Nobody does a culture war like the French. This, bien sur, is the home of the Dreyfus affair, which, from 1894, split the country over whether a Jewish army officer had been a spy. He hadn’t. The conflict set the pattern for culture wars: the partisans were divided not by the facts of the case but by their reactions to Dreyfus’ religion. In 2021, the line cut by the Dreyfus affair can still be traced; though which side president Emmanuel Macron is on remains an open question.
In 2017, the young president swept to power with a centrist, reformist agenda. For many voters of the left and the centre-right, his La République En Marche! party was an acceptable rallying point against an unpalatable alternative: Marine Le Pen. Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, is likely to face Macron again in next year’s presidential election. Recent polling shows Macron would lead Le Pen by only 53% to 47% in a face-off.
In an attempt to increase that gap, Macron’s government has tacked right on the country’s perennial debate on the place of Islam. The real danger, according to France’s higher education minister, Frédérique Vidal, is “Islamo-leftism” in universities. Motivated by the beheading last October of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, France has brought forward legislation to bolster security and tackle Islamic “separatism”. Such laws have a disproportionate effect on France’s Muslim population. Macron’s hard-line interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, sees such targeted enforcement of assimilation as popular and necessary: a bulwark against Le Pen.
On another divisive issue, France’s historic abuses in Algeria, Macron’s position is less clear. His government has recently committed to release historic military records and has admitted to the torture and murder of nationalist, Ali Boumendjel. Macron, however, avoids talk of a general apology or reparations. On this issue too, observers see Macron’s former liberalism hardening into defensiveness.
France’s run-off electoral system does, however, mean a contest between Macron and Le Pen may never happen. An unexpected outsider could, in the year we have left until the election, disrupt the anticipated duel: just as Macron did in 2017. Although Macron’s strategy may never face an electoral test, it could still have results.
France’s third republic was stricken by the divisions of the Dreyfus affair. In 1940, this weakened body politic perished quickly. By reopening old wounds, France’s government is risking long-term damage for short-term gain.