Alain Gresh :“The rise of the extreme right in France is linked to our colonial history”

On 14 December 2021, our colleague Bassam Haddad from Jadaliyya sat down with Alain Gresh, publication director of Orient XXI at his home in Paris to discuss a number of topics, including Europe/France-Mideast relations in a changing global environment, internal French policies regarding migrants and Arab/Muslim French citizens, and prospects for the upcoming French presidential elections in 2022 in the context of a move to the right and the continuing collapse of the left.

Another focal point was France’s and Europe’s role in the region amid concerns and speculation (however premature) of a retreat of the United States from regional involvement.

Touching on the conceptual, we discussed growing authoritarian tendencies among several democracies in Europe and North America. The conversation closed with a discussion of French-Chinese relations as the world’s gaze turns to China. Alain ended with a note regarding the new initiative, an electronic publication focused on Africa, under the title Afrique XXI.

Bassam Haddad. Bonjour Alain!

Alain Gresh. Bonjour!

B. H. It’s great to see you and we are very excited that you will enlighten us about Europe and the Middle East, France and the Middle East, as well as what is happening in France that is of interest to people researching and studying the Middle East. And again, first of all, welcome! This is a recording by the Arab Studies Institute. My name is Bassam Haddad I am, as usual, very honored to be speaking with you. We have a long history; I spoke with you first in 2005 and we are very much aware of the gravity you have in producing knowledge on the Middle East here in France—not least with your history with Le Monde as well as your recent project, or relatively recent project, OrientXXI that is a source we value highly at both Jadaliyya and the Arab Studies Institute as well as may others around the world. And I understand that you have a new form of expansion that you can talk about a little bit, but first let me just ask you if you can share with us what are your thoughts on the current situation in terms of the very broad and general topic of Europe and the Middle East with some attention to French policy towards the hot topics that are taking place, whether it has to do with Iran or the idea of the US and the Middle East having decreased relations—if you will—because of the gradual US disengagement.

A. G. First, when you speak about Europe and foreign policy of Europe you must know that there is no European united foreign policy. You know, in the foreign policy in Europe to have a position you must have the consensus of 27 countries, meaning that it is mostly impossible and especially impossible if you want to do something. So, there are some general positions or opinions but not so active as a global actor. It is an economic global actor, they have many—especially with North Africa but also with Southern Europe, Mediterranean countries like Egypt or Lebanon—there are some important economic relations but on the political side I think it is not a global policy. You have foreign policy from Germany, from England—even if now it’s not part of the European Union—and France. In the last period, the French policy in the Middle East has been based on the fight against their own. Especially after the Arab Spring failed in most of the Arab countries, the idea was that we are returning to a normal policy of the French government for at least 20 years that democracy was not for the Arab world, it was too complicated, it brought civil wars in Syria, in Yemen, in Libya and stability was important. But it’s good I mention that stability was important for fighting against terrorism and for fighting against immigration.

And from this moment, the bilateral relation of France has been without taking into account completely the question of human rights. And we have seen it recently with the visit of Macron to the Gulf Countries, he went to the Emirates, to Saudi Arabia, and to Qatar—mostly to sell arms which we know are used, for example, in the Yemen war and to consolidate the leadership. Emmanuel Macron was the first big, you know, Western leader who met with Mohammed Bin Salman. The justification was that Saudi Arabia is an important country, one of the justifications was that he tried to mend the fence between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon and France in quite involved in Lebanese affairs. But the end of the story is that it is giving credit to Mohammed Bin Salman as a normal leader of the Middle East. And one of the reasons, as I said, is the fight against terrorism. This explains, in some way, the way we support the Sisi regime—which is very strange because I don’t see any way Sisi fighting against terrorism. But this was the pretext given to send them the Rafale—the Rafale is a means to fight against terrorism. We have consolidated this regime and today, especially with the Emirates, we say that we share a common fight against terrorism and I don’t see any common fight against Emirates and France. I mean we know that the relations between the Emirates and some of the terrorist groups in Yemen for example, or in Libya are very strong.

But this is one of the pretexts, and the second pretext—which is very important today especially, as you know, we will have our presidential election, which in France is the most important election, in April and May and it is a fight against immigration. Immigration is becoming a central topic of the French policy and we want; we try at least to help the different south and Mediterranean countries in being a kind of protection against migration from Africa. So, we support the Egyptian regime, and we also support North African regimes and we ask them to serve as a dam against migration. You know, at the same time, France is an important player in the Middle East especially by selling arms. I don’t think we have very much capacity to change the policies of different countries. For example, after the visit of Macron there was a phone call between Mohammed Bin Salman and the Lebanese Prime Minister but until now Saudi Arabia’s boycott of Lebanese goods has not stopped.

