The duel between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen offered the world the most literal staging imaginable for the ongoing, global conflict of our times.
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On one side: Marine Le Pen, representing the regressive worldwide trend of nationalist rage, self-defined as "populist", in fashion since the dawn of this century everywhere. On the other: a tentative new cosmopolitanism, born from the post-Cold War decade, characterized by a technologically-driven liberal individualism, finance and public-spiritedness, in which some even see a new Enlightenment.
This week, the latter won. His victory means much more than just a staggering - and implausible - personal success. After 16 years into the new century marked, in France, by the return of anti-Semitic violence followed by a terror wave of unprecedented magnitude, and - throughout the whole West - by the refugee crisis, the rise of racism in Europe and the strengthening of illiberal governments in Poland, Hungary, Russia and Turkey, by Brexit in the UK and by Donald Trump’s nationalist campaign in the U.S., Emmanuel Macron’s victory appears like the first sign that the hate tide at work everywhere could at last be resisted.
The figure personifying this conflict could not have been better cast. Emmanuel Macron was 12 when the Berlin Wall fell, 14 when the USSR collapsed. He spent his youth Cold War-free between the birth of the Euro and the vanishing of European borders.
Marine Le Pen, by contrast, heir of her father’s National Front, sources her world vision in French history. Not so much in WWII, contrary to regular and legitimated accusations, but in the rhetoric of L’Action Française, the royalist, anti-modern and hugely successful newspaper created in 1898 by the journalist Charles Maurras.
Gifted with an innate talent for intellectual marketing, Maurras was the first in Europe to rephrase the intellectual quarrels against the cosmopolitan 'élite' of the Enlightenment in an entirely new way, by focusing it on nationalistic issues. He made l’Action Française a media success by mixing high-culture charges against modernity, with the low, popular anger against international finance and capitalism then personified by Jewish bankers.
Among the masses and the nationalist bourgeoisie alike, to denounce "the Rothschilds" became in France a coded formula synthesizing rage against the capitalist system, the foreign kikes who were said to control it, the Republic which under those foreign influences had destroyed the royalty in 1789, plunging the country into a decadent cosmopolitanism.
Against the "fictions of cosmopolitans", Maurras defended what he called the real country, in his case - the real France, the genuine expression of which could be find in cultural roots of regional, local traditions, in the existence of "a people", whose identity expessed itself in a natural love for the national soil, for the Church and for the memory of the King.
This rhetoric as it spread among anti-modern circles throughout Europe did much more than providing the rationale to the Vichy regime. From the 1970’s on, it also nurtured the French Nouvelle Droite whose main figures would crucially influence figures as different today as Putin’s semi-official adviser Alexander Dugin and to Steve Bannon’s "real America". Bannon is on record as an admirer of Maurras and his ideology.
In between, however, the creation of the Israeli state and the rise of a Muslim immigration changed the way these nationalists looked at the Jews, but only to a point. An admiration, a fascination, even, for Israel can coincide, with a hate for the cosmopolitan Jew, the same way that a soft spot for Arab dictators and backward Muslim feudal societies, who largely share anti-liberal views, goes along with a complete contempt for Muslim and Arab migrants.
All this to say that if France is the place where this anti-modern trend first unfurled, and if it is there, too, that the current conflict has been most nakedly articulated during this last campaign, it may worth looking at the level of hate that Macron has already provoked even before he does anything to have an idea of what’s ahead.
Commentaries have already been written on the high level of abstentions and blank ballots which, if added to those who may have voted for him by default but with no great conviction, makes a far less impressive contrast to the 11 million votes won by Le Pen.
What’s more interesting, however, is to discover how deeply shared, regardless of any political affiliation, is the aggression and hate against "Macron the Rothchild banker" first displayed by Marine Le Pen during the campaign.
In March, caricatures disinterred from the 1930’s, portraying Macron as a Jewish financier, were issued by the team of the right-wing François Fillon. The documentarist François Ruffin, a legislative elections candidate for Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Unbowed France (extreme left) party, found his way to Le Monde’s op-ed pages to "warn" Macron that "you are hated, you are hated, you are hated". The Russian-engineered fake news that Macron held a secret bank account in the Bahamas, quoted by Le Pen during the TV debate, was first processed in the U.S. through the pro-Trump militant Jack Posobiec, who in a tweet also accused Macron of being “mind-controlled” by “the EU Rothschild puppet master”; and the French representative of Wikileaks, which relayed the fake news, is today a legislative assembly candidate for Mélenchon’s party.
Meanwhile, the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné, hugely popular in the French cités, called on his fans to support Le Pen and after the result launched a video accusing Macron of being "controlled by foreign money”. The (left wing) best-selling essayist Michel Onfray claimed in a video that "The wolves have entered Paris." Even the novelist Boualem Sensal spun out the latest conspiracist thinking in an op-ed piece for the NYT, accusing Macron (without any supporting evidence) of having been "chosen by the leaders of major financial, industrial and commercial groups (who) instructed him on his mission rather than by a democratic process."
More than just the irrational anger already at play, regardless of Mr Macron’s future merits or defaults, what’s arresting here is the pervasiveness of a anti-modern narrative linking a dangerously corrupting cosmopolitanism with Jews and finance.
Emmanuel Macron has indeed won, but only to find himself in the boiling cauldron of France’s inner war. Once again, the country that gave the world the Bill of the Rights of Man and political terror, the emancipation of the Jews, the end of slavery and the first total war, the Vichy regime and the Resistance— serves as a test site for the rest of the world. And for how anti-Semitic tropes are hardwired into horseshoe political extremism in the West.
Marc Weitzmann is the author of ten books and a regular contributor to Le Monde, Liberation and Tablet Magazine. His next book, France’s Toxic Hate will be published next year by Houghton Mifflin.