France at the Authoritarian Crossroads

The French tricolor waves in the breeze as Parisians celebrate President-elect Emmanuel Macron’s victory outside the Louvre Museum on May 7. | KELLY COGSWELL

It’s almost a miracle how, in just one year, centrist Emmanuel Macron and his supporters launched the grassroots movement En Marche! (On the move!) that not only got him into the second round of the presidential vote, but helped him win.

Much of the work was done by folks who hadn’t been involved in politics before, including many women and people of color. Victories in the upcoming parliamentary elections, when voters are not facing the threat of white nationalist Le Pen, will hopefully confirm that democracy still works in France, and people not tapped into traditional parties can still have a voice if they are willing to knock on enough doors.

Even if they win, France is still at a crossroads. In the first round, almost 50 percent of voters chose a populist from the extreme right or the extreme left.


In the final round, anti-Europe, anti-immigrant right-wing Marine Le Pen won thirty-four percent of the vote, drawing in not just voters from the center right, but poaching some from the extreme left. Like Trump, she also benefited from the many leftists who chose to stay home or vote blank and take their chances with virulent white nationalists, rather than vote for a centrist.

At a recent political meeting, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, whose family literally had to hide from the Nazis, blamed the growing power of the racist, authoritarian National Front on the French failure to remember and transmit their knowledge of Nazi atrocities. That’s absolutely true, but I also blame the left worldwide for ignoring their own totalitarian past, so that when their candidate gets knocked out it’s no stretch for them to abstain or even to embrace an extreme right promising to support workers. After all, class trumps everything, from misogyny to racism and the abuse of human rights. And when they say class, make no mistake, it’s a white male factory worker they’re thinking of.

It started with Stalin, who in the name of that working class, executed a million or so “enemies of the state” often identified by their ethnicity. He killed another million in the gulags and deliberately engineered famines that killed another five million, including more than a million nomads of Soviet Kazakhstan and 3.3 million in Soviet Ukraine. Poles were targeted, too. According to historian Timothy Snyder, “it was Stalin, not Hitler, who initiated the first ethnic killing campaigns in interwar Europe.”

Not that anyone cares. Part of the problem with the left is that they are just as willing to ignore facts as any Trump voter. When it comes to Cuba, for instance, every report about the long-term failure of the 1959 revolution — the poverty, the corruption, human rights abuses, the racism, and homophobia — has been denounced as fake news. Every voice protesting the treatment of the opposition is dismissed as a CIA plant, or just dismissed.

When I told a dyke acquaintance I’d never vote for the extreme left French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon — a re-packaged Communist — because he was too fond of tyrants, like Russia’s Putin, Syria’s Assad, and Venezuela’s Maduro, she first claimed the media made up those connections. And when I pointed out his recent, lengthy eulogy for Castro, she declared her own love for Fidel. And when I brought up the queers he threw in jail there — “including my girlfriend” — she sneered like I was pathetic for letting concentration camps stand in the way of embracing the Revolution.

Most recently, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela seduced the masses at home and abroad with his fancy Bolivarian speeches.

But if you dare explain to someone that the country is now an economic and political disaster where dissidents are jailed, you can’t buy an aspirin or a roll of toilet paper, hospitals are closed, people are dying of hunger, and there are mass protests where demonstrators across the political spectrum are shot dead in the street… the typical leftist response is, “But they’re from The Right, aren’t they?”

Call me a right-wing reactionary, but I find this callousness as monstrous as the bloated rage of any Trump or Le Pen, and just as racist. Instead of the exploitation of natural resources and labor, these colonialist revolutionaries worldwide prop up dictators with alt-facts, alt-narratives so they can play out their utopian fantasies. That the ordinary people in places like Venezuela and Cuba might aspire to the same standard of living, the same freedom and human rights that we enjoy in the US or France, is of no consequence whatsoever.

This is playing out in France, too, where the left is determined to thwart Macron’s incremental proposals for economic reform. They see only that the rich might benefit, never consider why so many people of color and immigrants who voted Socialist for decades and got nothing might enthusiastically embrace the social mobility, jobs, and improved education that are largely the point of Macron’s plans. I get the idea that they want black and brown people to stay poor and pure, untainted by the privilege or money they themselves inherit, which they often pretend appeared under their pillow or grew on a tree.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.