So, the problem is when you look at it what’s fantastic is the contradiction between a general speech about human rights, France as a symbol of democracy, and the French revolution etc., and now support to a dictatorial regime. To be frank, I mean, I know that no country can have relations only based on human rights. If you make it such, will we stop relations with China and many others? But there are limits and the problem is for this government there are no limits. There is no limit and I think especially in France this is clear with support to the Sisi regime which, I mean you have 60,000 political prisoners, you have no free press, no independent political party, you can go to jail for any pretext, etc., and at the same time we have received Sisi here, we have decorated him from the highest decoration in France etc. And this is problematic. It is problematic also because it’s a way of dissonated—I mean, you know there are many questions about democracy and human rights, pluralism is a good model, etc., but when a Western country like France at the same time makes this relationship with a dictatorship and at the same time violates all of what we say about democracy and human rights… In some way, it goes in the hand of some people in the Middle East who are against democracy. They say “Okay, the West is speaking about democracy but look how they behave.” And this has weakened the people who, in the Middle East, are fighting for democracy because they say “look, they are speaking of democracy but look on the ground what they are doing.

B. H. Thank you, I want to get back to the domestic issues a bit later but I would like to ask a couple questions about the potential space that might open up based on all the speculation about the US retreat from the region—which I think is being made too much of in many ways because there are limits to how much the US can pull from the region, at least any time soon. But is there a space for France to intervene to fill some of the vacuum—even if the vacuum is a lot smaller than some people are saying—is there space for France to intervene in relation to other European countries in the Middle East? Or is this not gonna have an impact on French policy in the Middle East?

A. G.I am here with you; I mean the retreat of the United States from the region should be taken with some… I mean it’s not as big as it is being made out to be. I mean the Middle East will stay an important region, the Americans have 50,000 soldiers, they have their marines, they have bases, and they will not stop. What will stop? I mean, at least for the next decade I don’t think the United States will be involved on the ground in any war in the Middle East. But what is important is that many of the actors of the region feel that they are going back home and they should act on their own. And when you look at the map today it’s very strange. I mean, you have Erdogan, who is making relations with the United Arab Emirates, he’s opening to Israel. You have the Emirates who are opening to Iran and even Saudi Arabia is opening. Everybody understands that they are on their own, not completely but in some ways they are on their own and they try to manage. And it’s very strange, because you don’t have any more alliances in the way that you had the Soviet Union, the United States, or even the camp of resistance against Israel.

Now it’s not like this, I mean the Emirates have opened to Syria, Syria is now probably accepted again in the Arab League, so it is an opportunity for any country. But first of all, I mean, after the American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq—not only the America, but I think most of the European country are not ready to send troops and to be involved in wars and conflict in the Middle East. So, they maneuver in the sense that they have space but unfortunately now, I mean, you see this space more for selling arms. It is clear, I mean, that the Americans have lost a little bit and so France and Russia are selling more arms. It’s sure that different armies and different countries want to have many assurances, if you will. But on the ground of what policy, and how to change things on the ground politically, I think first I don’t see France has many possibilities. And they are not active and they don’t have a plan for the Middle East—and also the plan for the Middle East is very complicated. What plan, I mean, when you see the question of Europe?

But two more things: on Iran, I mean the French position is not very important in my opinion, but it’s not very positive. I mean, Macron has made a declaration saying that the agreement must be extended to Israel and the Gulf states—meaning there would be no agreement. But this is an old policy, I mean the French have been very anti-Iranian for a long time but I don’t think this will change American position in one way or another. The other question we’ve discussed many times, I think, is the Israel-Palestine conflict. And now we have a real change of policy not in the principle—in principle, most of the European countries and France are for a two-state solution but it’s clear that there is no two-state solution—but on the ground there is a support to Israel which has never been so important from France. There are military relations, security relations, economic relations, political relations, without taking into account completely the Palestinian question. The French they say “okay, we are condemning the colonization or we are still saying very clearly that we are for a two-state solution” but on the ground it doesn’t change anything for Israel and it doesn’t change anything for the Palestinians. And for me, at least, the Palestinian question is a central question for all the people of the Middle East. And the fact that France has changed from, let’s say 20 years ago, it has deteriorated French policy in the Middle East. I mean, the image of France which was, forty years ago, so positive after the war, after the recognition of the PLO, etc., now is becoming more like any other Western country. I don’t think it’s positive.

