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The Year That Broke Emmanuel Macron’s Republican Front

The French president is facing a far right that has gained the upper hand in the country’s insidious culture wars. And he has only himself to blame.

On April 21, the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles launched the kind of perfectly timed volley that sends French political and media life into overdrive. It took the form of an open letter, what the French generally refer to as a “tribune.” Titled “For a return to honor of our governors,” the tribune was signed by a group of high-ranking former military officials, including 20 retired generals, who warned that “the situation is critical, France is in peril, several mortal dangers threaten her.”

Many of the signatories have long lingered on the fringes of French politics, grumbling over the Republic’s lapse into decadence and decay. Christian Piquemal was one of the higher-profile among them. In 2016, General Piquemal was stripped of his retirement benefits and formally discharged from the forces after participating in a march on the migrant camp at Calais alongside the novelist and fascist polemicist Renaud Camus. Camus is one of the principal disseminators of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, according to which a globalist cabal is supplanting Europe’s white population with African migrants.

The open letter was the latest salvo in a raging culture war within France on Islam, race, republicanism, and all things in between. “Disintegration” is the leitmotif of the soldiers’ diagnosis of contemporary France. “A disintegration,” they write, “which, through a certain form of anti-racism, has one single goal: spreading on our soil a general malaise, a hatred between communities. Today, certain people talk about racialism, indigenism, and decolonial theories, but beneath these terms hateful and fanatical agitators want a race war. They disdain our country, her traditions, her culture, and want to see it fall apart by taking away its past and its history.” 

The letter peddles the old right-wing fantasy of a fifth column of rootless cosmopolitans disarming the country against its enemies, both internal and domestic. The generals then go on to name the cause of France’s supposed national rot: “Islamism and the hordes of the banlieue,” a reference to the predominantly immigrant neighborhoods on the outskirts of French cities. These forces are “leading to the detachment of multiple parcels of the nation and transforming them into territories beholden to dogmas contrary to our constitution.”

Apart from a few particularly incendiary phrases (“race war,” “hordes”) the letter is remarkably close to the hardening line in France on a bevy of entangled issues, including multiculturalism, terrorism, and secularism. The scale of attacks that have struck France in recent years may have receded from the gruesome peak of 2015 and 2016, but the threat of terrorism, and the fear that hangs over French politics because of it, has grown more diffuse. This has had the effect of switching the focus of the debate on terror from the problem of security and deterrence to the vague question of intellectual complicity. 

This shift has allowed the far right to conjure ever more menacing threats and conspiracies and to propose ever more radical responses. The signatories declared that “if nothing is done, laxism will continue to spread inexorably throughout society, provoking finally an explosion and the intervention of our active-service comrades in a perilous mission for the protection of our civilizational values.” The end is nigh, they warned: “There is no longer any time to wait, and if we do, a civil war will be the result of the mounting chaos, and the deaths, for which you will be responsible, will count by the thousands.”

A tragic coincidence had the effect of giving a certain degree of relevance to the generals’ protest. On April 23, two days after the open letter’s circulation by Valeurs Actuelles (it had originally surfaced on the far-right military blog Place d’armes), a lone-wolf terrorist attacked a police bureau in Rambouillet, a town west of Paris, killing an administrative worker. The alleged perpetrator, a 36-year-old Tunisian man who arrived illegally in France in 2009 before receiving papers in 2020, was entirely unknown to anti-terrorist units in the Interior Ministry hierarchy.

French media lives off scandals of the kind brought about by the Valeurs Actuelles letter. These stories reinforce the effort to pigeonhole France’s politics into an inescapable confrontation between President Emmanuel Macron’s republican center and the ultranationalist right. On April 27, the news network BFMTV held a roundtable discussion on the generals’ tribune, framing the debate as a question of whether the officers’ initiative was “irresponsible or patriotic.” This was a curious way to deal with a text that implies in hardly concealed terms the circumventing of republican rule of law.

It now seems almost inevitable that the 2022 election will be cast as a showdown between Macronism—whatever that might currently mean—and the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who quickly came out in support of the  phalanx of officers. “As a citizen and as a politician, I subscribe to your analyses and share your concerns,” she wrote in an op-ed relayed by Valeurs Actuelles. “Like you, I think it is the duty of all French patriots, wherever they come from, to rise up for the recovery and even, let’s say it, the salvation of our country.”

