January 2014 will be remembered as an ominous turning point in French politics: the moment when explicit anti-Semitism was accepted again as a legitimate political view by at least a segment of the public.
First, there was the Dieudonné case. Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, 48, known as an artist as just Dieudonné, is an African-French former humorist who over the years has turned his shows into anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish gatherings. More recently he created and launched the “quenelle,” an inverted Hitlerian salute (one arm down, the other one touching the shoulder) to be used as an expression of contempt for Jews and everything related to the Holocaust.
As Dieudonné was about to start a grand tour of France in January, Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls issued orders and guidelines to préfets (local government commissioners) and mayors to ban his shows as public-safety risks. Moreover, the police raided Dieudonné’s home in Paris and found close to one million dollars in cash. Since Dieudonné and his wife and producer Noemie Montagne have repeatedly maintained they are nearly bankrupt, they may be investigated for tax evasion or money laundering.
While many citizens congratulated Valls for acting decisively against a dangerous agitator, many others — including in his own socialist and left-wing constituency — criticized him for “curbing free speech and expression” in line with his own “politically correct” agenda.
Valls, the most popular politician in the country and the most popular minister in François Hollande’s socialist administration, suffered instantly according to two polls released by mid-January: he fell from a 38% overall positive rating to 31% according to YouGov France; and from 59% to 53% according to the differently calculated Ipsos/Le Point survey.
Even more revealing and disturbing: only 38% of the French approved of the ban, while 32% opposed it, and 64% said that Dieudonné and Valls were in fact “comforting each other.”
Then, on January 26, there was Jour de Colère (Day of Anger), a rally against the François Hollande administration that attracted at least 20,000 people and possibly twice as many. Some of the demonstrators — clearly supporters of Dieudonné — repeatedly shouted anti-Semitic slogans: “Jew, France does not belong to you”; “the Holocaust is just a hoax.”
The other demonstrators did not seem to be greatly disturbed by the chanting, nor did the rally’s organizers bother to call the rogues to order, as Ivan Rioufol, a conservative commentator, observed the next day in Le Figaro.
In fact, Islamic militant groups have repeatedly voiced similar and even worse slogans for years during street demonstrations. The difference: they were doing it in Arabic, not in French, and thus were largely unnoticed by the media, if not the police. Unaware, people debating the issue of a resurgent anti-Semitism would resort in good faith to the reassuring remark that “after all, Nazis were not marching in Paris.”
Since the Jour de Colère rally, even die-hard optimists must recognize that this is no longer true. Nazis are marching in Paris, unchecked.
Postmodern Nazis, to be sure: no brown shirts. But Nazis nevertheless — nazis who relish in anti-Jewish paranoia and are eager to spread it everywhere.
Radical politics usually develop when classic politics fail. According to an Ipsos/Steria poll published on January 21 by Le Monde, 8% of the French — only 8%! — trust the political parties. Only 23% trust their National Assembly representatives. Trade unions do not fare much better: 31%. Nor does the judiciary, at 46%.
Real confidence starts only with local powers: 63% of the French trust their mayors. The increase culminates with such last-resort players as the police and the army, credited, respectively, with a 73% and a 79% confidence rate.
The Fifth Republic established by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, France’s current government, was long perceived as a stable and efficient democracy. That was largely a fallacy.
To start with, the 1958 constitution has provided for a hypertrophied but bicephalic executive: the popularly elected president is very powerful, but so is the prime minister who answers to the parliamentary majority. There were latent conflicts between them when they belonged to the same political party; open conflicts erupted when they did not.
However, the real failure of the Fifth Republic is that it has been subverted by the noblesse d’etat (“state nobility”), to use a terminology coined by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.. This group consists of the senior civil service, which supplanted the political class rapidly and merged with the economic elite as well; the European Union Commission in Brussels, a non-elected multinational super-government that, for at least three décades, has carried more weight on many issues than the national government of France; and the ever-growing non-Western immigrant communities who more often than not tend to ignore French traditional culture and values — including in political matters — and to superimpose their own.
As long as the economy was booming, the welfare benefits growing, and the legal working hours shrinking (it went down to 35 hours per week with five weeks vacation; and eight legal holidays easily turned into extended weekends), most citizens did not pay attention.
Things changed in the 1990s when the French economy was not able to deliver anymore. Or, to be more accurate, when it split between a declining and deindustrialized domestic economy and an aggressive and highly performing globalized economy.
The working class was largely destroyed. Millions of jobs were lost, and wages — for those who kept a job — were almost frozen. But welfare benefits kept growing. At the other end, the upper class and the upper middle class grew much richer from their globalized activities, but invested less in France proper and managed to escape taxation as much as possible, either legally or illegally. As for the middle class, from middle executives to small-scale entrepreneurs to propertied senior citizens, it was mercilessly overtaxed and impoverished. Somebody had to pay for the mess.
