How to Write About the Right: An Ex­change with James McAuley and Greil Mar­cus

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Mark Lilla

To the Edi­tors: As The Wash­ing­ton Post’s cor­re­spon­dent in Paris, I have in­ter­viewed a num­ber of the char­ac­ters Mark Lilla cites in his es­say “Two Roads for the New French Right” [NYR, De­cem­ber 20, 2018]. Lilla’s ac­count fails to con­front the white supremacy at the heart of a move­ment he ul­ti­mately de­scribes as a “co­her­ent world­view.” Although he is cor­rect that there are im­por­tant evo­lu­tions un­der­way on the French and Euro­pean right, he over­looks an im­pla­ca­ble big­otry that re­mains the essence of the project. Any re­spon­si­ble dis­cus­sion of the move­ment’s new de­vel­op­ments must be­gin and end there.

“Some­thing new is hap­pen­ing on the Euro­pean right, and it in­volves more than xeno­pho­bic out­bursts,” Lilla writes. But in many cases, xeno­pho­bia is far from pe­riph­eral. The ha­tred of mi­grants and for­eign­ers is the essence of the pitch that the con­tem­po­rary Euro­pean right has made to vot­ers. How else do we ex­plain the ten­dency of right-wing par­ties across the con­ti­nent to fo­cus on a so-called “in­va­sion” of mi­grants, even as their num­bers con­tinue to fall? Ar­rivals are down to their low­est lev­els since 2015, when Europe ex­pe­ri­enced a his­toric in­flux of mi­grants and refugees that trig­gered a po­lit­i­cal cri­sis with no ap­par­ent end in sight. The lead­ers of far-right and, now, main­stream con­ser­va­tive par­ties across the con­ti­nent are fo­cus­ing squarely on im­mi­gra­tion and the al­leged threat to na­tional iden­tity it poses. In many cases, the rhetor­i­cal line be­tween “right” and “far right” is in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to de­lin­eate.

This is ex­actly the cli­mate that has en­abled the rise of Mar­ion Maréchal—for­merly Mar­ion Maréchal-Le Pen—the twenty-nineyear-old scion of France’s, and prob­a­bly Europe’s, best-known far-right dy­nasty. A dar­ling of Steve Ban­non, Maréchal ad­dressed the Con­ser­va­tive Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tion Con­fer­ence (CPAC) in Wash­ing­ton this past Fe­bru­ary. Lilla quotes Maréchal’s re­marks in that speech ex­ten­sively, as os­ten­si­ble ev­i­dence of a new in­tel­lec­tual move­ment among a younger gen­er­a­tion of Euro­pean con­ser­va­tives. But he se­lec­tively omits other lines from that same speech, which clearly sit­u­ate Maréchal in a right wing ter­ri­fied by the prospect of a white ma­jor­ity ap­par­ently un­der siege. “Af­ter forty years of mas­sive im­mi­gra­tion, Is­lamic lob­bies and po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness,” she said at CPAC, “France is in the process of pass­ing from the el­dest daugh­ter of the Catholic Church to the lit­tle niece of Is­lam, and the ter­ror­ism is only the tip of the ice­berg.” Given that Lilla quoted so much else of what she said, read­ers of The New York Review de­serve to read the ex­treme words from a woman Lilla presents as both “calm and col­lected” and “in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­clined.” Her speech was also fun­da­men­tally dis­hon­est: ac­cord­ing to most avail­able es­ti­mates, Mus­lims count for no more than 10 per­cent of the to­tal French pop­u­la­tion.

