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The Threat of Decivilisation

During a recent dinner at the Élysée Palace, the French president was confronted with the possibility that France is slipping into murderous anarchy.

· 9 min read
The Threat of Decivilisation
May Day protest in Lyon, eastern France, on May 1st, 2023. (Photo by Jeff Pachoud via Getty Images)

On the evening of May 23rd, a dinner was held in the Élysée Palace, attended by President Emmanuel Macron and four of France’s most prominent sociologists. The president’s guests were invited to describe, frankly, the current state of France and suggest how the country’s many problems might be addressed. They were told that the meeting would remain confidential. It did not.

Four days later, Le Monde published an outline of the discussion, apparently gleaned from some of the participants and possibly a background briefing from the Élysée itself. The article occupied a full page of the newspaper and its account of the conversation did not flatter the president, who was reported to have said little. One of the guests was Jean Viard, research director at the state analytic centre, CNRS. The evening at the presidential palace, Viard said, “will change nothing fundamental: the people who govern us don’t understand the society.”

This was a grim assessment. Macron’s government had been swept to power in 2017 on the incoming wave of the Republique en Marche movement (rebranded as Renaissance last September), which had flattened its opponents on the Left and Right by claiming to incorporate the best of both traditions. Macron was elected with 66.1 percent of the vote in 2017, and La Republique en Marche secured 308 seats, which gave them an absolute majority in the 577-seat Assembly. In an unwise moment of self-glorification, Macron described himself as a Jupiterian leader, “unchallenged and detached from trivialities, like the Roman god of the skies.”

But as dinner was served in the cabinet room of the Élysée, the Jupiterian leader was brought down brutally to reality. Noting that attacks on police, civil servants, mayors, and postal workers are on the increase, Jérôme Fouquet, head of the main polling company IFOP, said that “tensions are increasing in every part of society” to such a degree that “a process of decivilisation is now under way.” The few days before the sociologists’ dinner had been bloody ones. Three men were killed with assault rifles in Marseilles, probably the result of a drug trafficking feud; a man was shot dead on the Champs Élysées in Paris; a nurse was stabbed to death in Reims; in the town of Saint Brevin-les-Pins, the mayor, an independent conservative, resigned after months of attacks by the extreme Right, culminating in his two cars being set alight in front of his house after he agreed to the establishment of a reception centre for asylum seekers in the town.

The Élysée dinner had been planned as a lively but serious and orderly exchange of views. Instead, the president was confronted with the possibility that France is slipping into murderous anarchy. Following the meeting, Macron changed his schedule. Rather than travelling south to the Var region, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech on the environment, he went to Roubaix on the Belgian border to honour three policemen recently killed by an intoxicated driver. The president had to be seen standing beside the forces of law and order, which he had just been told were weakening, perhaps fatally. At a meeting of the Council of Ministers held days after his return from Roubaix, Macron indicated that he had accepted Fouquet’s alarmed analysis when he demanded that his colleagues be “fundamentally unyielding” in the face of a “process of decivilisation.”

A number of commentators immediately linked this new rhetoric to the work of two thinkers: Norbert Elias, and more controversially, Renaud Camus. Elias was a German Jewish scholar who found refuge in Britain before the Second World War and gained recognition as a pioneer in the then-suspect discipline of sociology. In his 1939 paper, ‘The Civilising Process,’ Elias examined the gradual development of manners and civility in societies where laws were (broadly) observed and governments (mostly) had a monopoly on force. The kind of decivilisation observable in Nazi Germany occurred when a country’s leadership itself instrumentalised political violence.

Renaud Camus, on the other hand, is a radical rightwing philosopher and a divisive figure. He is best known for his 2011 pamphlet, Le Grand Remplacement, in which he argues that liberal elites in government and corporations are deliberately substituting the native population with immigrants. Elites are doing this, Camus claims, because migrant labour is cheap and the new arrivals will vote for the party that has allowed them to enter the country. In his 2011 essay, Décivilisation, Camus linked growing societal strife to mass immigration and the impossibility of integration. When Macron employed a word associated with such a radical figure, many on France’s Left attacked the president for flirting with racism. “The president,” said Manon Aubry, an MEP for the Left faction, “endorses the smoky ‘decivilisation’ of the racist Renaud Camus.”

Macron is a centrist liberal technocrat, and it is unlikely that he has suddenly become a racist. But he has had to bear months of large and sometimes violent protests against his decision to raise the pensionable age from 62 to 64—which he bypassed the parliament to force into law. He seems to have concluded that the country he has governed since 2017 is clinging to a passing world, careless of the rising national debt that a higher pensionable age would partly address, and increasingly ungovernable.

He is also aware that the wider world is becoming ungovernable—a nightmare he must share with every other democratically elected leader. The invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has already produced around 300,000 casualties. An estimated 180,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded, while the Ukrainians have lost around 100,000 troops and 30,000 civilians. “Even by conservative estimates,” writes James Billot in UnHerd, “both sides are losing hundreds of soldiers per day, putting it within the top 10% of deadliest wars since 1812.” Few expect the conflict to end this year. Most Western states are committed to assisting Ukraine in its struggle against Russia for as long as it takes, though a realistic endgame remains unobtainable and unclear. Countries are plunging ever-deeper into debt to arm the country with the latest weaponry, even as they weigh the fear that Russia might resort to a nuclear option, and that China might attack Taiwan within the next decade.

