Nostalgia and the Conservative Ostrich

With François Hollande winning the first round of the French presidential vote, Sarkozy’s re-election prospects are looking quite grim, and the dawn of a new age in French politics seems to be fast approaching. The French cultural mirror, head turned sharply back (to call it vain would be cliché), is proving to be unsustainable in the 21st century: Amelie might have sustained the wonderful simulacra of Montmartre, artistic and quirky, but this whitewashed past hasn’t simply vanished in the desert of postmodernism; it has really never existed at all.

As conservative forces continue to preoccupy themselves with Islam, banning veils, prohibiting the construction of mosques with minarets, inanely demanding whether French citizens might be eating halal without knowing it; Muslims, who have become something of a significant voting demographic, have demonstrated that they will likely vote far-left in the upcoming election, as M’hammed Henniche, head of the  Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis (UAM 93), stated in an interview by Al-Jazeera. Questions of what constitutes French identity, of whether a cultural construct ought to be such a significant policy issue, are (finally) being drawn to their logical ends: France, like almost every other Western neoliberal democracy, is more and more becoming a nation of immigrants; ideology, and not ethnicity, is becoming a better measure of national cultural identity.

This does not bode well, however, for a nation which guarded its pride, all but effaced in the light of World War II, on the patriarchal patriotism of Charles de Gaulle. The resulting friction between nostalgia for a powerful and influential (white) France which never was precisely as it is remembered, and the realities of the 21st century, is, as Oliver Guez develops in his brilliant Op-Ed, “an old nation that increasingly cultivates the temptation to be an island unto itself.” Rather than following through with its membership in the Eurozone and its relatively-privileged economic status, certain French politicians bemoan the waves of immigration, particularly of Roma (you might know them as “gypsies”) and other undesirables, and avoid the economic realities—unemployment, the collapse of social services—plaguing the PIGS countries. The past few years under Sarkozy, and Hollande is quite insistent upon underscoring this, have been plagued with austerity and job losses, while discourse has focused on cultural questions of identity, giving rise to the ambiguously nationalistic (and frankly terrifying) rhetoric which seems more and more acceptable among European politicians.

Once dubbed the bling-bling president for his flashy manners (after all, his [third] wife is Carla Bruni), Sarkozy seems to be the embodiment of a crassness about contemporary conservativism which simultaneously derives its power from fear and hatred of the Other and which elicits a certain disgust among most reasonable individuals. Indeed, the 21st century conservative fosters a sense of safety and comfort in what is known, in “taking care of our own” instead of reaching out in times of distress—this can be seen everywhere from Paul Ryan’s calling for absurd slashing of social programs (why help those others, those poor?) to France putting aside its international role (recall: it holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council). What fascinates this reporter, however, is how conservatives garner the support of the have-nots: those who do not benefit from the current system but nonetheless vote to continue it simply for fear of the new. What is even more interesting is that the “familiar” often turns out to be a nonexistent past (a homogenous and patriotic France, or a ruggedly individualistic US) while the “different” turns out to be closer to real history (France as, ideally, nation where every colonial subject was to have the same rights as a white French citizen, or the US as a land where widespread social programs and 90% tax on the rich led to the Pax Americana).

This parallax, or propagandistic subterfuge, might serve as an apt warning: we might do well to remember that “radical,” as in politically radical and far-left, has it’s etymology from the Latin radix, meaning root: let us go back to the roots, for the great irony of the 21st century may very well be that politically-savvy French Muslims may prove to be better inheritors of France’s revolutionary tradition than mainstream white conservatives demonizing them.