Jeremy Harding writes about the French elections
One question a French voter could fairly ask as the presidential election draws closer: do I want a leader who sees France’s colonial past as evidence of a wish ‘to share its culture with the peoples of Africa, Asia and North America’ or would I prefer someone who says that France’s behaviour in Algeria was ‘barbaric’ (‘une vraie barbarie’)? The first view is that of the candidate for Les Républicains, François Fillon, speaking last summer, shortly before Emmanuel Macron, who took the second view, resigned as minister for the economy. Macron is now running as an independent, at the head of his centrist movement, En Marche! – a pessimist’s translation would be ‘One step forward!’ – and doing well enough, according to the polls.
Algeria matters to France. In 2014 French exports to Algeria were worth €6.9 billion. It is a major investor and the leading foreign employer in Algeria. There is co-operation on intelligence and defence, especially counter-terrorism. There is also a lively va-et-vient between the two countries, with 1.5 million passengers arriving in Paris every year by plane from Algiers, perhaps another 100,000 – in cars and trucks crammed with goods – toing and froing by ferry. But the war of decolonisation – 1954-62 – still dogs the Franco-Algerian partnership and alluding to it in an election campaign, as Macron has, is risky; in this election especially, where sensitivities are heightened by an ongoing state of emergency declared after the jihadist killings in Paris in 2015.
‘Une vraie barbarie’: Macron used the expression last month in an interview with a TV satellite channel during a visit to Algiers, where he was talking up bilateral relations in the event of his winning the presidency in May. He also said: ‘Colonisation is a part of French history. It is a crime, a crime against humanity … it belongs to a past that we must face up to, while offering an apology to the people who were on the receiving end.’ His remarks caused a furore in France, with rebukes from Fillon, Marine Le Pen and her impeccably national socialist niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who tweeted: ‘Macron, candidate of the elites, the banks and … repentance!’
The symbolic force of the Algerian war is as strong as ever. For the pieds noirs who left in 1962, and crucially for their descendants, Algeria evokes an epic betrayal; for the children of Algerians in France – French citizens mostly – it summons up resentment and a sense of unfinished business. But this simple description doesn’t do justice to the restlessness of the Algerian question, its tropism, or its susceptibility to fashion. Macron says he doesn’t like the word ‘centrism’, but he wants to make it the new fashion in French politics. He has had to run at the presidency from an angle – few saw him coming this time last year – while claiming to approach it dead on, with no party political inflection. The Macronian centre is actually more like a circumference which he hopes will enclose and revive the muddy area inhabited by the institutional parties, and modulate the old habits of diplomacy. For this to work, he has to tell as many people as possible, including ministers in Algeria and Arabosphere news channels, what he thinks they wish to hear. There is no doubt, in the minds of Algerians, that sorry would be a huge step forward for both countries, but French voters on the right, and many politicians, are robustly opposed.
Macron may be unseasoned, unknowable, neither one thing nor another, but his call for an apology is hardly a bolt from the blue, however shocking to some. This is the same person who kept his distance, as minister of the economy, in the wake of the November 2015 attacks, when François Hollande wanted to enlarge the power of the state to strip French citizens of their nationality. It is the same person who glossed those massacres – at the Bataclan and elsewhere – by saying that France should assume its ‘share of responsibility’ for what had happened: parts of the country, and some of its attitudes, were fertile ground for mistrust; citizens with a beard or a ‘Muslim-sounding name’, he added, were four times less likely to get a job interview than everyone else. Macron finds it difficult to emulate the ceremonial, white-lipped attitude that Hollande and his prime minister, Manuel Valls, were obliged to strike at the time. In general he seems uneasy with statesmanlike postures in the face of adversity. He is an economist, or rather an investment banker, whose rise in politics has been rapid, leaving no time to acquire the livery of a defender of the realm. Would he know which end to pick up a sabre, let alone try to rattle it? Candidate Macron is happier talking money, jobs and recovery. He was in his element last month in London, asking young French expats to bring home the skills they’d honed among a nation of shopkeepers and revitalise the private sector in France, a country that ‘doesn’t like success’; happy, too, in Algiers, explaining that France needed to ‘help Algeria diversify its economy’. But then he strayed into an unlit room.