B. H. Alright, let’s move a little bit to the domestic front. I would like to ask you about a couple of things, including whether the country of France or it’s political system, how was it affected by the recent—and I say recent to mean the past several years—movement to the right almost globally and certainly in Europe and the United States considering there’s been a new election in the United States a year ago, still there has been a movement to the right—how has France been affected by it and how might it affect the elections, on the one hand? And how might these issues affect questions of immigration, and questions of migration, and then issues that have to do with internal politics in France in relation to Arabs and Muslims and other minorities or other migrants?

A. G. First of all, I mean, there is a turn to the right but perhaps it’s not so important in Europe as it was elsewhere. For example, the election in Germany helped out the social democrats in the government and the marginalization of the extreme right. The same thing in Italy, the same thing in Norway. So, there are moves to the right but I want to say that it’s not inevitable and it’s not evident. I think it will depend on each country and its history. In France, the movement is bigger than in any other country. Now for the first time, you have two fascist candidates in the presidential election. Together, they get between 25-30 % of the votes. More dangerous is the ideas developed by these people, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour. Éric Zemmour is a polemist brought up by television and who is really very anti-Muslim. This idea has penetrated all political camps. The right completely—I mean, now we have a right-wing candidate for the presidential election—and she’s buying all these ideas. And this is one of the most preoccupying this… it’s not new. But little by little, the idea of the extreme right which have been marginalized has become central. I mean, the idea that we have the Grand Remplacement, the big change that the French population was replaced by migrants—Muslims, mostly. 30 years ago, it was really fascist—I mean, only some fascist groups accepted this idea. Now it’s brought by many of the political parties but not only right-wing—even socialist parties in some way. So, this is very preoccupying, even if the extreme right don’t win the election—and I don’t think they will win the presidential election. But it will have consequences.

One of the questions is why is this so strong in France if you compare it to Great Britain? To Italy?

B. H. Austria.

A. G. And also, Austria. But I think it’s linked to our colonial history. And a colonial history which is not finished. I mean we have seen the referendum in New Caledonia, we have islands in Martinique, in Guadalupe. We are still a colonial power and we still haven’t succeeded in getting rid of this history. To get rid meaning to discuss openly, and to understand what happened, and why it was like this, and what were the prices of this colonial history? This has concentrated mostly around the Algerian War and we are still—I mean, 60 years after the end of the war it’s still a very very sensitive subject in France. And we are not able to open a frank discussion with French history about colonialism. And that, I think, is very different from Great Britain, for example—I think Great Britain has done much better, even if there are also, of course, crimes, etc., —and this is creating a condition where you have a return of an ideology which was present when we were in Algeria (we’re still in Algeria). The idea that we are facing the Muslims, that they are going to invade us, that all this is now… I mean, I spoke about Le Grand Remplacement, this is becoming common knowledge. I mean, everyday people are saying “ah yes! They are coming from Africa, from North Africa, etc.,. They are colonizing us! It’s the Arabs who are colonizing us!” And this is very, I mean, of course one of the reasons for this is the failure of the left, which is now completely divided, will have five or six candidates and the best one will not get 10 % of the vote.

But it’s also the fact that, historically, the left has not been able to discuss frankly about this question of colonialism and the consequences of colonial history on our society. And to recognize that our society is built, in some way—now you have 25-30% of the population who are from foreign origin who are of course not only from North Africa; you have from Europe, you have from Africa, etc., but it’s an important part of the population. And now more and more people are considering them as foreigners, not as French—you know, when you are born in France you have French citizenship. So, this is creating division. And it’s not the first time that you have this situation. We had this situation in the 1930s with the extreme right which was very strong in France. But in front of it, you have a very left-wing socialist/communist party who were able not only to fight against fascism, but also to fight against racism, anti-Semitism, and to say—especially to the working class—that the enemy was not the foreigner but the capitalist. Today you don’t have this source, they have disappeared. And this is very worrying.

B. H. Absolutely, and it’s something that’s also not particular to France. What can we expect in terms of the upcoming elections and whether there might be any movement or change from the current situation? Is it something that’s going to reproduce the system but maybe in slightly different ways? Or is there any hope that there will be a more—not necessarily radical, but some sort of change in policies towards migrants and people that have been here for decades, as we have discussed, but now are being viewed as not French? Even in our basic conversations with people here, just coming here to see you, our driver who was from Morocco was telling us that whereas a few years ago racism seemed to be indirect—and you felt it but you didn’t see it always—today it’s much more direct, for instance. This sort of situation, is there any reason to believe that the next elections would do anything to something of the sort? Or would it be more of the same pending some sort of movement on the left or otherwise?

