On June 23, 2022, I gave a talk at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, titled “Merleau-Ponty, Descartes, and the Meaning of Painting.” The talk was based in part on research I’d done in the library’s rare book collection on first editions of the works of the French philosopher, René Descartes. The text of the talk, along with some of the images that accompanied it, are reproduced here.
In 1908-09, Raoul Dufy and George Braque went to L’Estaque, France, the fishing village a few kilometers west of Marseille. They made revolutionary paintings there, following the trail blazed by Paul Cezanne a few decades before. The Hotel Caumont Centre d’Art in Aix-en-Provence is now showing a dazzling array of Dufy’s paintings from l’Estaque and elsewhere in Provence and France. One sees the influence of Cezanne, but also, especially, Dufy’s remarkable innovations and unique style. To see images from the exhibit, go here.
April 28, Puyloubier, France
GARDANNE IS A SMALL INDUSTRIAL CITY in southern France, roughly 10 miles from the regional capital of Aix-en-Provence. In the 1830s, significant coal deposits were discovered in Gardanne, and it’s been coal ever since. The miners came first, then the industries that require cheap and convenient energy—soap makers, tile factories, the Péchiney aluminum company, and, in 1963, the enormous power generating facility, La centrale thermique de Provence, until recently the largest coal-fired power plant in Europe. The coal mines and the factories brought foreign workers, too— from Italy, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Armenia, and North Africa. They’re still there. Unlike Aix, its wealthy neighbor to the north, Gardanne remains a working-class and immigrant community.
It’s not surprising, then, that Gardanne’s municipal government was dominated for much of the 20th century by socialists and communists. Victor Savine — miner, metal worker, union leader, resistance fighter, militant socialist — became Gardanne’s mayor in 1929. With the exception of the World War II years, Savine occupied the mayor’s office until 1971. He was succeeded by Philémon Lieutaud, another miner and militant socialist. In 1977, Roger Mei, a teacher and militant in the French Communist Party (PCF), succeeded Lieutaud and remained in office until 2020. The community center in Gardanne is called La Maison du Peuple and the public library is named after Nelson Mandela.
Toward the end of the communist era in Gardanne, things began to change. The last of the deep shaft coal mines closed for good in 2003. In 2020, the coal-fired power generating facility that supplied electricity to local factories and the national grid was shut down by the administration of Emmanuel Macron, in keeping with its commitment to address climate change. Substantial public and private resources were committed to an alternative biomass plant, but strikes interrupted its testing and it has never gone online. The hulking Altéo aluminum factory continues to operate, but its ownership has changed hands amid rumors that it, too, might close.
The long-serving communist mayor Roger Mei announced his decision to step down in 2019. In the election that followed, his apparent successor and fellow communist party militant, Claude Jordan, won a razor-thin first-round plurality of votes over the moderately conservative candidate, Hervé Granier. But in the second and decisive round, Granier came out on top. It was the first time since 1929 that Gardanne’s mayor was not a socialist or a communist.
Earlier regional and national elections had signaled what might lie ahead. Already in the first and second rounds of the departmental elections of 2015, extreme right candidates and platforms made impressive showings against left-wing coalitions. And then in the first round of the presidential elections of 2017, the first of several bombs — Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National, defeated the radical left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon by several percentage points. Emmanuel Macron was a distant third. In the second and decisive round, a coalition of conservative and leftist anti-Le Pen voters enabled Macron to prevail, but the writing was on the wall. In the first round of the presidential contest two weeks ago, Le Pen once again beat Mélenchon, and this time by a margin of six points. (Fabien Roussel, the candidate of the PCF, earned a feeble 3.5 points.) In the second and decisive round, Le Pen prevailed over Macron by a surprisingly large margin of nearly 10 points. Gardanne, a bastion of left-wing politics since the 1920s, had moved solidly into the camp of the extreme right.
There were great sighs of relief in France last Sunday when the news of Emmanuel Macron’s 17-point victory over Marine Le Pen was announced immediately after polls closed at 8 pm. And it was even better news that Macron won pulling away, exceeding the margin of victory predicted in polls just days before. Amid some doubts going into the final stretch of the second round, “the republican barricade,” as it’s known here, had once again prevented the extreme right from controlling the powerful executive branch of France’s government.
But as Le Pen told her disappointed followers in her concession speech, there are reasons for supporters of the Rassemblement National to feel heartened by the results. In 2017, Le Pen won a total of 10.5 million votes; in 2022, she won more than 13 million. Macron, by contrast, lost almost two million votes compared to 2017. The Rassemblement National also made geographical progress, picking up regions, departments, and municipalities across the country. Most important of all, Le Pen made progress in places like Gardanne, working-class communities where her populist messages found greater resonance in 2022 than in 2017. Had Le Pen been able to pick up more of the voters who supported the extreme left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round, the final results would have been much closer and perhaps different.
