May 9, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The French Election and the Dream of Europe
IT WOULD SEEM that the European and American political establishments are breathing an immense sigh of relief over the results of the French election. In some circles, it would appear there has even been rejoicing. It is not difficult to imagine that this has far less to do with the triumph of Emmanuel Macron, than with the defeat of Marine Le Pen.
Vox, the day after the election, had this to say:
In making Emmanuel Macron the youngest person ever to run France, voters decisively rejected Marine Le Pen, who had alarmed many inside and outside the country by her pointed attacks on Islamic fundamentalism, immigration, hostility to Europe, close ties to Russia, and socially conservative platform.
A most revelatory statement—revelatory as much of how the “far right” is perceived today, as of what is the real quality and nature of the establishment against which this right is ever flinging itself.
Five points are mentioned here to explain why Marine Le Pen is considered an “alarming” figure—1.) her “pointed attacks on Islamic fundamentalism,” 2.) her stance on immigration, 3.) her “hostility to Europe,” 4.) her “close ties to Russia,” and 5.) her “socially conservative platform.” Given that this article was written within twenty-four hours of the victory of Macron, one can hardly expect that an enormous amount of reflection was spent in the selection of these terms. This makes them all the more interesting: they stand rather near to the instinctive concerns guiding the backlash against the rise of a populist right in Europe.
Let us note immediately that of the five points, only the central three—and indeed, I would argue, only the third and the fourth—could reasonably be taken as “alarming” from a non-partisan review of contemporary politics. One might not agree with a “socially conservative platform” but one can hardly deny that it represents a perfectly legitimate political position held by a great many respectable, serious, and intelligent people today: such a platform might be alarming for a voter of the left, but it can certainly not be taken as “extreme” in any sense of the word. As for Islamic fundamentalism—one would hope that all our Western liberal secular nations were united in their opposition to such fundamentalism; one would hope that opposition to Islamic fundamentalism were, so far from being in any way alarming, perfectly conventional. But more on this presently: let us turn for the moment to the central three concerns.
I will not discuss the question of “close ties to Russia” here, save to note that the Russian bugbear has become a predominant media concern only since the rise of Trump, which makes the entire question to my eyes somewhat suspect.
This leaves us with what are surely the core elements of Marine Le Pen’s appeal to some, and her repulsiveness to others: her stance vis-à-vis immigration and Europe.
Now, the question of immigration proves to be a much less controversial one in Europe than that of the Union itself. Increasing numbers of Europeans are looking with wariness—and, indeed, with alarm, to borrow Vox’s significant little word—on the increasing flow of non-Western immigrants to European shores. The consequences of this mass immigration are felt ever more widely and ever more deeply. In the first place, its relation to the problem of terrorism is indisputable. Emmanuel Macron himself stated that terrorism “will be a fact of daily life in the coming years”—which would be an utterly amazing remark, were it not so obviously true. In point of fact, the French have grown surprisingly inured to the constant threat of terrorism on their lands, which itself should alert us that a reconsideration of immigration in France is in urgent order. More: the effects of immigration are not limited to terrorism. The changes wrought on the social fabric by any mass movement of peoples should not be underestimated, and (assuming that it is not absurd for a people to love its own culture to the exclusion of others) the necessary disruption brought by such movements must be taken into account. Macron has also said, “There is not a French culture. There is a culture in France, and it is diverse.” But even if one sees in such a sentiment nothing but the glimmerings of an ingenuously wide and humanistically inclusive vision of the world (I, for one, am considerably less generous in my interpretation), it is still impossible to deny that these words will appear to many of the French as a betrayal of their very Frenchness. One must acknowledge that a powerful argument can be made for a narrower and exclusive idea of culture. But this is, quite simply, the position for which Marine Le Pen stands. Agree with her or not, it is most strange to regard her defense of Frenchness as a clear indication of some kind of intolerable excess on her part.
Marine Le Pen’s resistance to immigration, put simply, cannot be taken as a sign of extremism, so much as a serious concern with the welfare of her own people. But immigration cannot be unilaterally regulated by individual nations within the European Union, because the European Union establishes the overriding rules on this issue for all member states. Thus no politician can hope to address the question of immigration, without addressing the question of the European Union.
I can understand why, given the political constellation presently ruling over Europe, any candidate who campaigns on an openly anti-Union platform might be regarded as in some way radical or extreme. But this question goes to the heart of the ambiguity of the Union. Were Europe a solid political entity as, say, the United States of America, it would be simply unthinkable for any candidate to so much as suggest leaving it. Even a comment to that effect would be on par with the will of the Southern states to secede before the American Civil War: it would be regarded at best as imprudence, and at worst as treason. But Great Britain’s perfectly peaceful withdrawal from the Union proves that Europe is not near so tightly knit as that. The Union is more economic than political; it is an economic unity which is tending ever toward becoming a political unity. It is thus inherently unstable, inherently vulnerable, because basic sovereignty does not lie within it, but rather within its constituent members. Then there can be nothing radical or extreme in a candidate who proposes that the good of her nation should overrule that of a nebulous concatenation known as “Europe”; and any given country, moreover, should be able with perfect right to evaluate whether or not its best interests are really served by its inclusion in the Union.