A. G. I think it will be worse in some ways. I mean, Éric Zemmour—as I said who is a polemist who is now a candidate to the presidential election—has opened the floor to anything against the Muslims, and racism, and even things for which he has been tried and condemned by the tribunals. But he has liberated that speech, and he is saying things that people would not dare to say before; that Muslims are not French, that they’re not integrating, etc.,. In the presidential elections of 2017, when there was Macron and Fillon who was from the right-wing party—Fillon was very hardline about Islam—to his credit, Macron hasn’t accepted a debate about Islam. There was no debate about Islam in the presidential election in 2017, now the central question is migration. Why now? And why has he succeeded? There are many reasons. I mean, the role especially of what we have, the equivalent of Fox News here now called CNews—which is in the hand of Vincent Bolloré who is buying part of the press and who is extremely on the right and he’s not hiding. He has made from his television, which is small, but like Fox News we must discuss was they say. And he has made this question of Grand Remplacement, of the Muslims, of security the center of the election. And this is very dangerous. At the end we will have three candidates—you know in France we have first round, then second round with only two candidates—you have Macron, Valerie Pécresse (right-wing), and probably Marine Le Pen or Éric Zemmour (this polemist).

I don’t think the extreme right can win. But their ideas are winning, and this is very worrying. What are the prospects—as I said, the left is divided, there is no candidate. The most popular is Jean-Luc Mélenchon but he will get 10 % or 12 % of the vote. So, we must be afraid that whoever will win, they will win with a very right-wing discourse about Islam, about migrants, about security etc.,. Will this push the left-wing to organize? I am not sure, really. The question of Islam has really divided the left-wing. Even the left of the left, we have a part of the left who is very laïc in the bad sense of the word saying “all religions are bad but we must fight Islam etc.,. And this is a very dangerous trend.

B. H. Yes, it’s interesting that I think the last time we interviewed you in 2005 or 2006 we were working on a project on La Banlieue du Paris and it’s very much the same themes, but of course with the benefit of a lot more migration—not least from Syria or other countries in the region and beyond. And it’s interesting that the question of Islam is now, for instance, a bit more extant than it was in 2017 for the reasons you shared. The last question I would like to ask you or address is perhaps more conceptual, and it relates to the question of “democracy” in “the West” (all of these words in quotation marks, “democracy” and “the West’). There’s been concern in progressive circles in the United States that democracy in the United States as we knew it—or as they knew it—is not what it was and this relates to questions of race, economics, social class, and beyond. And there’s been this idea that the authoritarian tendencies are beginning to emerge along with the populist rise, or the rise of the right-wing and so on. Is there any type of discourse of the sort in France? Is there a concern about the question of “democracy” itself or its foundations? Or is it that these issues are subsumed under the other issues we’ve discussed?

A. G. There are questions about democracy. Especially in France, the political system is very particular because the president of France is a king—he can make any decision. It’s not a normal parliamentary system. And more and more as we are going with the collapse of the political parties we have a one-man system. I mean, he decides everything from the economic crisis to COVID to anything. And especially with the rise of terrorism and these sorts of attacks France has taken a series of measures which are against liberties. I mean, exceptional law which is becoming the normal law. And this is worrying, it is a general trend but it’s linked also with the weakening of the traditional democracy.

Traditional democracy in Western countries was built on a political party which has an ideology, which has membership, cells in different towns, etc.,. Now you don’t have that anymore, political parties are very weak. And so, one of the big successes of Macron is he was a man who made the normal political system implode. It was already in crisis but you always had a socialist candidate, a right-wing candidate with the extreme right from time to time. But now, he made the system implode, meaning there is no socialist party and he has weakened the right-wing party. And this has created a situation where the normal way of functioning democracy is weak. If you add to this the weakening of the trade unions—which have been a project from the right-wing and from the capitalists for a very long time, but now they are very weak except in the public sector. And so, people don’t know how to make politics. There are thousands, tens of thousands of organizations and local organizations on climate, on social problems, helping migrants, etc., but there is no longer any project.

There is no longer any hope. The only people who have a project is the extreme right. I mean, a project built on “we French people, white people against Blacks and Arabs, etc.,” and a kind of nationalism which is chauvinism, it’s not nationalism—which is a trend you can find in the United States, in Brazil, in Russia, etc.,. So, this is a sort of problematic. There are people who want—and especially young people, I mean, I’m not only speaking of my generation—who want to reinvent politics. But until now, they haven’t succeeded in building something which permits to have a political project. They have local, they have precise politics, they have big mobilization on migrants, on nuclear electricity, etc., but nothing which unites. And this is a big problem for the future.