And they might be different next time. As in the United States, many voters who were once predictably in the folds of the Democratic Party (in the U.S.) and the socialist and communist parties (in France) are moving, to the surprise and dismay of progressives, to the right and into the embrace of rightwing, populist, and nationalist politicians who have found ways to articulate their grievances. Some of those grievances stem from the deep economic disruptions caused by the decades-long pursuit of neoliberal economic policies and the migration of whole industries to distant places (primarily China and other parts of Asia in the U.S., Eastern Europe and the Maghreb in France). At the same time, economic inequality in both countries has grown, less dramatically in France than in the United States, but still markedly.
There are other similarities. In France as in the United States, Trump’s and Le Pen’s styles of populism have taken hold primarily in micro-urban and rural parts of the countries. In France as in the United States, voters on the extreme right tend to be older, less affluent, and less well educated. In France as well as in the United States, anti-immigrant rhetoric and proposals have been a big part of the programs of the extreme right, notwithstanding important differences in the sources, nature, and impacts of immigration in each country. In France as in the United States, populist and nationalist rhetoric and proposals are tangled up with autocratic and anti-democratic energy and intentions. And in both countries, there is significant and growing hostility toward economic, political, and cultural elites.
Immediately after the election was called last Sunday, journalists and politicians began giving Macron advice about what he must do during his new term to stem the advance of the extreme right. Almost invariably, that advice begins with political style. Cool and aloof by nature and instinct, Macron’s leadership style in his first term might be described as dignified distance, an approach that earned him the nickname “Jupiter.” In a campaign defined by the economic challenges faced by working and middle-class people, Macron’s cool remove contrasted sharply with Le Pen’s folksy, down-to-earth, “I’m one of you” manner and appeal. Everyone seems to agree that Macron needs to get reconnected to daily life and to real people and to demonstrate that a moderate national government can work for them.
There’s nothing wrong with this advice, but it only goes so far. The deeper political issue in France right now, the one that threatens its democratic legacy and order, is economic and structural. It’s the problem in places like Gardanne in the south and la vallée de la Fensch in the north, where industries supporting working-class communities are struggling or have disappeared altogether, and where Le Pen’s anti-immigrant and populist rhetoric has found fertile ground. As Macron adjusts his personal political style, “the political class” in France needs to develop broad economic and industrial policies that reestablish the economic conditions of democratic institutions and practices. This is a long-term project that will certainly outlast Macron, but acknowledging the problem and making some small, even symbolic headway in the next five years will be critical to the preservation of France’s democratic legacy and future.
« Un consortium implanté en Guinée prend le contrôle d’Alteo, leader de l’alumine, » Agence France Presse, 7 janvier, 2021.
“Les résultats de l’élection présidentielle 2022,” Le Monde, April 24, 2022.
Elsa Conesa, « En exportant leurs emplois industriels, les Etats-Unis ou la France ont alimenté une menace pour leurs démocraties », Le Monde, 21 avril, 2022.
Anthony Villeneuve, « Dans la vallée de la Fensch, en Moselle, un vote au premier tour de l’élection présidentielle ‘pour faire péter’ le système », Le Monde, 19 avril, 2020.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A MONTH MAKES. In early March, polls for the first round of the French presidential election showed the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron, with a wide 12-point advantage over his closest pursuer, the extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen. The war in Ukraine had been good to Macron. His efforts to intervene in the conflict looked presidential, and his unwavering support for a united Europe appeared prescient. Macron was in his wheelhouse — diplomat, leader of Europe, actor on the world stage. By contrast, Le Pen’s history of chumminess with Vladimir Putin, and her longstanding and strident criticisms of the EU and NATO, appeared to be heavy liabilities in the sudden glare of Russia’s aggression.
Until they weren’t. On the eve of the first round of the presidential election on April 10, the most recent polls show a worrisome decline in Macron’s standing — down three points to 27 percent of likely voters — and an elevation of Le Pen’s, up from 17.5 percent to 24.5 percent. Everyone seems to agree that Le Pen is in striking distance of either a victory in the first round or a very strong second-place finish, giving her a real chance in the decisive second round on April 24, where she and Macron will most likely vie for the ultimate prize.
What happened? Though the vast majority of French voters remain deeply disturbed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the halo effect that Macron enjoyed at the start of the war has dissipated. Older, deep-seated worries about the cost of living, especially in the energy sector, have replaced the initial shock of war. In this more mundane context, Macron’s external focus has become a liability. By contrast, Le Pen has conveyed folksy compassion for the financial worries of ordinary people, a stark contrast to Macron’s perceived distance from daily life.
Because there are 12 candidates competing for votes in the first round, it’s important to place these numbers in context. When Le Pen’s share of the projected vote is combined with that of candidates Eric Zemmour (8 percent) and Nicolas Dupont-Aignon (2 percent), the extreme right’s position is even more impressive — roughly 35 percent of the projected vote. When Macron’s share is combined with that of the moderate conservative Valérie Pécresse, support for the center and center-right increases to roughly 34 percent. In other words, a dead heat.