It wasn’t just the state of emergency – which Macron opposes – that sharpened reactions to his use of the word ‘barbarity’. In a northern suburb of Paris 12 days earlier Théo Luhaka, a 22-year-old black youth worker, had been injured in a psychotic piece of policing, apparently in the course of an ID check. There were shows of solidarity with Luhaka and attempts to calm the rising fury, including a visit to his bedside by Hollande. But demonstrations, and low-key rioting, were inevitable, even though three police officers were charged with assault and another with rape. Police behaviour, even the worst kind, is divisive too; it doesn’t come under scrutiny from Le Pen’s supporters, who roll their eyes at second and third-generation migrant French, or indeed from a section of the centre-right, whose enthusiasm for a monoethnic, bordered nation seems to be growing. When French of African or Maghrebi descent are brutalised nearly to death, as Luhaka was, or die in custody, as Adama Traoré (24) did in 2016 – asphyxiation – or flee from the police and electrocute themselves attempting to take refuge in a substation, as Zyed Benna (15) and Bouna Traoré (17) did in 2005, sombre memories begin to resurface and muttered exonerations of the police do the rounds. It’s not so much that young people of Maghrebi origin in the French banlieues are restaging the Algerian liberation struggle. The problem is the other way about: a case like Luhaka’s leads inevitably to the fear that French security culture still carries a pathogen inoculated into the army and police in Algeria – and mainland France – when ‘special powers’ were approved in 1956.
Yet the situation is not entirely asymmetrical, as Gilles Kepel explained in Terreur dans l’Hexagone (2015), his book about the rise of extreme Islamism in France: ‘Islamist’ violence, too, can take memorial cues from the Algerian war. This was the case, Kepel believes, with Mohammed Merah’s attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 – he murdered three children and a teacher – on the fiftieth anniversary of the formal ceasefire between the FLN and the French government; it was as if the war would have to be begun again. Violent French Islamism has its roots in Algerian jihadism, Kepel argues. Merah had links with this milieu, ‘steeped … in visceral resentment of the former colonial power’. It hardly matters whether Merah was aware of the date. For Kepel, ‘the symbolic force of the anniversary transcends the crime.’ Whatever we make of this example, it isn’t easy to dismiss Kepel’s sense that 21st-century France, with its Algerian diaspora (perhaps two million citizens of ‘Muslim’ Algerian descent), is a ‘retrocolonial’ society living through a ‘return of the repressed’: the repressed, that is, of the Franco-Algerian war, which can still cast a shadow over a presidential campaign decades after the FLN took to the gun.
New and shiny, Macron hopes to lay this difficulty to rest. It is more than sixty years since the Algerian war began and the time is right, even if no one is willing to take the step: shame is a major obstacle, and perhaps also the worry that an apology would lead to calls for proof of earnest, in the form of reparations. It took fifty years for France to acknowledge the deportation of Jews under Vichy and the Nazi occupation. In the 1980s and 1990s Mitterrand argued that neither represented France, and that it was wrong to ask ‘the Republic’ to excuse itself. Instead, in 1993, he marked the July 1942 round-ups with a memorial day. Then in 1995, his successor, Jacques Chirac, made a full official apology, which implicated ‘France’ and ‘the French state’ in the extermination of the Jews. All he’d done, Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, scoffed at the time, was ‘to pay his electoral debts to the Jewish community’.
Chirac’s decision ought to be an encouraging precedent, but it’s not seen in those terms. The Shoah enjoys a unique status, which makes an apology for Algeria all the harder by seeming to insinuate a comparison. Macron was thought to have done this. The breathless TV journalist Jean-Michel Aphatie tweeted: ‘Colonisation in Algeria a “crime against humanity”? Like Auschwitz? Hum.’ Macron was on the spot and denied that he was relativising the Holocaust. It was a wise move, although strictly speaking, he had no need to do so. As the political scientist Amrane Medjani observed in Libération, the Rome Statute requires crimes against humanity such as torture, murder, extermination, imprisonment, forcible population transfer, rape and persecution on political grounds, to be carried out within the context of ‘a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population’: though retrospect is not a privilege of the International Court of Justice, the conduct of the colonial power in Algeria satisfied the context and qualified on several of the counts.
Medjani spoke of France as ‘a great nation’, but felt that more ‘greatness’ would accrue as it faced up to key moments at which it had lost its bearings: not just ‘Vichy’, but ‘Algeria … Adama and Théo’. Yet the will to say sorry for a war in which the colonial power was responsible for perhaps 750,000 deaths is feeble, and confined mostly to the left. For the purposes of French official terminology, it was not even acknowledged as a full-scale conflict until 1999, when the word ‘war’ replaced ‘operations carried out in North Africa’, or sometimes ‘events in Algeria’. In 2001 Chirac spoke up for the tens of thousands of Muslim auxiliaries – the Harkis – who had fought for France and been abandoned by the French army as it left Algeria: their fate at the hands of the FLN was no better, and sometimes worse, than that of suspected FLN supporters who died under French interrogation. In 2005 a clause in a new law urged a change in the school curriculum to emphasise the positive role of the French in North Africa and the sacrifices of its army in the pursuit of colonialism (it was later repealed). By then the Communist Party had apologised for supporting the special powers act that turned Algeria into a torture chamber. In 2006 the Socialists followed suit, mourning the loss of their ‘soul’ as a party of complicity during the war. The apology was made by the first secretary, a dependable, low-key character who would later win the Elysée in the name of a ‘normal’ presidency, the disaster for which his party is now atoning. Preparing to leave office, Hollande has a divided rank and file, and the Macron phenomenon, to account for.
