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Wednesday, 21 August 2019

A personal dystopia

What could an imagined dystopia tell us about contemporary politics, asks Tewfick Aclimandos

Tewfick Aclimandos , Wednesday 31 Jul 2019
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I periodically consider writing a dystopia. It would go like this: we are in 2047, and French President Emmanuel Macron has modified the constitution and has been re-elected many times with the help of fraud.

He has benefited from the collapse of the traditional political parties and from the general fear of the “Rassemblement national,” the new name for the French National Front. He has relied on increasingly powerful security services and is grooming his wife’s son to become his heir. The economy is doing fairly well, with one huge caveat: two-thirds of the population are now very poor. However, with the exception of human development, the indicators are satisfactory.

Culturally speaking, France has changed: a third of the country is now Muslim, and about two-thirds have “returned” to a new brand of traditional Catholicism. Many Protestants, Jews and other Catholics and Muslims, fed up by what has happened, have emigrated. Communitarianism is triumphant.

From time to time, there are some serious incidents, generally ignited by Catholics attacking mosques. Both communities dislike liberal and leftist intellectuals and have acted to stifle intellectual life. From time to time, an interesting book appears, but most of the country’s intellectual production is rubbish.

The only promising sign comes from the country’s young people who use the Internet to find themselves and do not like the current shape of society. Experts on Europe in the US and China say that a solid democracy could be established, if only Macron were toppled. They convince themselves that the Rassemblement national, by now the only relevant political party, is democratic and progressive, paying little attention to its real development.

However, in fact it has become increasingly clandestine and fascist, and it even claims to represent true Christianity. Its leaders try to fool useful American and Chinese idiots, who sell the idea of a democratic transition led by the now very old Marine Le Pen and her party.

French liberals and leftists from Christian and Muslim backgrounds who speak English and read Chinese are exposed to some very strange ideas produced by foreign experts abroad. Communitarianism is the solution to the problems created by the disappearance of the welfare state, they read, and it is a liberation from “laïcité” (secularist) oppression.

The traditional Catholic woman is the most liberated in the world, as she has been freed from the dictatorship of beauty standards. The Rassemblement national, which has never recognised Muslims as equal citizens, is the best hope for democracy. Religious fanaticism is nothing but a quest for dignity and authenticity. The attacks against mosques by Catholic ultra-right activists prove Macron’s lack of seriousness on minority issues.

Such pundits consistently deny the obvious fact that the ultra-right activists are trying to impose new standards of behaviour on women. First, they must wear “decent” clothes, and then they must wear veils and so on.

Eventually Macron, now very old, is toppled by a revolution launched by liberal young people strengthened by Le Pen’s militants. The army, unhappy with Macron, supports the movement. After a tumultuous transition, an unknown figure from the Rassemblement national is elected as the new president by a narrow margin. He benefits from the traditionalist vote and the liberal and leftist one, since both are eager to destroy the remnants of Macron’s regime.

The fraud is awful. The beaten candidate gains the votes of many Catholic traditionalists who do not like Le Pen, as well as from the Muslim minority and former Macron supporters. However, this is not enough to win.

International pundits, liberal governments elsewhere and a majority of French citizens are happy with the result, even if the US president proceeds cautiously. There are some alarming signs, but many in the US administration are enthusiastic about developments.

Five months later, something happens, but nobody takes much notice. The traditionalist Catholics who voted for the new president are furious, and civil servants and judges who do not belong to the Rassemblement national are replaced by inexperienced activists. The logic of the “winner takes all” prevails.

The Rassemblement national makes some concessions in the new constitution, but the fact that it considers recognising basic rules to be heart-breaking concessions is worrying. New members of parliament stop paying visits to their constituencies and turn off their mobile phones. Only other activists can get in touch with them.

On the country’s Muslim minority, the president had started by saying the right things. He did not exploit one large incident to organise persecution, for example, and he tried to prevent ultra-right activists from outside the Rassemblement national from attacking mosques. However, things soon changed, as his rhetoric became more hostile. He even asks the Pope whether he can wish Muslim citizens a happy Eid.

Instead of focusing on the economy, the new president supports other Catholic-fascist movements across the world, including many violent ones. He considers giving the French provinces of Alsace Lorraine to Germany, and he supports separatist movements in Bavaria, Corsica and Northern Ireland.

Some activists say that the president should consider granting French nationality to any Catholic applying for it. Others gauge public opinion, saying that women should stay at home and men should have absolute priority. Some activists prevent unaccompanied women from using public transport. Others launch operations to impose a new moral order, as they do not want to see people dancing during wedding ceremonies or drinking alcohol. They want to close cafés where people might be playing cards for money.

Ultra-right militiamen start arresting political opponents, who disappear and are frequently found dead. They kidnap some NCOs and officers, and the president says on TV that he does not care about the kidnappers and the kidnapped. He discusses insane plans for an invasion of Germany in order to solve disputes once and for all, and a meeting on this theme with his collaborators is broadcast on television. Berlin is happy as it can capitalise on what was said.

Traditionalist Catholics are furious, as they did not vote for this. They voted for social justice, decency, good governance and charity for the poor. Many also voted for imposing new and more modest dress codes, and many disliked the Muslim community, but they never endorsed attacks on mosques or individuals. Many of them believed that their leaders were enriching themselves and their allies, leaving only leftovers for the poor. Now they discover that the leftovers are in fact going to ultra-right Catholic parties, whether German, Italian, American or Brazilian.

These traditionalists start to protest. The president says they are not true Catholics, but Muslims in disguise. They probably have Jewish mothers, he says. The opposition urges him to make concessions. He does not oblige. Millions of people launch new waves of protest, and the army, afraid of civil war, topples the president. The international powers, media and academia condemn this act as an “attack on democracy.”

Of course, this is all an invented dystopia. Such things could never happen. 

*The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A personal dystopia

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