Emmanuel Macron’s Presidency Has Nurtured Racism and the Far Right

France’s mainstream conservative party is in meltdown, while the far right is stronger than ever. Only a united and resurgent French left can prevent Marine Le Pen from capitalizing on Macron’s authoritarian, neoliberal presidency.

French president Emmanuel Macron takes part in a video conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on March 19, 2020. (Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images)

Three political currents dominated the French parliamentary elections of June 2022: the authoritarian neoliberal bloc grouped around the reelected president, Emmanuel Macron, stretching from ex-Socialists to former members of the Gaullist Les Républicains party; Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale (NUPES); and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN).

First-round results placed the coalition led by Mélenchon just ahead of Marcon’s, both with slightly more than a quarter of the vote. Le Pen’s vehicle, which had rejected the call for an alliance with rival far-right candidate Éric Zemmour and his Reconquête party, came third with 18.7 percent. The traditional parties of the French right trailed in fourth with 13.6 percent; the largest component of their bloc, Les Républicains, took just over 10 percent.

In the aftermath of this year’s presidential and legislative elections, Le Pen and the Rassemblement National are seeking to accelerate the dynamic of authoritarianism and racism that became a defining feature of Macron’s first term, as part of a strategy to counter the institutional obstacles that stand between them and power.

Respect and Respectability

The presidential election in April saw the far right achieve its best ever results. We can measure this success in various ways. The combined first-round score of Marine Le Pen, with over 8 million votes, and Eric Zemmour, with nearly 2.5 million, represented 30 percent of the total vote — a significant rise on the 21 percent achieved by Le Pen alone in 2017.

When Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, came second in the 2002 election, the total number of far-right votes was roughly half what it is today. In the intervening years, the dominant parties of the Fifth Republic — the Socialists and Les Républicains, the latest incarnation of France’s Gaullist tradition — have seen their presidential scores nosedive. The Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo and Valérie Pécresse of Les Républicains managed fewer votes between them than Zemmour, whose party was barely a few months old.

However, success for the far right is not just measured in votes. In 2002, the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac, refused to take part in the traditional debate between candidates after the first round of the election. At that point, the French establishment considered Jean-Marie Le Pen beyond the pale. By contrast, in 2022 Emmanuel Macron concluded his debate with Marine Le Pen by thanking her for the exchange they had shared before making a simpering admission: “I respect you as a person” — this to a woman who was proposing to remove basic rights from foreigners, exclude women wearing the hijab from public space, and enshrine racial discrimination in the constitution.

The campaign underlined the extent of the RN’s normalization. This derives principally from the radicalization of the mainstream right along racist lines. However, the candidacy of Éric Zemmour reinforced the myth of “detoxification” or “dédiabolisation” for Le Pen. The bigoted interventions of Zemmour, a journalist and professional racist, have enabled Le Pen to pose as a more moderate alternative.

Zemmour personifies the putrefying impact of racism on French politics. Since 2019, his public profile has benefitted from the media platform that the billionaire mogul Vincent Bolloré, owner of the TV station CNEWS, has given to him. Zemmour’s slot on Face à l’Info, a current affairs debate show, enabled him to hammer home his brazenly reactionary agenda four nights a week throughout the two years leading up to the presidential campaign.

Over the past decade, Zemmour has cemented his notoriety and sometimes earned convictions for inciting racial or religious discrimination by making a series of crass assertions. He has said that Muslims should be made to choose between Islam and France and claimed that most drug dealers are black or Arab. According to Zemmour, all Muslims consider jihadists to be good Muslims, and unaccompanied migrant minors are “thieves, assassins, rapists.”

He is also France’s leading proponent of the white supremacist conspiracy theory, the Great Replacement. His election program included proposals that would force parents to give their children “French names”: “Calling a child Mohammed,” he argued, “is to colonize France.” The name of his party, Renconquête, evokes the Reconquista launched in the eighth century by Christian kings to remove Muslim influence from the Iberian Peninsula, culminating centuries later in the Spanish Inquisition.

Gaullist Meltdown and the Extreme Center

Squeezed by the ascendance of the far right on the one hand, and by Macron’s capture of the center-right vote on the other, Les Républicains today face a crisis of existential proportions. Macron, who was elected on a “neither right, nor left” platform in 2017, has spent five years taking over their political terrain.

During an excruciating opening rally in Paris in February 2022, a visibly ill-at-ease Pécresse managed to torpedo the campaign, and possibly her career, in the space of an afternoon. The most controversial aspect of the performance was her evocation of the Great Replacement conspiracy, underlining the extent to which the mainstream right is prepared to embrace a racist agenda. All she achieved by doing so was to alienate moderate support without convincing the extremists.