The acute and vocal hostility toward Le Pen for posing this question is owed, indeed, precisely to the vulnerability of Europe—and this is also why so many are now breathing a sigh of relief. It is perceived that this European Union, until it can become a political unity, is susceptible to dissolution. One must then protect it, and since political means toward this end are lacking, one must resort to super-political expedients, such as propaganda and a clever appeal to the passions of the masses. The larger part of Europeans are more or less unaware of the ramifications or even the powers of the European Union; they have little idea who are the principle players in the Union, or what they want, or what they are capable of achieving. One therefore cannot easily present even a popular defense of the European Union by pointing to concrete benefits which come from it. Much easier to paint all those who attack the Union as enemies of peace, prosperity, and democracy, and to slander them with all kinds of insinuations. Much easier to simply cry down anyone who utters a doubt. Hence the “alarm” which is raised against Marine Le Pen: such alarm is the first and best defense that the proponents of the Union have against its destruction.
I am not familiar enough with the situation in France to responsibly take up any firm position on the domestic consequences of the election. Speaking more generally, however, it seems to me that the principle issue underlying this election, and certainly the issue accounting for its unusual visibility, was nothing more and nothing less than the status of the European Union itself. The question of this status must be opened in coming years, and it behooves anyone who cares about the history and the future of Europe to give it some deep thought. I would like to offer my perspective on it—with the caveat that I am not near as informed as I should like to be about any of these very complicated matters. What follows are merely my impressions, which should be taken with a degree of skepticism, and put to all the fires of scrutiny and investigation.
Vox, in the same article above cited, suggests that Marine Le Pen “campaigned on fear and anger.” There are two points to be made here. In the first place, it is not obvious that “fear and anger” are necessarily bad guides to political action, as is tacitly assumed in Vox’s diagnosis: there are certainly cases in which it is eminently reasonable to act out of fear or anger. The question is whether the particular fear and anger to which the “populist far right” appeals are justified or not. Given the great complexity of the questions of Islamic fundamentalism, immigration, and the European Union, it is irresponsible and hasty to merely assume that such “fear and anger” are nothing but absurd. One wants a consideration of these questions which extends more deeply than a thoughtless and immediate rejection of the “far right” position as “extremist” or “alarming.”
Which brings us to our second point. The campaign contrary Le Pen was based primarily on—fear and anger. Fear of Le Pen, anger at the rise of this “populist far right.” It is insinuated constantly that the collapse of the European Union might result in economic upheaval and a renewal of the old warfare between the European states. It is insinuated constantly that the rise of the “populist far right” makes Nazism and Fascism possible again. It is insinuated constantly that the closure of European borders amounts to condemning countless innocent refugees to horrible deaths, responsibility for which would fall on our heads. If these are not appeals to “fear and anger” then I do not know what they are. The truth is that both sides are playing to fear and anger; that is inevitable in a democracy. But the establishment has done this so much more effectively.
I would like to return to the apparent slip in Vox’s list of Marine Le Pen’s “alarming” positions: namely, “her pointed attacks on Islamic fundamentalism.” This, I would like to propose, is not merely a misstatement on the part of Vox: it is rather an unintended window into the real pith of the immigration question. This is not the place to submit a polemic against Islam, but it suffices here to say that any faithful Muslim, be he “moderate” or “extremist,” believes that God is of a higher dignity than all human authorities, which means also all human governments, institutions, customs, or laws. Every Muslim is in this respect “fundamentalist”—the only question is whether or not his particular kind of fundamentalism is compatible with the liberal institutions of the Occident.
But one cannot differentiate here without first noting the radical familial similarity between all Muslims, the fact that all Muslims, no matter how peaceful they be in their daily lives, bow to an authority infinitely greater than any human politics. This makes Islam in and of itself politically suspect. But to note this is simultaneously to open the question of whether it is a good thing that Europe is filling her shores with Muslims, to the point that they will, sooner rather than later, become the major demographic group in most European countries.
Such a line of questioning is unacceptable to modern day progressive thought, for the following reason. Modern day progressive thought seeks to supplant all traditions, all parochial cultural groups, with a single, homogeneous, indivisible, and above all egalitarian “humanity.” In the progressivist ideal there would no longer be Frenchmen or Englishmen or Italians or Spaniards—nor indeed Syrians nor Indians nor Nigerians—there would be only individuals, understood best in their roles as voters and consumers. In the place of a variety of closed cultures we would have a universal open society. But toward the propagation of this society, the first and most important act is to eliminate all discrimination between different human groups. Hence, tolerance is promoted as the prime virtue. Any hostility of one human group—say, native Frenchmen—toward another—say, Muslim immigrants—will result necessarily in the reestablishment or reinforcement of those very barriers which must be eradicated, if the project of the European Union is to succeed.
The European Union is not a meta-democratic political body, dedicated to the expression of the will of a unified European people. Still less does it have anything to do with the old, traditional dream of Europe, which one finds in such men as Napoleon, Nietzsche, and Ortega y Gasset. The European Union is instead a dogmatic ideological fabrication, dedicated to a specific progressivist view of the world, in which all identitarian borders are gradually erased, and what remains is an undifferentiated mass of mere “human beings” interested more or less exclusively in their physical well being and their economic welfare. I am opposed to the European Union, because I find this vision repugnant and inhuman. I am opposed to the European Union—out of my love of Europe.