Paul Taylor, collaborating editor of POLITICO, writes the column “Europe At Large”.
STRASBOURG – Is France still the homeland of human rights, or is it becoming a country where fanatic racists are winning the battle of ideas? The answer, unfortunately, is both.
With five months away from next year’s presidential election, opinion polls routinely show that more than 30 percent of French voters are drawn to one of the many far-right candidates who want to stop immigration, deport more foreigners, reserve jobs and social housing for French nationals and make life more uncomfortable for the country’s estimated 6 million Muslims.
On some days the campaign is more like a dog-whistling competition to see who can most effectively appeal to ethnic and religious prejudices against Arabs, Muslims and Blacks, without crossing the legal line.
Anti-Islam crusader Eric Zemmour, twice convicted of incitement to hatred, want to forces Muslims to give their children “French names” and warns in apocalyptic tones that “our civilization is disappearing”. He proposes the white nationalist conspiracy theory of the “Grand Replacement” according to which the French of Christian origin are deliberately replaced, demographically and culturally, by Muslim immigrants with the complicity of the French elites.
Vowing to “save” France from civil war and extinction, Zemmour named his political movement “Reconquest” – a reference to the military campaign of the Reconquista in which medieval Christian monarchs ousted Muslim dynasties from Spain, ultimately forcing Muslims to convert to Christianity and expel all Spanish Jews.
Zemmour – like his main far-right opponent, anti-immigration activist Marine Le Pen – has little chance of entering the Elysee Palace next April. But the two can already claim an ideological victory, having set the agendas of mainstream politicians increasingly loyal to their line that France is in decline due to an “invasion” of immigrants and incursions by. political Islam.
All of the candidates in the mainstream conservative party primary The Republicans last week echoed at least some of Zemmour’s rhetoric and incorporated some of Le Pen’s proposals into their platforms.
The most right-wing Republican candidate Eric Ciotti, who advocates a change in the law to make “French blood” the condition for obtaining nationality rather than being born on French soil, has stepped out of the shadows to take the lead in the first round and score almost 40% in the second round. . Ciotti, whose campaign slogan was “so that France remains France”, advocates the creation of a “French Guantanamo” internment camp to lock up Islamists after they have served their prison sentence.
He lost the nomination to the pragmatic president of the Paris region, Valérie Pécresse, and immediately began to pressure her to include some of his shock measures in his platform. Pécresse said she would stick to her own agenda, which had already incorporated some ideas long championed by the far right.
Pécresse asked a referendum on the imposition of immigration quotas. She wants to make it more difficult to apply for asylum in France by forcing refugees to submit an application to an embassy abroad, and to make new arrivals wait five years before being able to claim social benefits.
However, while the extreme right is taking the first steps in a country still traumatized by the Islamist attacks which killed 130 people in 2015, there remains another France which considers itself – a tad Pharisaic – as the heir to the Enlightenment and to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
On the day that Zemmour declared his candidacy in a 10-minute melodramatic video set to dark music juxtaposing images of an idealized past and a violent present, the other face of the country was fully exposed as the very first black woman was symbolically inducted into the monument of the French Pantheon to the national heroes in Paris.
President Emmanuel Macron addressed the sparkling ceremony in honor of the late American artist, hero of the French resistance and civil rights activist Joséphine Baker. He recounted how she joined the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism before WWII, risked her life to hide Jews and resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation and served as a secret agent, carrying messages written in invisible ink on his musical scores.
The event was a deliberate celebration of diversity by a centrist president who sought to modernize France’s relationship with its own history, angering former settlers in Algeria and their descendants, while avoiding atoning French colonialism.
But Macron also had to toughen his rhetoric on immigration, asylum and security to appease public opinion. While he has criticized other European governments for playing ping-pong with migrants fleeing North Africa in fragile boats, he has refused to welcome more than a handful of those making their way to Europe. He recently decided to refuse visas to people from countries which refuse to readmit their own nationals subject to deportation from France, including Algeria.
France’s self-proclaimed human rights mantle is also uncomfortable with Macron’s role as a traveling French arms seller in the Arab world, landing contracts worth billions of euros with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and to become the first Western leader to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman since the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Of course, angry nativism is by no means an exclusive French specialty, nor are claims to rule the world in matters of democracy and human rights.
The same feelings of dispossession, loss of social status and cultural estrangement among white working-class and middle-class voters made possible the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, as well as the British vote to exit. of the European Union in 2016. Italy also elected an anti-immigration populist government in 2018.
France has yet to put the fanatics in power, and despite the noise and fury of the first presidential campaign skirmishes, it seems unlikely that it will either next year. But even if they don’t win, Zemmour and Le Pen have enshrined their problems in French politics, and life risks becoming more unpleasant for Muslims and immigrants.