When Is A Slap Not A Slap ?

The Treachery of Public Events

France Weekend Update 13 June 2021

“En France, on laisse en repos ceux qui mettent le feu et on persécute ceux qui sonnent le tocsin.” - Nicholas de Chamfort

A week that got underway with all France watching the President take a quick slap to the kisser ended with the G7 leaders cavorting on Cornish sands while back in France, crowds massed in cities around the country to denounce rightwing intolerance and violence. Guess which of the three got all the play ? The Great Slap has descended from outragous affront to non-event : the Jupiterian president jogged straight across the channel to his next appearance as if nothing much had occurred. The man involved has been speedily tried, his sentence meted out, as if someone wanted the French to forget the incident as quickly as possible. The event reeks of culture clash, those terribly uncomfortable moments when politicians, convinced that what they say is true, come face to face with reality. Better the white sands of Cornwall, where one can rearrange the world, figuratively speaking, than the rustic, rusty Drôme anyday.

But no, as the reliably outrageous Spartacus on Mediapart observes, the man responsible didn’t yell Allahu Akbar or Che Lives ! Very different case, then. What did he blurt out ? We’ll get to that.  

In the meantime, the all-important French regional elections draw closer : June 20th, with run-offs on the 27th. Who will dare to make presidential prognostications before that seismic event ? Not me. The President has embarked on a six month tour of the country, a sure sign of a presidential race avant le scrutin. Everyone is jockeying as if it were, the regionals being the first indication of which way France is headed. People tend to vote more radically locally, and tactically in the nationals. Is that still true ? Perhaps the first protest is coming next week. The unanswerable question of the moment is the one everyone dreads : will the French really face a rerun of 2017, Marine Le Pen vs. Emmanuel Macron ? Can no other candidate make it through to the second round ? And would he or she stand a chance if they did ?   

Everyone’s disenchantment with politics-as-is, the growing scandal of wind farms and the rise of the turbulent French fachosphere, continue to go thwap thwap thwap, even if no one is paying strict attention. Summer looms and the 2020 Euro Championship, where France may get a chance to burnish its amour-propre, is underway a year late. Freed from Covid by their innoculations, people have other things to be busy with. For now.  

Môme of the Week or Man of the Year ?

It was probably the last thing on his mind, but the reticient Damien Tarel has claimed his share of the spotlight. He may be the perfect symbol for France’s uneasy present. 

President Macron had just launched his tour, taking the pulse of the citizens and fine-tuning campaign themes for 2022. In the tiny commune of Tain l’Hermitage in the Drôme (6,000+ inhabitants) he got a bit more response than he bargained for. As Macron trotted up to a small crowd to press the flesh, Tarel struck the president, shouting “Montjoie ! Saint Denis ! à bas la macronie.” The first two are royalist slogans, and macronie shorthand for the Macron regime. Tarel later described himself as sympathetic to both the Right and an extreme rightwing patriot who supports the Gilet Jaunes. Make of that what you will !

“When I saw his friendly, lying look, I felt disgust, and my reaction was violent, impulsive,” he told the court. “I myself was surprised by the violence.” The martial arts enthusiast is currently unemployed. “Emmanuel Macron represents the decline of our country,” he said. “Il avait une démarche élective, ce qui m’a déplu”- an intriguing phrase that we’ll translate as, “He looked like a man on the make and it upset me.” In this at least, our local loser describes his man accurately.

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Tarel was not alone. He was arrested along with his friend Arthur C., from the same town, Saint-Vallier. Earlier, before the event, the two men were caught on film by a journalist, who asked them for their take on current politics. Tarel stood in front of the camera like an ox transfixed by headlights, refusing comment, which makes him the first Frenchman ever not to share his opinion at the drop of a hat.

Police found unregistered weapons, the inevitable copy of Adolf’s Mein Kampf and a Russian flag in Arthur C.’s home. Both are said to be fans of Eric Zemmour and the Youtuber Papacito. Who’s surprised by that ?

