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by Richard Greeman
THE FEAR THAT IS GRIPPING France today stands in ghastly contrast with the positive national mood during the days immediately following the horrific Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. (Please see my earlier report here.) Three weeks ago, the French people gallantly defied fear by gathering out of doors to share grief, affirm solidarity and demonstrate their love of peace and of freedom. On a more recent weekend, the streets were deserted (it’s true the weather turned cold) and soldiers with submachine guns were on patrol. The nights have been punctuated by unnecessarily brutal SWAT-team-style commando raids on mosques (two here in Montpellier), Arab residences, and businesses. By Wednesday, the government was rounding up Green activists in advance of Sunday’s COP21 meeting in Paris, where demonstrations have been banned.
A near-unanimous, joint-session of the French Assembly has voted, without discussion or debate, to extend the current State of Emergency for another three months and to enact yet another new set of security restrictions, which effectively outlaw the normal functioning of democracy — meetings, assemblies, marches, etc. Then they sang the “Marseillaise.” Thus President François Hollande, wrapping himself in the flag, has succeeded in uniting the entire French political class, normally so quarrelsome, in a bellicose, security-obsessed “National Union” (like the jingoistic “Sacred Union” of World War I). Hollande has united the whole spectrum from the left through the “Republican” center-right (Sarkozy and his rivals) to Marine Le Pen’s semi-fascist National Front.
The provisions of Hollande’s 2015 State of Emergency proclamation have a history: They derive from the 1955 Algerian War State of Emergency, which in turn derived from the Emergency Power, granted in June 1940 by the last parliament of the Third French Republic, to Marshall Pétain, who ruled the French state from Vichy. Today’s atmosphere of civil war brings up memories of Paris during the struggle for Algerian independence, when, under the State of Emergency, the police broke up our student anti-war demonstrations and in 1961 murdered hundred of Arabs on a peaceful march, throwing their bodies into the Seine.
Today, warrants are no longer required for raids, which are decided on the judgment of the prefect of each locality using “justified suspicion” as a criterion (prefects are state officials appointed by the party in power to serve as the governors of France’s 101 Départements). Here in Montpellier, an imam who notably tweeted his condolences and condemned the November 13 attacks is under house arrest because he was considered “turbulent.” Near Paris, a mixed commando raid of police and army stormed a family restaurant called the Pepper-Grill, making the diners (men, women, children) place their hands on the tables, and lining up the cooks and owners at gunpoint. What was the “justified suspicion?” The patron, a non-religious French Arab, used halal produce in his dishes! A six-year old girl was injured in another violent raid. Now, with the fate of the planet supposedly at stake in Paris, the authorities have started arresting green activists, and the minister has declared that “maximum security” is the key to “a successful climate meeting.”
Not content with having extended and tightened the State of Emergency, the Hollande-Valls government is proposing an amendment to further tighten the Fifth Republic’s already authoritarian Gaullist Constitution. Prime Minister Manuel Valls, pushing his emergency measures through the Assembly, contemptuously rejected the very idea of constitutional review by the judicial branch. In another near-unanimous warlike gesture, the National Assembly extended the bombing of Syria well into 2016, and the government has requested all French people to fly the tricolor flag from their windows and balconies. This request is not likely to fly in the immigrant banlieues (where in any case French flags are in short supply) and their absence will thus provide further fuel for division by stigmatizing France’s Arabs as anti-patriotic.
IN THE FACE OF PATRIOTIC posturing, security crackdowns, and beating of war drums, the French people have been cowed into silence, and voices of open opposition have been rare and hard to find in either old or new media. Here is one:
While the State is thus freeing itself from the rule of law, preferring the exception to the rule, society has been put on furlough, or rather in quarantine. How can they seriously imagine they can call the voters to the regional polls when democracy has been told to remain silent, to avoid assembling, to no longer hold meetings, march or demonstrate? The excuse of Security is utilized to close society against itself and empty public space of its substance. At a time when the challenge of the climate poses the fate of civilization, the authorities use the attacks as a pretext to close our borders to the citizens of the world who are now mobilizing for that universal cause. The international marches of COP21 have now been banned as will probably be any street demonstration expressing dissent or dissidence.
Thus writes Edwy Plenel, former editor of Le Monde and founder of the online daily, Médiapart, an author whose avowed models are Victor Serge and Albert Camus, from whom he borrows the title of his article on the State of Emergency: “The Blood Wedding of Terrorism and Repression.” Plenel reminds his readers that Hollande’s demagogic patriotic posturing is déjà vu: a rerun of Bush, Cheney, the Patriot Act, and the unjustified and needless invasion of Iraq — an invasion which France opposed and which predictably led to civil war, regional chaos, and the gestation (in part supported by the CIA and Saudi Arabia) of today’s Islamic State.
