The Quiet Revolution

Letter from Paris
Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech in Paris April 23 after the first round of the French presidential elections. (CNS photo/Yoan Valat, EPA)

If the rise of the National Front is the most visible sign of the decay of French democracy, then the nation’s muted response to President Emmanuel Macron’s first year in office feels no less symptomatic. Nor, perhaps, is it any less worrisome. Whatever one’s opinion of them, the unprecedented slate of reforms being overseen by the forty-year-old former investment banker is happening at a quicker rate than under any of his predecessors. So far, they’ve been met with a collective shrug.

Protests against the new pro-business labor law didn’t evolve into a larger mass movement. For the moment, neither have demonstrations against university reforms that introduce restrictive admission procedures. In the meantime, a budget that slashed wealth and capital-gains taxes breezed through Parliament without much popular backlash. Amidst all this, the president’s approval ratings briefly sank to near Trumpian levels, only to rise again. Just about half the country now expresses confidence in Macron, according to polls.

This rebound is impressive by French standards. Predecessors François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy both saw their poll numbers gradually sink over the course of their presidencies and never regained momentum. Macron is a far better politician than either. With a blend of smarts, savvy, and oratorical prowess that most budding politicos only dream of, he has an uncanny way of appeasing people across the political spectrum.

Still, it is important not to mistake apathy for active approval. While millions voted for the president against his proto-fascist opponent last spring (and millions would undoubtedly do so again), only about a quarter or so of them are true believers. The most fervent and powerful of the lot can be found in the sort of Parisian neighborhoods frequented by foreign journalists—the reliably bourgeois arrondisements of the Left Bank and northwestern parts of the Right Bank—giving many of these scribes an exaggerated sense of his appeal. (In general, non-French speakers hoping to follow developments deserve better: For instance, while it is encouraging that the city’s New York Times correspondent is able to communicate with presidential security guards in their mother tongue, is that fact really worth bragging about in a news story?) For most French people, Macronism is a thing happening in the background of their lives, the exact opposite of the political hyper-sensitivity Trumpism has imposed on the other side of the Atlantic. If you start talking about a random member of cabinet at a bar in Paris (the sort that foreign journalists don’t go to, of course) your fellow patron will most likely roll his or her eyes; they do not begin violently shaking their head and fill with rage as they do in New York.

At its most basic level, the disengagement flows from an institutional problem. Many voters were disillusioned after the presidential election that brought Macron to power and didn’t show up for the legislative elections one month later in June. Indeed, those contests featured the lowest such turnout levels in the history of the Fifth Republic. As a result, Macron now benefits from a parliamentary supermajority, a rubber-stamp National Assembly that doesn’t resemble the country’s actual political breakdown. Few would dispute the fact that the opposition is weak. But even under conservative estimates, Macron’s opponents represent a much larger share of the population than the mere one-fifth of seats they currently hold in the lower chamber.

French voters got what they deserved, you might say. Either way, it makes for a very dull political climate—one whose deliberations seem more befitting of a Fortune 500 company or a semi-authoritarian state than those of a thriving republic. The executive introduces reforms, people discuss them, but everyone already knows the outcome in advance. Why bother?

France is a country where discussing politics with acquaintances isn’t seen as inappropriate or provocative—it’s checking to see whether they have a pulse.

It’s especially disheartening since the French tend to be so politically-minded. Those of us from the United States, a country where half the population usually cannot be bothered to vote for president and where stating one’s deeply felt “personal opinion” neatly works to end budding arguments, are especially prone to this observation. But it remains no less true. France is a country where discussing politics with acquaintances isn’t seen as inappropriate or provocative—it’s checking to see whether they have a pulse.

Unfortunately, the quality of public debate has deteriorated in the past several months, adjusting to the increasingly hollow spectacle of domestic politics. The president isn’t a reality-television star and there isn’t yet talk of business icons taking over the reins, but Macron is already occupying these roles in a sense. Before the start of his term, he quipped that France misses its king. Since then, he has set out to fill the void—restricting journalistic access to carefully curated moments all while boosting his social-media presence and deploying instantly shareable catch phrases (“Make the climate great again,” “France is back,” etc.). In just a few months, this style has worked to cultivate an air of celebrity that’s made Macron the most famous Frenchman in the world. The press is often excited to collaborate. In January, Le Monde devoted a front-page story to how the First Lady, Brigitte Macron, is redecorating the presidential palace.

For the executive couple, “art is not seen as amusement,” an anonymous source told the paper, “but as a project of social transformation.”

How generous of them!

*

The Elysée’s latest target of reform is immigration policy. In January, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe unveiled an outline of forthcoming legislation slated to be introduced in late February or early March. The idea is to deliver a humane but firm response to the tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants and refugees living in French territory. In truth, the bill is more “firm” than humane.

