Amanda Taub’s “Interpreter” piece on the upcoming election in France, in Friday’s New York Times came with the snotty headline, “A Small French Town Infused With Us-vs.-Them Politics.”
That town, Frejus, was no doubt also infused with current events, as suggested by the Times’ own lead story on Friday: “Gunman In Paris Shoots Officer; Terrorism Seen.” Taub managed to completely ignore that issue in favor of condescending theories about France’s “us and them” ethnocentrism.
French president Francois Hollande said the shooting, which killed a police officer on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, appeared to be an act of terrorism, and ISIS declared responsibility, which makes Taub’s think piece chiding the town’s punitive view (doubtless written before the attack and not updated) look both out of date and sanctimoniously naïve.
It’s quite an achievement to discuss the election without even mentioning terrorism, in a country that has suffered two major attacks in 18 months time.(Taub’s offensive August 2016 piece went to ludicrous lengths to wave away the problem of the threat of sexual assault by Islamic migrants and denigrate conservative critics of the assaults.)
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Fréjus, a small town on the south coast of France, looks so charming that during my recent visit I half-expected its residents to spontaneously break into the opening number of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
But of course, something more sinister lurked just beneath. The paper’s usual labeling prejudice abided with three “far-right” labels scattered about next to a single “center-left.”
Fréjus became a symbol of the far-right National Front party’s breakthrough in 2014, when 26-year-old David Rachline won the mayoral race, part of a wave of National Front victories in local elections across France.
Today, Fréjus offers something more: a case study in two major forces that have fueled the far right’s rise in France and elsewhere.
The first is the growth of tensions over group identity that has created a receptive audience for the National Front’s brand of us-vs.-them populism.
Though the specifics of these forces are unique to France, the underlying dynamics are more broadly relevant and may help to explain a mystery that has puzzled many: why far-right populism is gaining ground in many seemingly stable and wealthy liberal democracies.
After a historical detour into France’s fraught relationship with its former colony Algeria:
Marine Le Pen, the party’s leader, often describes Muslim immigrants as aliens whose beliefs are incompatible with French values, and whose mere presence threatens French culture and safety. The party promotes a particular kind of French identity, one it says is based on French values as well as French citizenship, but which is implicitly white and Christian.
And it fosters a sense of a divided, threatened group identity -- a French “us,” distinct from the immigrant “them.”
These ideas tap into a universally potent psychological force. Research shows that group identity, like the National Front’s version of “Frenchness,” can alone provoke anger and hostility toward outsiders.
Then Taub infantilized the French for daring to show concern for their way of life.
In a famous 1954 study known as the Robbers Cave experiment, researchers took two groups of fifth-grade boys camping. In the first week the groups were kept separate and not told of each other’s existence. They participated in activities aimed at getting them to identify with their group. Then, in the second week, the campers discovered that there was another group of boys in the park.
Remarkably, that was all it took to spark conflict. Before they even met, the boys began to call members of the other group “outsiders” and “intruders.” Merely being part of one group and aware of another was enough to create hostility.
The National Front’s politics take advantage of these natural human tendencies. But the party also has tapped into a sense of social dislocation, even despair, because of changes brought by globalization and technological progress. This phenomenon, too, can be seen in Fréjus.
A photo caption underlined the emphasis on the supposed racism of the French: “Inside the mosque in Fréjus. The National Front party promotes a particular kind of French identity, one it says is based on French values as well as French citizenship, but which is implicitly white and Christian.”
Taub blithely ignored what she was told by her interviewees, preferring more theories to satisfy her theme of ethnocentric whites.
Christophe Tellier, an independent plumber who is a National Front supporter, said he was struggling under high taxes. “It almost makes you want to close down the business,” he said, adding: “You see immigrants who’ve never worked in France, and they are given money. Sometimes more than our retired people.”
Studies have found that when people feel that a group they identify with is losing success or esteem, they cling more closely to it, and are more likely to be defensive or punitive toward outsiders.
The feelings Ms. Beaumurs and Mr. Tellier described, in other words, can also explain why people turn to us-vs.-them politics. And in France the “them” is found in the country’s mosques.
Around the corner from the mosque, a religious Muslim who gave his name only as Mohammed de Fréjus -- French for “Mohammed of Fréjus” -- was working in a food truck.
Although he was once proud to be French, he said, today he feels abandoned by the country he had lived in since birth.
“I want to leave,” he said, “To move to England is my dream. They’re open.”
Again, the story is not balanced with the slightest mention of terror threats, even though they happened in the near past and have occurred once again.