France: Right Rumbles, Left Wobbles

France: Right Rumbles, Left Wobbles

This month’s “Manif pour tous” was most obviously against a law called Mariage pour tous (Marriage for All). But something bigger is stirring. Is it, as Le Monde put it, “The Awakening of Reactionary France”?

At the Manif Pour Tous in Lyon, February 2, 2014 (JbaptM/Flickr)

A week before French president François Hollande came to visit Washington, the divisions in his country were on full display in the aftermath of a huge demonstration in Paris’s Place Denfert-Rocherau. Newspaper headlines the following day put it in perspective. Right-leaning Le Figaro gave one point of view: “Huge Peaceful Demonstration for the Family.” The leftist Libération denounced “La Grande manip” (“The Great Manipulation”), playing off the French word for “demonstration”—“manifestation,” or “manif” for short.

The symbols at the Manif were striking and planned cleverly. If you walked toward Place Denfert on February 2, you would have seen a young man waving a red flag atop the “Lion of Belfort”—a copy of a nineteenth-century statue commemorating French resistance during the Franco-Prussian War. (The original was sculpted by Frédéric Bartholdy, of Statue of Liberty fame.) You would have seen tens of thousands of protesters, stretching back down Boulevard Raspail, past Montparnasse cemetery (where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir lie) to fabled Boulevard Montparnasse. And you might, at first, have imagined yourself in a time warp: it was May 1968 again. Indeed, the red flag looked like a famous pennant from that rebellious month on which several workers were silhouetted arm in arm, one raising a fist, with the words “To say No! is to Think.”

But you would have discerned something different if you moved closer to the red flag waving in 2014. It had a silhouette obviously intended to evoke the one from ’68, but the figures were a mother, daughter, father, and son holding hands.

Around the square you would have seen demonstrators holding placards that said “Resist!”—a word that many on the left believes belongs to them. For demonstrators on this particular Sunday, however, the “oppressors” were President Hollande and the PS (Socialist Party), whose parliamentary majority passed a gay marriage law eight months earlier (which provoked earlier demonstrations) and had another law in the making, this one on family “diversity” and particularly the rights of step-parents. (Protesters claimed falsely that it aimed to facilitate “assisted conception” for lesbian pairs and surrogate mothers for gay male couples.) A huge black sheet draped down a building across from the speaker’s platform had a skull on it and the words “Hollande kills family.”

If this “Manif pour tous” (“demonstration for all,” also the name of its main organizing group), with an estimated 100,000-150,000 participants, was most obviously against a law called Mariage pour tous (Marriage for All), something bigger was and is stirring. A huge demonstration took place in Lyon too. Le Monde captured it by declaring that the marchers represented “The Awakening (le réveil) of Reactionary France.”

A backlash has been triggered by the government’s cultural policies, all while the Socialists seem unable to solve the country’s deep economic crisis. An array of conservatives, Catholic traditionalists, and the hard right has been mobilizing, and at this demonstration, for the first time, some Muslim groups joined them.

The demonstration was peaceful. Its participants were of all ages and from all around the country. At one point I approached one of the “security” team, which milled about in red shirts with the family silhouette (it was imprinted on many T-shirts and flags speckling the crowd). I asked him to identify an especially shrill speaker. “I don’t know,” he replied, “I can just tell you that he isn’t a politician. No politicians are speaking today.” It was, he suggested, a grassroots effort.

“There won’t be violence,” he then added. This gave away the fact that the demonstration was very well coordinated and not just a surge from below. His remark also meant to distinguish this demonstration from one the previous week: an anti-Hollande “Day of Anger” held by far-rightists but joined also, it seems, by some more traditional conservatives. Those demonstrators also denounced gay marriage, along with the European Union (on behalf of French nationalism), and chanted for “free speech.” The latter chant was evidently on behalf of Dieudonné, the notoriously anti-Semitic (sorry, “anti-Zionist”) “comedian” facing charges for violating France’s anti-racism laws.