The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 lasted only 13 days, after which the Soviet Union withdrew its planned deployment of nuclear missiles. The Ukraine war has lasted over 16 months to date, and there is no obvious end in sight. China’s irredentist resolve may remain a possibility for much longer. As a contribution to the decivilising of international relations, the aggression of these world powers takes some beating. The French president, more than any other Western head of state, has sought to moderate the language used against Russia, and especially China, often to the annoyance of American and other European leaders.

And Macron has a more local fear—that after eight years of what should have been a revolutionary presidency, he will be succeeded by Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-Right National Rally (Rassemblement National). Macron finds Le Pen contemptible, and has beaten her twice in the 2017 and 2022 presidential elections. He sees Le Pen’s politics as narrowly nationalistic, reactionary, racist, and dangerous, but polls now show that she is now more popular than he is.

Until recently, Macron believed that France would recover its élan and vigour under his rule and lead the European Union towards greater integration. But the country remains in the same state of disrepair as when he took office, and Europe’s divisions are more apparent than ever. Polls on the popularity of the EU rise and fall, but an IFOP poll last February reported 63 percent support for a referendum on continued French membership. Le Pen has said she would seek to reform not leave the union, but she has promised a referendum on membership when elected. For all these reasons, Macron believes that a Le Pen victory in 2025 would constitute a damning indictment of his time in office and signal that the barbarians have breached the gates.

The Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her Fratelli d’Italia party are from the same nationalist family as the National Rally. The evidence so far suggests that, when elected, such parties can remain popular. According to the Fratelli d’Italia MEP Nicola Procaccini, Macron fears that “the success of Giorgia Meloni could be contagious and further weaken the French government” and sees the rise of the New Right as a sign of European decivilisation. He has repeatedly drawn attention to their fascist roots, their inexperience in government, and their hostility to the EU. The New Right’s eruption has convulsed a political world in which parties of the centre-Left and centre-Right were once on roughly the same economic and political page. Macron believes that a world in which radical parties are seen as fundamentally uncivilised is a world worth preserving.

Macron has depended on the robustness of that political world for his efforts to endow the EU with greater authority over its member states, so it is unsurprising that he fears the rise of the New Right will bring chaos. Le Pen, on the other hand, sees herself as the solution to growing disorder and has rejoiced that Macron is at last in agreement with her: “For years I’ve warned against this country’s descent into savagery (ensauvagement), for which I’ve been called everything under the sun. Finally, Macron agrees with us: decivilisation is barbarism.”

Liberal democracy has long been considered the freest and most civilised way to run a country, but it is weaker now than it has been for decades. The 2023 edition of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report finds that, “Global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year.” This ominous sentence is underscored by the 2023 Democracy Index, which finds that “democracy is unfortunately on a worldwide decline.” That slump has been accompanied by a rise in attacks on elected officials in a number of democratic countries, not least in France.

Individual incidents of savagery worry the French president most, because they pose a more immediate threat to the voting public than international conflicts and political movements, and make a stronger impression on national sentiment. A widely discussed example occurred in October 2020, when a history teacher named Samuel Paty was stabbed to death and beheaded at his school in a village near Paris. His murderer was 18-year-old Abdoullakh Anzorov, a refugee from Chechnya who had been granted asylum in France. Anzorov travelled to the school from Normandy when he learned that Paty had shown his class images of the Prophet Mohammed to demonstrate the importance of free expression. As this was written, four very young children, including a British child, were stabbed in a park in Annecy, in south-east France, by a man identified as a Syrian-Christian refugee, who had called out “In the name of Jesus Christ!” as he attacked the toddlers. A small crowd of people gathered at the park, one waving the French tricolour and all singing La Marseillaise, the national anthem.

French teachers have long protested the increasing threat of violence they face, and went on strike in 2010 to bring attention to the problem. They are not alone. Notoriously, violence in US schools is also rising sharply. The May 2022 shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, claimed the lives of 19 children and two teachers. Schools in Europe, though largely free from US-style gun violence, are experiencing a sharp rise in violence of other kinds, as well as cyber bullying, which can be more damaging of children’s self-confidence than the physical sort.

Globally and locally, democratic leaders look around and despair: trust in the political class, which is often low, is now at a new nadir. Norbert Elias argued that humanity only emerged from its violent past once it realised that more peaceful societies require rules, order, and trust. Macron’s Élysée dinner with the sociologists was meant to reassure him that a country angered by an unwelcome extension to working life could still be brought under control by well-informed governance. Instead, the experts told him that the world in which France and its president are operating might no longer be reformable, and that it is slipping out of control.

The gracious 18th-century palace bears the name of the Elysian Fields, which in Greek mythology were the final resting place of the noble dead. The fine wines served in the Salon Murat, where the president meets his government ministers every week, could not hold at bay the dread of a loss of control and authority. Macron, among the most active and ambitious of world leaders, was faced with the unforgiving reality of his own impotence, and that of all democratic leaders. If this is not to prove fatal to the rebuilding of global order, new forms of civilising activity must be created by those citizens who apprehend the need to halt decline.

John Lloyd

John Lloyd was the FT’s Moscow correspondent from 1991–95. He is co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and his forthcoming book is about the rise of the New Right in Europe.

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