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French President Emmanuel Macron Image Credit: Reuters

Granted, incumbent French President Emmanuel Macon was chosen by the French electorate to serve a second term in office — thus saving France from a dangerous lurch to the extreme right — after he gained roughly 58 per cent of the popular vote against his opponent, Marine Le Pen, who walked away with a not insubstantial 42 per cent of it.

Given the margin, no one can say, strictly speaking, that he dodged a bullet, but sure as heck it was a close call, a moment when Le Pen, a populist provocateur whose views on race and immigration many see as repellent, came within striking distance of the Elysee Palace, claiming for herself the highest political office in the land.

All of which begs the question: How was the far right able to come so close to gaining power in France? And when did this reactionary mass sentiment begin to manifest itself in a country that had effectively invented left-wing radical chic?

I’ll tell you. I was there when it did.

Les Jours Qui Embralement la France

Rewind back to 1972, the year when young activists were still reminiscing nostalgically, five years after the fact, about the absolutes of les evenements de 1968, the progressive seven-week uprising by workers and students across the country, a “happening” in modern French history that went on to be known as Les Jours Qui Embralement la France (The days that Shook France).

What those activists didn’t know was that the national mood in the country was already shifting, for 1972 was also the year that Jean-Marie Le Pen established the far-right Front National (National Front), whose helm his daughter, Marie Le Pen, took 39 years later and renamed Passemblement National (National Rally).

France was shifting indeed and becoming increasingly more responsive to Le Pen’s message: Ordinary French folk are being “forgotten” by the cosmopolitan elite and “replaced” by freeloading immigrants.

At the time, I lived in Paris and worked at the prestigious Institute de Formation d’Assistantes de Gestion, which offered diverse courses, including courses in advanced English, to government bureaucrats engaged in affairs that concerned the Common Market, the precursor of the European Union, whose lingua Franca was English.

My students, young men and women in their late 20s and early 30s, were the creme de la creme of French society, people who lived in neighbourhoods like the 8e and the 16e arrondissements, redoubts of the moneyed haute bourgeoisie, at whose salons cultured guests discussed affairs of state as they did the literary merits of that year’s winner of the Prix Goncourt.

And then France changed

One day these students shocked me — and shocked me to my core. In class, as we somehow meandered from conjugating the future perfect in English grammar to discussing, as it were, the present tense in French politics, I discovered that a majority of these young men and women supported the agenda advanced by Jean-Marie Le Pen — a hard-right, bigoted one that espoused Islamophobia, holocaust denial and staunch opposition to immigration, especially from sub-Saharan and North African countries, with the latter posited as a threat to “European Christian ideals” and the “French way of life”.

How, I wondered, aghast, could the best and the brightest of French society, young men and women destined to soon become movers and shakers in the country’s political culture, embrace such toxic views?

What I didn’t know then, but know now, was that, though the National Front was to struggle as a marginal force for the first ten years after its emergence, it was part of an undercurrent of dangerous populism sweeping across the whole of Western Europe, population that would give blatant racism credence and reactionary politics relevance, bringing them to the forefront of mainstream discourse.

Less than five years earlier, in April 1968, across the English Channel, a mere 18 nautical miles away from the French coast, in Britain, Enoch Pow had given his notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech in Birmingham, where he warned of the consequences of continued, unchecked mass immigration from Commonwealth countries.

“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding”, Powell, who was then a Conservative member of parliament (1950-1974), thundered. “Like the Roman [poet Virgil], I see the River Tiber foaming with blood ... coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect”. (In the aftermath of the speech, according to several polls, an astounding 67 to 82 per cent of the population agreed with him.)

The rhetoric was secreting a poison into the bloodstream of Europe’s heartland, thickening at crucial nerve ends of its social and political life, before it travelled across the Atlantic to the United States and finally elsewhere to several countries in the global South.

Poison into the bloodstream

In 2011, the year Marine Le Pen took over leadership of the National Rally, a best-seller in France was a book by one Renaud Camus (no relation, please, to Albert Camus) called Le Grand Replacement, in which the author advanced a “theory” based on the claim that a conspiracy was afoot to “replace” God-fearing, white Europeans with a majority population of non-European people of colour, mostly from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The title of the book became a rallying cry for hard-right firebrands in the West, including New Zealand, where, in 2019, one Brentan Harrison, an Australian white nationalist who reportedly was influenced by Camus’s work, gunned down 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch.

The extremist right began its ascent in France and elsewhere in the Western world soon after — and perhaps in reaction to — Les evenements de 1968, rising to its highest ever level in our time. And the whole while it was having its day, the progressive left was having its eclipse.

Jeremy Cliff, the Guardian correspondent filing from Paris, wrote on Sunday that, in his acceptance speech, President Macron, who promised to “heal the divisions” in French society, “struck a victorious but not a triumphant tone”.

How appropriate, for victory at the polls does not necessarily translate into triumph over those divisions — unless the next five years prove us wrong.

Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile