The Victim Of Populism Is Democracy

In both America and Europe today, says French writer Jean d’Ormesson, there is great hostility toward the system. Democracy suffers as a result.
03/07/2017 11:49 am ET
Marine Le Pen in Saint-Herblain, France, on Feb. 26.
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER via Getty Images
Marine Le Pen in Saint-Herblain, France, on Feb. 26.
alain elkann

PARIS ― Jean d’Ormesson was born in Paris in 1925. A writer and philosopher, he received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor in 2014. I spoke to him recently in Paris about the upcoming elections in France and the rise of populism globally.

Do you see a real possibility that Marine Le Pen and the National Front can win the French elections?

The National Front is clearly making steady progress. I remember when the party of the extreme right in France at the time of [Jean-Louis] Tixier-Vignancour reached a maximum of 2 percent of the vote. Later Jean-Marie Le Pen’s party gained a maximum of 3 to 4 percent of the vote. But now there is a populist wave all across the world ― I am thinking for example of Brexit, of Trump, of the Dutch elections ― and today Le Pen is at 26-27 percent.

For several months Le Pen has been the only candidate to be certain of going into the second round; the others, I am not sure. As I said before Le Pen will have approximately 25-30 percent of the votes but I do not think that she can be elected. She will face the Socialist Party led by [Benoît] Hamon and the extreme left led by [Jean-Luc] Mélenchon. If they were united they would represent 25 percent, more or less the same percentage as Le Pen.

Anyway, I think that in the end Le Pen will be defeated. In my opinion, [Francois] Fillon ― if he is still in the race despite the scandal that has engulfed him ― or Macron will win the elections in the end. I do believe that Le Pen will be elected in the elections of 2022, but even now all possibilities are open. If, unfortunately, there should be a horrible attack two days before the elections, it would be a catastrophe, and in that case Le Pen could win.

A float featuring drives in the annual Rose Monday parade in Dusseldorf, Germany, on Feb. 27.
Lukas Schulze via Getty Images
A float featuring drives in the annual Rose Monday parade in Dusseldorf, Germany, on Feb. 27.

Are the French anxious and worried?

France has changed. For many years it was a country organized into two parties: the conservatives and the socialists, the right and the left. Macron has said correctly that bipartisanship is finished and it has been replaced by quadri-partisanship: Le Pen at the extreme right and the extreme left of Mélenchon, and then the traditional left and the traditional right. But it is not only politics that have changed but also the French people, who were once happy and carefree. As Cocteau rightly said they have become like “Italians in a bad mood.” The democratic system has been threatened and people are tending towards extremes. The victory of the National Front would be an economic catastrophe ― the return to the Franc, the closing of borders ― in short a great chaos.

Brexit and the election of Trump seemed to be unforeseeable events. They are, however, things that have happened.

You cannot absolutely trust the polls today, and also for many years people did not dare to admit that they voted for the National Front. Today, this trend has changed, and people are less afraid to say that they vote for the National Front. This could increase the party’s vote to 30 percent.

What kind of a country is France today?

It’s a country in bad shape. The five years of the Hollande presidency have been disastrous. He has not kept his promises and he was not able to reduce unemployment and increase the standard of living. Today France may seem to be turning the page, but the danger of terrorism and the problem of migrants is strong. Security is one of the main priorities, and with Le Pen there will be no more migrants because the borders will be closed. A large number of Christians vote for the National Front and I do not understand how they can support a political party that wants to close doors. I have to say that Hollande was better on the topic of security than he was on the economic front.

Do you worry about the world of culture, how are things for French culture?

The French language is doing very badly; it is hard to fight against English. It is also true that books and newspapers are in difficulty. Some publishers are doing well, but there is a negative trend and bookstore sales have been reduced by between 5 to 15 percent. Current events have certainly invigorated people’s desire to read newspapers, and for the moment the freedom of the press is total in France.

All of France is moving to the right.

And if the National Front wins?

It will not only be a disaster for the poor and for the rich, but it will also affect culture, and the freedom of the press will be threatened. 

Do intellectuals still have a voice in France today?

I am not an intellectual, I consider myself a humble writer. The left wing intellectuals went further right than myself. All of France is moving to the right. The Communist Party and the Socialists no longer seem to exist in France. However, writers still have a privileged situation. A writer in France still has a voice in society, although the myth of the great writer, such as Victor Hugo or François Mauriac or André Gide, no longer exists. The people have violently rejected the political class, all politicians are unpopular and the press is not seen in a very good light. Writers do still enjoy a certain respect.

You are a French academician. What is the role of the Academy of France today?

It does not have very much to do with literature, it is more like a meeting place for interesting people. Neither [Jean-Paul] Sartre nor [André] Malraux nor [Albert] Camus were French academicians, but the Academy of France definitely has an undeniable prestige, especially abroad, because it represents a certain French esprit. The French esprit prevailing at the time of Voltaire and Descartes.

The real victim of all this is democracy.

One thing remains at the Academy that has otherwise disappeared in France ― I am talking about conversation. Formerly there were literary salons, but they disappeared. In the last 60-70 years, they were replaced by literary cafes, but now even those have disappeared and conversation has gone with them.

Does France still have a leading cultural role in Europe today?

France follows the destiny of Europe. For centuries the dominance of Europe was total, but I would like to say that culture goes hand in hand with a flourishing economy and military power. Both Louis XIV and Napoleon understood this very well. Tomorrow, the most important philosophers will be Indian, Chinese and Brazilian. The advance of populism is due to the weakness of Europe.

What about the United States?

Who would ever have expected four months ago an America with [Donald] Trump as president? And that is the opposite of what the world thinks about America. In both America and Europe today, there is great hostility toward the system. The real victim of all this is democracy.

We absolutely must safeguard the idea of Europe.

What kind of a world do we live in nowadays?

It is a difficult period. The world has always changed, but today it is changing with a faster pace. I am not among those who say that it was better before. In spite of the great success of science it is unequivocally important to save a clear concept of humankind, and to reconcile the triumph of science with humanism. 

Do you think that there will be new wars?

There should be no more wars, because we have created Europe, but if populism triumphs, things will change. We absolutely must safeguard the idea of Europe. Europe has succeeded in two things: the single currency and the absence of war. Wars will certainly continue in Africa, in Asia, but we must ensure absolute vigilance against populism. Young people have a tendency to be extremist, but we must prevent them from voting for the National Front.

In conclusion, what is your opinion about your country?

It is definitely somewhat anxious and unhappy. The French language, as I said at the beginning, is becoming less important, and France is not the first country in a Europe that is no longer the center of the world. It is wrong, though, to be talking about decline all the time. What I believe is that Africa will have an increasingly important role. The future is Africa. 

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