I have in­ter­viewed Maréchal twice for the Post: once in Paris in April 2017, and then again in Septem­ber 2018, when I saw her at the In­sti­tute of So­cial, Eco­nomic, and Po­lit­i­cal Sciences (ISSEP), the new ed­u­ca­tional en­ter­prise she founded in Lyon. What both­ers me most about Lilla’s ac­count is that he ap­pears will­ing to ac­cept un­crit­i­cally and at face value the im­age that Maréchal and her as­so­ciates at­tempt to project, which is that they are in­tel­lec­tu­als and thus en­ti­tled to le­git­i­macy. But if we must dis­cuss her ideas, there is one an­i­mat­ing con­cept that seems to fuel her en­tire project: le grand rem­place­ment, the no­tion that Europe’s white ma­jor­ity is in the process of be­ing re­placed by Mid­dle Eastern­ers, North Africans, and sub-Sa­ha­ran Africans. It’s a con­cept largely de­rived from the polemi­cist Re­naud Ca­mus, but it is by no means con­fined to France’s, or Europe’s, po­lit­i­cal ex­tremes. In any case, few have de­fended it as doggedly as Maréchal. As she said in 2015: “There is in fact to­day a sub­sti­tu­tion of cer­tain parts of the ter­ri­tory of so-called na­tive French by a newly im­mi­grated pop­u­la­tion.” To that end, in Lyon, when she de­scribed to me the project of ISSEP, she kept us­ing the word en­racin­e­ment—“root­ed­ness.” A rather sug­ges­tive choice for a busi­ness school’s mis­sion state­ment, no?

I would also point out that a num­ber of the widely dis­cussed evo­lu­tions on the French and Euro­pean far right to­day—es­pe­cially the at­tempted in­roads with the gay com­mu­nity, the Jewish com­mu­nity, and women—also be­long to this same nar­ra­tive. Right-wing lead­ers have largely based their ap­peals to these groups by stok­ing fears of a Mus­lim other that is some­how a threat to the lo­cal “civ­i­liza­tion.” To take just one ex­am­ple, con­sider what Maréchal told me in 2017: “To­day we have a phe­nom­e­non of rad­i­cal­iza­tion where sharia is be­ing ap­plied in im­mi­grant neigh­bor­hoods,” she said. “Women’s rights are los­ing ground in those neigh­bor­hoods.” How­ever much we dis­cuss the de­gree to which right-wing fig­ures like Maréchal are evolv­ing on these is­sues—and I am still un­sure how much of that nar­ra­tive to be­lieve—we have to ac­knowl­edge that the ha­tred of the other is prior to that evo­lu­tion, and in fact is of­ten the rea­son be­hind it. Lilla de­scribes Maréchal’s ideas as the sign of a new pol­i­tics that some­how blends tra­di­tional con­ser­va­tive so­cial val­ues with an at­ten­tion to ecol­ogy and a hos­til­ity to mar­ket eco­nomics. I agree that what we’re see­ing does present a new blend of ideas that once would have had noth­ing to do with each other. But this new blend is still an ide­ol­ogy of ex­clu­sion, and there are im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal an­tecedents to con­sider in that re­gard.

For ex­am­ple, Lilla seems par­tic­u­larly in­trigued by the en­vi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness of the lead­ers of this new far right. He is of course cor­rect that any sub­stan­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism is cer­tainly lack­ing on the Amer­i­can right these days, but ecol­ogy was also a fun­da­men­tal com­po­nent of French in­tel­lec­tual his­tory in the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­turies. For the re­ac­tionary French writ­ers of that era, such as Mau­rice Bar­rès, ecol­ogy was pri­mar­ily a means of de­fense, as it ap­pears in his novel Les Dérac­inés (1897): it is a re­turn to the land, al­most al­ways in­voked as the ter­ri­toire, but most im­por­tantly it is a reaction against moder­nity and the forces seen to in­spire it. For many right-wing French writ­ers in the nine­teenth cen­tury, those forces were the Jews. To­day’s far-right ex­trem­ists do not de­vi­ate from that his­tory when they blame mi­grants for France’s so­cial ills. Af­ter read­ing Lilla’s piece, I re­played the record­ing of my most re­cent con­ver­sa­tion with Maréchal, and the words she chose are the same as those in­voked by pre­vi­ous ad­vo­cates of or­gani­cist con­ser­vatism. “We are in a ter­ri­toire,” she said at one point. “We have an ecol­ogy to re­spect.”

