The Good Fight
Olivier Roy on France

Olivier Roy on France

Yascha Mounk and Olivier Roy discuss the rise of the French right.

Olivier Roy is a French political scientist and professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His latest book is The Crisis of Culture: Identity Politics and the Empire of Norms.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Olivier Roy discuss how the new European far-right differs from the old; the French concept of laïcité, or secularism, and whether it goes too far in curtailing public religious practices; and whether a new appeal to universal values and compromise is possible in societies fragmented by identity politics.

The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: Interesting things are going on in France at the moment. We had elections to the European Parliament recently, which really were, in my opinion, a series of national referenda about a series of national governments; unpopular governments in places like Germany got punished by the voters, and comparatively popular governments in places from Poland to Greece to Italy got reasonably strong results. But perhaps the most shocking outcome was in France, where the party of President Emmanuel Macron cratered to about 15% of the vote. And, by far, the strongest party was the party of Marine Le Pen, which had more than double the vote of Macron's party or any other party. As a result, Macron called fresh elections for the Assemblée nationale. So his presidency is not in doubt, but his parliamentary backing is being put to the test. And first polls and projections seem to indicate that Marine Le Pen's party will be by far the strongest faction in the Assemblée nationale. Tell us, Olivier, how you see the current situation and perhaps in the more long run how it is that the far right has gone from being a persistently present but marginal force in French politics to seemingly its first force, its most dominating political faction today.

Olivier Roy: There are two issues. One is the collapse of the political party of President Macron. And the second is the nature of the Rassemblement National of the so-called extreme right. And the first thing is President Macron never really tried to set up a strong political party. He always, in fact, despised his own partisans. He never gave full support to his own party and he is now undermining the very electoral basis of this party because the elected members of the parliaments of this party have no real roots. So what we'll see is the collapse of the president's party and he knows that. So in a sense, we may consider that he's playing his own destiny and his own perspective and he doesn't care about his own party. What we see is a collapse of the center—center right and center left. The Socialist Party was center-left, and a part of the traditional right party (conservative right) was also center-left. And Macron won seven years ago by joining the center—the two centers—the center right and center left. And we see that this part of the electorate is still here. Macron's party is 14% and the Socialist Party is 14%. So we still have 30% of center people who still are present on the electoral map. The problem is that they are not really represented. Why? Because on both sides, the extremes took the lead. On the left, it's Mélenchon with his ultra-leftist La France Insoumise, and on the right is Marine Le Pen. So the big failure of Macron was to have been unable to keep together the center right and center left. And why? It's because he played on the right. He made the same mistake as Sarkozy, the same mistake as François Hollande, to think that in order to undermine the Marine Le Pen party, one should take the same slogan, the same priorities, fighting immigration, fighting Islam and so on. And of course they all lost. They in fact comfort Marine Le Pen and they didn't get any new voters by adopting a part of the electoral program of Marine Le Pen.

Mounk: There's a number of serious political scientists who believe some version of this thesis. I know that Sheri Berman, who's an occasional guest in this podcast, for example, believes that when more centrist parties take up themes of the right, they only strengthen the right. I'm slightly skeptical of that thesis for two reasons, because first of all, you should expect that's the case for voters who are not convinced by these themes to move left, for the left to be strengthened by them. But what we're actually seeing is the opposite, that political discourse is drifting to the right in good part because, particularly in Europe on questions of immigration and yes, on questions of Islam, the electorate keeps moving to the right. So rather than voters who used to vote for a center-left party moving towards the left because they feel that their values are being betrayed by the rightization of these parties, what we actually see is that by far and away the strongest political force in the traditional milieu and electorate of social democratic parties is now the far right. So something about that doesn't seem to match up. And then the second point is that I think this assumes that somehow because these established politicians are willing to echo some of the themes of the far right or in some ways change their position on questions like immigration or to acknowledge that there are some problems with political Islamism in Europe, for example, that that completely changes the nature of public discourse. And if only they held the line, then voters wouldn't have the concerns they have. And I just think that, especially in an age of social media and very free-ranging political discussion, that overstates the impact that those kinds of forces might have on the public discourse. So tell me where I go wrong in that interpretation, particularly perhaps when it comes to France.

