AMERICAS ASIA EUROPE MIDDLE EAST AFRICA TURKIYE

ARTS & CULTURE BUSINESS LIFE SPORTS

A PLACE CALLED PAKISTAN DIGITAL DOCUMENTARIES FOCAL POINT OFF THE GRID STORYTELLER

PERSPECTIVES RESEARCH CENTRE WORLD CITIZEN JOBS

Is Macron fuelling the far right?

  • James Wolfreys
  • 23 Dec 2018

By pandering to far-right discourse on immigration and Muslims, Macron masks the real issues facing France, which are based on economic inequality and racism.

Protesters wearing yellow vests, build a barricade during clashes on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Saturday November 24 ( Benoit Tessier / Reuters )

Act V of the ‘yellow vest’ protests on December 15, underlined the fact that French President Emmanuel Macron’s televised address to the nation a few days earlier had not done enough to halt the movement which has been underway since November, following plans to raise tax on petrol.

Having scrapped these plans, Macron made further, limited concessions. Some in the media saw him as Father Christmas, dispensing '$11.3 billion in 13 minutes’ and speculated about a ‘social turn’, marking a new phase of the presidency, ‘Macron Act II’.

But the rest of the country was less impressed. The headline $113 boost to the minimum wage turned out to be mostly made up of accelerated scheduled increases paid as a bonus not available to all minimum wage earners. Tax cuts for the wealthiest in French society would remain in place.

This gulf between the political establishment and the population has been a defining feature of the ‘yellow vest’ movement, the expression of a profound crisis in French society centred on problems of inequality and falling social mobility. The refusal of successive governments to address social injustice has in turn exposed the inability of French institutions to function effectively.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Heralded by political commentators as the defender of liberal values and European institutions against a ‘populist’ insurgency, Macron’s fall from grace has exposed the hollowness of these claims.

His call for opposition politicians, trade union leaders and employers to set aside their differences and make ‘clear and explicit’ appeals for calm highlighted both the scale of the crisis and the isolation of a president elected largely because the alternative was the far-right’s Marine Le Pen.

Repression

The sight of 150 school students on December 6 at a banlieue school in the urban outskirts of Paris being made to kneel by armed police, with their hands behind their heads for up to four hours was a reminder that behind Macron’s telegenic image is a hardline political project that fuses a neoliberal present with a violent colonial heritage.

This was not the only act of collective punishment meted out to protesting students or ‘yellow vests’. Excessive use of tear gas has been a feature of the demonstrations, with an estimated 10,000 grenades fired in Paris alone during the December 1 protest. Along with stun and stinger grenades, Flash-ball weapons firing ‘non-lethal’ rounds have also been widely used. Police have been repeatedly filmed beating protesters.

In December, more than 300 people have been hospitalised, with some protesters losing hands or eyes as a result of police action. If official estimates of the number of demonstrators nationwide are to be believed, on December 8 there were around three police officers mobilised for every four protesters, 89,000 in total. More than 1,000 people were arrested in Paris alone on that day, with many detained before even reaching their destination.

Although Macron acknowledged the difficulties that millions face in making ends meet, he intends to do very little to address widening inequality. His dismissive references to the poor have become part of the vocabulary of this revolt. Soon after taking office he contrasted ‘people who are successful’ with ‘people who are nothing’, later telling a young unemployed man that all he needed to do was ‘cross the street’ to find work in a café or restaurant.

Racism

Inequality is the main issue that the ‘yellow vests’ have thrust to the top of the political agenda. Macron’s speech therefore also signalled, quietly and rather slyly, his intention to move the focus onto a different terrain. The question of immigration needed dealing with, he argued, noting that republican secularism was under threat from ‘ways of life that create barriers’. A debate was required on what national identity meant.  

In other words, it was time to get back to business as usual. If concessions to the protesters, heavy-handed policing or attempts to divide ‘moderate’ protesters from ‘vandals’ were to prove incapable of dividing and pacifying the movement, then the tried and tested methods of contemporary republican Islamophobia would be invoked to sow division.

French political life has been preoccupied for some time with the creation of an ‘enemy within’, Muslim outsiders who threaten French values. High profile interventions and discriminatory legislation have singled Muslims out for scrutiny, constructing them as racialised objects of suspicion. This use of a scapegoat for France’s ills is echoed and reinforced by the wider ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative underpinning the so-called ‘war on terror’.

Macron is perfectly at ease with this narrative. Earlier this year he characterised the hijab as an ‘incivility’ and made a crass reference to the ‘civilisational’ problems of Africa caused by women having seven, eight or nine children. This is not about responding to popular concerns or appeasing a xenophobic electorate. Like his predecessors, Macron is instead propagating and nurturing racism from above. The tendency to portray him as a barrier to populism is therefore misplaced.

Macron’s appeal was supposed to reside in his ability to build a broad consensus for pro-market values at the heart of the European Union. The deployment of police in disproportionate numbers, arming them with teargas and Flash-balls and permitting excessive force to be used in quelling, and in some cases humiliating, the opposition, is a very public admission of weakness.