“Mar­ion is not her grand­fa­ther,” Lilla writes, re­fer­ring to the founder of the Front Na­tional and no­to­ri­ous Holo­caust de­nier Jean-Marie Le Pen. But what ev­i­dence does he have for that claim? When I met her for the first time, I asked Maréchal about her grand­fa­ther. This was her re­sponse: “I am the po­lit­i­cal heir of Jean-Marie Le Pen. At the Front Na­tional, we are all his heirs. He was a vi­sion­ary.” Although she has nom­i­nally con­demned anti-Semitism, she ul­ti­mately had this to say about his in­fa­mous 1988 re­mark, re­peated many times since, about the Nazi gas cham­bers be­ing a mere “de­tail” in the his­tory of the Sec­ond World War: “I do not think he meant to harm any­one by say­ing that,” she told me.

I agree with Lilla that we should ab­so­lutely be pay­ing at­ten­tion to what is hap­pen­ing in these cir­cles, but we must also be more hon­est about what, ex­actly, we are wit­ness­ing.

James McAuley Paris Cor­re­spon­dent The Wash­ing­ton Post Paris, France To the Edi­tors: Mark Lilla’s calm and mod­er­ate piece on the new French right tracks what has been de­vel­op­ing in France over the last two years, es­pe­cially re­gard­ing Mar­ion Maréchal. But he might have gone even fur­ther. It is clear that dur­ing this pe­riod there has, as he says, emerged a co­or­di­nated and sym­pa­thetic affin­ity be­tween seem­ingly dis­parate na­tions, but less as a new right Pop­u­lar Front, as he sug­gests, than as a new Fas­cist In­ter­na­tional. One could in­clude in this In­ter­na­tional not only many gov­ern­ments in Cen­tral and Eastern Europe, but also those of Italy, the Philip­pines, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Ara­bia, the Emi­rates, In­dia, soon Brazil, and even Is­rael (un­der its cur­rent and seem­ingly per­ma­nent regime, but cul­tur­ally im­preg­nable in terms of the stran­gle­hold the re­li­gious right holds). There is also po­ten­tial for fas­cist gov­ern­ments in France, Ar­gentina, and Chile, and pos­si­bly in Aus­tralia and Ja­pan—with the US and Rus­sia as the two poles of grav­ity. Build­ing such an In­ter­na­tional is not only Steve Ban­non’s se­ri­ous project but also ap­par­ently that of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion: as Richard Gren­nell, the US am­bas­sador to Ger­many, re­cently said, his job was less to ful­fill tra­di­tional di­plo­matic obli­ga­tions than to sup­port and co­or­di­nate the Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land with fra­ter­nal move­ments across Europe.

Lilla’s men­tion of Charles Mau­r­ras was es­sen­tial. He cast a post­war spell over more peo­ple than any­one wants to talk about, and his burial was never com­plete. But one might also think of the sec­tion in The Great Gatsby where Tom Buchanan rants about the col­ored em­pires and the end of white hege­mony (“If we don’t look out the white race will be—will be ut­terly sub­merged”), which Nick doesn’t take se­ri­ously: “Some­thing was mak­ing him nib­ble at the edge of stale ideas.” In Amer­ica such ideas will never be stale, and that goes dou­ble for Europe.

Greil Mar­cus Oak­land, California Mark Lilla replies:

Writ­ing about the po­lit­i­cal right has never been harder. Dif­fer­ent kinds of right-wing ide­olo­gies and po­lit­i­cal for­ma­tions are pro­lif­er­at­ing and shak­ing lib­eral gov­ern­ments around the world, as Greil Mar­cus points out. This makes it dif­fi­cult to keep track of all the de­vel­op­ments, dis­tin­guish them, and es­tab­lish the con­nec­tions be­tween them. At the same time, lib­eral and left forces that want to re­sist these de­vel­op­ments are in­creas­ingly hos­tile to learn­ing any­thing that does not con­form to their set­tled ideas about the right. A mis­placed wo­ke­ness works like Am­bien, dulling our cu­rios­ity and will­ing­ness to en­gage, and thrust­ing us into an in­tel­lec­tual twi­light where the only thing we see is the fa­mil­iar specter of white supremacy.

