Rokhaya Diallo, after five years, Emmanuel Macron has been reelected to parliament in April, and is now fighting to keep his majority. What state is France in?
There’s a lot of resentment. Many people feel unheard and dismissed. This is why there is so much tension and why so many French people choose the far right. They feel that conventional politics is no longer capable of responding to their problems. Even though Macron claims he will reinvent himself, people no longer believe him the way they did in 2017. There is a stunning hatred for Macron. People are willing to pay any price to oppose the president, even if it means voting for a far-right politician such as Marine Le Pen.
How can we explain the unprecedented success of the far right in the presidential elections?
It’s an expression of despair and the fact that Marine Le Pen has really worked on her image. People have forgotten who she is and where she comes from. During the election campaign there was no more talk of her xenophobic and sexist programme or the introduction of a police state. There is a part of her electorate that is no longer aware of the threat that she poses. She has presented herself as a strong woman in the face of adversity. Meanwhile, the crude propositions made by the far-right candidate Éric Zemmour, a former journalist for the daily paper ‘Le Figaro’, made her appear reasonable in comparison. The government has also trivialised her position, with Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin even accusing her of being ‘too soft.’ In the eyes of many voters, if she’s too soft, she can’t be that dangerous. And speaking between the two ballots, even the President stated his respect for her.
“The French constitution is problematic in many ways. It was tailored to Charles de Gaulle, and it can be viewed as a republican monarchy.”
What responsibility do the media bear in this strategy of ‘de- demonisation?’
Some of the press— papers such as ‘Le Monde’ or ‘Libération’ or the online journal ‘Mediapart’— have stayed true to their work. They’ve explained the measures of her programme and highlighted the dangers involved. But some very popular TV programmes have treated Le Pen as they would any other politician: asking questions about her bachelorhood, her love of cats, and the difficult childhood she apparently had because of her surname. They sidestepped all the key questions.
Voter turnout reached a new low at the last election. Many young people are among the non-voters. Does this indicate a prevailing disinterest in politics?
I don’t believe you can describe the youth as unpolitical. In comparison to previous generations, the young people are aware of many problems, they protest a lot, for instance for climate protection. It’s just that the youth no longer believe in politics the way it is practised today, they don’t believe anything will change through politics. Emmanuel Macron held a speech about the climate question that suggested he was ready to fight, but ultimately, he didn’t keep his promise. In general, there is widespread suspicion towards the politics of their parents’ generation.
How are things likely to change?
That is a good question. The new generation relies on activism and pressure from the streets. Whatever you may think of the yellow vests, they succeeded in getting concessions from Emmanuel Macron.
Do you believe that the political system must be changed? The fear of decline is ever present, and at the same time there is hardly any discussion of a fundamental constitutional reform.
The French constitution is problematic in many ways. It was tailored to Charles de Gaulle, and it can be viewed as a republican monarchy. Compared to other western democracies, the president has a lot of power. Some semi-presidential government systems have a so- called ‘cohabitation’ where the president and the strongest faction in parliament belong to two opposing political camps. This means the president has no majority of his own in parliament. Without a ‘cohabitation’, the Assemblée Nationale resembles a conformist parliament. Our constitution needs to ensure it is more democratic.
“I think the political system should be given an overhaul, because the political landscape has changed massively in the last few years. There has been a phenomenal redistribution of power, both on the left and right.”
How will that be done?
We need proportional representation at the parliamentary election, so that the opposition is given more of a chance, and the president must be accountable to parliament. Nothing happens between the presidential elections and the end of the five-year term, since the presidential and parliamentary elections happen at the same time and a cohabitation is unlikely.
Do you believe the political system should be given an overhaul?
I think so - because the political landscape has changed massively in the last few years. There has been a phenomenal redistribution of power, both on the left and right. Ten years ago, no one would have believed that the socialist party would all but disappear, or that La France insoumise, the party of Jean- Luc Mélenchon, which is sometimes described as democratic-socialist, sometimes as left-wing populist, would experience such a lasting popularity surge. Nobody would’ve thought that there could be an alliance of all leftists in the parliamentary elections. So there is definitely the possibility of change.
How far will this possibility reach?
I think people aren’t opposed to a change of system. It would need a candidate who is willing and able to enforce a renewal of the system, including a constitutional amendment. This was also shown by the result of the first round of voting in April, in which Jean- Luc Mélenchon only narrowly missed entering the second round.
But didn’t many of those who voted for Mélenchon want to primarily express their disappointment in Emmanuel Macron?
There are also many who voted for him out of deep conviction because they want genuine left-wing politics. Using his suggested constitutional model, Mélenchon wants to create a strong forum for issues of social justice.
Is French universalism still relevant today?
There’s a difference between what universalism is, and what people say it is. There’s a form of universalism in France that remains entirely theoretical, a legend that is told, used to silence the people who aim to hold up the values of the republic. And yet the republic has always been exclusionary, right from the beginning. After the revolution of 1789, slavery was abolished, only to be reintroduced a few years later. The republic was sexist: up until 1944 women were not allowed to vote. The concept of universalism was always formulated by people who found themselves in a position of social dominance. In my opinion, French universalism is a tool used to silence those people who want equality. At the same time, I wish for a new universalism. But it can only emerge from antiracism, feminism, and the ideas of those, who are affected by injustice. Universalism as it’s formulated today is blind to the realities of our time and the issues of this country.
“Wearing burkinis in swimming pools has nothing to do with laicism. Laicism exists for the state and its officials and not for the visitors of swimming pools. The lack of knowledge of the legal texts is unbelievable.”
So the term should no longer be used at all?
No, quite the opposite. We need to reclaim it; it shouldn’t belong to a small group of people. There’s a lot of universalism among the feminists as well as the people, who protest against police violence. These are battles which benefit all.
How would you define universalism?
It’s a political orientation that does not deny particularisms, that enables everyone, regardless of their features, to find a place in a shared political space.
Laicism remains a great bone of contention. The mayor of Grenoble’s most recent decision to allow the wearing of burkinis in public swimming pools electrified the whole country. Why is this topic so explosive in France?
The same question is asked over and over again. Even though everything is stated in the 1905 law on separation of church and state. Wearing burkinis in swimming pools has nothing to do with laicism. Laicism exists for the state and its officials and not for the visitors of swimming pools. The lack of knowledge of the legal texts is unbelievable. The ‘Défenseur de droits’ is an independent administrative authority that is responsible for defending the basic rights of citizens. In December 2018, when a woman wearing a burkini was denied entry to the swimming pool, they decided it was a case of discrimination and demanded that the establishment change its regulations. You can’t invoke the republic every time there’s nothing in the legal texts that justifies things like banning burkinis in swimming pools. Tensions are constantly being created around a topic that only affects a few people. It’s about being French in a certain way: white and and Christian. This debate has been running since 1989, when a discussion started around three Muslim girls wearing headscarves to school, and we are not making any progress.
All the same, Emmanuel Macron did show a certain openness on this issue in 2017.
During his five-year term of office his stance towards it has completely changed. In 2018, in an interview, he said that wearing a headscarf was not in accordance with civility. Furthermore, he’s given a fair amount of power to politicians who wanted to interpret the 1905 law on secularism in a restrictive way, such as the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, and the ex-Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer.
And this is not the only topic that the president changed his position on.
It’s the same with politics of national remembrance. He said the colonisation of Algeria was a crime against humanity and then, when voicing solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, ended up criticising the protests and playing down police violence. He’s become inflexible, you get the feeling he is no longer the same person he was in 2017.
The interview was conducted by Cécile Calla.