effective ghettoization, marginalizing most young Muslims. And concerning the depredations of the police, he admitted, in an interview with Brut, a media popular among the young, that “today, when the color of someone’s skin isn’t white, they will be much more subject to police controls.”
In the Brut interview, Macron characterized his proposed law to counter Islamic separatism as an attempt to “rearm the Republic against the supporters of radical Islam.” Who could not hear in this remark an echo of “The Marseillaise,” “Aux armes, citoyens”? Like Hillary Clinton with regard to Muammar Gaddafi, Macron seems to be anticipating the day when he will be able to chortle and say, “We came, we saw, [they] died.” While he admits that “French style integration failed,” he appears only to imagine a military-style response to that failure.
Le Monde shows itself less indulgent than Greenwald on the possibility that Macron may be acting on principle. The newspaper comments that “during this free-flowing interview [with Brut], Mr Macron took the position of defending his record, with his eyes riveted on the 2022 election.” A French James Carville might be tempted to sum it up this way: “It’s the election, stupid.”
Macron even allowed himself to enter into a spat with the writer, cineaste and ecological activist Cyril Dion, who had the temerity to remind the president that, in the wake of the yellow vest consultations, Macron had promised but failed to take on board the propositions of a committee of 150 citizens representing the full diversity of France. The president has now summarily dismissed the issue with a remark intended to sound insulting to anyone not belonging to the church of the goddess Laïcité: “Because 150 citizens wrote something, that doesn’t mean it’s the Bible or the Koran.”
The New York Times, as the voice of modern liberalism, has become hypersensitive to the question of diversity and racial justice. This may simply be a consequence of its alignment with the Democratic Party, which sees identity politics as the unique theme legitimizing its brand of “progressivism.” This focus on a single theme allows it to dispense with the need to show undue concern with distracting issues such as the militarism of the US empire, the trampling of civil liberties by the intelligence community or the need for economic justice in an increasingly indifferent capitalist plutocracy.
Consistent with this logic, in its response to Macron, The Times offers the truism that “racism and Islamophobia are major problems in France, as they are in the United States, Britain and elsewhere in the Western world.” Though obvious to everyone, it subtly suggests that Macron’s claim to universalism sounds more like French exceptionalism than a commitment to universal human rights.
And The Times is absolutely right. The universalist “republican” values Macron embraces contain the idea that its institutions are color blind. On the instructions of the Ministry of the Interior, the police may or may not be color blind, but they are not blind. They have two eyes to see with, whenever they decide to stop someone in the street. Likewise, employers can discriminate when they see the name of a candidate on a resumé or at least discover the truth during the interview. In other words, France and the US both have a problem of white privilege, but they manage it — poorly, in both cases — in contrasting ways.
The Times concludes by celebrating its vocation as a truth-teller ready to take on the challenge of racial justice: “That’s what the news media does, at home and abroad. It is its function and duty to ask questions about the roots of racism, ethnic anger and the spread of Islamism among Western Muslims, and to critique the effectiveness and impact of government policies.” The Times’ performance at this task has, over time, produced variable results. It still hasn’t admitted its complicity in the ongoing humanitarian disaster provoked by Bush’s wars in the Middle East. But with regard to Emmanuel Macron, we can congratulate it for showing the courage to stick to its principles.
*[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.
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