James McAuley has writ­ten ex­cel­lent pieces on the French right and Mar­ion Maréchal, so per­haps it is a dé­for­ma­tion pro­fes­sionelle that leads him to read my own ar­ti­cle in­side out. It was not an ar­ti­cle pri­mar­ily about Mar­ion; had it been, I would have dis­cussed most of the things McAuley men­tions. Nei­ther was my am­bi­tion to of­fer an over­view of the French right and reach a gen­eral con­clu­sion about it. Rather I was con­cerned with new el­e­ments on that right, two of which drew my at­ten­tion. One is newly ac­tive Catholic so­cial con­ser­va­tives who fall be­tween the es­tab­lish­ment Répub­li­cains party and the far-right Rassem­ble­ment Na­tional (né Front Na­tional), both of which are gen­er­ally sec­u­lar. The other is a group of young Catholic in­tel­lec­tu­als who have rather co­her­ently linked their so­cial con­ser­vatism to a se­vere cri­tique of con­tem­po­rary glob­al­ized cap­i­tal­ism. Hav­ing writ­ten a book on re­ac­tionary in­tel­lec­tu­als, I am quite aware of an­tecedents to that link run­ning back to the nine­teenth cen­tury, not only on the right. But ever since main­stream right-wing par­ties em­braced ne­olib­er­al­ism in the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury, there has been no se­ri­ous cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism on the right in any ma­jor West­ern coun­try. These young French writ­ers re­mind us that it is still pos­si­ble. That Mar­ion has picked up some of their ideas, or at least the rhetoric, shows that they might have con­se­quences— though not nec­es­sar­ily those they in­tend. All of this strikes me as not only wor­thy of note, but im­por­tant given the grow­ing in­flu­ence of the right just about ev­ery­where. That is not to say that it is be­nign. As the ti­tle of my ar­ti­cle stated clearly, there are two paths be­fore these young in­tel­lec­tu­als. One is to start de­vel­op­ing “a re­newed, more clas­si­cal or­ganic con­ser­vatism” in­flected by Catholic so­cial teach­ing that could have a mod­er­at­ing ef­fect by coun­ter­bal­anc­ing the far right and of­fer­ing an al­ter­na­tive to it. The other is to con­trib­ute to build­ing an ag­gres­sive Chris­tian na­tion­al­ist ide­ol­ogy

that one writer I quoted called “rev­o­lu­tion­ary, iden­ti­tar­ian, and re­ac­tionary,” in con­cert with other sim­i­lar forces in Europe re­spon­si­ble for the “xeno­pho­bic pop­ulist out­bursts” I also men­tioned. McAuley is quite right to point out Mar­ion’s cagi­ness in speak­ing in these two reg­is­ters. And like him I would prob­a­bly bet on the na­tion­al­ist strain dom­i­nat­ing in the end. Which would force these young writ­ers to choose: that’s the drama.

In any case, this is what I was try­ing to get at in the ar­ti­cle. But a reader of McAuley’s let­ter who had not seen the piece might come to a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion: that it was in­tended to white­wash Mar­ion (or her grand­fa­ther, or right-wing forces ev­ery­where; it’s un­clear which) and ig­nore the real an­i­mat­ing forces on the right, which are “white supremacy,” “ha­tred of the other,” “big­otry,” and “an ide­ol­ogy of ex­clu­sion,” all whipped up by the phan­tom of im­mi­gra­tion. In other words, never mind all the things that seem new, for­get the writ­ings about fam­ily and sex­u­al­ity, for­get all the talk about or­ganic com­mu­nity, for­get the lash­ing out against ne­olib­er­al­ism and tech gi­ants, for­get Pope Francis (an in­spi­ra­tion for some). It all comes down to ha­tred: “Any re­spon­si­ble dis­cus­sion of the move­ment’s new de­vel­op­ments must be­gin and end there.”

