If you are reading this, chances are you have heard about the French security laws that were proposed last Fall and are scheduled for discussion and vote later this year. In the wake of several terrorist attacks and killings in France, including the brutal murder of teacher Samuel Paty, France has introduced a bundle of legislation designed to strengthen the country’s security apparatus, crack down on ‘radical’ and ‘political’ Islam, and reinforce the country’s republican value system. The pair of laws at the center of attention include a security bill as well as a broad stroke ‘defense of the Republic act’.

Together, the laws evoke the authority of the Revolutionary-republican origins of France’s history, a recourse that is now more concerned with upholding this mythos for the sake of societal coherency than any attempt to make reasoned legal argument. At the center of  the Macron regime’s attempt to tap into this mythos is the idea that France is a structurally secular country (Laïcité) because secularism is one of the most important mechanisms by which particular identities (religion) can be kept private, allowing for the ever-so-important task of coalescing a universal public (read French) identity to protect the common good. Many commentators and journalists on the ground in France have already aptly pointed out the disastrous flaws and potential consequences of this package. 

Veteran journalist and researcher Myriam Francois scorched the bundle’s latent notion that public safety requires state intervention into the private space of religious worship of the country’s Muslim population. The bogus narrative that France’s Muslim minority has been infiltrated by radicalized Islam and poses an institutional danger has led to plans to investigate and regulate Mosques according to the political terms of the Republic’s standards of Laïcité and moral and active citizenship. Francois counters that such measures are prejudicial considering a study that demonstrates French Muslims tend to be supporters of the Republic. One of France’s most prominent voices for racial justice, journalist Rokhaya Diallo has rightly sounded alarms on the security law’s provision to restrict the ability of journalists to film and monitor police activity, arm law enforcement with video surveillance capabilities and, the potential problematic implications considering France’s as well the current global status of racialized police brutality. Finally, Philippe Marlière a scholar and continued critic of the rise of nationalist discourse in French politics lays it on the line. Marlière connects abuses by the French policing system to official state ‘colorblindness’, finding the latter to be a problematic and ethnocentric endeavor. Further, he laments that no mainstream French Left party has had a significant anti-racist component in over 30 years [1].  

If we read the proposed legislation as partial to French national security policy, then it factors as another component of what international relations scholar Perniel Rieker calls the development of an ambitious French symbolic power. Drawing from Bourdieu-ian social theory, Rieker argues that both internally – and externally- French social order preserves itself by articulating its identity and therefore, disciplining its population, to conform to the mythos of France’s revolutionary-republicanism as the normative value system par excellence  [2]. In the most immediate sense, this explains the recent political investment in Laïcité – internal cohesion enables the outward posturing of France as the torchbearer of Enlightenment universalism.   

Of course, as any historian or keen observer of France will tell you, in contemporary French political discourse universal identity is really code for white-national identity. While programs of ‘republican unity’ to assimilate particularly pious or public-facing religious communities has, since the end of the Algerian war in 1962, meant brown and black skinned North African Muslims need to be policed as a threat. Jacques Derrida, not surprisingly, has already put it best: drag-net security measures can never act with enough precision to locate the exact individual enemy, the actual militant or extremist group that any decent state has an obligation to arrest. Instead, such tactics cut in broad strokes, sequestering marginal groups based on the fears formed in the psyche of a dominant population [3].

However, what most commentators have failed to point out in their scrutiny of the Macron regime’s hard-right turn on republicanism, Islam, and security measures is an old folksy political adage: it takes a member of the Rightwing in power to accomplish what the Left has tried to do but failed. There is a certain hyperbolic irony to this reasoning that most likely sounds surprising. How could it be that exclusionary, draconian security measures aimed at immigrants, people of color, and a religious minority in a Western democratic country reflects the agenda of the Left? And this is most certainly my point, it does not and should not makes sense for the Left to embrace such an agenda. Yet, in France – and by extension this should be a warning to scholars and activists around the world – I argue that what we are witnessing with Macron’s disgusting move towards nationalist exclusionism is just an iteration, and one of the more intense programs in recent years for a Western democracy, of nationalist logic put into effect by a government. All nationalisms that is. Even when that nationalism is articulated by a Leftwing movement.

Against the Left-Nationalist Temptation

Leftwing nationalism is not a new phenomenon. The modern revolutions of the 18th century are often thought, sometimes incorrectly, to begin a tradition of collective self-determination and agency through the model of national statehood. In the 19th century, Marx wrote about the strategic importance of some national movements to the impending wave of socialist revolutions [4]. By the early 20th century, the Austrian Otto Bauer wagered that official national institutions internal to multi-national state governments would be the only way to prevent ethnic conflict [5]. The apex of Leftwing nationalism, of course, was the wave of liberationist movements in the mid-20th century across the globe- from colonial states on the African continent to quietly growing discontent provinces in Canada. From China to Cuba, programs of national revolution intertwined with socialist programs made the pairing seem practical if not desirable.

