LES ECHOS

Macron's Hardest Job: France's Dangerous Class Divide

Nationalism was defeated in Emmanuel Macron's victory. But the debate of the individual vs. collective has just gotten underway in France, and beyond.

In a French suburban railway station
In a French suburban railway station
Raphaël Glucksmann*

-OpEd-

PARIS — The Ode to Joy, which accompanied Emmanuel Macron's first public steps after being elected French president on May 7, resonated far beyond the courtyard of the Louvre and the borders of France. This sound of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony sent a strong message to the world: Yes, the nationalist storms that have been battering our continent for years can in fact be defeated.

For this, we can be proud. Proud that we didn't follow the example of the British and the Americans, of the Polish and the Hungarians; proud that we stood up to the interference of Vladimir Putin, godfather-conductor of an Internationale of the far-right which, until now, has been claiming victory after victory; proud that we didn't fall into ISIS" trap and let our — absolutely legitimate — fears shake our democratic beliefs.

The French en masse rejected isolation and hatred for the other. It would be a shame not to celebrate. But it would also be an error to indulge in enthusiasm, wrong to forget the very real threat against which we were able to rally and, most importantly, wrong to ignore the deeper causes of this menace. We've avoided clinical death but the disease remains. We've erected a barrier, but the flood's sources are still there. Close to 11 million French voted for Marine Le Pen, and they're not all atavistically racist. Far from it. And 16 million either didn't turn up or voted for neither of the candidates. They're not all thoughtless or apathetic. Far from it.

Our country is marred by fractures, inequalities that fuel Le Pen's far right National Front and which don't just vanish with a syncretic vote. While 90% of the people chose Emmanuel Macron in the city where I live, in socially dying northern French towns just a 90-minute drive away, Le Pen scored a clear victory. How can we not see that two Frances are facing off against each other? When 83% of senior executives and I make the same choice while 63% of blue-collar workers who voted chose the opposite, how can you not see that this is a vote driven by class?

The 2017 electoral maps brutally remind us that socio-cultural classes do exist. And the one I belong to doesn't experience globalization, open borders, and the European Union in the same way than the proletariat does. It is infinitely easier for me to sing the European project's praises from the 10th arrondissement in Paris than for the unemployed worker whose former factory moved to Romania. Such a self-evident, but often silenced truth must guide all reflection and all political action. Without it, our simple exhortations to save liberal democracy and the European Union will be more and more useless. And next time, the vote to defend the Republic may no longer overcome the class factor. Last Sunday, we bought ourselves five years to change. To change France, Europe and ourselves.

In his first speech as president-elect, a solemn and humble Emmanuel Macron seemed well aware of this. He was miles away from the triumphalism that had shocked so many people two weeks earlier, on the evening of the first round. He no longer looked to obtain our love, but rather to address our worries. The change in tone was successful, but it won't be enough. Contrary to what many commentators have claimed, his project is neither void nor hollow. It's bound by a coherent philosophy: the real question is whether this philosophy can solve the social, moral, identity crisis we're going through.

He embodies a frame of mind focused on individual liberties

For months, Emmanuel Macron has been addressing people impeded in by their own quest for fulfillment by cultural, geographical, identity or economic roadblocks. He pledges to overcome them. He wants to give each one of us the means to fulfill ourselves, to make society less rigid, more fluid. He embodies a frame of mind focused on individual liberties, one France was long recalcitrant about. This is why he seduces so many among the May 1968 generation.

Individualism isn't necessarily selfishness. It can come with solidarity, empathy, and brotherhood. But can it bring some needed meaning to our dismantled societies? Is it capable of facing up to the urgency of environmental issues? Does it enable us to feel attached to a shared destiny — the Republic — breached by inequalities that have grown too big to bear?

Our liberal democracies are wobbly by nature. Different reasonings oppose each other inside of them: on the one hand, "democratic" or "holistic" reasonings (power to the people, the will of the people, the primacy of the common good); on the other hand, "liberal" or "individualistic" reasonings (inalienable rights of the individual, private property). Such dialectics create an unstable balance favorable to liberty, a creative dissensus.

They evoke the teetering stool on Caravaggio's painting Saint Matthew and the Angel. The stool somehow supports the old apostle as he discusses with God's envoy, balancing one way to the other, without ever completely falling. Our societies do the same, swinging between collectivist ambition and individual temptation. If the whole suppresses the autonomy of the parts, we fall into tyranny. If the parts become completely emancipated from the whole, we succumb to fragmentation. This, in return, creates a demand for authoritarianism.

What are our democracies suffering from most of all today? Of the growth or shrinkage of the public sphere? Financial globalization, the jeopardizing of traditional community structures (parties, unions, Churches, etc.) and the illusion of the end of History, which expelled politics from its helm, and allowed private interests to triumph for 30 years. Questions and issues about the ego, about the "I" — Why pay taxes? Why have a restrictive labor code? How do I become a millionaire? — have gotten the better of demands of equality from and for the "us."

That fragile stool of liberal democracies threatens to fall into the void of fragmentation. And we can legitimately doubt that an individualistic philosophy, even in its most progressive aspects, would restore the lost balance. Emmanuel Macron's victory gives us the opportunity to have this debate in a preserved democratic and European framework. The imminence of the Le Pen risk momentarily rebuffed, we are no longer forced to ignore it in the name of anti-fascism alone. So let's have that debate for real, looking to the new president as neither caricature nor idol.

*Raphaël Glucksmann is a French essayist.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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