A Letter from France: new populism, worn-out apathy?
Arriving in Toulouse Blagnac airport last evening, I was greeted by a silent television screen showing Emmanuel Macron speaking to a rally in Albi, the largest town in the départment in rural SW France where I am lucky enough to spend my time when not in London. Macron pretty looked tired — unsurprisingly. And, apart from me, no one in the airport seemed interested.
Bizarrely, while the UK is involved with a sound-bite election that no one except the Tory Right wants — as if they haven’t had enough to strengthen their hands already in the past year — France has an election which may influence the future of all Europe. And most people I speak to there don’t seem to care.
My circle of acquaintances is largely made up of three groups: local farmers and artisans, a handful of local middle-class professionals, or bourgeoisie, and a number of alternative types — escapees from the northern cities for the sake of what we used to call ‘the good life’. In terms of Spiral Dynamics values and worldview categorisation, these people I know are very easily organised into Traditional Blue, Modern Orange and Postmodern Green.
Note 1. If you need to, please see my latest book The Simpol Solution for an explanation of how enormously helpful this system of classification is.
Note 2. In case you think this is too sweeping a generalisation, French society has a level of uniformity and stability — not to say rigidity — which can be rather shocking to outsiders and goes unnoticed at home.
I am a bit cheeky, I suppose, because I ask everyone what they think of the elections or how they will vote.
The Traditional Blue group invariably answer that no one in France wants to work any more, that all politicians are the same — all corrupt, and those in Brussels are the worst. If they say they don’t know how they’ll vote, it probably means they’ll vote for Le Pen, because in our area that is not something to be admitted.
Modern Orange, on the other hand, generally launch into denouncing the National Front but then reveal a bit of a hankering for days gone by. If drawn on the subject of the calamity that was the French handling of Algeria (one of the worst excess of latter-day colonialism which inspired Jean-Marie Le Pen’s dark vision in the first place) their eyes glaze over and they tell you that Algeria was in fact La France. (During the debates, every candidate seems obliged to say the words La France and les Francais at least every other sentence.) Outre Mer (French overseas dependencies) are also voting now, and your Modern Orange defends any suggestion of current French colonialism by telling you the New Caledonians and Martiniquais love having the euro, and then how much it costs France.
The Postmodern Green group, despite thinking of themselves as alternative, show an astonishing homogeneity in all their attitudes — particularly politics. They are staggeringly resistant, in my experience, to be drawn into any interesting discussion on politics. Now that Melonchon did not make it to the second round (and where I live is the home of Jean Jaures the great defender of the Carmaux miners) they have returned to their usual apathy.
So a question like “what do you think about the elections?” draws the usual Gallic raspberry blowing. I am not sure how to describe, except in English terms, this distinctive sound, made between vibrating lips and indicating a dismissal of the question or a phlegmatic comment that there is nothing new under the sun and please can we talk of something else. Does anyone know the French for it?
Or the answer comes “Il n’y a pas d’choix — je m’en fous”. There’s no choice (they are all the same) I don’t give a damn. If pushed further they will say that Macron is just a capitalist. Have they examined his agenda, I ask, because even though he’ll have to bow to the market, he does have some worked out and rather progressive policies for a centrist. There is no need, they reply: it’s all a plot to keep the true socialism of Melenchon out whose ideas were all distorted by the media.
By now you may find me screaming: “Attention Marine!” She’s dangerous. Leaving out the Middle East, this is the nearest we have been to fascism in a long time. But equally dangerous is that so many people take this “don’t know/ don’t care” position. Do they really imagine Marine hasn’t got her political staff out finding out how many people think like that? Here is a short video saying why people had better vote against her.
And here she is (in French) showing how reasonable she can appear, even if French TV stations prefer to invest in enormous desks rather than challenging TV anchors. Marine is banking on her extraordinary powers of rhetoric and the extraordinary collusion of apathy, I reckon. So although everything indicates Macron will walk away with it, I worry about the Blue vote that is not admitted and about the Green apathy.
Of course there is a genuine problem here for the Left and here is how Noam Chomsky summarised it last year:
“Among the elements of the weak form of democracy enshrined in the constitution, presidential elections continue to pose a dilemma for the left in that any form of participation or non participation appears to impose a significant cost on our capacity to develop a serious opposition to the corporate agenda served by establishment politicians.”
The only remedy in such cases is to vote for the lesser of two evils, he says.
What is dignified in this is that it respects the reality that universal suffrage is something people have had to struggle to get from the controlling Wounded Leader elites of the past. Of course I would prefer people used the emerging ways of voting pioneered by John Bunzl’s Simpol to force party politicians towards cooperative policy agenda, but our vote is still the only real power we have — so we must use it. Please tell any French friends to go and vote on Sunday!
And we have to do more than stop the Far Right in the polls. We must, for a start begin listening to those of our community, especially the Traditional Blue, who are losers under globalisation, and through whom these nutters prosper. But we must really keep our eye on the ball against the rise of deadly chauvinism. It’s well worth reading, as David Fuller recommends, the New York Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan in The Reactionary Temptation. Here is a tiny bit:
“I find myself repelled by many of their [the reactionary populist right] themes — and yet, at the same time, drawn in by their unmistakable relevance. I’m even tempted, at times, to share George Orwell’s view of the neo-reactionaries of his age: that, although they can sometimes spew dangerous nonsense, they’re smarter and more influential than we tend to think, and that “up to a point, they are right.”
The task of any concerned observer, I feel, is to be serious about is really pinning down what this current populism is reacting to and where they may have a point. “They’re reacting, as they have always done, to modernity, says Sullivan.” He goes on:
“But their current reaction is proportional to the bewildering pace of change in the world today. They are responding, at some deep, visceral level, to the sense that they are no longer in control of their own lives.”
I think this is true — but only partly right.
Modernism veered away from the communal into unbounded freedom arriving at a nihilistic point as it did at the end of the 19th century after the British Empire had shown how to exploit the whole world without any conscience, by normalising the arts of advanced dissociation. The neo-liberal financialsation of the last 30 years has taken the false freedom to exploit without care for the whole to its logical extreme.
But, to mix some metaphors, we have to include the straw that broke the camel’s back and released the genie from the bottle. This is Postmodern Green.
In rejecting all hierarchies, Postmodern Green, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater and abrogated responsibility, as philosopher Ken Wilber so ably argues. It is why some social justice movement organisations can’t take decisions, because they can’t prioritise without hierarchies: in the end the most forceful get their own way, someone who regularly consults to them tells me.
Traditional Blue just can’t deal with extreme Green anymore. How should they manage the fact that bodily certainties start becoming items of choice in the new consumerism of gender fluidity? Where I live in London, hard-up Camden council puts out information in a dozen different languages rather than say: “welcome here but please acquire some language skills.” It is without doubt this Postmodern Green that has driven Traditional Blue, who expect a bit of tough love, into the arms of the fanatics. We should be ashamed.
Lets hope the French Green don’t give it all away to any new Brown Shirts.