In our current era of globalization, economic crisis, and populism there has been a minor resurgence of Leftwing nationalisms. Some of these programs have been the continuation of the colonial conflicts of years past- the Quebec, Catalonian, and Scottish cases in the West. But as well, the case of Leftists who supported Brexit and, certain strains of American Leftism and worker-focused politics that sees internationalism as an accomplice of neo-liberalism. Finally, there is the utter inability of proponents of Left-populist politics to think about the construction and messaging of their movements beyond the scope of the nation-state.

Yet, when political programs embrace nationalism and state regimes work to make their public procedures, identity, laws, and enforcement piecemeal with the basic ‘one nation, one state’ model, the result is always differing degrees of exclusion that are incompatible with the democratic ideals of collective agency, equality, and openness. By extension, when Leftwing activists accept and embrace nationalism, even with noble goals of liberation from colonialism or to break away from unfair economic management, the avenir of exclusion is always-already present.

There are in effect two cardinal sins built into the very concept of nationalism that make it ipso facto exclusionary. The first, is the one cautioned by Otto Bauer and Rosa Luxemburg before both World Wars- as the world gets more connected and peoples mix, the effort to make a true ‘national-state’ will undoubtedly leave some group with nowhere to go. It was fear of what would happen after the creation of the national state that provoked Bauer. For Luxemburg it was the feedback loop between nationalism and imperialism that was worrisome. Indeed, her famous opine that imperialism breeds barbarism seems to have been proven true by the conflicts of the 20th century. Today, in our global world, her words should still be taken as a warning more so than as a trope. It is a warning understood on the front lines, in the boomerang of Western blindless to its own history of committing atrocity that now seems more relevant than ever. As the French-Algerian writer and activist Houria Bouteldja writes:

The colonial West thought it had decimated the virile power of [Black and Arab] men. Instead, the West proliferated it in its own image. Today, this power explodes in our faces, not without the active complicity of certain of our younger sisters, who were programmed to become beurettes but respond to the call of ‘jihad’ with a resounding: yes! When their brothers go off to save their lost honor, they follow them… [6].

The second sin is one that defines daily life in every nation-state. The need to maintain, preserve, hold dear, and indeed, enforce a wide array of customs and procedures linked to the sanctity of the nation. This is the notion that a holiday must be observed because it has always been observed, a language spoken because it has always been spoken, that some practices are to be elevated and others penalized. The second sin is the erasure of public discussion, of deliberation on the value, reform, or harms of culturally specific practices- not because of their merit or public goo- but because they are in defense of the national tradition on which the polity rests. This is the type of exclusion that Boutledjia writes she feels when she is ostracized just for asserting the presence of her Indigène identity in ‘colorblind’ France [7].

The Sliding Scale of Exclusion: Escalation of the Nationalist Project in France

How exactly is Macron’s move to the Right and deployment of more ‘exclusionary nationalist’ security measures explained by the failure of a Left-economic project that embraces nationalism? The first thing to keep in mind is that France’s political spectrum broke in the 2017 election. The Parti Socialist (PS) long the establishment Left-democratic party was maligned by both growing dissatisfaction with the party’s move to neo-liberal economics and a social scandal that left the party’s leader Benoit Hammond embarrassed and looking incompetent. In addition, the struggle of the mainstream Left was only worsened by what the party long knew but ignored, its traditional base of white economically disenfranchised voters had bitten the poisoned apple of the far-Right Front National (FN) [8] who had mainstreamed itself as patriots of France hoping to curb immigration, re-establish French values, and break with the EU.

Voters Left-of-center were stuck with two choices- both outsiders in French politics. Jean Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (FI) presented a Left-populist agenda: Euro-skepticism, anti-capitalism, and a renewed patriotism of France’s revolutionary heritage. On top of this messaging were bold policy ideas such as the proposal to write a new constitution and re-make France’s political institution more democratic. Finally, Emmanuel Macron, the eventual winner, was a bland if at least photogenic Left-centrist. A former neo-liberal technocrat, Macron was the ‘reasonable choice’ someone who would not do anything rash but would engender reforms to make the struggling French economy more efficient.

In this light, Macron’s move from the candidate of the mainstream ‘decent’ center-Left to enactor of a security law reminiscent of the Bush or Trump administrations is striking. Recent commentators trying to explain the rationale for Macron’s seemingly off-brand move have pointed to above all the latent nationalist ideals of France’s republican model of statehood. This is certainly the kernel of the problem facing French politics, but reducing our answer to the question “why with Macron, why now?” to the ubiquitiousness of French republicanism risks  ignoring a degree of nuance: the political pressure Macron feels as an unpopular president trying to define an identity and look ahead to a future election, and, the lack of a clear and potent Left-alternative.

