Have you felt a gentle Gallic breeze with a hint of wine and cheese wafting in from the East? That was France’s collective sigh of relief (OK, 66 percent collective). And the breeze with hints of bratwurst and beer that followed shortly thereafter was the German sigh. Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen with almost twice as many votes, staving off the wave of populism that had been cresting across the industrialized world.
No one was very surprised at the result here in France. I was a concerned, but primarily because it seemed that everyone I voted for in either of my two countries lost. I was beginning to think my vote was toxic (and I’d point out that it wasn’t just a liberal thing; I also voted in the primaries for the mainstream right in France). But on the whole, no one expected Le Pen to win, although many expected her to do much better than she did. In fact, she didn’t actually get 34 percent of the votes—about ten percent “voted white,” meaning they returned a blank ballot to express their dissatisfaction with either candidate, so in reality only about 24 percent voted or Le Pen.
I think it’s safe to say that her brand of populism—which echoes that of Britain’s Nigel Farage and America’s Donald Trump (although neither Farage’s nor Trump’s populism is rooted in overtly fascist nostalgia)—is anathema to humanist values. These political movements are largely fueled by nationalism (often masquerading as patriotism), intolerance, and xenophobia, and it is important for those who proclaim themselves humanists to speak out against any movement that bases itself in these values.
However, as a French-American I observe two dramatically different forms of this struggle and of political discourse in general. I assume most people reading this will be American and may not be entirely aware that political discussion in the United States has become very, very different from such discussion elsewhere.
I was recently reading Michael Shermer’s excellent book The Believing Brain. When he talks about political beliefs he discusses the stereotypes liberals hold of conservatives, and vice versa. He also states that these stereotypes and the resulting animosity are universal. To a degree that’s true, but perhaps not in the same way nor to the same degree as Dr. Shermer imagines. I am convinced by the evidence that there is a genetic and certainly environmental predisposition toward conservative or liberal positions in each of us, but when one divides one’s life between French and American cultures, it’s not the similarities that stand out but the differences.
In France there are no screaming radio hosts spitting vitriol into microphones, no thriving tabloid press, no newscasters heaping uncritical praise on favorite sons or daughters. What’s more striking, if you observe the newspapers carried on trains or planes by businesspeople, often you will see them with both the right-leaning Le Figaro and the left-leaning Le Monde, because after all, you want to see all sides of an issue, and if it’s a Wednesday just about everyone will also be reading the Canard Enchainé, a weekly satirical investigative newspaper that is certainly on the left but that is inevitably critical of every politician who was ever born.
French political debates are also quite different. It’s true that the one debate between Le Pen and Macron was close to an American slugfest, but typically candidates talk about issues to a very large degree, they typically avoid personal matters, and never, ever invoke God. I have friends in France who support the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon and those who supported the very conservative François Fillon (I was always a Macron man), and when we talk politics—and the French often talk politics—we discuss, debate, explain, and exchange ideas. Sometimes heatedly, but usually with respect. In the United States I know very few conservatives with whom I feel comfortable having a political conversation.
I actually put this in the lap of the post-Reagan Republican party more than anything else. When I first became aware of politics, in the late 1970s, I was probably more Republican than anything else. Republicans struck me as responsible, non-ideological accountant-types whom you trusted not to screw things up (Nixon aside). They had a lot of good points, they were stewards of a proud tradition, they were conservative, but what most appealed to me was that they were trying to conserve something admirable and fundamentally humanist: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—in other words, the principles of the founding fathers, including the separation of church and state. Since then, it strikes me that a Republican who professes moderation, responsibility, and a lack of anti-humanist, anti-science ideology is shunned by the party itself.
My impression is that what the United States needs most to protect humanism is less a sad victory of progressives over an overtly populist demagogue, but the resurgence of prudent, responsible conservatism. Let me be clear: I still wouldn’t vote for such a candidate personally, but the discourse would be enriching for all. Politics without true debate quickly degenerates into demagoguery.
Which leads me to Le Pen. How can I sing the praises of the French political system when the daughter of a neo-Nazi, his ideological heir, just had a shot at the presidency? I can do so because she lost resoundingly, and I believe she lost because there is true discourse in France. The Austrians led the first post-Trump counterattack when Alexander van der Bellen beat Norbert Hofer for their largely symbolic presidency. The Dutch struck a blow with the defeat of Geert Wilders, but the French election was populism’s Stalingrad, its Midway, its Gettysburg: not the last battle, but the one that really turned the tide, and the weapon used was discourse. In that horrid May 3rd presidential debate, Le Pen did her best to drag Macron into an acid-flinging insult-fest, but she failed. He was firm but focused on actual discussion, in which she was incapable of engaging. Even before that, the French came out in droves to vote in the open primaries on either side, and believe me, we all talked about it among ourselves extensively throughout the process. Constructive debates went on throughout society, at least among those who hadn’t been swayed by the populist rhetoric in the first place.
I don’t know what the answer is in the United States. Part of it probably has to do with legislation; there are extremely strict limits on campaign spending in France. Part of it probably has to do with the media; the absence of tabloid-style media inevitably makes for more reasoned discourse (and I’ll point out that all the media, regardless of its political views, refrained from reporting on the content of the hacks of the Macron campaign’s emails the day before the election). But a lot of it has to do with the willingness of the French to engage in true discourse among themselves, and not simply seek out those with whom they share similar views.
I’ll bet most Americans who identify as humanists also identify as liberals, but that may be by default for some as the Republican party has staunchly allied itself with non-humanist values. However, there is room for conservative humanism. To a large degree, I think it was conservative humanism that led to Marine Le Pen being so decisively defeated in France, and as liberal as I am, I very much miss it in the United States. So, if there are true conservative humanists among you, please speak out! I promise to listen with an open mind and with respect. And please, please either do what you can to transform the Republican party back into that of Eisenhower and Lincoln, or create a conservative party with humanist values to replace it.