Opinion

Two Visions of France

Éric Zemmour reduces the French to victims. Emmanuel Macron gives them agency.

Paris France
Skyline of Paris, France, May 27, 2020 (Unsplash/Nicolas Jehly)

Two videos, two visions of France.

The first kicks off Éric Zemmour’s presidential campaign. (Version with English subtitles here.) It’s a France where gangs of dark-skinned men rob elderly women and liberal elites call true patriots racists and xenophobes.

The second comes from the Elysée Palace and celebrates the “pantheonization” of American-born singer and French Resistance fighter Josephine Baker. It appeals to the best of France: brave, cultured, multiethnic, republican. It’s a vision Emmanuel Macron will want to make his own.

Doom and gloom

Zemmour’s it’s-one-minute-to-midnight is unoriginal. From Der Untergang des Abendlandes to Donald Trump, reactionaries have warned that the choice is between them and a civilizational collapse (that never happens).

They tell their supporters they are heirs to a grand tradition (Zemmour mentions the bloody conquests of Napoleon Bonaparte in the same breath as the literary and scientific achievements of Molière and Louis Pasteur) and now is their time to defend the homeland from its enemies within, who are always cosmopolitan, effeminate and weak.

It’s no coincidence that Zemmour’s supporters tend to be middle-aged and comfortably middle class. He makes his listeners feel virile again and gives them a sense of purpose, which freedom doesn’t.

Free to choose

Freedom means choosing what to value, and what to fight for. Baker understood France’s shortcomings, but she risked her life for it anyway.

Zemmour’s France has repeatedly been wronged but never been wrong. A better form of patriotism owes up to the mistakes of the past to make a better country in the present.

Macron has called colonialism a crime against humanity and formally apologized for the mistreatment of Algerians who remained loyal to France during the Independence War. He recognized the role France played in the deportation and extermination of Jews during World War II. He is the first president to acknowledge a decades-old de facto policy of “separatism” that confines ethnic minorities to suburban ghettos. He rejects political Islam as incompatible with European humanism and “woke” Americanisms about race as incompatible with French colorblindness.

He puts his money where his mouth is. Macron’s government is pouring €3.3 billion into marginalized communities to expand public services and job training. He is hiring 10,000 police officers. He has banned foreign-paid and -trained imams, and conditioned tax breaks and state subsidies for religious institutions on respect for democracy, secularism and the rule of law. Physicians who perform virginity tests are fined. Prohibitions on forced marriages and polygamy have been widened. The French government pays companies a bonus when they hire workers from poor neighborhoods. It has stepped up enforcement of anti-discrimination statutes. Macron is closing the École nationale d’administration, the French Ivy League, which has trained a largely white, and according to its critics out-of-touch, political and business elite.

Zemmour reduces the French to victims — of “the other” and their own past. Macron’s muscular liberalism gives the French agency.

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