Among those marching in the earlier demonstration was Farida Beghloul, an odd figure of Algerian descent now active within far right circles. She has been especially visible of late because she has called for a school boycott after a Socialist initiated a program to teach boys and girls that they are equal. She and the other demonstrators wanted to make an issue of this program, claiming it to be a left-wing attempt to pave the way to gay parenting through imposing American-style “gender studies” on French children. Kids will be taught, they warned ominously, that there are no natural differences between the sexes; it is all a matter of “social construction.” (In fact, the program promotes no such thing, only that there ought not to be discrimination). The French press reports that Beghloul, once on the left, is now close to anti-Semitic ideologue Alan Soral (“I am not a right-wing extremist, I am a National Socialist”), said to be Dieudonné’s inspiration. Before the “Day of Anger” was over, there were violence and chants of “Jew, France is not yours.”

Smart choreography brought a very different conclusion at Denfert. Young people mounted a platform wearing red-coned caps associated with the French revolution and waved an array of flags from different European states. The EU’s flag fluttered too. The crowd then sang Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” (“I Regret Nothing”) before, of course, a rousing Marseillaise. Something slightly insidious may have been lost on some—but surely not everyone—in this apparent mix of cosmopolitan and nationalist spirits. Piaf first recorded this forceful, seductive, and ever popular chanson in 1960, when France was embroiled in the Algerian conflict. She dedicated it to the French Foreign Legion, and it became a theme song for defeated putschists who tried to oust de Gaulle.

Although not visibly present at the Manif, political parties of the right stand to be beneficiaries of the “réveil.” A cycle of elections is at hand: first for municipal offices in late March, then for the European parliament in late May. Regional elections take place next year. Right-wing parties hope to turn each round into a national referendum on the PS government. Culture wars may feed into political successes for them.

The left now controls most of the municipalities, although some big cities have mayors from the major party of the center-right, the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement). Turnout is usually low in “municipals,” and local concerns predominating. This time, discontent will produce some rebukes to the PS and perhaps some unhappy surprises. Moreover, the FN (National Front), the party of the extreme right, has been working to make itself presentable, all while sustaining its traditional messages—populist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-EU (on behalf of “sovereigntism”).

The UMP hopes to attract (or keep) nationalistic voters afraid of the FN. But the UMP is in miserable shape, riddled by bitter rivalries since Nicolas Sarkozy lost the presidency in 2012. Many militants (activists) await his return—he has been making unmistakable noises—hoping he can calm the party and then defeat Hollande in 2017. There are, however, also real strategic disputes. Should the UMP tilt more towards neo-Gaullist nationalism or towards a more liberal, market orientation? Should it accept more power in Brussels or prefer a less closely bound “Europe of Nations”?

UMP’s current head, the pugnacious Jean-François Copé, told followers to join the Manif, while Alain Juppé—an ex-prime minister, ex-foreign minister, and now mayor of Bordeaux—urged to the contrary. Economics and identity—France’s and the UMP’s—are at stake. Not long ago Copé attacked “anti-white racism” within minority groups, and FN leader Marine Le Pen charged him with stealing one of her themes. (Opposition to prejudice is a peculiar note for the FN to hit; last year one of its candidates ran publicity likening Justice Minister Christiane Taubifa, who is black and the architect of the gay marriage law, to a monkey.)

Then the UMP faces this hard question: should it consider alliances with the FN? When Jacques Chirac led the center right, he opposed adamantly any cooperation. For him, the FN was an ugly descendant of anti-republican, anti-Gaullist traditions with Vichy odors. Some in today’s UMP want collaboration with the FN; the better the FN does in elections, the more possible that becomes.

Recent polls have delivered shocking projections: the FN coming in first in the European elections with 23 to 24 percent, the UMP several points behind, and the PS trailing at 18 percent. If this happens, a political earthquake will ensue, probably bigger than the one that occurred in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN’s founding demagogue, came in second in presidential balloting and eliminated Socialist Lionel Jospin from the final round of the contest.

The European elections could also produce another oddity. The French Left Party (dissident Socialists and Communists) polls around 10 percent. Despite its radical opposition to the FN on social and immigration issues, its populist-like calls for protectionism together with criticisms of the EU and globalization come close—uncomfortably for them—to Le Pen’s. The right-wing leader notes that this would make nearly a third of the French delegation to the European parliament “sovereigntists.”  