Roy: It's a bit particular in France. We have the so-called extreme right, Marine Le Pen, and the so-called extreme left, Mélenchon. So the voters of the center are shifting to the right because the left, Mélenchon, is not credible for different reasons. But now the question is, what is exactly the extreme right? Because we have two parties on the so-called extreme right: We have Marine Le Pen and we have Zemmour. Zemmour got only 5%. But the real extreme right is with Zemmour and has slowly left the Front National because they think that Marine Le Pen shifted too much towards the center. So they split into the extreme right, which allowed Marine Le Pen to appear as more moderate. And there is a big, something which is very specific to France, it's laïcité, which means political secularism. Normally, the left is more open to multiculturalism, to immigration, than the right. But in France, what we have seen during the last 15 years is a secular radicalization among the left. Normally not against migrants, but against Muslims. But given the fact that the bulk of the immigration is made up of Muslims, we have now this confusion between migrants and Islam. And if the left is not vocal against migrants, it has been very, very vocal against Islam. So the common point between Marine Le Pen and Macron and a part of the Socialist Party is their hostility to Islam as a religion. And the three of them adopted a strong secularist position. That's the main point they have in common. While Mélenchon is more multiculturalist, more open to Islam, not as a religion, but as a kind of multiculturalist approach, and Zemmour is pro-Christianity. Zemmour, who is not Christian, claims that we should restore a Catholic France. So the bulk of the traditionalist Catholics are voting Zemmour. They are not voting for Marine Le Pen. They consider that Marine Le Pen has shifted towards secularism.

Marine Le Pen has succeeded in appearing more centrist, more moderate, and taking her distance from her father's party. The issue is, is it real, is it in depth? We don't know. But in terms of visibility, she has succeeded, and it explained largely the rise of her party in the elections. 

Mounk: She certainly has succeeded in changing the perception of her party. You say you're unsure about the extent to which it's true. Right now, it's probably more likely than not that Marine Le Pen will be the next president of France. How worried are you personally about that prospect?

Roy: Less worried than my colleagues and friends who are all thinking that we are back to the ‘30s and we are threatened by some sort of Mussolinian or even Hitlerian future. I am presently living in Italy and we have Meloni. Meloni is Marine Le Pen—same story of genealogy in terms of party. Her party was a former fascist party and she is certainly conservative, reactionary, et cetera. But she is very careful not to use any kind of rightist ideology. She's playing on representation, she's speaking nicely of Mussolini. But in terms of effective policy, we have almost nothing of fascists. My view is that now all we do in Europe is see most of the extreme right parties as fascist parties. No, we are confronted now with the new extreme rights. The populists are quite different from the fascists before. The modern populists, they don't want a different society. They don't want a New Man. They don't want to create a new Europe, a new ideology. They want to protect what they call their way of life.

But they are not advocating a new society. They are very conservative. They are nostalgic, more nostalgic than conservative. And from that, they have two options. One is to see the golden years, the historical past of Europe in the Christian Europe. It's the PiS in Poland, of course. It's Zemmour. It's Vox in Spain. And it's, to some extent, Salvini in Italy. So in every European country, we have a small fringe of the extremists, which explicitly advocate a return to Christian Europe. And the church is itself very divided. But in fact, what do we see? Everywhere where the populists win, it's when they have given up the reference to a Christian Europe. The more obvious event is in Poland. The PiS was explicitly trying to recreate a Catholic Poland based on the rules of the church, anti-abortion, traditional family. They lost. Same thing in Italy. Salvini is in decline because he was referring to Christianity and he claims to be more Catholic than the Pope, which was a big political mistake in Italy. Meloni is totally different. Meloni doesn't embody the traditional Christian family. She is not married. She has a daughter outside of wedlock. And she has an autonomous life as an executive woman. Same thing for Marine Le Pen. 

Mounk: And Giorgia Meloni in a very public way split up from her romantic partner after he was caught on camera making derogatory comments about women.

Roy: Exactly. The winning populists know that our societies have changed since the ‘60s and that sexual freedom is now considered a part of our way of life. It's obvious in Holland, they elected Geert Wilders, who is a pro-LGBT guy, or at least a pro-gay guy. He claims to be a feminist. Same thing in Denmark: the Social Democrat Party of Denmark has the strongest anti-immigrants and anti-Islam policy in all Europe. Everywhere, the populists are defending not the return to the Europe of the ‘30s, but the return to the Europe after the ‘60s. 

They construct Islam as a conservative, anti-feminist, anti-LGBT culture. And they consider that as long as you are a Muslim, you share this culture. They may consider that assimilation is possible for some of these Muslims, but that there could be no cultural sharing. It's important to see what they want. They want to enjoy, but to enjoy between themselves, not to share, I would say that. They claim to follow European values, but they consider these values as an identity. It's no more universal values: We are feminist, they are not feminist, so we cannot share the same society.

