France, Politics, Populism

Dialogue with a Frexiter — loss of centrist appeal amid the wave of nationalism in the EU

During the men’s FIFA World Cup 2018, I was following the results of every game with an avid interest like I’ve always been. Gone are the crazy days of bickering, taunting, goading your friends about their favourite team’s performance. Now we live hundreds, and in my case, thousands of miles away; but the same excitement still remains, as we replace direct communications with social media. Once I came across a meme that it’s not France, but Africa that has gone into semifinals for the first time. With immigration and vain nationalism close to my heart, I replied stating the obvious that they were all born in France. The discussion ended there. A few weeks later, after Les Bleus lifted the cup for the second time, I saw another piece of news, but this time in France, with a title «C’est l’Afrique qui a gagné». Although on the Africa rhetoric, there is a positive angle many tried to highlight — that France football team represented a great example of an inclusive society, neither version of the memes circulated was acceptable. It was perhaps less shocking seeing such a meme in a different country than one going around in social media in France. And that’s just after they have won the World Cup.

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A few weeks later I met a French contact I have known for last two years. We had many interactions but not a tête-à-tête as such. Trying to find a bit more about France and French life, I thought it would be an easy start to talk about Brexit and find out what the view is sur le continent. When M. Ch’ti (imaginary name, of course) said in his opinion UK will be better off because it’ll be able to source goods from anywhere else, I thought something must be amiss. The rest of the conversation was somewhat like this:

C: And here, you’re looking at one of the supporters for French Brexit.

Me: A French Brexit! But why?

C: Because EU has too much control over the French people and I think it will be good for France to be outside the EU.

Me: There might be a point, but why would you walk away from the world’s largest economic zone? What’s the cost of it? Look at the UK.

C: Of course Brexit is a lesson for French people as well. They need to be ready to negotiate straight away.

Me: I know Macron said under his presidency if there was a referendum, France may well have voted to leave. But is that true? Is that the sentiment?

C: Well, a lot of people think that. Also, we are paying into EU economy so our salaries will be higher.

Me: What do you mean? In what way?

C: EU has been a vanity project for the Germans. They were worse off before EU, unlike the French economy that was doing better.

Me: I found the actual value of the Euro is quite different in different countries. I found it quite surprising how that unbalance was allowed to happen. If you have the same currency, it should be the role of the EU to make sure that the purchasing power should be the same as well, or at least similar.

C: Yes, I remember when Euro was first introduced there was a complicated chart and people just charged anything they pleased.

Me: So do you think outside EU, wages in France will be better? Do you think with a smaller market, the French economy will have to offer a lot more to big corps to appear lucrative to them? Every country will have to follow the Irish model of offering tax havens. That will only benefit a few compared to the mass.

C: Yes because the French economy was better at the time when we joined Euro and to avoid the effect on the economy, they put a cap on wages. I believe once outside EU, we will have a lot more negotiating power especially with our close ties with African nations.

Me: Ah yes the ex-French colonies.

C: Yes, just like there are many ex-colonies the UK can benefit from. And also, not just business, there will be less expenses on security, with all these jihadists, and it’s been crazy in France the last few years…and it’s the same in the UK as well I’ve noticed.

Me: Don’t think the security expenses will come down, and besides, if France exits, you’ll lose all the access to Europol. But true, UK and France have been biggest targets on the list of the terrorists.

C: It’s just crazy. And you need to look at the profile of these people. They lead western lifestyle, drink, smoke, go to nightclubs and then one day they get the illumination that I have to kill people now. The government needs to be stricter about who they let in. The UK has got a much stronger immigration policy than in France. You can just come in and disappear from the system.

Me: It’s not that it doesn’t happen here either, but much less I believe. But you need surveillance on the terror suspects. I believe for the attacks in Bataclan, and in Nice, the attackers were known to the authorities?

C: Yes but there’s a bit conspiracy going on. They want to appease the human rights organisations but they aren’t worried about the general public. There are people who go to Syria, to Iraq, they fight with the jihadists and come back and we just say yes, welcome back and they then disappear before making an attack again.

Me: it’s much stricter here, I mean incidents do happen but they are under heavy surveillance I believe, and some are charged as they come back.

C: That’s the right thing to do. In fact, they should be turned away and we should tell them, go back to where you went fighting.

Me: You can’t take their citizenship away, you can charge them.

C: And then they go to jail and convert other people so they blow themselves up. There is a big cover-up.