Moreover, far-right parties with messages like FN’s are polling well in other countries, and Le Pen is actively seeking out cooperative links with likeminded politicians abroad. It’s an interesting spectacle: alliances of ultranationalists at the centenary of the First World War. Chief among them is Geert Wilders, who tells his Dutch compatriots, in a mishmash of anachronism and prejudice, that the Quran is “fascist.” Le Pen herself once said Muslims praying in a street reminded her of Nazi occupiers. Given her strenuous effort to put a “modern” face on the FN—her own strikingly blond photogenic image is an important element—this was an unusual way of distancing her party from its origins in the ultranationalist, anti-Semitic, leather-jacketed far right and presenting it instead as a republican and secular guardian of French interests. (Although secular, for her, can imply anti-Muslim.)

Le Pen tells the broader public that the FN is the sole alternative to the “UMPS,” an amalgam of the French initials identifying the major parties. Socialists have sought forcefully to debunk her charm offensive. Yann Galut, a PS legislator, lambasts her as the “secret daughter of Margaret Thatcher and Georges Marchais”—that is, the union of dead political opposites, an implacable anti-statist capitalist and the dogmatic long-time leader of the French Communists.

Still, Le Pen’s balancing act has had success, however difficult it may be for her to keep hold of the FN’s old guard—who are most at home while rabblerousing—while bringing in people who can make the FN a structured, respectable party ready for government. She has attracted some young, well-educated technocrats, and her chief of staff, Philippe Martel, was the chief of staff in the 1990s for then-Foreign Minister Juppé.

Yet the FN cast also includes figures that seem to step out of a French version of The Twilight Zone. Le Pen’s foreign policy adviser and leading candidate for the European parliament, Aymeric Chauprade, has written on 9/11 conspiracy theories, including one that ascribes responsibility to an American-Israeli conspiracy. They are, you see, all sensible narratives to be considered. He also wonders if Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are part of a secret American program to invent foes and fear so that the United States can aggressively assert itself globally in response.

And then, of course, there is Dieudonné, who became friends with Jean-Marie Le Pen some years ago. The elder Le Pen is godfather to one of Dieudonné daughters. Hollande denounced Dieudonné, who has filled halls with his Holocaust-mocking, incendiary “comic” acts, after he targeted a prominent TV journalist with an obviously Jewish name with a “joke”: “too bad” that the gas chambers are no longer around. Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who has been especially vehement in denouncing right-wing mobilizations, declared that these words no longer constituted humor and took measures against him on the basis of laws against racist defamation. Marine Le Pen avowed that the words shocked her but then rushed to denounce Valls for waging a “personal vendetta” against Dieudonné.

A recent survey by IPSOS, a marketing and polling firm, adds something more ominous to this picture. Eighty-four percent of the French want “a real leader to restore order”; 66 percent thinks too many foreigners are around; 34 percent finds the FN a plausible political alternative. In a country with a sizable minority of North African origin, two-thirds of respondents see Islam as “incompatible with French values.”

Moreover, 78 percent think their political system doesn’t work and that their own ideas are “not represented.” Americans might want to compare this to the recent Gallup poll that showed 65 percent of them “very or somewhat dissatisfied” with their system of government. Yet there is an important difference that goes beyond the 13 points: American discontent is mostly due to recession and the GOP’s anti-Obama obstructionism in Congress, while the PS has in its hands virtually all levers of state power.

Hollande’s ratings make him the least popular president in the republic’s history. This has little to do with the recent brouhaha about an amorous escapade. Whether or not France has a bachelor-president is, finally, of minimal consequence. Some of the Denfert demonstrators might have felt otherwise, perhaps distinguishing their “family values” from the never married Hollande, but the president’s real problem is the perception that he is not up to the job. Socialist weakness seemed evident when, after the Manif pour tous, his government backed away from the next proposed marriage law. Another poll on the eve of his departure for the U.S. said that only 19 percent of the citizenry had confidence in him. (His prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, was ahead of him by one point.)

