Who Speaks for the Mainstream in France?

Lambert here: Diagnosis easier than cure.

By Aristotle Kallis, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Lancaster University. Originally published at Open Democracy.

On 21 April 2021, the publication of an open letter in France about the threat of a “civil war” made waves. About 1,000 signatories from the armed forces blamed "fanatic partisans" for creating divisions between communities, and claimed that Islamists were taking over whole parts of the nation's territory.

The finger of blame pointed decisively in the direction of both “Islamist” militants and “anti-racist” protesters as the primary sources of social division and hatred. The article started life as a marginal contribution posted by a retired general on his personal blog, which was signed by around 20 former military officers. But it soon gained media traction and graduated into a weighty ‘open letter’ that was picked up by the right-wing magazine, Valeurs Actuelles.

Marine Le Pen, the radical-Right presidential contender, enthusiastically endorsed the letter, calling it a grave warning that a veritable “battle” for the heart of France is well underway. Since its publication, the number of signatories has risen exponentially – to six figures and counting.

A second statement, which warns about a “civil war” and accuses the French president, Emmanuel Macron, of having “surrendered to the Islamists”, was signed by an unknown number of active French soldiers and was also published by Valeurs Actuelles, in May.

The outcry from progressive and (most) liberal audiences was predictably loud. This was by no means the first time that the weekly magazine had weighed in on France’s culture wars on race, Islam and immigration. This time, the majority of the critiques focused on the second letter’s veiled threat of a coup d’état.

What made these criticisms even more credible and troubling was that the first open letter was published on the 60th anniversary of the failed 1961 coup known as the ‘Algiers putsch’, when a number of retired generals tried to force General Charles de Gaulle not to abandon French Algeria.

The Silent Majority

The Valeurs Actuelles of 2021 is, of course, a very different publication from the one originally launched in 1966. It began as an ideologically eclectic, anti-Gaullist, conservative outlier that harked back to the intellectual traditions of early 20th-century radical nationalism. In 2019, the magazine featured a controversial interview with none other than Macron.

However, the creative ambiguity of its title (roughly translated as ‘Contemporary Values’) is as poignant today as it was more than half a century ago. As its former managing editor and architect of its current editorial stance, Yves de Kerdrel, claimed, the magazine’s raison d’être remains the same – voicing the views and concerns of those “invisible” majorities who “have had enough”.

This kind of language evokes one of the key rhetorical tropes of the populist radical Right over the last century: its claim to speak for the ‘real’ social majority that is ‘silent’ or has been silenced by those in power and by the elites supporting them.

Liberal elites have serially underestimated the emotive power and effectiveness of this claim at their peril. By claiming a direct rapport with a purported social majority, the political entrepreneurs of the radical Right do not simply claim that they alone speak for the mainstream; they also strike at the heart of the legitimacy of a democratic political system that is portrayed as ignoring or actively repressing the views of the many.

Mainstreaming the Right

By comparison, little has been said about the letters’ aggressively Islamophobic tone or their openly racist and classist allusions to the “hordes from the banlieues”. This is not, however, surprising.

For years, French mainstream politicians and media have spoken openly about immigration and Islam as a national “problem” requiring exceptional – and even transgressive – responses in order to protect the nation and the republican ideal of cultural integration. After all, it was the current president who devoted a large portion of his 2019 interview with Valeurs Actuelles to the totemic issues of the Islamic veil, the defence of the French integrationist approach, and the alleged threat posed by “political Islam”.

In choosing Valeurs Actuelles as interlocutor and in pitching his message in terms that appeal to broader conservative audiences, Macron was either signalling a strategic shift to the Right from his self-professed centrism or – more likely – reflecting the re-centring of French mainstream politics in an increasingly nationalist and identitarian direction.

What has rendered the original open letter (the so-called ‘generals’ letter’) so taboo-breaking – and therefore troubling to the mainstream – was not its ideological content (anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-anti-racist), but its coded threat of military intervention in defiance of the constitution and the wishes of the government.

An early opinion poll indicated that a strong majority of respondents (58%, to be precise) support the ideas expressed in the letter. Rather more surprisingly, 49% broadly supported the idea of a military intervention in order to restore order, regardless of government authorisation.

So who speaks for the mainstream? Is it those decrying the letter’s identitarian obsessions? Those who object to its authoritarian, anti-constitutional tone while broadly accepting the diagnosis of a society “disintegrating” and on the verge of a “civil war”? Or could it be that the author and signatories of the letter provide a more accurate reflection of the actual pulse of mainstream society?

Taken together, the poll’s findings highlight an uncomfortable truth and a difficult challenge. It is not just that the centre of gravity of mainstream society has been steadily shifting in a nativist and exclusionary direction. More alarmingly, the normative liberal discourse of the ‘mainstream’ has followed suit, in a cynical pursuit of electoral votes.

While this strategy may appear sensible in strategic terms, it could be counter-productive and self-defeating in the longer term because it reinforces and legitimises the populist shift itself, rather than trying to deconstruct its arguments convincingly.

The truth is that progressive, inclusive politics are often a counter-intuitive proposition. Stereotypes and fears about ‘others’ are culturally reproduced, possibly even rooted in universal human psychology. Nationalism has reinforced default assumptions about who is entitled to group membership and has normalised treating strangers differently.

The tendency to close ranks and justify extreme measures in order to exclude ’them’ intensifies in times of (perceived or real) crisis, always in the name of defending ‘us’. Meanwhile, social attitudes (especially anxieties and prejudices) shift slowly and asymmetrically. The process requires effective counter-narratives that engage with existing beliefs, but also make a consistent and convincing case for an alternative, progressive future.

This is a challenge that progressives have failed to address effectively, and it is this failure that populists have been exploiting with alarming success in recent years. What is more, ‘progress’ is not a one-way street; changes are always temporary, fragile and reversible.

The world has changed dramatically in the last few years, and we have failed to take stock of the magnitude of these changes in societal values, attitudes and behaviours.

The awkward truth is that the Valeurs Actuelles of this world are no longer marginal outliers of an otherwise dominant liberal mainstream. Rightly or wrongly, the open letters published by the magazine tap into existing anxieties and fears that are far more pervasive and important than liberal and progressive opinion may wish to accept.

In order to renew the case for progressive politics, it is essential to accept that the societal mainstream may have changed and to engage with the social anxieties that feed into its nativist instincts. Meaningful engagement with these anxieties, however, should not mean conceding ground to them for short-term political gain. Doing so would amount to either an admission of defeat or a catastrophic dereliction of duty that the mainstream cannot afford at a time of populist resurgence.