Under current plans, the government would limit the amount of time under which refugees must file asylum requests from 120 days to 90 days. If denied, respondents would have just two weeks—rather than the one month under current law—to appeal. That timetable is tighter than it may seem. Thanks to overcrowded police prefectures, it often takes weeks for migrants just to be able to file their initial asylum requests in France.

The upcoming legislation would also increase prison time for undocumented migrants—doubling the maximum amount of time they can be held in police custody from forty-five to ninety days. As human-rights groups have pointed out, the measure is gratuitous. Two-thirds of deportations occur within the first dozen days of detention.

“This is more about sending a signal than about being effective,” Serge Slama, a law professor at Université Grenoble Alpes, told Le Monde. “The government wants above all to dissuade migrants from coming to France.”

Considering other recent moves, it is hard to conclude otherwise.

In addition to the upcoming bill, the government is already cracking down on undocumented immigrants. In a series of executive orders, it has authorized new “mobile brigades” to oversee ID checks and launch deportation measures in publicly funded housing shelters. This marks the first time the Interior Ministry has officially extended its reach into the domain of emergency housing—a subject funded and managed by an entirely different wing of government. It’s the equivalent of ICE agents raiding homeless shelters in the United States.

The nation’s leading human-rights groups, including Emmaus, the Abbé Pierre Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, and Secours Catholique, have loudly condemned the measures and filed legal appeals at the highest possible levels. Meanwhile, the nation’s Defender of Rights, a constitutionally mandated ombudsman, has called on the government to reverse them. But until Macron and company change course—or a judge forces them to—the orders remains in place.

In the end, the package of measures amount to two things: For one, they deliver a symbolic gift to the most odious and xenophobic elements of French society. But on a more practical level, they are designed to accelerate deportations—to ensure that authorities can more efficiently remove tens of thousands of human beings from French soil.

Understandably, these developments have pleased the runner-up of France’s presidential race last year, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front (FN). She recently hailed the reforms as a “political victory.”

The approach is flawed politically, but more importantly, it is morally bankrupt.

She must also be proud of the following trend: In 2016, France deported about 13,000 undocumented immigrants. Last year, the number rose to more than 14,000. One can only expect another increase in 2018.

While self-evident, it bears repeating: Le Pen’s popularity did not materialize from thin air. For much of its existence, her party was a marginal force. Only more recently has it benefited from enablers in the highest ranks of the Republic. In an effort to woo far-right voters, President Nicolas Sarkozy famously imitated the FN’s anti-immigrant stance in both rhetoric and policy. It didn’t work: The FN won a historically large vote share in the 2012 presidential election. With the far-right party reaching even greater heights last year, President Macron has chosen to continue the path of appeasement. The approach is flawed politically, but more importantly, it is morally bankrupt.                                                                                   

Right now, the only major political party that dares defend undocumented immigrants and refugees (and not nearly enough) is the left-wing France Insoumise, often labelled as a dangerous band of populists no better than the National Front. In a recent interview, leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon blasted the government’s moves on the subject.

“Whether it’s political refugees fleeing war or repression or economic refugees fleeing poverty, they’re human beings,” he said. “We have no other choice but to take charge of those who arrive, helping them in their transit, in particular toward England, or their installation in conditions that are decent, helpful, and allow them to assimilate.”

Nevertheless, Western liberals continue to claim the Macron as their champion. As Sylvie Kauffmann recently argued in the New York Times, the French president offers a “countermodel” to his American counterpart. The “divide between Mr. Trump’s unilateralist agenda and Mr. Macron’s European faith in liberal values, multilateralism and an open world [has] only widened,” she wrote.

These are dark times, and so the tendency to project is understandable. It often comes from a good place. But when it comes to actual immigration policy—the question of how the state should treat inhabitants whose nationality differs from their country of residence—the differences between Trump and Macron boil down to a matter of degree. In the end, both leaders are ramping up deportations and refusing the responsibility of welcoming those unfortunate enough to have to flee their homelands.

We are living in an age in which facts matter less and less—an era in which governments feel empowered to frame their actions as the opposite of what they are. Trump’s disregard for truth is buffoonish and well-documented, making his lies easy to identify. Macron’s determination to mask the reality of his policies behind a cosmopolitan presentation is far more professional, tending to pass undetected in a world saturated by public relations and marketing. That doesn’t mean the lies are any less dangerous.

Published in the March 23, 2018 issue: 

Cole Stangler is a Paris-based journalist writing about labor and politics. A former staff writer at International Business Times and In These Times, he has also published work in VICEThe New Republic, and The Nation.

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