We are witnessing an escalation of tendencies already at play in French society. Last week a group of anti-racists who mobilised in Briançon to defend migrants threatened with violence by far-right groups in the Alps were convicted of illegally helping them cross the French border. The criminalisation of solidarity and of protest, the normalisation of authoritarianism and the stigmatisation of Muslims are powerful reminders that while many commentators cling to an image of Macron as the saviour of liberal democracy, his actions are strengthening rather than undermining the far right.

Having scrapped these plans, Macron made further, limited concessions. Some in the media saw him as Father Christmas, dispensing '$11.3 billion in 13 minutes’ and speculated about a ‘social turn’, marking a new phase of the presidency, ‘Macron Act II’.

But the rest of the country was less impressed. The headline 100-euro boost to the minimum wage turned out to be mostly made up of accelerated scheduled increases paid as a bonus not available to all minimum wage earners. Tax cuts for the wealthiest in French society would remain in place.

This gulf between the political establishment and the population has been a defining feature of the yellow vests movement, the expression of a profound crisis of French society centred on problems of inequality and falling social mobility. The refusal of successive governments to address social injustice has in turn exposed the inability of French institutions to function effectively.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Heralded by political commentators as the defender of liberal values and European institutions against a ‘populist’ insurgency, Macron’s fall from grace has exposed the hollowness of these claims.

His call for opposition politicians, trade union leaders and employers to set aside their differences and make ‘clear and explicit’ appeals for calm highlighted both the scale of the crisis and the isolation of a President elected largely because the alternative was the far-right’s Marine Le Pen.

Repression

The sight of a hundred and fifty school students on 6 December at a banlieue school in the urban outskirts of Paris being made to kneel, with their hands behind their heads, by armed police for up to four hours was a reminder that behind Macron’s telegenic image is a hardline political project that fuses a neoliberal present with a violent colonial heritage.

This was not the only act of collective punishment meted out to protesting students or ‘yellow vests’. Excessive use of tear gas has been a feature of the demonstrations, with an estimated 10 000 grenades fired in Paris alone on the 1 December protest. Along with stun and stinger grenades, Flashball weapons firing ‘non-lethal’ rounds have also been widely used. Police have been repeatedly filmed beating protesters.

In the month of December over three hundred people have been hospitalised, with some protesters losing hands or eyes as a result of police action. If official estimates of the number of demonstrators nationwide are to be believed, on 8 December there were around three police officers mobilised for every four protesters, 89 000 in total. Over a thousand people were arrested in Paris alone on that day, with many detained prior to even reaching their destination.

Although Macron acknowledged the difficulties that millions face in making ends meet, he plainly intends to do very little to address widening inequality. His dismissive references to the poor have become part of the vocabulary of this revolt. Soon after taking office he contrasted ‘people who are successful’ with ‘people who are nothing’, later telling a young unemployed man that all he needed to do was ‘cross the street’ to find work in a café or restaurant.

Racism

Inequality is the issue above all others that the yellow vests have thrust to the top of the political agenda. Macron’s speech therefore also signalled, quietly and rather slyly, his intention to move the focus onto a different terrain. The question of immigration needed dealing with, he argued, noting that Republican secularism was under threat from ‘ways of life that create barriers’. A debate was required on what national identity meant.  

In other words, it was time to get back to business as usual. If concessions to the protesters, heavy-handed policing or attempts to divide ‘moderate’ protesters from ‘vandals’ were to prove incapable of dividing and pacifying the movement, then the tried and tested methods of contemporary Republican Islamophobia would be invoked to sow division.

French political life has been preoccupied for some time with the creation of an ‘enemy within’, Muslim outsiders who threaten French values. High profile interventions and discriminatory legislation have singled Muslims out for scrutiny, constructing them as racialised objects of suspicion. This use of a scapegoat for France’s ills is echoed and reinforced by the wider ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative underpinning the so-called ‘war on terror’.

Macron is perfectly at ease with this narrative. Earlier this year he characterised the hijab as an ‘incivility’ and made a crass reference to the ‘civilisational’ problems of Africa caused by women having seven, eight or nine children. This is not about responding to popular concerns or appeasing a xenophobic electorate. Like his predecessors, Macron is instead propagating and nurturing racism from above. The tendency to portray him as a barrier to populism is therefore misplaced.

Macron’s appeal was supposed to reside in his ability to build a broad consensus for pro-market values at the heart of the European Union. The deployment of police in disproportionate numbers, arming them with teargas and Flashballs and permitting excessive force to be used in quelling and in some cases humiliating opposition, is a very public admission of weakness.

We are witnessing an escalation of tendencies already at play in French society. Last week a group of anti-racists who mobilised in Briançon to defend migrants threatened with violence by far-right groups in the Alps were convicted of illegally helping them cross the French border. The criminalisation of solidarity and of protest, the normalisation of authoritarianism and the stigmatisation of Muslims are powerful reminders that while many commentators cling to an image of Macron as the saviour of liberal democracy, his actions are strengthening rather than undermining the far-right.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to opinion.editorial@trtworld.com

Related

Popular