It is true that Macron sometimes appears to contradict himself, even on colonialism. Only last year he announced that it had introduced ‘elements of civilisation’ to Algeria. His enemies argue that he made a fool of himself by talking in February about a ‘crime against humanity’. But perhaps he grasps the dialectic of colonialism: hospitals and detention facilities, literacy and colonial ideology, railways and press-ganged labour. The element of ‘progress’ is nothing to regret: it sharpened the resolve of the national liberation struggles in Africa and Asia and gave the leaderships a taste for the enlightenment values they were taught and then denied. The violent contestation of those values, once they were taken up by the colonised, is what merits an apology, along with the hoovering of resources into metropolitan France. Yet Macron’s mixed signals make him a foggy candidate, despite his pristine presentation, his energy and his insistence that the recent victories for Leave in the UK and the Republican candidate in the US were a result of their opponents’ failure to come out fighting.
Macron’s deeper contradiction lies in his claim to be against ‘the system’, even though he is a prodigy who has risen astride two intersecting systems, finance and high-end public management, having studied philosophy as an undergraduate, moved on to Sciences Po for a degree in public affairs and emerged a few years later from the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in Strasbourg as an eligible senior civil servant. He is the progeny of an elitist French training in public administration, on the one hand, and, on the other, a superior French investment bank – Rothschild – which he joined after working as an inspector of interministerial finances. At Rothschild he was hailed as a thirty-something miracle worker. (He brokered a valuable acquisition by Nestlé of Pfizer’s infant milk operation, said to have made him a fortune.) He was briefly a member of the Parti Socialiste, and then presidential secretary to Hollande. In 2014 he was told to run the Ministry of Economics, and assembled a complicated labour law, designed to ‘unlock the French economy’: liberalising rules for protected professions, extending business hours, opening up long-distance bus routes etc.
But the law was not liked on the left and Valls forced it through by decree in 2015. Macron was rumoured to be stung, feeling he had nearly talked the opposition around. He set up En Marche! last April and resigned from the ministry in August. In November he announced that he would run for the presidency. Having studied the system from the inside, like a dedicated sleeper in a spy drama, he could claim to have laid the explosive charges and retired to his start-up to think about the future. In this myth, which his followers like, he was an outsider all along. But it’s not a myth that can survive the campaign. Macron is a market liberal (he favours immigration) with social liberal views: he upholds the right of asylum and is reluctant to lay waste Arab countries with invasion and bombing; he is uncomfortable with veil bans and the degeneration of French secularism into the politics of the wardrobe. He promises to bring in the money that will create a new, multicultural prosperity, underwritten by finance capital and the state. At the time of writing, he was finalising his programme. Among the latest tweaks are plans for universal unemployment benefit and a promise to create 4000 new teaching posts, this despite doing away with 100,000 public sector jobs overall. There is also a proposal to ban MPs from hiring members of their families on public money – a conspicuous dig at Fillon.
He is popular, but he has no populist touch. He quotes from René Char; his philosophy thesis is said to have been on Hegel’s philosophy of right, supervised by Etienne Balibar (Balibar doesn’t remember him); he was Paul Ricoeur’s editorial assistant when Ricoeur was writing his book about the production of historical narrative, Memory, History, Forgetting (2000). Unlike Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate, he doesn’t include a favourite music section on the En Marche! website (Hamon posts songs by Nina Simone and Lisa Ekdahl, among others). On balance, he looks like a young man with a long insider’s pedigree, and he is already playing the insider card, to distinguish himself from the more obstinate, rough-and-ready outsiders stalking the world stage: Marine Le Pen, once a lowly, disaffected lawyer who found herself defending unauthorised migrants, but who can’t be doing with the banks or migrants; Donald Trump, with his joint honours in bankruptcy and locker room studies, who can’t be doing with multiculturalism or the virtues of old-fashioned public service.
