The size of the Le Pen vote was painful and surprising. We are looking for explanations. The political class comes up with its portable sociology: the France of people from below, of lost folks of the countryside, of workers, the under-educated, those frightened by globalization, by the decline in purchasing power, the de-structuring of the territories, the presence at their doors of foreign foreigners, seek to retreat into nationalism and xenophobia.
It is this “backward” France that was blamed for the ‘No’ vote in the referendum on the proposed European Constitution. On the opposite side were allegedly the modern, urban, educated middle classes, who alone constitute the salt of our well-tempered social democracy.
Let’s say that this lower class France is still, in the circumstances, the donkey in the fable, the flayed and scabby “populist” scapegoat that is the source of all the evil of Lepenism. This resentment of the media and the political class towards “populism” is strange. Is it possible that the democratic power, of which we are so proud, is allergic to listening to the people? This is in any case what the said people thinks. When asked “Are political office holders concerned about what people like you think?” The share of the full negative answer “not at all” increased from 15% of the total in 1978 to 42% in 2010! The share of positive answers (“a lot” or “to a fair extent”) fell from 35% to 17% …. The least we can say is that the relationship between the people and the state is not one of trust.
Must we conclude that our state does not have the people it deserves, and that the dark Le Pen vote testifies to that popular inadequacy? This would require that we change the people in order to strengthen democracy, as Brecht recommended in irony.
My thesis is rather that two other culprits should be brought forward: the successive holders of state power, of both left and right, and a non negligible group of intellectuals.
Ultimately, it wasn’t the poor of our countryside who decided to limit as much as possible the basic right of a worker in this country, of whichever original nationality, to live here with his wife [sic] and children. It was a socialist minister, and all those on the right then followed into the breach. It was not an undereducated rustic who proclaimed in 1983 that the strikers at the Renault car factory–most of them Algerians and Moroccans–were “immigrant workers (…) agitated by religious and political groups on grounds that have little to do with French social realities.”
It was a socialist prime minister, of course, to the obvious delight of his “enemies” on the Right. Who had the good sense declaring that Le Pen raised real issues? An activist of the National Front from Alsace? No, it was [socialist] prime minister Francois Mitterrand. It wasn’t the underdeveloped folks of the back-country who built detention centers in which to imprison, outside of any real law, those who were also deprived of any mean of acquiring the legal papers of their presence.
It wasn’t overwhelmed suburbanites who ordered French embassies around the world to reduce the issuing of visas to France to a trickle, while setting hard expulsion quotas for the police here. The succession of restrictive laws that, under the pretext of foreignness, assaulted the liberty and equality of millions of people who live and work here was not the work of on the loose “populists.”
Behind these legal wrongs we find, quite simply, the state. We find there all the successive governments, beginning with the government of Francois Mitterrand, and relentlessly thereafter. Just two examples: the Socialist Lionel Jospin let it be known as soon as he came to power that he would not abolish the xenophobic laws of Charles Pasqua; the socialist Francois Hollande indicated that his government would treat the question of regularization of undocumented immigrants no differently than Nicolas Sarkozy. Continuity in this matter is completely clear. It is this persistent encouragement of the state in this villainy that shapes reactive and racialist public opinion, and not the other way around.
>I cannot be suspected of not knowing that Nicolas Sarkozy and his clique were always busy advancing cultural racism, raising high the banner of the “superiority” of our dear Western civilization and putting to vote an endless succession of discriminatory laws of appalling vileness.
And yet, we did not see the left rising to the occasion in opposing that with the force appropriate to such a fierce reactionary assault. The left even stated often that it “understood” this demand for “security”, and voted with no qualms in favor of flagrantly persecutorial decisions, as those aimed at expelling from the public space this or that woman under the pretext that she covered her hair or wrapped her body.
Left candidates everywhere announce that they will lead a merciless struggle, not so much against the graft of the capitalists and the dictatorship of austerity budgets as against undocumented workers and minor repeat offenders, especially if they are blacks or Arabs. In this area, Right and Left together have trampled every principle. For those deprived of papers, it was and is the state of exception, not the state of law; the state of lawlessness. They are the ones who suffer insecurity, and not well-to-do nationals. If we have to resign to expel people, God forbid, it would be better that we choose our rulers rather than the very respectable Moroccan or Mali workers.