Worryingly for Macron, 58 percent of respondents to a Harris Interactive poll published on April 29 said they sympathize with the generals’ position. What’s perhaps even more telling is that as many as 64 percent of those polled said that they had actually heard of the tribune, a sad reflection of the degree to which the media has become a mirror and mouthpiece of the ramblings of what the French call the “right of the right,” the ecosystem of political cliques that gravitate around the more organized forces behind the Le Pen family. Macron, too, has gone that extra mile to make Valeurs Actuelles something of a fixture in the French media landscape. In a 2019 feature interview with the far-right weekly, he praised it as a “very good magazine.” Whichever way you look at it, the situation is indeed critical in Macron’s France.

This past coziness with far-right media hasn’t prevented the government from using the scandal to portray the president as a Charles de Gaulle–like defender of France’s constitutional order, a firm executive bravely guarding the Republic from extremes on the left and the right. One of the implications of the tribune is that the officers are speaking on behalf of soldiers in the active service. Of the roughly 1,500 individuals who signed the tribune, only 18 were identified as figures in active service, though many of the remaining signatories are still eligible to be recalled in the event of a national emergency. The tribune attests to the existence of a core of officers within the armed forces and the recallable reserves who would be willing to “take the situation into their own hands,” as the political scientist Jean-Yves Camus (no relation to Renaud Camus) put it.

Camus doesn’t think this will actually happen. “Frankly,” he said, “I see nothing that could actually lead to the reversal of an army which is, all in all, very republican, loyalist, and respectful of its subordination to the civil authorities.” But it is in the media’s interest to sensationalize the scandal as much as possible. It was precisely to further drum up the scandal that Valeurs Actuelles released a second open letter on May 9 reaffirming the original, though this new tribune, anonymous and unverifiable, professes to come from officers in active service. 

To cap off what was already a masterstroke in right-wing news cycle management, Valeurs Actuelles timed the release of the original tribune perfectly. April 21 was the sixtieth anniversary, to the day, of a failed putsch in 1961, when generals stationed in Algeria staged a coup attempt to avert France’s withdrawal from one of its last colonial footholds. It was a rebuke of de Gaulle, the president they had shepherded into power only years earlier but who had slowly come to terms with the reality of Algerian self-determination.

“The context today in many ways has little to do with what was happening 60 years ago,” said Grey Anderson, a researcher at the École Polytechnique and the author of La guerre civile en France, 1958-1961. But by selling himself as a bold modernizer, the sole arbiter of France’s ingrained divisions, and a rampart against extremes, “Macron clearly enjoys claiming the legacy of Charles de Gaulle,” he said.

Police officers hold a portrait of Stéphanie Monfermé, who was killed in a lone-wolf terrorist attack in April. The attack bolstered the right wing’s case that France’s culture is under assault.

“It’s in the interests both of Macron and Le Pen to have these sorts of scandals taking up space in the public debate,” Anderson added, “rather than the continued parceling out of what remains of France’s industrial sovereignty, or the management of the pandemic.”

Macron’s allies have leaned into the juxtaposition. Prime Minister Jean Castex asked, “How can people—and Madame Le Pen, in particular—who aspire to hold national democratic office approve something that leaves open the possibility of undermining the State?” Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, like Castex a Macronist transplant from the old center right, said, “Marine Le Pen shares her father’s tastes for jackboots on the street, and it’s very worrisome.” This was a reference to the fact that Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, was both a veteran of the Algerian War and the father of the modern far right in France. According to Marlène Schiappa, a Cabinet-level official and “citizenship” czar, “We see the real face of [Marine Le Pen’s National Rally Party], which is a party of putschists.”

But the attempt to turn this latest scandal into a morality tale about Marine Le Pen’s unfitness to govern and to consolidate Macron’s position as the natural and sole leader of the “republican front” is already backfiring. In addition to public support for the generals, center-right figures like Rachida Dati, mayor of Paris’s wealthy Seventh Arrondissement, remarked in an interview on FranceInfo that “what is written in this tribune is a reality.” For Valérie Pécresse, the president of the capital region of Ile-de-France, there is indeed an “immense crisis of authority in France.”  

Of course, it would be incorrect to dismiss this all as a pseudo-scandal. Political extremism within the police and military apparatus is a real problem, as a number of investigative journalists have revealed. These sectors have likewise been shown disproportionally to support the National Rally, and they are clearly emboldened. There is at least a cosmetic difference between the right-wing extremism of the isolated rank and file and the Valeurs Actuelles letter, which is a secretion of the more highbrow reactionary thinking found among elements of the officers corp. For wealthy Catholic families of the type who like to vaunt their descendance from the aristocracy of old, it is still something of a matter of pride to send a son to an elite military school like Saint Cyr.    