Pécresse eventually won less than 5 percent of the vote, rendering her party ineligible for the reimbursement of its campaign expenses by the state. She found herself personally indebted to the tune of €5 million. The political tradition that has held the presidency for longer than any other under the Fifth Republic was therefore obliged, via its miserable candidate, to make a humiliating public appeal for donations to keep its party afloat.

Liberal commentators are fond of imagining that Macron has found himself “impossibly squeezed” and diverted from the pursuit of a progressive agenda. In reality, Macron has simply taken up the racist, neoliberal agenda of a radicalizing mainstream right and made it his own. As one of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s former advisors has acknowledged, right-wing voters seem to think that Macron is like Sarkozy, but better.

Macron’s first term began with the abolition of a wealth tax and ended with a dramatic escalation of inequality. Seven million people now require food aid. The wealth of France’s billionaires almost doubled during the pandemic, rising faster between March 2020 and October 2021 than during the entire decade preceding the COVID-19 crisis. The combined wealth of the poorest twenty-seven million people in France — 40 percent of the population — today amounts to less than the fortunes of France’s five richest individuals.

After both of his presidential victories, Macron promised to heal divisions and unite the French. Yet during his first term, the authorities met any form of resistance to poverty and inequality with a savage response. By 2019, both the United Nations (UN) and the Council of Europe were expressing concern about the excessive use of force by police against gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protesters.

The extent of police brutality was jaw-dropping. Some twenty-five hundred demonstrators were injured; four people were killed; thirty lost an eye; six had hands blown off by grenades. If this was healing divisions, what would exacerbating them have looked like?

The culture of state violence and impunity even spilled over into showcase international events. When Paris hosted the Champions League final in May this year, French police gratuitously assaulted Liverpool supporters, and Macron’s interior minister Gérald Darmanin blamed the fiasco on the fans themselves. The normalization of violence is an important part of what Ugo Palheta terms the “fascization” of French society, a process driven by the intensification of both state authoritarianism and racism.

“Enemies of the Republic”

After the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty by an eighteen-year-old Islamist in October 2020, the French government shut down a number of associations and places of worship that it deemed to be “enemies of the Republic” or “jihadist outlets.” These included the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France or CCIF), the only association to systematically collect data on Islamophobic acts, and France’s largest Muslim charity, BarakaCity.

When presenting his initiative against “separatism” in October 2020, Macron argued that radical Islamism was defined by

a proclaimed, publicized desire, a systematic way of organizing things to contravene the Republic’s laws and create a parallel order, establish other values, develop another way of organizing society which is initially separatist, but whose ultimate goal is to take it over completely. And this is gradually resulting in the rejection of the freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and the right to blaspheme, and in us becoming insidiously radicalized.

Amnesty International outlined a number of concerns about legislation that was designed to reinforce “respect for the principles of the Republic” as part of the anti-separatist initiative. It noted the government’s failure to define what it meant by “separatism” or “radical Islam,” or to clarify why it was exclusively focusing on these phenomena.

According to Amnesty, this meant that Macron’s administration risked “reinforcing pre-existing negative and harmful stereotypes that conflate Muslims and terrorism.” It reminded the government that the UN had expressed similar concerns in 2018, observing that the government’s conflation of Islam with terrorism by singling out Muslims for administrative measures was creating “a form of political and social disenfranchisement that is inconsistent with the State’s obligations under international human rights law.”

The “anti-separatist” initiative was underpinned by a logic that turned the accusation of Islamophobia back on those who experienced it. When the government closed down an anti-racist association in Lyon, the Coordination Against Racism and Islamophobia (Coordination contre le racisme et l’islamophobie or CRI), it did so on the grounds that the CRI was “cultivating the suspicion of Islamophobia within French society.” The Council of State justified the dissolution of the CCIF with the same kind of absurdity: by depicting France as “a country hostile to Muslims,” it claimed, the CCIF was radicalizing victims of alleged discrimination.

At Macron’s request, the French Council for the Muslim Faith (Conseil français du culte musulman) drew up a Charter for the Principles of a French Islam. The charter attempted to discredit notions like Islamophobia and “state racism,” identifying so-called “Islamo-leftists” and “collaborators” as the real problem. It declared that, while hostility toward Muslims was a reality, such prejudice was confined to an extremist minority, and one could not attribute it to the state or the population at large. According to the charter, denunciations of “alleged state racism” and other kinds of “victimhood posturing” should henceforth be considered “defamation.”