The wild card in all of this is the left-leaning side of the electorate, represented by the radical left candidates Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France insoumise (16.5 percent) and David Roussel of the French Communist Party (3 percent), extreme-left candidates Nathalie Artaud and Philippe Poutou (2 percent), and the more moderate left Socialist Party candidate, Anne Hildago (2 percent). The Écologistes Yannick Jadot is currently projected to receive 4 percent of first-round votes. It seems likely that most Écologistes and Socialist Party voters will swing to Macron in the second round, as they did in 2017 when the fear of a Le Pen victory mobilized nearly every part of the left. But this time, the second-round behavior of radical-left and extreme-left voters loyal to Mélenchon, Roussel, Arthaud, and Poutou is not so clear. Polling suggests that abstentions in this part of the electorate may be very high, owing in part to the dislike of Macron, who is no longer an unknown. In addition, there is concern that some part of Mélenchon’s and Roussel’s working-class supporters may support Le Pen, in light of her cultivation of class resentments and her somewhat softened but still archly conservative stance on immigration. When voters are asked whom they are likely to support in a second-round face-off between Le Pen and Macron, fully 47 percent indicate that they will vote for Le Pen, against 53 percent who say they’ll support Macron. Even if Macron narrowly prevails in that contest, the extreme-right will have achieved a level of support unprecedented in modern French political history.
Meanwhile, other dynamics observed in the 2017 election have matured. The Socialist Party and the moderately conservative Republicans — two mainstays of French politics over the last 50 years — continue to implode. In 2017, social democratic and moderate conservative voters owned 26 percent of the first-round vote, a catastrophic drop compared to 2012. This time they are projected to win a mere 11 percent of the first-round vote, continuing the stunning collapse of these two major political parties. And for the first time since 1969, the French Communist Party may win a greater share of the vote than the Socialist Party, which a mere 10 years ago won both the presidential and legislative elections. The national politics of France are increasingly defined by the political extremes and a large block of poorly organized moderate voters with weak attachments to political parties.
In 2016, Donald Trump’s narrow victory in the Electoral College in the U.S. presidential election was due in large part to the support of white men without college degrees. In an earlier time, a large number of those men would have voted for the Democratic Party, which by tradition was the party of what is now known in France as the “popular classes” (les classes populaires). But Trump successfully wooed these formerly Democratic voters to the Republican Party by appealing to class, racial, and ethnic divides and resentments. There are many ways in which contemporary French and American politics are dissimilar, but the irony of the migration of some elements of the popular classes away from social democratic parties and candidates and into the arms of the extreme right is something that each country is encountering in significant albeit slightly different ways. That migration may prove decisive in the second round of the French presidential election on April 24.
Election présidentielle: le tableau de bord, des parrainages, sondages et temps de parole, Le Monde, 8 Avril, 2022
Poll of Polls, Politico, April 8, 2022 https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/france/
“Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”
LAST OCTOBER, JOSH HAWLEY, junior United States Senator from Missouri, gave one of the principal speeches at the National Conservatism Conference — NatCon for short — in Orlando, Florida. It was a big moment for Hawley. NatCon has become the principal ideological showcase for the contemporary right, and most of the thought leaders and aspiring stars of Trumpian conservatism were there.
To continue reading, go to the essay on Medium.
THE WAR FEELS CLOSER HERE. It’s partly knowing that I could drive to Ukraine. Roughly 20 hours. Like driving from Boston to Des Moines. And all of it without having to cross a closed border and or change currency–all of it in the EU. Refugees are arriving in nearby towns. Worries about the possible use of chemical or nuclear weapons fill the evening news. And in the deep background, memories of World War II and tanks crashing through the countryside.
All of this makes it easier to see why many people here feel that Putin’s disturbing ambitions have as much to do with Europe–with the EU, with NATO, with the West–as with Ukraine. For Putin, Ukraine has specific, historic importance. But he’s also aiming to get into the heads of European leaders, challenge NATO and the EU, and demonstrate clearly that Russia is another place, not part of Europe and the West, but every bit as important. Hence the anxiety here about when and where it all might stop.
It’s also easier to see from here, and now, why Putin worked so hard to get Donald Trump elected. He knew that Trump would call NATO into question. He knew that Trump would withdraw from engagement with Europe. He knew that Trump admired his way of exercising power. It’s clear now that Putin had been thinking about this war for a long time. The Trump presidency was part of his calculation.
The war has unsettled the French presidential landscape, too. The election is now just two weeks away. Before the invasion, almost half the field of the 12 candidates for president had declared ambivalence or outright hostility toward France’s European alliances and obligations, riding the same nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments that led to Brexit. Now that NATO seems, for the moment at least, useful, most of those candidates are tempering their positions, and not always persuasively. Some voters have noticed. President Emmanual Macron has been consistent in his support for the EU and less critical of NATO. His polling numbers have improved since the Russian invasion, while most of the others have fallen. The important exception is Marine Le Pen, whose numbers have also improved. Her decision to moderate her positions on Europe and other things seems now to have been astute. But Macron seems even more attuned to the moment. It is likely that the French people will reward him with another five-year term.
Meanwhile, the war rages on. Images of the devastation in Mariupol flood the French news media. One can only imagine the damage in other major cities, where Russian forces lay siege. The legacy of Putin’s obsession with Russian greatness will now include the thousands of military and civilian war dead and wounded, and the many thousands more who will suffer post-traumatic stress and moral injury for decades to come. A vast tragedy that never had to happen.