But it would be easier to take the government’s alarm at Le Pen’s alignment with the officers more seriously were it not for the full-fledged Kulturkampf that has been led, over the last year, by Macron’s own government. The far right’s show of force is the only too logical conclusion of the concerted effort—by Macron’s communications team, his highest-ranking ministers, and the media establishment—to bring French conservatism’s deepest anxieties and most hackneyed talking points to the forefront of the public debate.

The onslaught began last summer. Covid-19 cases were again on the rise, after a brief lull. The new school year was approaching, with no concrete plan for French students from primary school level up to the universities. Little had been done to reinforce a thinly stretched health infrastructure, which had been close to the brink of collapse just a few months earlier as patients crowded hospitals. With fall approaching, there was no dearth of major problems to be addressed.

Political life also seemed to be reawakening. On June 16, hospital workers took to the streets to demand that public acclamations of their heroism and sacrifice be backed up by improvements in benefits and working conditions. The murder of George Floyd reignited similar debates in France on structural racism and police violence. On June 2, at the instigation of the Adama Committee, which had made public the findings of an independent investigation contradicting an official medical report on Adama Traoré’s 2016 death in police custody, thousands of people contravened protest bans to rally in front of Paris’s main courthouse.

Gérald Darmanin assumed control of the Interior Ministry in July 2020. Darmanin had gained his political footing in the early 2010s alongside Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s conservative law and order president from 2007 to 2012, and his promotion from a prior role as budget officer was another confirmation that Macron was betting his political survival on carving up the right.

Less than three weeks after taking power, Darmanin began a media blitz decrying the ensauvagement (literally, the act of “making savage”) of French society, caught in the grip of general incivility and low-level crime. It hardly mattered that there was no noticeable increase in crime rates. In a July 24 interview with the conservative daily Le Figaro, Darmanin denounced France’s “crisis of authority.” In late August, Valeurs Actuelles ran an issue with the headline “Ensauvagement, 60 days in the France of the new barbarians” spread across the cover. Marlène Schiappa, who would later call the National Rally a “party of putschists” for its support of the generals’ letter, acknowledged that “petty crime is rising in France, in what might be useful to refer to as an ensauvagement.

Macron fashions himself as staying above the media fray and likes to leave the task of managing the news cycle to his ministers and Cabinet officials. In a major October 2 speech in Mureaux, however, he took up the baton, announcing the government’s new campaign against the problem of “separatism.”

The Mureaux speech was the launching point of what would become proposed legislation “reinforcing republican principles.” Staunchly criticized by the left-wing opposition and an array of nongovernmental organizations, the proposal, which was formally presented in December, increases government oversight of private schools and homeschooling outside the purview of the public education system. In a bid to clamp down on donations to schools and associations that receive funding from foreign countries—notably from Muslim countries—these actors will have to declare their funding to the state. Associations seeking public subsidies will be asked to commit to a “contract of Republican engagement.”

In October, the relaunch of the culture war was out of step in a country hurtling toward a second Covid lockdown. Back in March 2020, Macron had called for something of a political ceasefire, tabling his controversial retirement reform package—pre-Covid, the object of national attention and cause for a large wave of strikes from December 2019 to the onset of the pandemic, bringing to a crest a cycle of political organizing opened up by the Yellow Vests. “We are at war,” Macron declared, in his mid-March speech announcing the first lockdown.

The disconnect between this second war on “separatism,” ensauvagement, and incivility and the reality of life in a sanitary and economic crisis would perhaps have been an embarrassment for the government, were it not for a string of horrifying terror attacks later that same month. On October 16, the middle-school history teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by a Muslim terrorist of Chechen origin near the school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine where he taught, in retribution for a lesson he had given on free speech and the right to caricature figures such as the Prophet Mohamed. On October 29, just as France was preparing for its second lockdown, a terrorist stabbed and killed three people inside the central basilica in Nice.

The main thrust of the government’s response to these attacks was to rage against individuals and groups deemed complicit in terror. Jean-Michel Blanquer, the minister of education, youth, and sports, led the charge. “Our society has been too permeable to currents of thought,” Blanquer warned in an October 22 interview with Europe-1 radio. “What goes by the name of ‘Islamo-leftism’ is causing mayhem, is ravaging our universities.… They tolerate an ideology that leads ineluctably to the worst. When we consider this latest event [the Samuel Paty murder], this is not the case of an isolated assassin. He’s a murderer who has been conditioned by other people, who are to a certain degree the intellectual authors of this murder.”