Everything about Macron suggests a personality rather than a programme, but if so, it is Macron the person, rather than any defining idea, that shapes En Marche!, by now in effect a party more than a movement (membership is announced at around 200,000 but is probably lower). But as the political scientist Fabien Escalona argued recently in Mediapart, En Marche! resembles an enthusiastic start-up, put together with the entrepreneurial skills of its boss, and defined by a ‘culture of the firm’. Escalona is stumped to find a model for this kind of phenomenon in France; he thinks instead of the launch of Forza Italia in 1993, a movement that built support from small clubs of followers, and – crucially – had no grand ideological vision beyond anti-communism. The suggestion is that just as Forza Italia became Berlusconi’s firm, run by a tight circle of consiglieri, En Marche! will become Macron’s, and that a burnished version of liberal market democracy will be the order of the day.
This, of course, presupposes a Macron victory. In the Paris Match real-time poll – watching this kind of paint dry is far too interesting, I find – Macron is behind Marine Le Pen in round one, with Fillon’s Les Républicains in third place. Today as I write, and perhaps tomorrow, Macron looks like winning the second round against Le Pen without much difficulty. He has been helped on his way by François Bayrou, leader of the Mouvement Démocratique (MoDem). Bayrou decided last month to jettison his candidature in an ‘act of self-denial’ to boost the chances of a centrist presidency: Macron’s. Bayrou is a stolid figure with a stolid following: in Houellebecq’s novel Soumission Bayrou is the perfect choice after the Islamist candidate wins the French presidency in 2022 and casts about for a nonentity to appoint as prime minister. He served four years as a cabinet minister and led the Union pour la démocratie française (his predecessors were Giscard d’Estaing and Raymond Barre). The remains of the UDF were reconfigured as MoDem in 2007, after Bayrou failed to get past the first round of the presidential election. Yet he took 18.7 per cent of the vote – four points more than Hamon and two fewer than Fillon on current predictions. The new alliance does not bode well for Les Républicains. Their candidate’s prospects are still clouded by his family expenses scandal. Le Pen, meanwhile, is being pursued for an alleged misappropriation of EU funds for non-existent jobs and was recently told that she is also liable for prosecution for an angry tweet in 2015 which linked to images of Islamic State violence, but that is unlikely to happen before the second round. These are not setbacks for the Front National in electoral terms. Le Pen’s followers see them as attempts by ‘the system’ to cheat their leader out of office. Fillon’s support, by contrast, is increasingly edgy as the judiciary takes its investigation of his family wealth-creation scheme a little deeper by the day. One part of the electorate – and it looks like Fillon’s voters – has got this story wrong.
Pity the left, but don’t forgive Hollande. He attempted a ‘nouveau socialisme’ à la New Labour after the moment had passed. (Macron’s nouveau market liberalism is not very different, but the narrative, and the sense that a fresh, watchable box-set is in production, gives disaffected voters – right and left – something to look forward to.) Hamon is a shining candidate in a dark field, a glow-worm throwing light on the kind of future the French electorate is not ready to consider. He foresees catastrophic job losses as a result of AI; a universal minimum wage is his way out.[*] He is also a root-and-branch environmentalist, sounding the alarm on climate change and poisons in the air and the ground. Like others before him, he looks forward to Europe’s long-awaited green diversification. There will be job opportunities in the transition from carbon to renewals, he argues, before the bots catch up. In February Hamon and the Green candidate, Yannick Jadot, did a deal: the Greens are now expected to vote Socialist in round one, and take the hit.
A red deal, between Hamon and the left-of-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, didn’t pan out. Both will now be running for the first round. Mélenchon is standing for La France insoumise (‘unsubdued’ or ‘rebellious’), a left-of-centre alliance which includes the Communist Party. They agree on many policies: fine-tune the 35-hour working week, don’t dump it; repeal Hollande’s key labour laws – some are Macron’s – which make it easier for companies to fire workers; tax or disincentivise carbon emissions, by corporates and consumers. Both favour a rise in the minimum wage. Both reject the Maastricht injunction to keep budgetary deficits within 3 per cent of GDP. Both are opposed to the North American trade treaties: TTIP as was, and now the putative treaty with Canada.
Hamon wants a challenging conversation with Brussels about its market liberal framework; Mélenchon, a more entrenched figure, favours a French exit unless that conversation goes his way. In fact they disagree on very little. Mélenchon rejects the universal wage in favour of streamlined disbursements to the needy. And there are grandstanding differences – Hamon wishes to stay in Nato, Mélenchon wants out – which have no purchase in this campaign. But Mélenchon’s contempt for Hollande and the Socialist Party is as strong as Le Pen’s for the system in its entirety, and he’s decided to go it alone. Defeat, for the left, is once again a badge of honour. It may also be a relief. Hollande has bequeathed nothing for a new administration of the left to build on.