Mounk: Explain laïcité to an American audience or to an international audience in ways that perhaps are more subtle than what you sometimes read in the main papers in the United States, for example.

Roy: The law on laïcité, 1905, was the law of separation of church and state. So it was a constitutional principle with legal consequences, but it said nothing about what is France, what are the values of the French society, et cetera. The law just organized the separation by stating what is allowed in terms of public religious practices, what is not allowed. And the law worked quite well until the ‘90s. And suddenly in the ‘90s a new term appeared in French politics, the “values of the republic.” 

It's totally a new term because from a constitutional point of view, there are no values attached to the republic. The republic is a principle of a constitutional system. It's not based on values. And this stress on values has been accented during the last 20 years, especially with the confrontation of terrorism, Islamic terrorism. So all the presidents from the right and from the left, they say, now, every French citizen should accept the values of the Republic. What does it mean? And clearly, the interpretation, which is not official, is that if you have religious beliefs, you should not show these beliefs in the public sphere. You should keep religion private. And you should accept the idea that it's a liberal society. And then they stop because they don't know how to define what is this liberal society.

There is no unanimity on same-sex marriage. There is no unanimity on, for instance, euthanasia or on abortion, et cetera. So they are unable to define what are the values of the republic. And the president today spoke about enforcing secularism and forcing laïcité. Why did he do that? Because he knows that he has that in common with Marine Le Pen. And so this could be the basis of a shared power. They agreed on that. So laïcité has been turned by both the right and the center into some sort of French ideology. This is the political culture of the nation, which is a big problem because it excludes believers. Not just Muslims, but a big part of the traditional Catholics, for instance, consider that this principle of defending the values of the Republic is turned also against Catholicism. There is more pressure on Catholic parents who keep children who do home schooling. There is more pressure on the exhibition of Christian signs in the public sphere. So what we are heading towards is some sort of official atheism, if I can say that, which has both extreme right roots and extreme left roots also. The funny thing is that now the center is embracing this concept of national republican values, which means exclusion of religion. And who, of course, are the most concerned by the exclusion of religion? The Muslims, by definition, because they are more visible and far more numerous than the conservative Catholics. So now, laïcité is a code word to say we don't want Islam.

Mounk: In my understanding, the French concept of laïcité from the beginning has always been about sort of limits to the ways in which religion is going to be a public and a political matter. It's trying to insulate a sphere of public and political life from the private religiosity of citizens that they should be able to continue. Now, I, in many ways, am more American. I share some concerns about ways in which the French conception, particularly as used in the last few decades, has put excessive limits on ways in which private citizens can be open and visible about the religious faith in the public sphere, which I do think is an important element of the freedom of religion. But I do wonder whether that historical rooting should make us a little bit more sympathetic about the arguments that are being made. And we shouldn't also recognize that there are parts of France and there's parts of other European countries now where, for example, if you are a girl from an immigrant background in a neighborhood with people who are Muslim immigrants, many of whom are strongly religious, or at least they're using that as a form of social control, there's going to be a lot of pressure put on you to engage, or not engage, in certain behaviors. And that can in fact severely limit the freedom of people in our society. And so there is a role for the state in ensuring that citizens are protected against the tyranny, not only of the state, but as liberal thinkers from John Stuart Mill on would realize, the tyranny of society, whether it's the majority of society, or whether it is the society that may happen to be a majority in your social network or in your neighborhood. 

So how do we sort of balance the legitimate concerns that motivated the law of laïcité in the early 20th century at the time of dominance of the Catholic Church and, I think, the legitimate concerns about how to make sure that people are coerced into a compliance with certain behaviors supposedly sanctioned by Islam in certain neighborhoods in Europe, with a more robust defense of freedom of worship that doesn't accept the limits that perhaps have now become customary among some political parties in France?

Roy: Well, in France, as everywhere, there are social pressures in specific places, a small village, a neighborhood, and so you may have social pressures to repress attitudes which are not in line with what the people see as a good thing to do. So when we have a huge Muslim presence in the small neighborhoods, you have some pressure. But it's largely exaggerated for political reasons. First, there is mobility. The youth is leaving, going elsewhere. Many second generation immigrants have a dual life. With their families, they look like good Muslims, but then they go outside the neighborhood and they are totally different.