By this time I started to wonder what must be the equivalent of Daily Express in France and whether I’m talking to a reader. A well-timed interlude arrived in the shape of an omelette. I tried to change the topic to speak about the last holiday in France.

Me: I thought I’d come and see your office when we were on holiday.

C: Where did you go? In Disneyland?

Me: No, just north of Paris. It’s a place near Compiègne.

C: Ah I know. Very nice place. Very green. Did you see the big palace?

Me: Yes it was awesome. And we liked Soissons.

C: You know there is a place in Compiègne where the Germans surrendered the first big war, and during the second, when they defeated France, they wanted the treaty signed at the same place.

Me: Yes the Versailles treaty. We went to that place in Clarière d’armistice.

C: You know that part of France is so beautiful and it’s the cradle of France. It’s very green. And l’île de France actually comes from this region where the old Frankish kingdom used to be.

Me: I did wonder a long time back why Paris is called that name. I thought it’s all the rivers around it.

C: Yes it’s confusing, you call it the Isle of France but there is no island. But that region hasn’t changed with time, the houses, way of life everything just remained the same.

Me: We really enjoyed there and definitely will go back.

C: That part of Paris is beautiful, around the river Oise. Well, there are other areas that are not so good…

Me: That’s probably the same in every big city. London has some notorious boroughs. What sort of problem are there in Paris?

C: It’s the Japanese mafia.

Me: I see, what sort of problem is there? Gang violence?

C: Yes, mainly. Recently Japan government has a big cultural event in Paris so they had to send people to clean up some of the areas.

Me: Sounds crazy.

C: Yes. Paris used to do such a nice place. And now it’s dirty, full of graffiti, gangs…I was away for a few years, and the first time I went back to Paris, I was horrified. And now you go to Eiffel Tower, it’s covered with security, it doesn’t feel the same.

Me: Yes last year we went there. We just wanted to go to the garden, but even then you have to go through security, so we didn’t bother in the end.

C: It’s a shame, I know it’s needed so deranged people don’t blow us up.

Me: Yes, but in Paris, after so many attacks, you see armed guards and you feel secure that the government is doing something. We don’t have any armed guards.

C: That’s just a decoy. The government can do a lot more. This Macron is useless.

Me: I thought he’s quite liked in France at the beginning? I know he made a few unpopular moves, especially with unions…

C: Macron is secretly building an army. It’s not French national army but his own army. No president has ever done that…well maybe Charles de Gaul during the Algerian war, but that was a different time and he was heavily criticised for it. But what’s Macron’s motive? Nobody knows.

Me: That’s bizarre. What’s his motive? Is he planning a coup? You’d understand when you’re in opposition but he’s the president of the country!

C: Macron is an awful choice. People were besotted by him, but now they can see his true colours. The whole of Europe has become pacifist. I don’t like it now.

Me: Well the EU is above all an economic union. There are a lot of contradictions amongst its member states and a lot of scepticism between each other. It will eventually fail because of the inherent differences between the countries. Just think about Eurovision.

C: Haha yes that is a big farce now. But the biggest challenge is Europe has to close its doors. We can not afford any more people.

Me: But there’s plenty of room, it depends on the governments approach and how much they engage with the population to tell them why they need to help the refugees.

C: I agree with you, they need to be helped, but there should be a limit. Some say it’s in the bible, if somebody comes to your house, you should let them in. But that’s the concept of a pilgrimage. You left them to stay, get rest, then they will be away. Bible doesn’t say that when someone comes to your house you feed them for the lifetime.

At this point, I was beginning to despair. I was wondering whether to prolong a painful discussion by bringing colonialism and its effects into the argument. But before I did, he carried on-

C: And then you host them, then they’ll do petty crimes, go to jail and be converted. Then they become jihadists trying to cut your throat. They could just go back to fight the countries they came from. But they want to bring the war in here.

Me: But that’s what governments are for. They should ensure that people coming here are not socially isolated. And that’s why it can’t just be a government process. The people will need to get involved in that process.

C: Or I have a better solution. They want to come to France? Let them come to France. But send them to a remote island in Pacific that is owned by France. I bet you have places like that with UK as well…sovereign territories.