That sen­ti­ment is so com­mon on the left, and not only in France, and so fruit­less for con­fronting the con­tem­po­rary right, in all its man­i­fes­ta­tions, that I’m moved to re­spond, though this was not my orig­i­nal sub­ject. The forces McAuley lists are real enough in our so­ci­eties. But it is fool­ish to deny or min­i­mize so­cial re­al­i­ties that xeno­phobes ex­ag­ger­ate and ex­ploit, in the vain hope of cut­ting off their oxy­gen. Equally fool­ish is an un­will­ing­ness to take up fun­da­men­tal po­lit­i­cal ques­tions that the xeno­phobes give bad an­swers to, and to try giv­ing bet­ter ones—ques­tions like Ernst Re­nan’s “What is a na­tion?” These avoid­ance in­stincts must be re­sisted. If there is any­thing we’ve learned in re­cent decades, it is that clos­ing our eyes or es­tab­lish­ing taboos on what can and can’t be dis­cussed, or how, al­ways back­fire. The left needs to present peo­ple with a fuller re­al­ity than the right presents, not an equally re­stricted one. For ex­am­ple, il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion in France has in­deed dropped since 2015—but the lev­els be­fore then were al­ready fu­el­ing anger and frus­tra­tion, since nei­ther the French state nor the EU had been able to mas­ter them. And un­less one be­lieves in open bor­ders, cit­i­zens are per­fectly right to ex­pect that what­ever level of le­gal im­mi­gra­tion has been demo­crat­i­cally de­cided will be en­forced. If not, the demo­cratic sys­tem it­self will look il­le­git­i­mate. Un­con­trolled im­mi­gra­tion, along with eco­nomic glob­al­iza­tion, are the ma­jor fac­tors be­hind the grow­ing dis­trust plagu­ing lib­eral democ­ra­cies. It is not just big­otry.

But of course, as McAuley knows quite well, the term “im­mi­gra­tion” is re­ally a eu­phemism in France for the Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion as a whole, which is largely made up of cit­i­zens and le­gal res­i­dents just liv­ing their lives. It ob­vi­ously serves the xeno­phobes’ in­ter­ests to use the term to un­der­mine their le­git­i­macy. This is the real dan­ger. But it does not help to deny that there are press­ing prob­lems of Mus­lim in­te­gra­tion into Euro­pean so­ci­eties, or to pre­tend that this is sim­ply be­cause of that xeno­pho­bia. There are chal­lenges in neigh­bor­hoods, schools, hospi­tals, and pris­ons. And those chal­lenges con­trib­ute to de­mo­graphic wor­ries, which a dem­a­gogue like Re­naud Ca­mus ex­ploits with his dystopian “great re­place­ment.” Though the Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion has grown to only 10 per­cent so far, over a quar­ter of all chil­dren born in France have at least one par­ent born out­side Europe, most from Mus­lim coun­tries. So the Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion will con­tinue to grow. What this will mean for French re­pub­li­can­ism, the sec­u­lar ide­ol­ogy that un­der­girds the state and the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem, is un­clear. But la­bel­ing any dis­cus­sion of such mat­ters racist will only sell more copies of Re­naud Ca­mus’s books. For those con­cerned about the an­tilib­eral forces gain­ing strength in world pol­i­tics, the most im­por­tant thing is to main­tain one’s sangfroid. Be­fore we judge we must be sure of what ex­actly we are judg­ing. We need to take ideas se­ri­ously, make dis­tinc­tions, and never pre­sume that the present is just the past in dis­guise. Greil Mar­cus falls into that last trap, I’m afraid, by shift­ing from dis­cussing the affini­ties among coun­tries to imag­in­ing a Fas­cist In­ter­na­tional with poles in the US and Rus­sia. What­ever we are fac­ing, it is not twen­ti­eth-cen­tury fas­cism. Hell keeps on disgorging new demons to be­set us. And as sea­soned ex­or­cists know, each must be called by its proper name be­fore it can be cast out.

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