But something which is important, we have a crisis of religions. The social pressure exercised by religion is diminishing precisely because the people are less and less involved in religious practices.We can say that the society is no more Christian, less than 5% of the French people still go to church, which is almost nothing. The number of practicing people is higher among Muslims. But we have sociological evolutions which are not taken into consideration. For instance, the rise of a Muslim middle class, the people with degrees, diplomas, professional activities, and so and so. If you look at any kind of professional books—the list of lawyers, the list of medical doctors, the list of surgeons—you see that now there is a huge proportion of Muslims in French hospitals, for instance. In my hometown in France, you have more Muslim surgeons than non-Muslim surgeons. So we have gentrification, a rising part of the Muslim population which is not acknowledged. And these people, when they have kept the faith, they practice, I would say, like modern conservative Jews or conservative Catholics. They don't put pressure on the neighborhood because they are living in a very diverse neighborhood. So this idea that we should protect the youth from the generation of the parents who impose on them Islam doesn't correspond to what is going on in the society. The problem is not too much social pressure. The problem is social disintegration, the disappearance of traditions and religious pressure. Now more and more, they are born again, the more radical Muslims are born again. It means that there are young people who were not especially Muslims and who decide to become born again Muslims, and who then are critical of their parents because they consider that their parents are not Muslim enough. That's a real problem. It's not the preservation of traditions (it was the case 20 years ago). What we have is a deculturation of migrants, which is parallel with what did happen in France concerning Christianity. Christianity was part of the landscape when I was a young boy. We had nuns. We had priests with the cassock, we had people going to the church when I was at school (I was Protestant). When I was at school, at the time of the first communion, there were only six boys who stayed in the classroom. All the others were in the church, and it was a state secular church, there was no problem at that time.

So now religion appears as something weird, and that's a big difference with the United States. In the USA, you still have visible religious practices and beliefs by maybe not the majority of the people but religion is considered not only socially acceptable but as socially positive. In France, it's exactly the contrary. There is a profoundly anti-religious feeling among the population. And this is on this basis that the right is trying to constitute electoral support. No, it's not about Christianity, it's about laïcité. And it's the same debate in Belgium, Holland, et cetera. What is left for religious freedom now? That's a real question, because religious people are in the minority everywhere.

Mounk: We've naturally arrived at the title of your latest book, which is The Crisis of Culture. What do you mean by a culture, particularly a kind of national culture, and why is it in crisis?

Roy: A culture is what I call a shared implicit in a community. This community can be a nation, an ethnic group, a religious group, village, country. And shared implicit means that you have a language, for instance. You speak the language and you don't put the rules of the language into question. Even if you disagree, you disagree by using the same language and everybody understands the other. We share some common body language. Once again, we can hate each other, but we show this hatred by using the same body language. When we look at emotions, we give names to the emotion, the same names. We know what it means to be happy, to be unhappy, etc. What I see now is the disappearance or at least the containment of anything which is a shared implicit, starting with language. It's not the first time in history that a language became an international language—Latin at the time of the Roman Empire and during all the Middle Ages, French was the European international language in the 18th century. And now it's something that we still call English. But it's not English. It's globish, what I call globish. What is the difference? When we learned Latin, when we learned French, we also learned Latin culture and French culture. Of course, it was an elite culture. But learning a language meant learning a culture.

Now the international English is no longer connected with the cultural English. You don't need to know Shakespeare to speak and, more than that, it's better not to know Shakespeare if you want to be understood by the people. So what we have is self-simplification of English by using something between 1,000 and 2,000 terms. It doesn't mean that the people do not speak good English, but even when you think to speak good English, you simplify your own English because you are not sure that the other guy speaks good English. So we have this kind of uniformization of globish in simplification not only of the number of words, but by using words in non-equivocal dimension. So you cannot joke, you cannot make jokes now, because it's equivocal now. And you transform the language into a code, which means that the word and the meaning should be univocal, that a word means a word. Yes is yes, no is no. And you cannot add nuances between yes and no, maybe, maybe not. It's like the driving court: Red light is a red light, and green light is a green light. You cannot make jokes or change allusions. So now it's what is becoming the rule. Another example, emotions. Emotions are expressed by different forms of body language, by your way of speaking, by allusions, etc. Now, you want to mention an emotion, you have to make it explicit. So you use an emoji or an emoticon. The person in front of you, your correspondent, has to understand that you are angry, or you are happy, or you are half bitter, so you can make some nuances. But the meaning has to be absolutely explicit. And in this kind of communication, culture is what has to be ignored. You may have a culture. You may share a culture with friends, with even a national culture. But as soon as you enter into the world of the internet, for instance, then you have to give up this culture.