For Plenel, although Hollande’s Security State measures will remain useful for quashing opposition, strikes, demonstrations, etc. among the French, they are legally superfluous, since France, having been subject to several waves of terrorist attacks since the Algerian war, already has very tight security laws. These laws were reinforced in 1982, 1986 and 1995 after new waves of bombings. Unnecessary for tracking terrorists, Hollande’s repressive measures — banning demonstrations — can only be aimed at quashing democratic, non-violent opposition at home. They also serve to cover up the glaring failures of the French security apparatus, which, according to original investigative reports by Médiapart, allowed high-profile terrorists, two of them involved in the January Charlie attacks and the other in the November Bataclan attack, to slip through its fingers.
Other voices of dissent, including a call to “Defy the State of Emergency,” surfaced as we got closer to Sunday November 29th, the date of the planned world-wide demonstrations for climate justice — including the banned march of 200,000 in Paris. The prefect of Avignon banned demonstrations, but they were legal here in Montpellier. In Paris, Attac and Alternaba called for a human chain of people joining hands on the sidewalk of Boulevard Voltaire from Place de la République to Place de la Nation. More boldly, a group of writers, professors and publishers published a call for open disobedience, which had passed the 5,000 mark on Facebook by December 1st.
On the negative side, the recognizable left has been found wanting. Charlie Hebdo, famous for its anti-patriotic and anti-religious satire, has now become one hundred percent patriotic and openly islamophobic, putting the Trotskyist NPA, which criticised the State of Emergency, “in the same sack” as “a friend of ISIS.” Likewise, the feminist journalist and Islam specialist Caroline Fourest, always critical of Islamism, has now become a full-fledged hawk and raving patriot.
As for labor, the national unions have been for the most part mum after Valls invited the leaders of the rival confederations to a long private meeting where he reassured them that their rights would be respected under the State of Emergency; but locally members of the more radical union SUD have openly protested. There has been some dissent among party politicians on the far left. A group of Greens opposed the extension of the State of Emergency, and the Left Front of Mélanchon and Co. are keeping a low profile. The Trotskyist New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) has denounced the State of Emergency and published an excellent Marxist analysis, but has not called for any specific action, and in Montpellier, an NPA militant told us she was “uncertain” about joining us at Sunday’s demonstrations called for by the civil society groups. So much for organized vanguards.
IF THE GOAL of the terrorists was to provoke France into escalating an endless, unwinnable war in Syria and to foment a racial/religious civil war on the home territory, they have, alas, succeeded — thanks to the opportunism of Hollande and the Socialists. Wrapping his portly figure in the tricolor flag of patriotism, Hollande has carried out a silent coup in the name of “security,” declaring “war without pity” against “barbarism.” This latter term apparently includes civil rights, tolerance, and democracy. Today’s reign of fear has been instituted not by the terrorists themselves (as demonstrated in the days following the attacks) but by the fear-mongering of the government, slavishly followed by most of the media. Thus the Islamic State set the trap, and the French Republic fell right into it.
The question is Why? You can’t say the French leaders weren’t warned. The negative example of the “Bush scenario” was constantly being evoked — both after the Charlie attacks and even for a couple of days after the Paris attacks — by media and politicians justifiably smug in their French exceptionalism. So why did they fall for it this time?
It is perhaps useless to look for an adequate explanation in France’s Middle East geopolitical strategy. French policy there has been incoherent for years. In 2007, President Sarkozy lavishly received Muammar Gaddafi in Paris, inviting him to pitch his tent in the official residence of Marigny and selling him 4.5€ billion worth of French-made armaments. In 2008, Sarkozy personally invited Bashar al-Assad to Paris for Bastille day, presumably to watch the latest French jets fly by. Then, rather suddenly, these welcome guests and lucrative allies got transformed into intolerable barbaric dictators, and “regime change” became the only solution. Thus, in 2011 France instigated the air war that overthrew Gaddafi and led to unending civil war in Libya with armed chaos overflowing down to Mali — another former colony where France is mired in a war against Islamic terrorists. Moreover, France has now joined the U.S.’s losing war in Iraq, meanwhile selling arms big-time to the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, whose subjects, in turn, support the Islamic State.