Macron downplayed the incident in his inimitable on the one hand style. “It’s not such a big deal to get a slap when you go toward a crowd to say hello to some people who were waiting for a long time,” he said. Can he really mean that ? But, inevitably … on the other hand ? “We must not make it banal, because anyone with public authority is entitled to respect.” We await his commentary on the death threats received by Jean-Luc Mélenchon during the last week, which were followed by an incendiary Youtube video, How to Kill a Leftist on Papacito’s channel.

It wasn’t, as it goes, even the first recent public gesture against a political figure. Friday a week ago, François de Rugy, a LREM operative and perennial candidate, was hit with a sack of flour, thrown by a woman described by the police as ‘an anarchist.’ Flour, even when hurled, is little more than a moment’s discomfort. Not so the police truncheons that attacked Loïc Prudhomme or the aggression that greeted Bénédicte Taurine, both France Insoumise deputes. No comment on those events either from the President. You’d think he might want to talk about civility and discourse but no, the only song in Macron’s repertoire is Everything Happens To Me

Newspapers are full of phrases like “l’ultraviolence au quotidien.” The list may look mercifully short to American readers but nearly a dozen violent attacks, some fatal and classified as terrorist, some gang related, some with arms and some barehanded, not counting increasing others directed at women and minorities (that always get lumped in a separate category), give the French the uneasy sense that things are slipping out of control. The country is losing its cool. Identitarianism, a many headed movement which essentially believes in France for the French, is circulating everywhere in liberal and conservative circles, not least on France’s hot Fox-like, C-News, where Eric Zemmour, ever on the lookout for someone new to kick, rules the roost. (More on the author of Le Suicide français in a future column.) Even reputable philosophers like Michel Onfray are raising a ruckus over the “creolisation” of the world.            

The two men from Saint Vallier are perfect exemplaires of the present, neatly summing up France’s simmering political antagonisms. Silent, refusing to justify their actions in a concrete fashion, adherents of no political cause, neither known to the police beforehand. Their sympathies are utterly confused, from a resuscitated royalism to the Gilets, on to Hitler and strong-man Russia. They could be anything and everyone, ready to follow the next man who whistles a tune they like.

When the CGT union’s May 1st march comes under attack at the end of the day, we don’t know if it’s from the extreme right or left, or if it’s undercover police cosplaying either one or both. Real engagement becomes more difficult when everybody’s shouting. Militants and Socialists, who used to be there shoulder to shoulder with the CGT, have melted into thin air.

The center cannot hold – ha ! Journalists will have to come up with something stronger, more Dada, to describe the present moment when nothing makes any sense. Politics is now very much like Magritte’s pipe : This is not real politics, although it may look like it. The center has imploded and the lunatic fringe is everywhere. Qanon remains strong in France, if discreetly underground for the moment. Watch Papacito’s Youtube channel for advice, although he doesn’t really mean you should kill anybody. (Shades of the press before the murder of Jean Jaurès.) The country has been in a churning, under-the-radar revolt throughout Macron’s presidency, and now that the restraints imposed by Covid are off, we can expect more slaps. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, ever the provocateur, went so far as to predict that violence will decide next year’s presidential race, with an Islamic or indeterminate attack coming between the first and second rounds, terrifying people and convincing them to vote in the candidate promising the most vindictive response.

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The only thing certain is that the elite political project of the last ten years is on the rocks. The goal was to find some kind of workable status quo for the middle and working classes, a concordat that left the ruling class in peace and in charge. Macron’s attempt at a neo-liberal reconciliation boosted by start-up energy has achieved little, leaving him with an ever-shifting program and uplifting rhetoric. I can’t go on, I’ll go on – that should be the president’s campaign slogan.

If Lost Soul No. 1, Damien Tarel, had been a convert to Islam and yelled, Allu Akbar, it would be a different story. C-News would seize the opportunity with relish. It would be domestic terrorism. This being insufferable Right Wing loony-ism, it’s excusable. Secret prompters like Oswald or Raoul Villain had are no longer necessary, that music is playing everywhere, all the time. Tarel got 18 months in jail, of which he must serve at least four.

Macron has done the math. Facing Marine Le Pen – or worse, the rebarbative, pithy Jean-Luc Mélenchon – in the second round of next year’s presidential, he desperately needs Damien’s vote.

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