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France elected Emmanuel Macron president in 2017 as a symbolic barrier against the rising global tide of illiberal populism. Four years later, as the chaos fomented by U.S. President Donald Trump builds toward some sort of crescendo in the United States, domestic tensions in France threaten to define Macron’s leadership and legacy. The coronavirus pandemic is resurgent, leading the government to institute a strict new lockdown that will continue at least until early December; the mouvement des “gilets jaunes” (“yellow vest” protest movement) has been simmering since late 2018; and a crisis that began in 2015, when Islamist terrorists twice attacked Paris, never went away and has in fact returned with new intensity in recent months.
These problems require divergent responses, and only an exceptional leader could navigate all of them with success. Macron has acquitted himself most poorly in those domains in which symbolism rings hollow and where concrete solutions matter most. The terrorism crisis and certain dimensions of the pandemic, however, underscore the importance of symbolism, backed by principle, in the face of nihilistic attacks and unprincipled abandonment by traditional allies.
Some of Macron’s domestic concerns are comparable to those that other world leaders face: populism and COVID-19 are global in scope and similar across localities. But France’s struggle against Islamist violence is in many ways particular. Macron’s response to it enjoys broad domestic support. Yet government and media figures in other countries have criticized France, finding the country’s unwavering commitment to secularism and freedom of speech to be out of step with prevailing sensibilities throughout the world. On the question of Islamist violence, France finds itself, for the most part, on its own.
A terrorist attack at the Notre-Dame Basilica in Nice on Thursday, October 29, left a trio of people dead: a man and two women, all three churchgoers. The attacker beheaded one of the women, just as another killer had done to his victim less than two weeks earlier in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. Following the bloodshed in Nice, less successful attacks rippled throughout the country and beyond: in Avignon, the police killed a man wielding a knife; in Lyon, another man was arrested with a makeshift bomb; in Riyadh, the French consul general was attacked with a sharp object.
The distal cause of these events can be traced to 2015. That January, Islamist militants slaughtered 12 cartoonists and staff members of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. The killers sought vengeance for the paper’s publication of explicit caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. All Muslims are prohibited from rendering images of the Prophet, but until the age of instantaneous global circulation of images, the same did not generally apply to non-Muslims living in secular republics. The problem, survivors from Charlie Hebdo noted in the aftermath, was not the drawing of blasphemous cartoons but their projection out into the world on the Internet, where they circulate without context, untethered to their intended audience.
A second attack came later the same year, on November 13. The scale was much larger but the focus less defined. Suicide bombers and mass shooters struck cafés, restaurants, the exterior of a football stadium, and the Bataclan nightclub, killing 130 Parisians simply for being Parisians. To the killers, in the contextless vacuum of the Internet, where radicalization occurs, the city as a whole had come to stand symbolically for a single, low-circulation magazine published within it.
Domestic tensions in France threaten to define Macron’s leadership and legacy.
This year, the terrorists focused their wrath on a civics lesson that a teacher named Samuel Paty taught at a middle school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. Paty showed his class the Charlie Hebdo caricatures, but he gave students the option of leaving the classroom instead of viewing them. “Concerned parents,” who found the course content and methods displeasing, took to Facebook, where they doxxed and denounced the teacher—and where the killer, 18-year-old Abdoullakh Anzorov, found them.
Macron responded to the attack by making clear that the French Republic would not formally denounce the caricatures. Nor would it be swayed from its absolute commitment to the doctrine of laïcité, which among other things seeks to prohibit the creep of religious pieties into secular institutions. In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a boycott of French products and said that Macron needed to have his mental health examined. The prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, chastised the French president for “encourag[ing] the display of blasphemous cartoons” and for “provok[ing] Muslims.” Ninety-five-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, called Macron “very primitive” and said that Muslims “have the right . . . to kill millions of French people” in response to past and present injustices. That declaration was removed from Twitter and Facebook for violating terms of service.