Me: Yes, the old colonies…

The conversation died off then. The omelette was gone, and it was time to go back to a more comfortable business. But that conversation cast some doubts on the demographics of the populism supporters. And it also cast shadows on the long-term future of a unified Europe. C is undoubtedly a Marine Le Pen supporter from his views about migrants and how to solve the terrorism issue. But he is not a working class, what one would expect a populism supporter to be. He’s not deprived or oppressed by the system and venting the failure of the state towards the scapegoats. One may say based on a sample size of one, my statistical generalisation of French middle-class educated population is crass. It doesn’t hold any credibility. And I know that well. But I’d expected that when I start discussing Brexit with someone from the EU, the general reaction would be — “I pity you, what on Earth were you thinking”? With my first sample doing a volte-face, I’m now worried if more and more people turn out to be closet fascists.

But from another angle, it just proves another thought I’ve had for a while. That the liberal and the left are not loud enough because they have mixed loyalties. The general vibe from the public is that the western society is consumeristic. Aligning a party or oneself too far from that stance would alienate themselves from the public, and they’ll lose their appeal instantly. At the same time, we are prisoners of our own vices. While talking about equality, we still want to enjoy life — holidays, technology, property, investments. Due to that hypocrisy, we cannot go gung-ho against a society that still is failing and widening the gap between its layers. On the other hand, the populism campaign is driven by a rosy picture that’ll never happen. Nor that it ever was. But it’s also characterised by its campaign of fear. And hatred. It’s very direct. There is a culprit, an enemy that you point your finger at. The message from the populist leaders is direct and unequivocal. They froth malice as they open their mouth. They don’t give a toss about political correctness. They tell their followers what to do. And the public meekly comply. Meanwhile, somewhere in the virtual world, a liberal/centrist/moderate expresses their dissent by clicking a dislike or angry button. Or they sign a petition.

On the other hand, the liberal engagement has been feeble, to say the least. Apart from a lack of conviction from our part, the liberal ideology always assumes a moral and intellectual high ground and most of the believers consider themselves much above than getting meddled into a debate. The lack of conviction was apparent prior to Brexit vote — if you asked a remainer, you’d get an answer “that’s the only logical choice isn’t it? I mean who in their right mind would want to leave?”. But when you spoke to a leaver, they always spoke with great conviction, statistics, confidence. All that they said were false because they have been lied to, but the damage was done. The reluctance of the liberals to engage in dialogue with the people who held a view contrary to theirs has already caused enough havoc in the world politics. Yet, we haven’t learned from that mistake, and still look at the world from the ivory tower of our own ideology and think how stupid the other camp is. We don’t try to see their thought process, we don’t see their desperation where they’d believe anything as long as there is someone to blame.

It’s not that there weren’t fascists before Brexit happened. But they didn’t have the platform, the limelight they always wanted. Most of their activities were limited to bravado after the terrorist attacks or commemorating their fascist ideologues. Brexit and Trump gave them a new impetus. It gave them hope, and within two years, we have FN as the second largest party in France, the Netherlands barely scraped through being led by Geert Wilders, as was Austria. Hungary did, in the end, get a right-wing PM, and Italy sleepwalked into a pandemonium in the form of a coalition between nationalist and far-right parties. The European states are becoming partisan, forgetting the virtues and the history that brought them together. The only two leaders that stayed firm against the tide are Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron who constantly spoke about European integration.

It’s not that Macron has no flaws, but during the discussion with C, I expected, like most of the French population, he’d be pro-Macron and inclined towards a vision of EU for the coming years and share their disbelief at the decision taken by the British public. I think beyond Macron, this expectation stems from my idea of France, the epicentre of the modern philosophy and renaissance, from Descartes to Camus. In that biased vision, I think every French person upheld the three basic virtues — liberté, égalité, fraternité. And it’s for that reason when someone didn’t fit into that stereotype, it came as a surprise to me. Perhaps C was just an outlier who doesn’t represent the views of middle-class Parisians, perhaps I have just picked the biggest odd as my first sample. Perhaps, I need to speak to more French acquaintances. I wish I had the same luck with the lottery in picking the odds.

Going back to the meme that made me think about this first, it is clear that people don’t think before endorsing casual racism. It’s also apparent that there is an undercurrent of growing hostile environment for the migrants, waning tolerance between communities and a disbelief over the EU. I wonder how many more distress signals would we need before we start to work on it. Before it’s too late.

PS: I’m going to meet a few Italians soon. Some from the North and some from the South. It’d be enlightening to see their views on Lega Nord. And on the coalition. And on the man who once introduced populism to Italy vowing to drag the country out of the mess it was in, and his famous lines:

E Forza Italia
É tempo di credere
Dai Forza Italia
Che siamo tantissimi

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