French republicanism confounds American progressives

29 November 2020

12:42 AM

29 November 2020

12:42 AM

Can an entire country sue for libel? If so, France would have a strong suit against swathes of the American left. The US progressive movement, including the New York Times and Washington Post, has turned on la Republique over its citizens’ habit of getting themselves murdered by Islamists. Most recently, this has included Samuel Paty, a teacher beheaded in the street for showing his students cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, and three people murdered in a church in Nice. In response, French president Emmanuel Macron has proposed stricter regulations for mosque-financing and an end to home-schooling. And in response to this, much of the American left has lost its mind. I wrote about the new American Francophobia at the start of the month, but the situation has only deteriorated since then.

Amnesty International charges that Macron and his government have ‘doubled down on their perpetual smear campaign against French Muslims’. A news article in the New York Times tells us the French government has come under fire ‘for actions and statements that have risked conflating ordinary French Muslims with people accused of extremism’. Another Times piece opines that Macron ‘has every interest in flexing his antiterrorism muscles in public’ and was ‘benefiting from public outrage and nationalism in the wake of the killings’. The Times also considers Macron’s response to the terrorist attacks ‘aggressive’ and questions whether his objections to US media misrepresentations is ‘a little Trumpian’.

Washington Post headline representative of the paper’s coverage reads: ‘France insists it’s targeting Islamist extremism. But some foreign observers and French Muslims see a broader agenda.’ One Post editor claimed on Twitter that Macron ‘wants to give Muslim kids ID numbers to go to school’. Then, she admitted this was ‘incorrect’, but maintained Macron was ‘stoking Islamophobia’ and asserted a ‘likelihood that such a bill will likely create a climate in which Muslims will disproportionately suffer even more in France’. Then, she apologized, but later added: ‘What France needs to do is not continue the cycle of hostility towards Muslims.’

We are another beheading or two from the headline: ‘Critics Say France Dressing Provocatively, Taking Dangerous Route Home At Night’.

I’m old enough to remember when American Francophobia was the preserve of talk-radio fulminators and Bush-era Republican strategists. These days John Kerry wouldn’t be seen dead ‘looking French’, for it no longer symbolizes cosmopolitanism and Gitanes-scented philosophic bavardage on the Left Bank. France, for American progressives, is now an Islamophobic police state where Muslims are being assigned identification numbers by centrist Mussolini, Emmanuel Macron.

‘Votez escroc, pas facho,’ cried the students of Sciences Po when the 2002 presidential election came down to a choice between corrupt neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac and sinister nativist Jean-Marie Le Pen. ‘Vote for the crook, not the fascist.’ At the time, American liberals were taken with the idea of left and right coming together to defeat a fascist. Today, American liberals think the French left and right are fascists. As one former Guardian US journalist put it, Macron is ‘going full fascist’ and ‘trying desperately to win the white supremacist vote’.

No rational, evidence-based reading of events in France leads you to the conclusion that the Fifth Republic is Weimar. The only way you get there is if you see Weimar everywhere, or rather if you see Weimar in America and America in every other nation. The American progressive theory of history is no theory at all, only monomania girded by ignorance. Isn’t it enough that they know nothing about US history without having to know nothing about the history of other countries too?

Every now and then, someone in Europe circulates the myth that only 10 percent of Americans hold a passport — the actual figure is 43 percent — and everyone has a good chuckle at those limited, incurious hicks in the heartland with their narrow horizons. (No left mocks poverty quite like the American left.) Yet progressive Francophobia seems to be the preserve of those very Americans who are supposed to be widely-traveled and sensitive to other cultures. Their sojourns on the slopes of Gstaad and city breaks in Berlin have given them no perspective on life outside Scarsdale and Pacific Heights. They view the whole world through the breathless White Supremacy Update that is the CNN chyron.

It’s a category error to think that American leftists are abandoning their Gallic counterparts. The French left is actually left, made up of Marxists, socialists, radical liberals — every shade of leftist opinion but generally united under the banner of republicanism. That is not to say French radicals are never tempted by postmodernism (who do you think made postmodernism so damn sexy?) but they are an activist left and their activism has substance. Current American leftism, like its British analogue Corbynism, is defined by an angry inertia: they’re furious about so many things they never get round to doing something about any of them. Even when they propose a change — ‘defund the police!’ — it is quickly followed by assurances that not much will change. French leftism is alien to American leftism because French leftism is material and American leftism is mush.

Mush, and something else. A commonly-given reason for electing Jeremy Corbyn leader of the British Labour party was his rivals’ support for or ambivalence on welfare reform. Yet when Corbyn came to present his first election manifesto as leader, his platform proposed to carry out 78 percent of benefit cuts planned by the UK’s Conservative government. This went largely unremarked upon by Corbyn’s partisans, who continued to herald his visionary rejection of austerity even as his costings largely embraced it. Socialism had become an identity, a cultural marker of ethical virtue, and no longer required policies meaningfully different to those of reformist social democracy or liberalism. Socialists were people with the right values, attitudes and rhetoric; outcomes hardly mattered anymore.

Of course, there is more than a little of this politics-as-moral-superiority-complex in former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his socialist party La France Insoumise. But the respectable French left, with republican ideals as its backbone, continues to believe foremost in things like secularism, national unity and civil society.

France is handling a French problem in a French way. It’s perfectly possible to disagree with the proposals being put forward — the measures on homeschooling, for instance, rankle with my Anglo-American liberalism — but France is not targeting Muslims. It is seeking to protect itself and its Muslims from extremists. To the French, those two are the same thing. For all France fails to live up to its own ideals as often as every other country, for all that poverty in the banlieues was not on the political radar until it started causing problems for those outside the banlieues, the republic prefers not to divide up its citizens into victim groups and encourage grievance narratives that hinder unity and progress. This is often misinterpreted as French denial of the colonial past, but this gets things round the wrong way. It is because of its past that France considers racial sectarianism a social evil.

If American progressives cannot or will not understand France, they should stop writing, tweeting and hyperventilating about it. Ordinarily, I’m for as much speech as possible and think bad speech is a price worth paying for good speech. But I note that the Safetyists consider speech they disapprove of to be ‘literally’ a form of harm, be it op-eds from United States senators or marsh-monster tales from J.K. Rowling, and so I have to ask: is the anti-French hate speech of American progressives ‘literally’ endangering the lives of French people? The next time a French teacher is beheaded in the street or worshippers slain in church, should we enquire whether the assassin’s browser history includes visits to the websites of the New York Times and the Washington Post? Maybe we should apply to these organizations the standards they propose for others. Maybe France should be able to sue them — for its safety, you understand.

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