The manner in which Muslim world leaders piled onto Macron vividly recalls the cycle of white nationalist violence in the United States in recent years. Political leaders and media personalities launder and euphemize extremist views, until inevitably, some few, impressionable people with little to lose go and shoot up a synagogue or plow a car through a protest. Call it stochastic terrorism, ordered through the public channels of the Internet rather than through hidden networks, deniable even when its true causes are as plain as day.
The backstory of the Nice attack may extend to 2015, but it was nonetheless hard not to think, on that day of all days, that the attacker was simply out to do a little last-minute murdering, just as all the rest of us in France were doing our last-minute shopping and socializing before the 9 pm curfew that was to inaugurate the new nationwide pandemic lockdown.
The previous evening, Macron had announced that le confinement was to last until at least December 1 but would be more flexible than the first lockdown in the spring. Some businesses would remain open, as would all schools (though not universities). Restaurants could continue to serve takeout, and even bookstores might be included on the list of essential commercial operations. But as in the spring, residents would be required to carry a dated and signed attestation each time they left their homes, swearing to the legitimate reasons for their excursions, and no one would be permitted to travel more than a kilometer from home, other than for the purpose of esssential work. Macron laid these terms out clearly and in a reassuring tone. He ended the announcement, as is customary, with the rallying words “Vive la République. Vive la France.”
Barely half a day later, the president made an unexpected trip to Nice, in order to express his condolences to the murder victims and to reassert France’s unwavering refusal to buckle to violence. I have heard several people remark on the near-perfect elision of the two stories and on the difficulty of recalling, already, for which of the two Macron uttered the rallying words of the republic.
On the question of Islamist violence, France finds itself, for the most part, on its own.
In Paris on Thursday night, bars and restaurants were still full a few minutes before nine. In my neighborhood, on the Canal Saint-Martin—where the terrorist attacks took place in November 2015—the proud and defiant culture of la terrasse was out in full force, masks down, defying both the advice of public health experts and the threats of Islamist insurgents. If some of the people out drinking on the terraces looked anxious, one could not say whether this was because some approaching stranger had breathed on them or because that same stranger appeared to be concealing a knife.
The anxiety may also have reflected a deepening awareness of difficult times ahead. Local officials predict that hospitals could reach full capacity by mid-November at the present rate of infection, forcing French doctors to make the sorts of triage decisions ordinarily limited to wartime. “If we do not put a sudden brake on the contaminations, our hospitals will be filled to the limit very quickly,” Macron announced on October 28, following the projections of his health minister, Olivier Véran. Nor is it clear that the government, much praised for the liberal economic support it extended in the spring, can continue such spending indefinitely. Signs of everyday desperation are multiplying in Paris and other cities. Indeed, the recent spate of Islamist violence, which always had an element of mundane youth delinquency to it in addition to its political and religious components, may even be partly a social consequence of COVID-19.
The confluence of two different sorts of bad news puts the Macron administration in a difficult spot and threatens to send voters toward extreme alternatives in the next election, in 2022. The gilets jaunes movement, which burst onto the scene two years ago to protest new fuel taxes, continues to simmer. The yellow vests are in their essence an antiausterity movement, with their greatest centers of strength in small, provincial cities. They are ideologically nebulous and difficult to place on a left-right spectrum. But in a time of worsening crisis, such as the combination of pandemic and terrorism, a xenophobic politician, such as Marine Le Pen or whoever succeeds her as leader of the Rassemblement National (National Rally, the successor to the National Front), could easily seize upon their anti-elite populism.
Disaffected French citizens, much like the young immigrants attracted to political Islam, are steeped in an environment of online disinformation that has the potential to radicalize them. Such voters are then susceptible not only to the old-fashioned anti-immigrant rhetoric of the National Rally but also to the strange soup of the antivaccination movement, the antimask movement, and every conspiracy theory that has also poisoned politics in the United States. No single French personality corresponds exactly to Alex Jones, but few onlookers would be surprised to hear someone on the fringes of a yellow vest assembly worrying that environmental toxins are turning frogs gay.
