Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 7 April 2022

 This NYT article suggests that the French right, aided by important sections of the conservative bourgeoisie, is amplifying what are either minor problems or no problems at all. -Which is rubbish, of course. The appeal of the right owes everything to the perception that most of the bourgeoisie is more interested in income inequality than in social cohesion. The penalty for their greed and dereliction will be onerous indeed!

The Man at the Center of the French Election Isn’t Even on the Ballot

Credit...Mario Fourmy/Redux

Mr. Stetler is a journalist who writes about French politics.

PARIS — Like the rest of Europe, France is gripped by the war in Ukraine. Days from the first round of the presidential election here, the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron, hopes to prevail with what was, for much of the last two months, a muted campaign in which he posed as a steady hand in a time of global instability.

But for all the talk of a united West, the truth is that a noxious blend of oligarchy, nostalgia and bellicose nationalism is ever more ubiquitous on this side of the new Iron Curtain. In France, it is led by a buoyant and confident new right, represented in this election by Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally; Valérie Pécresse of the ostensibly moderate Republicans; and Éric Zemmour, the pugilistic proto-fascist commentator turned candidate.

Yet their electoral showing this month may be but a sideshow in a broader attempt to remake French politics. Behind them all, to one degree or another, is someone not even on the ballot: the media mogul Vincent Bolloré. The scion of an old industrial family, Mr. Bolloré wields a fearsome agenda-setting power; his outlets, known for adopting the flair, tics and style of Fox News, play an outsize role in directing the national debate. The three candidates from the right — and much of the political class, in fact — recycle, in varying shades, messages that run on a loop on his networks.

Those trying to get a handle on developments in France — where the fortunes of revanchist nationalism may not even depend on a far-right candidate coming to power — could do worse than to look to Mr. Bolloré, whose name is a byword for the political power of French oligarchs. Mr. Bolloré is a bellwether of a dangerous mood at the top of French society, one that extends far beyond the conservative wing of the elite. Fearful of decline, anxious about movements and ideas from below, the broader French establishment is eager to capitalize on the country’s divisions to cling to power.

Mr. Bolloré himself has ties in the most exclusive circles of the Parisian elite. After inheriting and reviving his family’s struggling paper business with his brother in the early 1980s, he developed a near monopoly on West African ports and logistics—activities from which he appears to be withdrawing. In the early 2000s, Mr. Bolloré set about building his media empire, which today encompasses two of France’s largest publishing houses, a major advertising agency, an array of society magazines and weeklies, a national radio network and the premium TV production group Canal+. Then there’s the jewel in the crown: the hard-right 24-hour news station, CNews.

Absorbed into the Bolloré orbit in the mid-2010s and quickly refashioned as a round-the-clock culture war organ, CNews cemented the prominence of Mr. Zemmour, who joined the network in 2019. Long known for his lamentations of French decline and his grumbling over what the far right sees as the “great replacement” of France’s white population, Mr. Zemmour took his platform to a new level last year. In November, he launched his presidential candidacy, running the hardest of hard-right campaigns, calling for mass deportations and the enforced “assimilation” of ethnic minorities.

Mr. Zemmour’s campaign has struggled in recent weeks, as Ms. Le Pen has solidified her position at the front of the right-wing pack. Drawing on supporters from the traditional center-right, however, Mr. Zemmour accelerated a sea change in the culture of French conservatism, one that Ms. Le Pen could even ride to victory in the coming weeks.

Mr. Zemmour’s dream of a “union” of conservative forces appears to be playing out at the level of public opinion and voter intentions. Under France’s electoral system, the top two candidates from the first round of voting, to be held on Sunday, will advance to the April 24 runoff vote. Assuming that the leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s climb in the polls won’t put him in contention, Ms. Le Pen appears to be poised to set up a repeat of the 2017 runoff between her and Mr. Macron.


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Ms. Le Pen trails Mr. Macron by a mere six percentage points in a hypothetical second round, according to a survey published last Saturday. Ms. Le Pen has strategically sought to distance herself from her more uncouth father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, but whatever remained of old taboos about voting for a Le Pen has been rendered even more a thing of the past by Mr. Zemmour’s campaign, which has been an extension, really, of the right-wing cultural blitz.

This was only a matter of time. The three major candidates to Mr. Macron’s right have marinated in a common culture of grievance and paranoia. The most moderate of the three, Ms. Pécresse, has spoken of the need to “eradicate zones of non-France,” part of an attempt to ape the language of the hard right as in a Feb. 13 speech in which she also complained about the “great replacement.” This is the groundwork for an eventual marriage between supporters of the Le Pen family’s national populism and the more polite conservatism of the Republicans.

Mr. Bolloré portrays himself as above the partisan fray, yet by building an integrated media apparatus for a hysteric, inflamed conservatism, he has reshaped French political life. France, according to CNews, is on the cusp of a breakdown of order and civility, one spark away from civil war. American-inspired “wokistes” and “islamo-leftists” — terms wantonly used as synonyms for progressive activists, intellectuals and politicians — are concocting a plot to emasculate France and its republican traditions. Immigrants are the massed bearers of collapse.

It is obviously tempting to view Mr. Bolloré as a Gallic Rupert Murdoch, an oligarch gone rogue who is dragging the whole country into the abyss because of ingrained ideological convictions. This has become the common narrative in the ceaseless press coverage of the multibillionaire.


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The reality is more complicated, however — and perhaps even more worrisome. According to ratings estimates, CNews viewership and audience tallies for Europe 1 radio are relatively low: Mr. Bolloré’s media influence lies not in sheer numbers but in how sharply his press holdings articulate far-right talking points that the rest of the media and political class are only too happy to relay.

And Mr. Bolloré himself is more opportunist than reactionary. Throughout his career, he was known for cultivating ties across France’s ideological spectrum — a necessity for someone invested in the high-stakes game of international development and commerce. Before CNews, Mr. Bolloré’s media possessions were appendages to his harder investments, not pawns in a coherent ideological project. His role as sponsor of the new right is quite recent.

In 2017, Mr. Macron’s victory was trumpeted as the end of France’s left-versus-right divide. And in a speech to supporters outside Paris over the weekend, he again vowed to resist “those who try to sow the poison of division, to fragment, to fracture men.”

But his government’s opportunistic borrowing from the far right says otherwise. In January, to cite just one recent example, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer gave the introductory speech at a two-day colloquium at the Sorbonne on the perils of “wokisme” and progressive identity politics. A representative of a government that claims to be a bulwark against reactionary nationalism, Mr. Blanquer was followed by Mathieu Bock-Côté, a polemicist currently filling Mr. Zemmour’s prime-time slot on CNews.

In 2022, France’s political culture is becoming a circle, with Mr. Bolloré drawing the circumference. Whoever wins the election, Mr. Bolloré will probably reflect on a job well done.

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