And whom do we find behind all this, and for over twenty years? Who are the glorious inventors of the “Islamic danger”, busy, according to them, disintegrating our beautiful western and french society? None but intellectuals. Who devoted to this wretched task fiery editorials, convoluted books, “sociological” investigations? Was it a group of countryside retirees and small town workers who put together patiently all this business of the “clash of civilizations”, the defense of the “republican pact”, the threats to our beautiful “secularism”, the “feminism” outraged by the daily lives of Arab women?
Is it not infuriating that we look for culprits only on the extreme right – which effectively pulls the chestnuts from the fire – without ever exposing the overwhelming responsibility of those, very often calling themselves “of the left”, and more often “philosophy” professors than supermarket cashiers, who passionately argued that the Arabs and blacks, especially their youth, corrupted our educational system, perverted our suburbs, offended against our freedoms and outraged our women? Or they were “too many of them” in our football teams? Exactly as it was formerly said of Jews and “wogs” that eternal France was mortally threatened through them.
Of course, some tiny fascist groups that claimed their inspiration from Islam did emerge. But there have been just as well fascist movements claiming inspiration from the West and from Christ the King. That never prevented a single Islamophobic intellectual from bragging endlessly about our superior “western” identity, nor from sticking our admirable “Christian roots” inside the worship of secularism. Marine Le Pen, who became one of the most committed practitioners of this cult, finally exposes the political wood that warms the altar of this secularism.
In truth, the anti-popular violence that targets primarily the urban youth, and which is the real secret of Islamophobia, was the invention of intellectuals. And it was governments, unable to build a society of civic peace and justice, who delivered the foreigners, beginning with Arab workers and their families, as fodder for disoriented and fearful constituencies. As always, the idea, even a criminal one, comes before power, which in turn shapes the opinion that it needs. The intellectual, even a sorry one, comes before the minister, who constructs his followers.
The book, even one worthy of being trashed, comes before the propaganda image, that leads astray instead of instructing. Thirty years of patient efforts in writing, invective and electoral competition bereft of an idea find their dark reward in tired consciences and the vote of the herd.
Shame on successive governments that competed all on the joint themes of security and the “immigrant problem”, so that it wouldn’t become too visible that they served primarily the interests of the economic oligarchy! Shame on the intellectuals of neo-racialism and thick nationalism, who patiently covered the void left in the people by the temporary eclipse of the communist hypothesis with a coat of nonsense about the Islamic danger and the destruction of our “values”
It is they who must now account for the rise of rampant fascism whose mental development they tirelessly promoted.
I’d take issue with Badiou’s mystifying claim that the idea precedes the political. It is true in a very narrow sense. Obviously the intellectuals who prepared the ground for Le Pen were already inscribed in a political system whose rewards and punishments they understood, and their work was a response to what they intuited as useful to their own careers.But that is of interest , at least in some sense, only to revolutionary nerds (bless them all). The main point is the key point. The problem of European racism, in France and elsewhere, is not the problem of “the extreme right”. It is a problem left, right and center.
The most depressing example of that was perhaps the devastating fall out of the electoral campaign of Ilham Mossaid. A radical left Muslim woman who wears the veil, Mossaid stood in a regional election in a largly Muslim district as candidate of the revolutionary left party, The New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in march 2010. Her candidature worked the whole French establishment into a lather of racism and islamophobia. There was hardly a notable French public figure who did not condemn this grievous sartorial attack on secularism and French identity. The communists and other parties of the left joined the attack as well. And worst of all, although Moussaid received the defense of the party leadership, the defense was tepid and conciliatory towards the racists, and a significant part of the membership was at best lukewarm. Seven month later, the whole group of local Muslim revolutionaries left the party.
The NPA is without a doubt the most committed and coherent revolutionary party in France, and undoubtedly the one I would have voted for if I had a vote in France. It’s failure to stand up against racism on that occasion reflects how deeply racism is rooted in French political culture as a whole. The struggle against racism cannot be reduced to the struggle against the extreme right.