Wednesday, May 03, 2017
Before night falls: An American’s letter to France
by Michael Deibert
It has been a wrenching few years in France, hard to witness for an American like me who holds the country in great affection. From the attack on the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo (itself a champion of an inclusive, liberal, secular France) in January 2015 to the Paris attacks in November of that year, to sundry assaults in Nice, Magnanville, Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, the Champs-Élysées and elsewhere, France has had its sense of security badly shaken. Layer on top of this an anemic economy that grew at a rate of barely more than 1% in 2016, national unemployment that hovers at close to 10%, and youth unemployment that sees nearly one in four under 25 years old out of work, and it is no surprise that a sense of malaise and pessimism has settled on the country. The two traditional major political currents, today represented by the left-wing ruling Parti Socialiste and the right-wing opposition Les Républicains, seemingly utterly out of ideas for how to address these severe challenges.
And now, I fear, France might build upon these terrible events with a self-inflicted wound that would be the greatest tragedy of all: Electing Marine Le Pen as president.
It is a testimony to how much the traditional political system in France has broken down that in last month’s presidential election, the two top vote-getters who proceeded to the second (and final) round were Le Pen, of the extreme-right Front National, and Emmanuel Macron, a former finance minister whose own political party, En Marche!, was only formed in April of last year.
As Le Pen and Macron head into the 7 May runoff election, most polls put Macron comfortably ahead, but threats of abstention by France’s far left (whose candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has declined to advise his voters to support Macron) raise worrying specters of the 2016 U.S. election, where two candidates with no serious program for the country siphoned off just enough votes from Hillary Clinton in key states to give Donald Trump the White House (Clinton lost Pennsylvania by 44,312 votes. while Jill Stein and Garry Johnson, neither of whom had any chance of winning, drew away 49,947 and 146,711, respectively).
As the far left and the far right attempt to paint Macron as a tool of the establishment given his background as investment banker at Rothschild & Cie Banque (a barely concealed antisemitic dog whistle among France’s far right), observers like myself are left to gaze upon the disheartening spectacle of one of the world’s most highly educated and wealthiest democracies having so many of its voters potentially seduced by a political figure who represents, in word and deed, a number of the demonic tendencies in France’s body politic that many thought they had left behind.
Marine Le Pen took over the Front National from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a man of intemperate speech who once suggested that Nazi gas chambers that killed Jews and others during the Holocaust were “a detail of history” and praised Philippe Pétain, who headed France’s collaborationist Vichy government during World War II, a transgression for which he was fined by a French court. When the elder Le Pen reached the 2002 general election for president (which he would lose to Jacques Chirac), Le Monde ran an article accusing him of having tortured prisoners during Algeria’s war of independence, during which Le Pen served as a lieutenant in a paratroop regiment.
Though the young Le Pen succeeded in expelling her father from the party in August 2015 and has attempted a (largely cosmetic) makeover, the Front National remains a deeply nasty organization, a party overflowing to the brim with Holocaust-deniers and assorted antisemites, virulently and violently anti-immigrant agitators, Islamaphobic harpies and royalist quacks
Just last month, referring to the Rafle du Vélodrome d'Hiver, a Nazi-directed mass arrest against Parisian Jews that took place in July 1942 (an enterprise aided by French police), after which children as young as 18 months old were shipped off to Auschwitz and killed, Le Pen said that “I don’t think France is responsible.” After Le Pen made a grand show of stepping down as leader of the Front National to “feel more free and above all, above party politics,” the man who replaced her, Jean-François Jalkh, was forced to step down after he told journalists that it was “impossible” that the chemical agent Zyklon B was used “in mass exterminations.”
