French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in April / CNS

Like nearly every American not named Steve Bannon, I am relieved that Emmanuel Macron did better than Marine Le Pen in the first round of France’s presidential election and, as I write, is expected to win the second. That prospect has gone some way in relieving my astonishment over identity politics à la française. If America’s identity politics in November seemed to boil down to white resentment and an apparent nostalgia for coal mines, Le Pen’s campaign to make France great again has been similarly peculiar.

During the 1960s, when I lived in France for a year, French identity was not an issue. I never had any trouble knowing who was French and who was not. I was not. But I tried. I learned how to pee in one of those holes in the ground that passed as a toilet. I was happy to let shopkeepers archly tutor my vocabulary and grammar (my Chicago-shaped accent was clearly beyond redemption). The bakery, the milk store, the butcher, the charcuterie, and the blanchisserie were veritable Berlitz classes. I learned to greet with appropriate deference and politesse their proprietors as well as my neighbors and the man who ran water down the curb and swept it twice a day. He, of course, was Arab—i.e., not French. Like me. Identity was never in doubt.

So I was surprised to find Roger Cohen of the New York Times reporting that the French were now in a veritable stew (probably boeuf bourguignon), suffering “from cultural and civilizational insecurity.” The villains: immigrants; open borders; the euro; and the EU’s heavy-handed regulations. At the heart of these complaints are the charming French villages “stripped of life,” as one of Cohen’s interlocutors puts it. “Small stores had been replaced by huge ‘hypermarkets’ on the outskirts of town. Human contact was almost forgotten. ‘In the shopping malls the cashiers are lined up like cattle for the slaughter,’ he said. Old people without cars were treated like human refuse.”

I wondered: Did this sense of loss include nostalgia for those holes in the ground I remember from my limber youth? Had the three-hour lunch and naptime that closed those charming small stores and other machines of commerce gone the way of the “Deux Chevaux,” Citroen’s 2CV—a masterpiece of automotive minimalism and environmental low-impact, lacking only in comfort, speed, and safety? Haven’t laundromats finally replaced the blanchisseries that needed a week to wash and dry (and fold origami-like) the family clothes? With standard-sized refrigerators now a staple of the French kitchen, has weekly, instead of daily, shopping cast a shadow on domestic cuisine? In my time, there were no “hypermarkets” anywhere; small stores dotted the urban landscape no less than the villages.

Do Le Pen voters imagine the Napoleonic Code governing every aspect of daily life was more liberating?

Back when I unsuccessfully tried to be French, women dressed to their fingertips, gloves, hats, stockings, impeccable jackets; skirts, shirts, and dresses that fit perfectly. Madame was always elegantly turned out. French women would never do the daily grocery shopping in anything less than what looked their Sunday best. In recent years, during short vacations in France, I was astonished to find that the elegant and the impeccable had succumbed to something more practical: perfectly fitting blue jeans and tee shirts, shapely sweat shirts, and snazzy running shoes. Tailoring, ironing, mending, and dressing had been reduced by hours. Quel dommage.

When Marie Le Pen’s supporters chant “On est chez nous” as a lament for French identity and a plea to bring back the glory days, what do they really remember? Even she has dressed down for the campaign. Do they long for the daily domestic routine tied to the timetable of the bakery, the milk store, the butcher, the charcuterie, whose restricted hours and limited choices were as dictatorial as anything the EU has dreamed up? Do they imagine that the Napoleonic Code governing every aspect of daily life—or perhaps the dirigiste mentality the Code symbolized—was more liberating? Don’t the stagnant economy and youth unemployment have something to do with France’s very own work rules? In 1968 you practically had to take a blood test to use the Bibliotheque Nationale and have formal permission to conduct a riot.

What else have the French forgotten? Le Pen’s recent remarks on the French police’s notorious July 1942 round-up and deportation of Jews to German death camps neatly exonerated the French people: “If there was responsibility, it is with those who were in power at the time, it is not with France. France has been mistreated, in people’s minds, for years.” When I was in France, the French were just beginning to acknowledge their role in the Holocaust. Now some of them are trying hard to forget it. They are also trying to forget that the immigrants Le Pen promises to expel are the children of France’s mission civilisatrice, colonial governance in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Identity is a two-edged sword. The French, and certainly those who support Le Pen, seem to have forgotten—the charming village stores notwithstanding—a great deal about France’s past.

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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Published in the May 19, 2017 issue: View Contents
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