The steady and reasoned reporting on the security laws by journalist Cole Stangler seems to support this conclusion. As Stangler writes, “In the next presidential race, in 2022, Macron is once again expected to face Marine Le Pen in the run-off round. Le Pen’s far-Right National Rally party has long bashed immigration and now regularly calls for improving security and defending laïcité. By leaning into these themes, Macron and his government aren’t just innocently tackling topics of public concern. They’re hoping to win over voters ahead of a hypothetical rematch against Le Pen…”. Macron’s actions perhaps make the most sense when read as the outward burst of an object caught between the two planes of a vice. On the one hand, the ever-present threat of the far-Right, on the other the lingering memory of the most successful far-Left bid for the presidency in recent memory. And really, the latter force points to a problem that upsets and makes many on the Left uncomfortable.

The lesson to be learned from France is another folk political adage, one allegedly penned by Walter Benjamin and now routinely repeated by Slavoj Žižek, the Right succeeds when there is a lack of any true Left alternative. True, Mélenchon’s campaign did present an anti-capitalist economic agenda, it spoke of bankers and Brussels as vampires, urged on the working class, and demanded environmental-economic policies that could find a home in the Green New Deal. But it was also heavily indebted to a belief in Laïcité, the mythology of France’s republican history, and the notion that French values are universal values. Mélenchon’s 2017 campaign failed to reach out to the various historic, existing, and new anti-racism and Indigène activist groups that struggle to carve out space in France’s political system. Mélenchon continues to embrace the motif of Laïcité and the republic’s hardline integrationist approach. In an effort to gear-up his platform for a presidential bid in 2022, and more immediately, to interject himself in the French political scene amongst the ongoing Laïcité and security debate, Mélenchon has released a podcast series addressing the history and importance of the 1905 France Laïcité law for the Republic.

In sum, Mélenchon’s Left-populism runs through the familiar recourse of French republican-nationalism, and this in and of itself will start a collision-course with vital ethical concerns the Left cannot ignore: if the nation-state model depends on such doctrinal concepts such as non-negotiable acceptance of a ‘universal value system’ and the adoption of a singular identity, do we really wish to preserve and articulate this tradition into future political worlds? If the Left’s goals of inclusion, equality, and freedom from oppression truly are to take democratic form how can the nation-state model reckon with the fact this requires expanded access to citizenship and the potential to re-formulate the baseline standards of living in a shared polity?

The Only Way is Up: Towards a Global Populism

And here is the real problem. France, like the rest of the world, lacks a true Left-internationalism. We are often forced to choose between a Left-nationalism and a Right-nationalism. Imagine the different scenario France might be faced with right now if instead of turning back towards Laïcité and the republicanism reminiscent of an earlier stage, Mélenchon’s movement had turned outward toward the Muslim, Black, and immigrant communities routinely marginalized in France. Certainly, these communities already have organized for themselves. The only thing lacking for the Mélenchon campaign to reach out, to extend the frontier, was the ideological will – the belief in a cosmopolitan alternative.

If the arguments about the exclusions always-already present in the nation-state form are to be accepted, and I think we have enough evidence at this point that they should, then the horizon of global struggle is really the only viable form for radical democratic politics to operate. Left-populist movements, with their emphasis on drawing lines of equivalence and difference seem to present the ideal form to achieve this end [9]. Left-populism has demonstrated both the capacity and the creativeness to generate novel alliances between social movements and original understandings of ‘the people’.

Through populist-globalism we escape the pitfalls of traditional liberal politics- the racial pitfalls of unconscious prejudice and tokenism and- the metaphysical trap of the fundamental need to enforce a standard of reason. Instead, differences between groups and interests are worked out in true deliberation – guided by the equivalent need to protest the real enemy, the forces of capital and their protectors embedded in state institutions. How else do we plan to create an understanding of ‘the people’ that is truly universal?


[1] The exact quotation in French: « Notons que la gauche n’a mené aucune politique antiraciste d’envergure depuis SOS-Racisme dans les années 80 ; un mouvement qui fut d’ailleurs loin d’être exemplaire» 

[2] Pernille Rieker (2018). French status seeking in a changing world: taking on the role as the guardian of the liberal order. French Politics, 16. 424; 433.

[3] Jacques Derrida (2004). Philosophy in a Time of Terror Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Ed.  Giovanna Borradori. University of Chicago Press. 100-101

[4] Otto Bauer (2000/1907). The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy. Ed. Ephraim J. Nimni. University of Minnesota Press.

[5] Rosa Luxemurg (1989). The National Question: Selected Writings by Rosa Luxemburg. Edited by Horace Davis. 1st ed. Monthly Review Press.

[6] Houria Bouteldja (2017). Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love. MIT Press. 98.

[7] Ibid. 111-114

[8] Nick Hewlett (2017). The phantom revolution: The presidential and parliamentary elections of 2017. Modern & Contemporary France, 25:4. 377-390.

[9] Ernesto Laclau (2005). On Populist Reason. Verso Books.        

Reid Kleinberg is a PhD researcher at cIDA, Department of Government, University of Essex.


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