By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 10, 2017
“Grâce à Dieu [Thank God!]” many French people cried when it was announced that Emmanuel Macron had trounced Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s presidential election. Aware of the great divide in his society (Le Pen received 34 percent of the votes), Macron declared in his victory speech: “My responsibility will be to unite all the women and men ready to take on the tremendous challenges which are waiting for us, and to act. I will fight with all my power against the divisions that undermine us, and which are tearing us apart” (New York Times, May 7).
I understand the divisions of which Macron spoke. Last Monday, caught up in the frenzy of the elections, I made my way to Parc des Exposition in Paris to attend Le Pen’s rally for the presidency. Her rightwing demands had made many French people and the progressive forces in the Western world nervous.
When I descended from the train I felt I was walking into a military camp. The military personnel and local police, armed to the teeth, had assembled in great numbers. That was understandable. A counter rally in opposition to Le Pen took place around the Bastille monument that same day. After being searched by the police, I walked about a mile before I got to Hall 5B where the rally was being held.
The excitement within the large auditorium was palpable. Le Pen’s supporters were waving their French flags as the strains of “Bolero de Ravel” filled the air. There were no more than ten black faces amidst thousands of white people. This dazzling whiteness did not intimidate me. I was given a French flag by a Le Pen supporter which I didn’t wave. He was gracious enough to take a photo with me as he held high his flag. I kept my flag as a memento of the occasion.
An older woman observed: “She [meaning Le Pen] speaks to poor people. Nobody else does. She wants to protect them from immigrants and terrorists. They are afraid to lose their jobs but she doesn’t have an answer to their problems.”
2014 Edouard Louis wrote En Finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, an autobiography that charts his growing up in poverty in northern France. This bone-chilling work became an instant best seller. This year it was translated into English and published as The End of Eddy. Le Pen represents the poor people of whom Louis speaks. If Trinis think they have it hard, they should read the agony and shame this young gay man went through in rural France.
Louis maintains the poorer people in his region will vote for Le Pen because the established political parties have been silent about their predicament. William Julius Williams, a renowned Harvard professor, made a similar point with regard to the recent US elections. Only Bernie Sanders spoke about the plight of the poor, alienated Americans.
The people who attended Le Pen’s rally were enthusiastic about her candidacy. Her core support does not constitute more than about 25 percent of France’s population, but her supporters see her as someone who speaks to their hurt. It is no wonder her supporters chanted “Marine, President” and “We will win” during her speech.
Le Pen claimed that France “is a set of values that is passed down from generation to generation, like passwords.” The implication was obvious. No outsider; no immigrant could learn this code as easily as they think. A day later, Le Monde claimed she had plagiarized the words of François Fillion, one of her rivals in the first round of the elections.
On Tuesday “Wellesley in France” held a luncheon in my honor at a fancy restaurant in Paris. Anissa Bouziane, author of Le Chant du la Dune (Dune Song) and a former Wellesley student, was one of my hosts. That evening we met for drinks at Le Scossa, a brasserie at Place Victor Hugo. This brilliant woman of Morocco and French origins believed there is “a communality of frustration in the face of globalization between those who work in the rust belt of Pennsylvania, the coal mines of South Wales, and dying steel mills of Alsace. They feel they have been robbed of their dignity as human beings because they are impoverished. They feel the only way to salvage their dignity is to support the rightwing agendas of Le Pen, [Theresa] May and [Donald] Trump.”
Although Anissa voted for Macron, she is still haunted by the rightwing agendas of Le Pen, May and Trump. In spite of his brave words, Macron (the youngest president of France since Louis-Napoleon) still has to deal with the xenophobia, the anti-Semitism and racism that sit at the base of French culture. Lest it be forgotten, Le Pen wanted to impose a moratorium on all legal immigration into France.
Poverty remains rampant in France. Ten percent of its people are unemployed while 26 percent abstained from voting. One hopes Macron’s “cool mastery of the critical issues confronting the country” will allow him to lead France through this critical period in its history.
If he fails, Le Pen may just be around to pick up the pieces.