This clearing of the ground for the Valeurs Actuelles media coup was a function of cynical political opportunism and craven groupthink. Take the example of Frédérique Vidal. When she was appointed minister of higher education and research in 2017, some vaunted that, at long last, this position was coming to someone outside the world of Parisian party politics. Vidal to that point had a largely undistinguished career as an academic biologist. But having formerly served as president of Sophia Antipolis University, outside Nice, she could pass for someone who knew the realities of France’s two-track higher education system, cleaved between overcrowded and cracking universities and a pocket of well-funded Parisian grandes écoles.

In other words, she did not have a reputation as an ideologue. In late October, when the government’s main line, spearheaded by Blanquer, was that the academy was being plagued by “Islamo-leftism” and a culture of victim-worshipping inspired by American “critical race theory,” Vidal objected. “The university is not a place of radicalization,” she said on October 30, “the university is a place where we can debate everything, but debate with methodological doubt, which represents the very foundation of what research is. That there are studies that focus on the question of postcoloniality in the Anglo-Saxon sense, yes of course that exists in universities. It’s normal that this takes place!”

Vidal was forced to backpedal. In mid-February of this year, she ordered a report from the National Center for Scientific Research on the “Islamo-leftism” that purportedly is “infecting” France’s research establishment. On the cable network C-News, she pontificated on February 14 that “Islamo-leftism is infecting society in a general way, and the university is not immune to this because the university is part of society.”

“What’s going on today,” said Majdi Chaarana, who studies law in Paris and is treasurer of the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France, “is that the far right is successfully diffusing its ideas well beyond its traditional base around Marine Le Pen.” In March, the UNEF found itself again in the crosshairs of the government’s onslaught, when word got out that the union had sponsored race-exclusive meetings for its members to discuss particular issues. Blanquer declared that activities such as these “are bringing us toward a thing that resemble fascism, which is very worrisome.”

“When they say that we are attacking the republic,” Chaarana said, “that’s a huge problem, and it means we’re in a very dangerous moment.”

In the context of the pandemic, concrete issues that affect the lives of the French—precarity, isolation, widespread sickness—are being brushed under the rug by the government, which is waging a cultural crusade over trivial and benign phenomena such as safe spaces on university campuses. It is one thing for the Republican Party in the United States, a morally bankrupt institution led by a lying plutocrat, to obsess over “cancel culture”—it would be quite another if President Joe Biden and the ruling Democratic Party, which claims to stand for moderation and common sense, did the same.

This is the situation in France, where the ostensibly vital center has also been captured by right-wing culture-war talking points. It could be argued that the government taunted the far right into this latest media coup. On February 11, Gérard Darmanin faced off against Marine Le Pen in a televised duel on France 2. Le Pen was caught in a moment of genuine speechlessness when Darmanin, who was then guiding an omnibus law reinforcing police powers through parliament, said that he found her “a bit soft, a bit shaky” on Islamic extremism.

The attempt to use the open letter to reapply the stigma of anti-republicanism back on the far right, after months of stamping the seal of illegitimacy on minorities, student groups, and left-wing intellectuals, has left Macron’s government in a position of perfect nonsense. It turns out that if you devote the government’s energy to invoking the specter of “Islamo-leftism” and screaming about the dangers of “critical race theory,” the political field and a rubber-stamping press will follow. Further down the line, voters might actually believe you.

Jean-Yves Camus told me the “republican front”—long a euphemism for the trans-partisan bloc opposed to the far right—is losing its meaning and appeal. “People are increasingly dissatisfied,” he said, “to vote for a candidate simply to prevent someone else from getting into power.” It only adds insult to injury when the government adopts the themes and anxieties of a political force that is otherwise deemed beyond the pale of acceptable republican politics. 

By publishing the generals’ tribune on April 21, Valeurs Actuelles had picked another landmark date in contemporary French history. On that day in 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen broke through to the second round of France’s presidential election. Though some 82 percent of voters united by default behind the center-right candidate, Jacques Chirac, this was an early sign of the breakdown of the French party system. After a year of culture wars, this reorganization is continuing apace, taking the form of a sea change in how the French perceive  “republican” legitimacy—namely, who counts as an enemy of the Republic, and who a defender.