A letter from Marseille: politics and identity in France
In March I spent a little time in (and fell in love with) Marseille, France's poorest, most diverse major city, trying to figure out the election that would eventually witness the implosion of the country's Socialist party and the election of the 39-year-old, party-less candidate Emmanuel Macron. I was particularly interested in the debate over identity, immigration and Islam that has dominated French politics in recent years, in part due to terrorist attacks and in greater part due to the fear-mongering of the far-right Front Nationale. I think the election of Macron is the best outcome one could have hoped for in this particular election, but the FN isn't going anywhere and we'll have to see what the new president can accomplish to address the economic issues, mistrust of the political system and identitarian divides the country is struggling with.
I wrote this for The Point, an excellent Chicago-based magazine on politics and culture I strongly suggest you subscribe to. It will be included in the next print issue.
I stayed with an old friend, M., who lives at the top of the Canebière, an artery that descends in a straight line to the old port, where sailboats bobbing in the water are watched over by the gleaming statue of Mary atop the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde—which everyone refers to as “la Bonne Mere.” The historic center of Marseille, unlike that of Paris, has not gentrified. I heard Arabic everywhere, and the busy central market of Noailles—where downtown residents buy their produce—was full of halal butchers, veiled female shoppers, men sitting in cafés, and shops selling olives, spices and pastries from North Africa.
This kind of bustling neighborhood seems to be the worst nightmare of many in France, who lament that in such areas, which they may never set foot in, their country has turned into “a foreign land.” The election was taking place in the wake of several terrorist attacks (beginning with the bloody assault of the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015), carried out in great part by French citizens of immigrant origins. One of the front-runners in the election, Marine le Pen, was the candidate for the Front National (FN), an isolationist, populist far-right party that has campaigned on anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment. Le Pen is adept at mixing concerns about terrorism with fears of other “threats” to the Republic, such as burkinis, veils, halal meat and Arab rappers. But wringing one’s hands over the imminent imposition of Sharia law has become a political gambit, an intellectual industry and a literary genre common across France’s political spectrum.
“France’s obsession with identity is symptomatic of a crisis of the political system, of France’s place in the world,” Thierry Fabre, a prominent Marseille intellectual, told me. Fabre is a specialist in Mediterranean studies and a champion of cultural exchange between Europe and the Arab world. Twenty-three years ago he founded Les Rencontres de Averroes, a prominent annual series of public talks with scholars, artists and writers from both sides of the Mediterranean. “From the point of view of living together,” he said, Marseille, despite its divides, flaws, and contradictions, “is an emblematic city of the 21st century,” an example to be followed. Yet he admitted that France’s “machinery for integration has broken down. We are witnessing the exhaustion of the Fifth Republic.”
Indeed, a feeling of hopelessness, indignation and restlessness hung in the air in Marseille: the sense, which seems common to so many countries these days, that things can’t go on as they are. To some extent, this has to do with the economy. Growth has been stagnant for years in France, public services are strained, and unemployment hovers at around 10 percent. Yet a concern with shrinking opportunities and unfairness has morphed into a much larger malaise. France suffers from a debilitating obsession with identity, and has nothing but disgust for the country’s politicians, who are viewed as corrupt, out of touch and out of ideas. From people on the left I heard the word “catastrophe” more than once. “The point you have to make in your article,” M. told me, “is that we don’t know who to vote for.”