From then on, the French gradually lost confidence in the political class and in both the country’s and Europe’s political frameworks. In 2005, an angry France derailed the so-called “European constitutional treaty” in a referendum. It then elected the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 on the assumption that he would curb the “state nobility,” tame immigration, lower taxes, and revive the domestic economy. Sarkozy took some steps, but at the end of the day disappointed his constituency on almost all accounts. In 2012, the pendulum switched to the socialist François Hollande, who promised lots of things to his own supporters but eventually had to admit that French statism was bankrupt.
No wonder that radical fringe parties (the right-wing National Front, the left-wing Green party and Left Front) are attempting now to supplant the moderate main parties (the conservative UMP, the socialist PS, and the centrist UDI).
And even they are threatened by grassroots movements of all sorts.
The first grassroots movement to emerge, La Manif Pour Tous (“A Demonstration for Everybody”), is in fact a quite moderate and mainstream pro-family operation closely related to the Catholic Church. It garnered hundreds of thousands of demonstrators last year against the legalization of same-sex marriage — the “mariage pour tous” (“Marriage for Everybody”), as the Hollande administration called it. The administration, which currently controls both houses in the French parliament, had the law passed anyway: same-sex marriage was at least a promise it could uphold without budgetary implications. This year, however, La Manif Pour Tous was much more successful: following new mass demonstrations in Paris and Lyons on February 2, the administration withdrew several projects that would have eroded traditional family values even further.
La Manif Pour Tous has been adamant about focusing on family issues only, and not to get involved in broader political issues. Some of its supporters split and launched the much more politicized and right-wing Printemps Français (French Spring), which opposed the Hollande administration’s policies as a whole. Then, over the fall and the first weeks of winter, more protest movements spread over France, both right-wing and left-wing. At times, they looked like Tea Party rallies. In other instances, they sounded like Occupy Wall Street. The Bonnets Rouges (Red Bonnets), a large-scale civil rebellion in Britanny against an absurd écotaxe (“ecological tax”) drawing many farmers into bankruptcy, was particularly effective. The tax has been suspended.
The Jour de Colère rally on January 26 started as an offshoot of Printemps Français, with the ultimate purpose being to federate all grassroots protest groups, including the more left-wing ones. Some major dissenters, including the Red Bonnets, declined to take part. So much so that the organizers decided, in order to reach a significant threshold — they had in mind something like 100,000 demonstrators — to welcome everybody else willing to join.
This including Dieudonné’s supporters, who were thus upgraded from fan club or cult status to full-fledged political-group status.
What’s next? If Dieudonné is the movement’s prophet, its caliph is Alain Bonnet, a.k.a. Alain Bonnet de Soral or just Alain Soral, a 55-year-old French-Swiss actor and lumpen-intellectual who started as a communist and switched to the Far Right some ten years ago while still claiming to be a “Marxist.” An erstwhile critic of Dieudonné, Soral eventually befriended him, and was probably the first one to fully realize his political potential. The key factor was that, as African-French, Dieudonné could be seen as “one of us” both by the white European French and by the non-white, non-European neo-French. Building up on such assets, Soral launched in 2007 a political club promoting an alliance between French and neo-French “anti-Zionists”: Egalité-Réconciliation (Equality and Reconciliation).
Some suspect Dieudonné and Soral to be merely canvassing support for the National Front. Indeed, Dieudonné and Soral were very close for a while to National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, his anti-immigration posture notwithstanding. In 2007, Le Pen welcomed Soral to the party’s Central Committee. In 2008, he agreed to be the godfather of Dieudonné’s third child. However, Jean-Marie’s daughter and heir Marine very quickly distanced herself from both men, either out of principle or strategy or for more personal reasons: a charismatic Soral could easily become a rival.
In 2009, Soral left the National Front, which according to him had been “taken over” by “Atlanto-Zionists” (supporters of the United States and Israel). While Marine Le Pen, who succeded her father in 2011, has been eager to recast the party as patriotic and democratic, somehow in the Gaullist tradition, and does not countenance explicit expressions of racism or anti-Semitism among her supporters, Soral now claims to be a “French-style national-socialist.”
In Comprendre l’Empire (Understanding the Empire), a book he published in 2011 under a title borrowed from Italian radical philosopher Toni Negri, he claims that banks, Wall Street, the bourgeois upper classes, the protestant churches, the United States, and Israel are leagued together to destroy sovereign nations and to consolidate their power through a “world goverment.” Undoubtedly he is attracting, along with Dieudonné, a core of followers. Whether this will materialize into a mass movement or not is still to be seen (there will be local elections in March and European Union elections in May). But the way Dieudonnists hijacked Jour de Colère doesn’t bode well for an already ailing French democracy.
As for the French Jews, they are just reinforced in their pessimism about their future and a growing feeling that emigration should be considered.
Eliette Abécassis, a writer and philosopher, posted the following on her Facebook account after the January 26 demonstration:
Some years ago, I would still wear a necklace with a star of David, and I was not afraid to send my children to a public school.… Some years ago, I could even not imagine that I would hear anti-Jewish slogans in the street…. Some years ago, I believed in humanity.
In other words: time to go.