All that aside, Le Pen has a clear and piercing message that resonates in a deeply pessimistic country: France has been betrayed by global elites, is being overrun by dangerous migrants (conveniently ignoring the fact that almost all perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks in France were native-born) and that only by returning to a vanished and idealized past (which never really existed) can France recapture its “greatness.” It is a message that should seem disturbingly familiar to those of us living through Brexit Britain and the current Trumpian dystopia of the United States. And it has already seduced some of the opportunists populating France’s political establishment. Only last week, failed presidential candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan of the Debout la France party announced his willingness to serve as Le Pen’s Prime Minister.
As an American who lived in and loves France, it is my sincere hope that this country that has given the world so much does not make this Faustian bargain.
We have had a long friendship, France and the United States, and we have seen one another through some wrenching times. The Marquis de Lafayette abandoned his comfortable life in France and spent the agonizing winter of 1777 with George Washington and the the Continental Army in Valley Forge (only a few miles from where I grew up) because of his commitment to the American cause. In later generations, thousands of American soldiers would give their lives on the beaches and in the fields of France to help free it from tyranny.
African Americans like Sidney Bechet found relief in France’s embrace from the scalding racial prejudice of the Jim Crow South. Others, such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright, joining Americans such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry Miller, came to bask in the country’s rich cultural ambiance. Beyond the U.S., refugees from wars such as those that afflicted the Balkans and Algeria in the 1990s (I am aware, of course, of France’s tangled colonial relationship with Algeria) also arrived and found in France the democratic and pluralistic embrace they could not find at home.
Lest you think my affection comes from delusion, ignorance or romanticism, let me assure you it does not. Both of the neighborhoods I lived in, Château Rouge and Bagnolet, were immigrant-heavy and lower-middle class, but were vibrant and welcoming to an outsider such as me, and I would often stop off at the local bars along Rue Léon like Les 3 Frères or L'Olympic, where the bartenders and patrons of Maghrebian, West African, European and other extraction would sit, some drinking a Leffe or a glass of vin rouge, some drinking tea or coffee, in easy, democratic amity. When Paris was attacked in November 2015, it pierced my heart the way few things have since I stood in Manhattan in 2001 and watched our iconic buildings fall, walking home over the bridge to Brooklyn with debris raining down on me.
I stood and saw with my own eyes the ashes of the police station at Villiers-le-Bel during the riots there in 2007, and visited Clichy-sous-Bois to listen to and understand the reality of the people who lived there. I traveled through the villages of Normandy and stood on the D-Day beaches there and thought of the sacrifice of those brave soldiers (like my grandfathers) who fought fascism and racial hatred in Europe and the South Pacific, and whose blood and ashes intermingled with those of other patriots on French soil. I discovered the sublime beauty of regions like the Bouches-du-Rhône and the Camargue, and the simplicity of village life in the Vallée de la Loire. I myself hail from an area of southern Pennsylvania not that different in its fading economic model from a place like Amiens, and to some of Marine Le Pen’s wavering supporters, I say this: As a child of the American, if not French, working-class, I share at a molecular level your feeling of betrayal by the political and economic elite.
But I have also seen how fast populist demagogues can destroy a society and hollow out its institutions, leaving a bitter pantomime of civilization in its place. I have seen this first hand in places like Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua, and watched it from afar elsewhere, in Russia, Turkey and Venezuela, to name a few. I am seeing the beginning of it now in my own country under Trump
The violent naysayers on the left and the right will tell you that France must close in upon itself, be afraid, shut out the world, or that Emmanuel Macron is too young, too inexperienced, too much a product of the establishment to ever dynamite France out of the deep sense of ennui in which it now dwells. They will tell you that only by leaping into the unknown, by violating the social contract and political norms, by taking a chance on those with a conspiratorial gleam in their eyes - who tell you that in order for some French people to rise, others must be brought low - can France drag itself out of the mire it finds itself in.
My advice to you from embattled America, where we find ourselves, on multiple fronts, forced to fight Trump every day: When the sirens of extremism arise, demanding your support and your obedience, telling you they love your country but truly only loving power itself, tell them to go to the devil.
Michael Deibert is the author of Haiti Will Not Perish: A Recent History (Zed Books, 2017).