On January 14 Hollande held a press conference that he hoped would initiate a new turn for what seemed to be a directionless government, hemmed in by recalcitrant 11 percent unemployment, a sputtering growth rate (0.2 percent), and a large public debt. Explaining that far-reaching compromises are necessary, Hollande proposed a “Responsibility Pact” that included business-friendly tax cuts, reductions in state expenditures, and the creation of a council to oversee public spending. MEDEF, France’s business umbrella, was receptive, while UMP chief Copé declared Hollande “full of hot air.” A more centrist PS government that attracts business approval presents a problem to the UMP, which must appeal both to the center and to voters attracted to FN populism.

Discontent was also very evident on the left, including within his own party. Hollande was accused of embracing supply-side economics, “Blairism,” and especially “Schroederism.” The latter refers to Gerhard Schroeder, the ex-Social Democratic chancellor of Germany whose cuts in long-term social benefits, especially for the unemployed, and liberalization of the labor market have been acclaimed by admirers as the reason Germany weathered recent economic storms.

Critics argue, however, that these policies hurt the most vulnerable in society, damaged the welfare state’s fabric, and gainsaid social democratic values. French social historian Patrick Weil proposes that a crucial test for Hollande will be whether or not he insists, whatever the compromises, on the survival of the welfare state’s basic components—“and he has not said that.” Yet Hollande’s critics on the left, especially those friendly to the PS, are in a bind. “They may disagree with him,” comments Michel Wiewiorka, a leading sociologist, “but they don’t want to undermine him in the face of the right. They cannot find a political or intellectual space for themselves.”

Is Hollande a “social liberal”? A “socialist”? A “social democrat”? Quarrels about these terms may seem quaint if not bizarre to Americans, but they persist in France. A “liberal” is Thatcheresque (and thus the opposite of what Americans would take a liberal to be.) A socialist is committed to a break from capitalist logic (as proposed in PS election platforms), and a “social democrat” accepts the more compromising ways of the leading German party of the center left. Still, the instability of these categories—and those of “left” and “right”—could be detected when Hollande called his compromises “social democratic” and then added quickly, “I am a socialist who wants France to succeed.”

A French attempt to pursue German-style social compromise runs up against a distinct problem: relations between parties and organized labor are fundamentally different in the two countries. German Social Democrats are close to a powerful trade union confederation. Despite real dissent, longstanding cooperation between them was crucial to Schroeder’s ability to push his reforms. In France there are no similar ties, and French unions are divided, weak, and not very popular. Only about 7 percent of the public and private salaried workforces are in them (although concentration in some vital sectors makes unions seem stronger). Two union confederations opposed Hollande’s proposed pact, and the head of a third presented a list of what would have to be done to preserve social welfare.

This is why it is “impossible to imagine” France following the German route, says one of the country’s leading political scientists. “Hollande doesn’t have the means for a successful social democratic compromise,” says Pascal Perrineau of the Paris Center for French Political Research (CEVIPOF).

The Fifth Republic’s two socialist presidents, François Mitterrand in 1981 and now Hollande, entered office speaking of a turn left only to shift as surrounding economic dynamics—in Europe and the world—boxed them in. Mitterrand’s times (and leanings) were different from Hollande’s, but it is still fair to say that both were ensnared by the contrary imperatives of ideology, rhetoric, and unpleasant realities. France today has some difficulty finding its footing amid Europeanization and globalization. And the socialists, whose majority has been pro-Europe, must also ponder the implications of the IPSOS survey. It showed a vast discrepancy in views between social strata: 72 percent of high-placed executives supported Europeanization while it made 75 percent of workers unhappy.

Ironically, the PS’s problem is also the UMP’s. Socialists and Gaullists were both proponents of a strong state, if to different ends. The state is now weakened for reasons that raise some worrisome problems for democracy. What happens when parties run for office on programs that they cannot carry out because fiscal tools have been transferred increasingly to Brussels and to global financial institutions? A gap yawns, and populist nationalists à la FN can rush to fill it.

France, so famous for its cuisine, has a lot its plate and many sauces as well: some quite piquant, some quite murky, and at least one that should be called malaise. Which are seeping into one another, and how deeply? Is the table on which the plate sits secure? Much depends on the ability of Hollande and the PS to do more than navigate through unpopularity to win elections. They have to begin solving the country’s problems.

Mitchell Cohen is co-editor emeritus of Dissent and professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate School of CUNY.