Macron is in a particularly poor position to stem the tide of such disinformation and forestall the political crises it announces. He was elected four years ago, just a few months after Trump, as a sort of symbolic heir to the era of U.S. President Barack Obama: young, dynamic, rational, and centrist. A documentary released immediately after his victory featured a climactic scene in which the 44th American president calls on speakerphone to congratulate his French counterpart. But even in 2016, Macron’s election had the air of a stopgap measure, simply to prevent Le Pen’s victory in the final round, rather than a vote of confidence for the technocratic establishment Macron embodies. The world was changing—Trump had proven as much—and France wasn’t quite ready to change along with it, at least not at the electoral level.
The persistence of the yellow vests—far more than the pandemic or terrorism—suggests a failure of leadership on Macron’s part. Unlike in the United States, in France rising COVID-19 cases are generally greeted as a natural phenomenon, a virus doing its thing, utterly indifferent to which party holds office. Terrorism, on the other hand, is not presumed to be “natural”; rather, it is the sort of thing that clear resolve and sound policy can prevent. In 2017, Macron’s then prime minister, Édouard Philippe, proposed a new antiterrorism law. Since that time, opinion polls have shown that much of the French public favors strengthening measures against Islamist attacks and indeed treating such attacks as a military matter rather than merely a criminal one.
Macron has taken a heavy-handed approach to surveillance and enforcement—one that often goes well beyond what the U.S. Constitution would allow and that tests the legal and ethical limits of policing entire communities. Thus, most voters who value the rule of law fear the prospect of a National Rally administration that would be ready to move past that limit. Macron’s government already monitors the conversations of Muslim men in fitness clubs, for example, such as the ones where many Chechen immigrants, from the same community as Anzorov, train to become ultimate fighters.
The Macron government has framed the terrorism problem as a military one. After the attacks in Nice, Macron announced “Operation Sentinel,” which would increase from 3,000 to 7,000 the number of military personnel engaged in domestic counterterrorism. The French government now commonly speaks of Islamist terrorism as “separatism”: an effort on the part of communities within France to secede and establish their own sovereignty. The language has a subjective appeal. As statistically unlikely as any one person is to fall victim to an attack, France still feels very much like a place under siege. The flashbacks I still have to November 13, 2015, are flashbacks of war.
The Macron government has framed the terrorism problem as a military one.
Defining the problem as one of separatism helps Macron to project resolve and to appear as a symbol of French unity and an embodiment of republican ideals. Yet to continue to insist on these ideals in today’s world is a gamble. The leaders of many Muslim countries have made clear that they not only despise those ideals but believe it is within their rights to combat them, even within the borders of France.
The silence of other Western countries is particularly alarming. For the most part, France’s allies have found in the cartoon wars a convenient pretext for showing sympathy for marginalized people, while ignoring entirely the principled commitment to freedom and toleration that positively constrains France to take the position it does. Other Western countries, of course, largely share the historical legacies and legal structures that undergird these commitments, and until recently they would not have been able to pretend not to know this. But in the era of inward-looking national populism, international solidarity on matters of principle seems antiquated, and it is all the easier to avoid it when doing so offers a cheap veneer of virtuous multiculturalism. And so France is left mostly on its own.
The polities of France’s historical allies, notably the United States and the United Kingdom, have degenerated into various species of illiberalism. There is the right-populist form that currently holds power in those places—and also the left-authoritarian form that dominates many cultural institutions and buys into the lie that when a terror cell with automatic weapons assassinates an office full of humble caricaturists, it is the latter who are the oppressors. That lie is at least as attractive in the English-speaking world now as it was in 2015. After the most recent decapitations, social media have been buzzing with false equivalencies and with what the courageous Turkish German journalist Deniz Yücel has called “the mendacious, shitty ‘but.’”
Increasingly isolated in a world of illiberals and their apologists, the French Republic carries on, for now. Macron has often been overeager to be seen as the personification of the republic. Early in his term, he seemed almost prepared to declare himself the new Napoleon and publicly defended G. W. F. Hegel’s old fantasy that what Europe most needed was a leader who embodies “absolute Spirit.” But when, in late 2020, the French president goes on television and says, “Vive la République,” one is glad indeed to hear it, and glad there is someone in charge still insisting on it.