As the polls reopen this weekend for the coronation of Emmanuel Macron, the political establishment will congratulate themselves for having once again imposed their Parisian groupthink on the entire country.
Without getting too bogged down in the election, which Marine Le Pen will certainly lose, the question poses itself: how does this imposition of ideology work? To see how, and as a small distraction from the great events sweeping the national stage, may I invite you to my own corner of southern France? Specifically, to the city of Béziers, whose 75,000 inhabitants face monumental challenges in the struggle to adapt to globalisation and to escape years of decay presided over by the local socialist party. In Béziers, the full force of the judiciary and media have been mobilised to bring down the elected mayor, who has refused to follow the accepted script.
Béziers is a laboratory for a new alignment in French politics, one that unsettles the establishment. At the centre of this is Robert Ménard, the mayor of Béziers, not a member of the National Front, but someone who is comfortable doing business with them. His ideas for uniting the right in France will be tested in the forthcoming realignment of French politics following the 2017 election season.
Ménard is a journalist, though he distrusts the media and political establishment and he speaks plainly. As a result of this he has been targeted by the local newspaper, the Midi Libre, controlled by a dynastic socialist family, and the magistrates, in a blatant attempt to delegitimise him. He is currently the subject of a number of legal attacks wending their way through the torturous, teleological French judicial system.
Last week, Ménard was once again condemned. This time, it was by the 17th chamber of the Tribunal de Grand Instance in Paris, which is the corner of the judiciary that concerns itself with what does, and does not constitute liberty of expression. He was accused of spreading hate speech, and he is appealing. Ménard is as yet not much heard of outside France. But his story reinforces the idea that anyone daring to step outside the acceptable parameters of debate forfeits the right to liberty of expression.
The tribunal never found evidence that anyone specifically was harmed as a result of Ménard’s speech. He had said that the majority of the young people in his city’s elementary schools were immigrant children and that this presented a ‘problem’. This can be imagined to be hate speech, I suppose, by the most sensitive, but if the objective is integration, not isolation, then Ménard has a point. He is also accused of having counted the children, which is another offence in France. What happened to the right to communicate ideas, guaranteed in the European and Universal declarations of Human Rights? Not applicable, it appears, if like Ménard, you are outside the consensus zone. Je suis Charlie? Not in Béziers.
Ménard has been ‘diabolisé’ by the French media because he has dared to speak out, and courageous enough to act, outside the parameters of grand debate. Whether you like it or not, he has done so from a right-wing, Catholic point of view, for which he has been called a fascist, which he is not. He mixes easily with people of different races, nationalities and religious traditions. He has a rather touching belief in the ideals of French republicanism. He respects democracy, without any doubt.
Ménard pushes all the most tender buttons of the politically correct. He is hated because he did a deal with Marine Le Pen to help get elected, but he also did one with the local UMP (as it was, then) and others in Béziers, who’d had enough of an exhausted socialist administration. By the standards of Parisian political correctness, this makes him a fascist, apparently.
He has hired more cops and given them guns. He warned about the consequences of admitting more refugees and said those who had arrived must respect French norms. He imposed a curfew on young people. He is firm on the protection of ancient French cultural traditions. If he is a populist, it is that he understands the importance to speak in words that people understand. He admires Donald Trump. (I suspect an insufficiency of information). But he reads books, and just wrote one himself, which is almost lyrical in passages (misguided in others). He is an intellectual. It is agreed rather widely that he has been an excellent mayor. The city looks better, is safer, cleaner than it has been in many years.
He is also firm, and has some authority as he has been a student of the media for decades. He understands that French journalism has become hopelessly captive, as a consequence of a gigantic system of subsidies that makes editors and journalists dependent on the approval of the state.
As the climax builds to the presidentielle, freedom of expression in France belongs mostly to those who say exactly the same thing within the parameters of established discourse. It belongs to those whose operations are generously subsidised by the state. This includes outright payments, concessionary postal rights and a privileged tax regime for card-carrying journalists. It is easy to count a billion euros in direct and indirect subsidies to the press, but there is easily a billion more diverted towards the state’s radio, television and internet networks, all singing from the same songsheet. Even the AFP is a creature of the state, which is one of its biggest customers.
So a certain conformity of point of view is to be expected. Especially so when a candidate like Marine Le Pen appears, who threatens to take an axe to these subsidies. It is hardly surprising that the apparatus is turned against the establishment’s opponents. Yet it is also ironic that Robert Ménard, a founder of Reporters without Borders, which was established to protect transmission of ideas, now finds himself with the apparatus turned against him.
Away from the media bubble in Paris, here in the sticks where the folk consider themselves ‘paysans, et fier d’être,’ politicians like Ménard may represent the future. The Parisian elite seems to be pulling off something of a coup d’état in Paris at the moment, installing the marionette Macron at the Elysée palace. But one wonders how French voters will react to five more years of Hollande’s protégé.
Jonathan Miller is a councillor in southern France. He is the author of France, A Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. He tweets @lefoudubaron