By the time of this year’s presidential election, Macron was able to boast of the closure of 718 “premises frequented by Islamists.” Thanks to the work of units dedicated to fighting “Islamism and communitarian withdrawal,” set up in every administrative territory of France from 2018, there had been investigations carried out into nearly twenty-five thousand venues, from prayer rooms to snack bars and sports clubs.

Le Pen’s Vision

Marine Le Pen lost no time in capitalizing on insinuations that Muslims were a latent “enemy within” with separatist instincts. The RN’s own campaign against “Islamist ideology” proposes the censorship of children’s books, films, advertising, broadcast media, libraries, and local authorities. It threatens anyone caught “spreading” this ideology with dismissal from their place of work and denial of access to housing or social security.

Women wishing to wear the hijab, which the RN defines as a political rather than a religious garment, would only be permitted to do so in private or in a mosque. As Le Pen declared in February 2022:

I am absolutely opposed to the wearing of the veil anywhere. It’s a marker of Islamism, a totalitarian ideology that’s as dangerous as Nazism.

The RN’s references to Islamic attire or symbols beyond the veil imply that it would extend the repression of minority religious or cultural practices to beards and to traditional Arabic clothing like the djellaba. It would also ban the slaughtering of meat according to halal practices “in the name of animal welfare.”

The RN’s February 2021 bill on combatting Islamist ideologies offers an indication of the direction a future Le Pen presidency would take. It defined Islamism with reference to six broad criteria. These included the contravention of constitutional rights or principles; refusal to respect laïcité, France’s tradition of state secularism; threatening the unity of the nation; maintaining links with foreign organizations or powers that might call into question an individual’s loyalty to France; supporting, trivializing. or apologizing for offenses including crimes against French nationals or interests, crimes against humanity, rape, sexual assault, or calls for violence or discrimination against France or the French; and coercing anyone to follow or renounce a religion.

Anyone who met at least one of these criteria would qualify as an Islamist. Since the categories listed are deliberately vague, there is plenty of scope to identify, and multiply, enemies of the nation. As one RN senator put it, the measures could also be applied against elected officials who “collaborate” with Islamism.

At the heart of the RN’s electoral platform is the principle of “national preference,” which translates into the removal of basic rights from all foreigners in France. The state would give French citizens priority access to jobs and social housing. Immigration and family reunification would cease, and the droit du sol, granting citizenship rights based on birthplace and residence, would be scrapped. The children of foreigners born and residing in France would no longer be guaranteed access to citizenship: instead, some of them would receive the selective privilege of “naturalization” via the arbitrary criteria of “merit and assimilation.”

The Means of Repression

The RN would dramatically reinforce the institutions of state repression. Every town with more than ten thousand inhabitants would have to ensure that its police were armed. The number of prison places would rise by twenty-five thousand, and the number of magistrates would be doubled. The RN would apply the “presumption of legitimate defense” to all police accused of violence. The police would also be able to make anonymous accusations against protesters, meaning that someone accused of injuring a police officer would have no means of verifying the charges against them.

Reflecting on his defeat in the second round of the 2002 election, Jean-Marie Le Pen noted the relative isolation of the Front National within France’s “media, finance, army, police, and administration.” He made a similar point when his daughter failed to win the presidency in 2017. The RN’s 2022 program indicates that it has begun to develop a strategy for dealing with some of the institutional obstacles that a Marine Le Pen presidency would face.

If elected president, Le Pen would introduce a bill on immigration and identity, bypassing parliament and the Constitutional Council by putting it to a referendum — a move some lawyers have compared to a coup d’état. The implications of such a referendum, were it ever to be put into practice, would be drastic.

“National preference” would become part of the constitution, ending the state’s formal commitment to equality, and the constitution would be amended to outlaw any immigration policy leading to foreign arrivals in numbers “likely to modify the composition and identity of the French people.” The Great Replacement conspiracy theory, generally more associated with Zemmour than Le Pen but common currency on the far right, would thus become institutionalized under an RN president.

The deployment of state secularism as a means of isolating and disciplining Muslims under the presidency of Emmanuel Macron has provided ample scope for the RN to escalate matters, posing as the ultimate defender of laïcité and, by extension, state authority. The election platform on which Macron won his second term, with its commitment to make people work longer before they can retire, is a promise of social confrontation that speaks louder than any pledges about “healing.”

Escalating inequality and state violence, in a political climate shaped by racist scapegoating and conspiratorialism, are likely to further benefit the far right. Solidarity and unity, belatedly rediscovered by the Left in the wake of the presidential election, are therefore urgent imperatives if this dynamic is to be countered during the second half of the Macron presidency.