In this new series – hors d’oeuvres – , we talk to authors about their new articles in French History.
In this first post, we caught up with Emile Chabal and Michael Behrent to talk about their new article on the 2022 French elections, cowritten with Marion van Renterghem.
Emile Chabal is a Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh. He is a specialist of twentieth-century European political and intellectual history, with a special interest in France. His latest book is France, a short history of post-war France published by Polity Press.
Michael C. Behrent is a professor in the History Department at Appalachian State University (North Carolina). He specializes in modern French history and European intellectual history. His book Becoming Foucault: The Poitiers Years will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in late 2023.
Hi, Michael and Emile, thanks for joining us to talk about your new article on the 2022 French elections. What do you think will most surprise readers in what you have to say?
Perhaps one of the most surprising things we say concerns the politics and psychology of anti-Macron feeling. French President Emmanuel Macron still benefits from a very positive image in much English-language media, so the depths of hostility to him in France—even if it did not block his reelection last year—is sometimes difficult to grasp.
We argue that he embodies a form of meritocratic—and neoliberal—success that some hold up as a model that deserves to be imitated, but which others experience as a kind of existential annihilation. We write that Macron “represents meritocracy’s dark side: in giving everyone the chance to succeed, it makes failure worse, because it seems personal and deserved.”
Do you have a favourite example or anecdote you came across in this work?
I think we were both struck by a concession speech made by presidential candidate Éric Zemmour. Zemmour, a divisive French journalist, ran an ultra-nationalist campaign, outflanking Marine Le Pen on her right. For a while it seemed like he might be successful, but in the end he was a fairly weak candidate—though he still is an interesting symptom of the far-right politics that haunt many contemporary democracies. French politicians have a standard way of ending their speeches: they say Vive la république, vive la France (long live the republic, long live France).
Zemmour, however, says: Vive la république, et surtout, vive la France—Long live the republic, and, above all, long live France! It was an amazing qualification, as it seemed to hark back to an earlier age of nationalist politics—to the anti-Dreyfusards of the 1890s or Maurras’ Action Française—in the way that it seemed challenge, at least implicitly, France’s republican (i.e., democratic) identity.
It’s odd and disturbing that such blasts from the troubled past could still be with us in the 2020s.
What’s the thing you most regret having to leave out of this piece?
We would have loved to say more about the French Communist Party’s presidential candidate, Fabien Roussel. France is one of the few countries in the world—or at least in the west—where the Communist candidate could run on nostalgia. Roussel tried to remind the French of the “good old days” of the welfare state (à la Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn), while also invoking a “certain idea of France” (as de Gaulle would have put it) that was implicitly critical of identity politics.
He performed poorly, but the return of the Communist Party to the political stage was a phenomenon we would have enjoyed unpacking.
Can we talk about the backstory to the article? How did you first get interested in this topic?
We are both shameless, unreconstructed French political junkies who teach in places (Edinburgh and rural North Carolina) where, to put it mildly, we are few and far between. We wanted to write about the 2022 election cycle, and Oxford University Press’s academic blog and French History were happy to give us a platform!
As we started planning this initiative, we decided to explore the possibility of working with a journalist, in large part to deepen our appreciation of the stakes and dynamics of the election on the ground. We were immensely fortunate that one of France’s top journalists, Marion Van Renterghem, agreed to our request for collaboration. She patiently listened to us give our macro-level analyses, and always brought us down to earth with her pointed questions, vivid character sketches, and pithy insights.
It was a good lesson in what a high-quality journalistic mind can add to the slow-moving world of academia.
Are you ‘plan it all in detail’ writers, or ‘start writing and see where it goes’ people?
We followed a combination, but with two caveats.
First we were reacting to events, so everything had to be done relatively quickly, usually in a matter of days.
Second, there were three of us involved in the writing.
Do you have a cure for writer’s block? We ask everyone this question because we live in hope.
Work with a partner!
There’s no better cure than shame. Also, it’s rare that your partner has writers’ block at exactly the same time as you.
Whose writing do you most admire and why? (It doesn’t have to be a historian!)
Michael: That’s not a fair question! But as it relates to this project, I admire writers who can squeeze the meaning out of present events, who are not afraid of being accused of being simplistic just because they dare to distil the complex times we live in down to what they perceive as their essence.
Objectivity and an appreciation for complexity are obviously crucial when writing about politics, but it’s also necessary to be willing to go out on a limb and propose a meaningful interpretation. I also think it’s necessary to be willing to challenge orthodoxies, particularly the “house liberalism” that underpins so much academic writing. I like the French historians and writers Marcel Gauchet and Pierre Rosanvallon. I also have come to greatly admire the American historian Christopher Lasch and the journalist Thomas Frank.
Emile: So many writers!
In my younger days, I was a great admirer of Tony Judt, both his scholarly and journalistic writing. I don’t always agree with him, especially now, but I still try to channel his elegant prose style and laser-sharp critical eye.
Who did you get feedback from on the article? Did you give talks on this topic or share drafts with colleagues or non-specialists?
Three were involved in writing this article, so the writing process itself was a never-ending feedback loop!
What do you think helpful feedback on writing involves?
Another person who dares to articulate the errors, exaggerations, and omissions that you, as the writer, know deep inside that you’ve made.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of this process?
The outcome of the 2022 French elections…
How did your ideas change? Was there an epiphany?
I think we both thought that Macron was stronger than he was.
My sense is that we’re ambivalent about him (to different degrees), but we both assumed he would be easily reelected and win a convincing majority in parliament. He more or less did the former, but failed to do the latter.
The rumours that Macron is the remedy to populism’s ongoing disruption of populist politics proved exaggerated.
What’s the word you can never type right?
Michael: “Going forward” (remember “the future”?).
Emile: My French always interferes with the spelling of words ending in -ence, some of which end in -ance in the French.
What are you working on next?
Michael: I have an ongoing project on the early thought of Michel Foucault, but that is unrelated to this work. I may writing something on the political theology of Éric Zemmour.
Emile: I have been working on an intellectual biography of Eric Hobsbawm for as long as I care to remember. I really need to finish it now!
If you could see one change in academia in the next five years, what would it be?
Michael: I teach in North Carolina, and I’m concerned that at many non-prestigious institutions in the United States, the academic profession as it has existed since the mid-twentieth-century is drawing its final breaths. I would love to see the return of labor activism to the academic profession in states that have largely made it impossible. But I won’t hold my breath.
Emile: I’d like to see an end to mega-grants and a vastly expanded provision of medium and small grants. Many of us just need some pocket money to start or finish projects – and mega-grants almost always support risk-averse and conservative projects.
Éclair or saucisson?
Michael: Saucisson, with a vengeance (though similar lines got the Communist Party candidate in trouble).
Emile: Saucisson pour tous!
Thank you, both!