B. H. Last tangent on this question; how does the question or issue of redistribution of wealth affect these matters? In 2005, 2006, 2007 you saw riots in La Banlieue, whether it was just about that or a combination of matters. What is the status of this question in France? In the United States, for instance, we are seeing bigger and bigger gaps and I know that in France there are, sort of, checks and balances—more checks and balances—against that in the socioeconomic situation. But you’re saying that in the political situation it’s the other way around, where executive power is more limitless than in other places—definitely the United States to some extent. So, how does the question of social class and redistribution of wealth affect these things?

A. G. It’s very important to explain the collapse of the left. The fact that the left has been in power—with François Hollande, especially, ten years ago—and had made a neoliberal policy has completely not only discredited the left, but also cut the links between the Socialist Party and the left and the popular classes. This is very important. There is also the weakening of the Communist Party, which was very strong, meaning that in the popular towns and popular places the left is not present. And if its present, people consider them not very different from the right-wing. This is one of the reasons that some right-wing, even fascists, developed—because they have a social discourse like, in some way, you can find in the United States and elsewhere. So, I think this is also very important. The left has lost its relationship with the popular classes not only in the discourse, but also as militants. Before, the militants of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party were linked with the trade unions, with the popular places, they had a local presence, etc.,. Now this is finished.

I mean, you see the leaders and the people who work for socialist parties, it’s not different from the right-wing; it’s bourgeois. I mean, it can be progressive bourgeois, but they have lost contact with the popular classes. And the problem of how to bring back this contact is very difficult because a part of this is people saying that to bring back the contact we must be racist. Or we must be anti-Muslim and anti-migrant and this is what people want. But in fact, you know, we say very often that people are going to the right and I’m not so sure. It’s also created. I mean, when you have all the media speaking about security every day and no one speaking about social problems it seems as if everybody in France wants to speak about security. But when you are paying attention without all this television, people say the most important thing for us is how to earn money, how to have better wages, etc.,.

B. H. Well, we have just a couple more minutes, and is there much to say about the question of French-Chinese relations in terms of what is happening in the world today in terms of the attention that’s being given to China and its rise, especially in the United States? Is there anything going on in that realm that you’d like to address? Or is it still not as mature of a topic?

A. G. You know, there is very strong pressure from the United States on all of Europe to make China our main enemy. It’s not only for us, it’s also for Germany an all of Europe. And Europe is very reticent, they don’t want to enter a big cold war with China. They have economic relations, but there’s very strong pressure. And there’s also internal pressure. Here you still have a very strong anti-Russian media and you now have more and more the idea that China is a danger for us and we must fight it. This is more at the intellectual and media level but it can play a role in the future. And I think it will be very dangerous to enter this plot. I mean, of course there is a problem—China’s had many problems and you cannot condense its policies here—but do we want relations with them or do we want to prepare the next war? This is the question.

B. H. Okay, well thank you very much Alain. This has been, as usual, very insightful for me and I’m hoping that we will always continue to speak with you. But I do get from you that if somebody’s disillusioned with life in the United States as a result of all these issues on race, even gender and politics, that France might not be the best destination right now.

A. G. No, it’s not, unfortunately. It had been some time ago, and really I miss the time where I went to the Middle East and people said, “you are French?” and they didn’t ask me about my political orientation, but that it was so important that what France was for the Palestinians, for the human rights, etc., and I would like to go back to this time.

B. H. We all do at some level. And, yes I do hope that we can speak with you again closer to the elections one more time, perhaps more virtually. Thank you so much for your time and your generosity and for the café and the sweets and for hosting us at your home.

A. G. Thank you for coming here.

B. H. Oh, and as I leave you, do you want to say something about the new project you launched?

A. G. Ah yes! Now we are in the ninth year of Orient XXI and you know, I mean, the frontier of “the orient” is very… Where does it stop, where does it begin? But recently we began to write about the Sahara because France was involved, and it was linked with Libya, Algeria, Morocco, etc.,. And the articles were a big success. And from this, we discussed with the people who wrote about this and they were interested in trying to launch something like OrientXXI but on Africa. And we began to launch it in September/October and now we will begin to launch it completely with one article every day in January. There is a very good team of journalists very involved in Africa. And I think, in France—you have more even than the Middle East—there are people who are interested. I mean, first there is the French-African diaspora, millions of people who are living here. But also, you have 20-some French speaking countries and there are not many free media, independent media on this question. So, we are very optimistic for the future of Afrique XXI.

B. H. Well, this is great, we look forward to connecting with you on this question as well both at ASI and Jadaliyya. We already have a good collaboration and we hope to continue it. Shookran!

A.G.: Shookran!