This April’s presidential election in France was set to be a civilizational battle, a do-or-die, last-quarter fight for national identity and survival. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced the media cycle to catch up, at least momentarily, with studies showing that most French people just don’t care about the supposed threat of wokisme. Instead of American campus culture, a supposed rise in petty crime, or the number of police officers that a candidate plans to recruit, the French would rather hear about solutions for underfunded hospitals and schools, climate change, and the cost of living—a fact that has mostly been lost among the nexus of editorial boards, production studios, and communications teams who, until the outbreak of an actual war, had preferred the narrative of a culture war.
President Emmanuel Macron deserves at least part of the blame. Since taking office in 2017, he has presented himself as liberal democracy’s dutiful rampart with one hand, while using the other to triangulate with a ferociously confident Right. The political crisis this has caused might be best captured by the earnest astonishment and disbelief on Marine Le Pen’s face in February 2021 when Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, accused her in a televised debate of being “soft” on Islam. It’s difficult, though, to out-demagogue the far Right. One year later, Le Pen is part of a triumvirate challenging Macron from the Right, herself positioned somewhere between the more centrist-friendly Valérie Pécresse and the proto-fascist Éric Zemmour. Their collective strength—now stalled, it would seem, by international crisis—looms over an electoral cycle where it has become common to hear matter-of-fact references to a tide of Africans submerging Europa.
But craven opportunism on the part of Macron can explain only so much of what’s happening. France’s new Right is the result of one of the forgotten revolts that marked the country’s grueling 2010s—forgotten, at least, by this American journalist, someone wistfully inclined to view his adopted country as the perennial homeland of 1789, égalité, and all that. To be a French conservative over the winter of 2012 and 2013, however, when hundreds of thousands of your like-minded citizens took to the streets for weeks of extended protests, was to witness the advent of a new politics.
The Manif pour tous (“protest for everyone”) seemed to come out of nowhere. In November 2012, Socialist president François Hollande introduced a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, hoping for an easy victory with his progressive base after a series of retreats on fiscal austerity. What followed, however, was an upsurge of conservative organizing and mobilization, the likes of which France had not experienced for decades.
Between late 2012 and spring 2013, a different France—conspicuously wealthier, whiter, and more Christian than the rest of the country—stormed the streets of major cities. Bucking the assumption that mass-protest politics was the exclusive domain of left-wing social movements, as many as 1 million people reportedly attended the largest Parisian demonstrations in early 2013 according to organizers. Drawing out many cultural conservatives who felt ignored as the newly elected government embarked on a major reform of a key social institution, the marches also saw the revival of a dormant ecosystem of right-wing groups, from royalist clubs and integralist sects to old anti-abortion networks. The center-left establishment weekly Le Nouvel Observateur tellingly confessed: “We thought they had ceased to exist, but really we just didn’t see them.”