Likewise, Assad, once France’s ally, is now a deadly enemy. France has a century-old colonial interest in Syria, which was granted to her as a “mandate” in the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire at Versailles in 1919. (Britain grabbed what became Iraq). Never mind that this week the French are bombing not the Assad regime, but ISIS, its rival and enemy. Alas, it appears that the Syrian civil war has evolved into an international contest as to which outside power can kill the most Syrian civilians. Those bombs, which in any case France has been dropping since 2011, are designed to serve to guarantee France a place at the table if and when Syria is again redivided by the bombers.
So there is little coherence in French foreign policy, and nothing that would explain Hollande’s historic decision after 13/11 to lunge at the bait held out by ISIS by unleashing a wave of war hysteria and assuming the powers of a wartime dictator (like Clemenceau, also a man of the left, during World War I). If not foreign, the explanation must be domestic. According to received wisdom in America, “All politics is local,” and “local” here means France, an historically fragile Republic that has been overthrown four times and threatened by coups d’état on several others. Looked at through the lens of “local politics,” we observe the following evolution:
Before the 13/11 attacks, François Hollande, a mediocre party politician, was seen as a washout, a loser with zero charisma, a lame duck facing partial elections and not even sure of his party’s renomination for the 2017 presidentials, in which the Socialists are likely to be outmaneuvered and outvoted by Marine Le Pen. Like Sarkozy, he even had embarrassing problems with ex-spouses. Then Hollande had his 9/11 moment. Presto change-o, the “weak” President declared “war” and decreed a State of Emergency. Moving into the fast lane, he passed Mme Le Pen on the right, co-opting her National Front into his government of National Union. There Marine is free to spout Trump-like suggestions about tearing down mosques, mass roundups and “preventive internment.” Socialist Premier Valls politely acknowledges them (without actually rejecting them!).
Three weeks days into “war” and FH’s poll numbers have gone way up. Now he’s striding onto the international stage, making the rounds of the Big Three (albeit hat in hand), puffing himself up as a new de Gaulle, playing the world leader in time of war. Never mind that last month the U.S. and Russia each made upwards of two thousand airstrikes in Syria to France’s two dozen. This global strutting plays well at home. With Russia and Turkey duking it out, France will be the core of a “coalition of the unwilling.”
President Hollande’s bellicose posturing reminds me, as a history buff, of the bombast of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s 19th-century tragicomic Emperor, whom Victor Hugo famously dubbed “Napoleon the Little.” The parallels with Hollande’s ascension are curious. In 1851, at the end of his term as President of the Second French Republic, Louis Bonaparte pulled off a coup in order to remain in office, consolidate his power, and pay his debts. He abolished the fledgling Second Republic, decreed a Second French Empire (whose anthem, believe it or not, was “Departing for Syria!”) and crowned himself Napoleon III. The opposition, including Victor Hugo, fled abroad. (Karl Marx wrote a highly readable account of this event under the title, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. It refers to the date in the Revolutionary Calendar when the original Napoleon took power in a coup [November 9, 1799]. Marx referred to the 1799 coup a “tragedy” and its 1851 repetition by Napoleon the Little as a “farce.”)
In 1870, his popularity waning, Little Napoleon saw fit to make warlike speeches and threats against Prussia. He came a cropper when Bismarck, Prussia’s “Blood and Iron” Chancellor, called his bluff. Using a ruse (a forged telegram), Bismark lured Louis-Napoléon into a trap, provoking France into declaring war while Prussia’s army was ready to fight and France’s wasn’t. In a single battle (Sedan) the Prussian army surrounded and captured Napoleon III at the head of his main army — and that, children, was the end of the Second Empire.
Alas, Bonapartist farce has been frequently revived on the French stage. In 1889, another ambitious politician, General Boulanger, built up a huge following clamoring for “Revenge!” (against Prussia), nearly grabbed power, but then faltered at the last minute (he at least had the good taste to commit suicide). Boulanger’s followers then supported Marshall Pétain.
François Hollande, following in the charlatan footsteps of Louis Bonaparte, has so far successfully consolidated his power by declaring war on an even bigger rival than Prussia: “barbarism” (read: the Arabs). If history is any guide, Hollande’s “war” will continue to lead to tragic blowback, and the unfortunate French people, today sleepwalking in their grief, will pay the price in blood for a posturing petty politician’s pitiful personal ambition.
Richard Greeman is a veteran socialist scholar and activist, best known for his translations and studies of Victor Serge (1890-1947), the Franco-Russian writer and revolutionary. He divides his time between New York and Montpellier, France.