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.”
In Marseille, in the first round of the election, nearly half of those who cast ballots opted for the two most extreme, anti-establishment candidates: Le Pen and the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The two shared a deep suspicion of the E.U. and globalization, and a vision of the country as fundamentally bankrupt and unfair.
The election marked the nationwide collapse of the Socialist Party, which hardly anyone voted for at all. Late last year, President François Hollande was so unpopular—his approval rating was stuck in the low single digits for months—that he decided not to run for a second term. In 2015, he had alienated many of his supporters in the Socialist Party by forcing through an unpopular labor law. He also angered both conservatives—when he helped to engineer the legalization of gay marriage—and progressives—first, when he toyed with the idea, in the wake of terrorist attacks, of passing a law that allowed the state to strip citizens of their nationality (such a law was last used in Vichy France against Jews). “We have a left-wing government that has had right-wing policies,” I was told by Fatima Orsatelli, who recently finished a term as a representative for the Marseille region, elected on a Socialist Party list.
Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party’s candidate, advocated for a form of universal basic income and environmentally responsible development. In the final weeks before the first round of voting on April 23, he was dramatically overtaken in the polls by Mélenchon, whose Communist backing, gruff persona and lyrical tirades against the “gilded classes” drew a surprising level of support. His proposals included taxing incomes over 400,000 Euros at 90 percent, leaving NATO, renegotiating E.U. treaties, and allowing for any public servant to be fired by referendum.
On the right, the suave François Fillon ran on a socially conservative platform and promised the moral leadership to impose the austerity he deemed necessary to revive France’s stagnant economy. Then he was sandbagged by a series of corruption scandals, the most damaging of which involved the allegation that he had hired his children and wife to hold fictitious jobs as aides, paying them over 900,000 Euros. Many suggested that Fillon should resign; instead, he cast himself as an embattled victim, accusing the press, the judiciary and the Hollande government of engaging in “a political assassination.” This approach rallied his supporters, but for many other voters Fillon came to exemplify the endemic corruption and blind entitlement of politicians to whom the rules never seem to apply.
The weakening of the candidates of the traditional left and right provided an opening for Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old whiz kid of finance and politics. A product of France’s elite schools who made a fortune in banking and served two years as Hollande’s finance minister, Macron left the Socialists to found his own independent movement, En Marche! (“On the Move!”), which he has described as a pragmatic, economically and socially liberal third way. Macron has been ridiculed by adversaries as lacking substance (“the hologram candidate”), but his boyish charm and technocratic optimism appeal to many. He also seems willing to break some taboos. This spring, on a visit to Algiers, Macron condemned France’s colonization of Algeria as a “crime against humanity”—a remark that was met with indignation and discomfort.
Macron was the country’s best chance to beat back the far right and “save the day,” Orsatelli told me back in March. But the question remained of whether voters thought there was something worth saving. Orsatelli’s own views of the political system are scathing: it is ruled by nepotism, determined to stifle outsiders and reformers and thinks it can simply “buy the poor” through patronage networks. Such condescension has led to “a political collapse,” she said. Meanwhile, “Islam is being politically manipulated” and the right is “surfing on populism and people’s misery.”
Macron, as predicted, won the first round of voting alongside Marine Le Pen, who could count on the solid support of her base in the second round. Macron presented himself as a candidate for change, a young and dynamic figure running without a party structure. But he did not propose a stark departure from the status quo, just a smart recalibration of it. Wealthy, educated, backed by a significant portion of the political establishment and a savvy media campaign, he struck many as “smooth and empty”—“a pure marketing product,” as one of M.’s friends said.
Fifteen years ago, when I was a student in Paris, Jean-Marie Le Pen—Marine’s father, the founder of the FN, and a Holocaust denier—made it for the first time to a run-off against the incumbent, the conservative-leaning President Jacques Chirac. Le Pen thought France should never have given up Algeria; he likened people with HIV to “lepers” and suggested Ebola could “solve France’s immigration problems.” That he was in the running for the presidency shocked and shamed many. I remember following my French friends into the streets to protest as soon as the results of the first round were announced. Chirac refused to debate Le Pen. Left-wing voters supported Chirac in the second round, forming what was known as “the Republican front,” an alliance against the FN.
That front has held the last fifteen years, but the FN has continued to inexorably gain ground, especially under the leadership of Le Pen’s blonde and middle-aged daughter Marine. She took over the party in 2011, ousted her father entirely within a few years, and oversaw a makeover of the party’s image. Today FN candidates will be kicked out of the party if they are caught making overtly anti-Semitic comments, although Marine Le Pen herself still skirts the line. While campaigning before the first round, she said that the responsibility for the deportation of French Jews to concentration camps during World War II falls to individual officials, not to the French nation. (In 1995, barely two months into his first term as president, Chirac said the opposite in a public ceremony.)
Le Pen, meanwhile, doubled down on her condemnation of immigration and “Islamist fundamentalism.” She has compared Muslims praying on the sidewalk outside mosques to the Nazi occupation and is in favor of banning the headscarf everywhere (it is currently banned in high schools). The veil is “a sign of women’s subjugation—there are no consenting victims,” she said in a presidential debate in April, exasperating the left-wing candidates, who argued that applying France’s existing 1905 law on laïcité, which protects freedom of religion and the secular nature of the state, is largely sufficient—there is no need for new provisions targeting Islamic practices in particular. Macron told her: “The trap you are falling into, Madame Le Pen, with your provocations, is to divide society,” making “enemies out of more than four million French men and women whose religion happens to be Islam.”