So the two consequences are what I call codification, in the two senses of the term codification. One is systematic explicitation of what you do, what you say, what you want. And the other is a transformation of practices into normativity. The examples are very easy to find. To people over 40, I say: look at what was your institution, your school, your business, the law of your country, the penal law, the civil law 20 years ago, and look now. Not only have the laws been extended considerably, but things which were not under law, which were not adjudicable, are now under law. The law of tort, for instance, has been considerably extended during the last 20 years. And when you speak about tort, for instance, emotion and so, you have to say everything. You have to give the details of the sexual relations, for instance, but you have to express your feelings, your inner feelings, in order that everybody understands. So if we want to take some sort of an intellectual comparison, when I was young, psychoanalysis was the culture, the idea that what is very important is implicit, and that the unconscious will always remain some unconsciousness, but that you can, in a way, make some part of this unconscious explicit. But you have to live with your unconscious now. Now, when you have a problem, you don't go to the psychoanalyst, they are almost criminalized now. You go to Alcoholics Anonymous. And at Alcoholics Anonymous, you have to say everything. You cannot speak of something which is too complex, you have to use the others as benchmarks. You have to put your attitude into a series of benchmarks that have to be respected by all the others. What is looked at is your explicit words and your explicit behavior, which is quantified. That's the big change. And it's a profound civilizational change.

Mounk: So there's a lot of very interesting material in that. Two points. One is I love the United Kingdom in many ways and spent wonderful years there, but it's not clear to me that Britain has a superior culture to the United States, though many of my British friends would insist that it does. And, in fact, America has been incredibly successful in the modern world, perhaps in part because the price of entry to its culture is so much lower. More broadly, I wonder whether you aren't recreating Herder's distinction between culture and civilization, because Herder's critique, and that of many German romantics in the 19th century as Napoleon expanded his influence over Germany, was that we have this thick, grown culture that has a lot of diversity to it. One village has a different culture from the next, that has the thick understandings that are required to be a part of it. And the French, with their revolution and the Napoleonic code, are rationalist simplifiers who want to hold us all to universal standards and impinge on our culture. And so a lot of the sort of German reaction in the 19th century, political reaction, but also reaction against French influence sort of was an anxiety about the loss of that kind of implicit culture that you're talking about. Now, ironically, you're saying today the inheritor of the abstract rationalist civilization in the eyes of Germany that France has become, you're treating that as the culture and saying that it's threatened by a new kind of civilization in the form of a globish influence by the United States. I don't know that that historical resonance necessarily invalidates your theory. But I just wonder whether that should make us skeptical about that concern in the present day.

Roy: I think that this distinction between civilization and culture, which was very strong in the 19th century, for the reasons you said, is no longer working. Because there is no such thing as civilization. Now, of course, culture still exists. But culture is more and more restricted to small groups, inward-looking groups. It's why we have more and more now cults or populist movements. They want to reconstitute a community of culture, of people who can share without having to justify themselves. So culture remains as nostalgia, not as real content. And we claim to have a civilization, but it doesn't work. The big debate on the clashes of civilization, for instance, is invalidated precisely by the absence of content when we speak, when we try to define a civilization. 

What is called civilization now, the use of the term is in fact very often to say that we, since, let's say, ‘45, have a new global civilization based on human rights, and that it's a universalist civilization. So we have the coming back of the universal standards defined by the French in the 19th century. The problem is that these standards are not based on a real society, on a real culture. They are abstract and they are implemented by courts, by rules, by law. That's the big problem now. Why do the courts play such a role now at every level? Not just in the USA, but in Europe too now we have many Supreme Courts which didn't exist before. The role of the American Supreme Court is far bigger than it used to be one century ago. The court was there, but it didn't have the political role that it has now. And it's not just because Trump succeeded in appointing people, the court is far more complex than that. The European Court of Human Rights is also playing a big role, which was not foreseen before. It's because all these principles exist mainly through norms and not because they are accepted values by a given society or a given culture. Norms are replacing values. And so in this case, I think we cannot speak about a civilization.

My personal view is that we should return to politics, to political settlement inside the society, negotiations between groups. The way, for instance, the capitalists and the working class have been able, at the end of the 19th century, to start to find a compromise. How states are able to compromise on their borders and so and so. But it's not what we see now. There is a rejection of compromise at every level of the society, even the family level, if I can say that. 

The problem is that we have a more and more individualized society and so everybody is fighting for his own rights. And so we have a society that is more and more split, not just in groups but even inside the groups. You have the individuals take genders. The list of genders is increasing because there is always somebody who says, I don't identify with your list of identities, so I will add my new markers for myself. And at the end, there is no more society.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.