Debunking an ‘alternative fact’ of the French election

In the weeks leading up to Sunday’s final vote in the French presidential elections, Emmanuel Macron, France’s Independent candidate has won global press attention for a comment he is alleged to have made during an election rally in Lyon – “there is no such thing as French culture”.

As an academic teaching and researching French language and culture, but first and foremost as a concerned French citizen (born in New Zealand), I must respond to the falsehood that has come out of this misreported comment.

The prominence given to this comment came from his far right opponent Marine Le Pen who used it in a hostile attack on Macron’s patriotism. But take a closer look at what Macron actually said and you will see this is a classic case of out-of-context high-jacking by political opponents, primarily of the right and far-right, of a perhaps intentionally provocative statement which appears to have now become something of an “alternative fact”.

What Macron actually said translates as “French culture doesn’t exist in and of itself; there is no such thing as a single French culture. There is culture in France and it is diverse”. (My translation of his words: “Il n'y a pas de culture Française, Il n'y a pas une culture française, il y a une culture en France et elle est diverse.”)

The key contentious statement: “Il n’y a pas de culture Française” taken in isolation, could indeed translate as “there is no such thing as French culture". Bu​t what he then went on to say qualified, modified and moulded it into what could be loosely described as a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan cultural manifesto. This is made crystal clear if one considers the passage in full:

“Our culture can no longer wall itself away from other cultures, as if under voluntary house arrest. We would not have the multiplicity of cultures, this amazing French cultural richness, which exists, by seeking to deny parts of it. French culture doesn’t exist in and of itself; there is no such thing as a single French culture. There is culture in France and it is diverse and multiple. And I will not exclude from this culture, certain authors or musicians or artists, on the pretext that they supposedly come from elsewhere.” (The translation of the full statement quoted in the left-leaning daily, Liberation).

Opportunistically retaining the first, contentious statement and ignoring the rest, both the French right and far-right jumped on the bandwagon. Predictably, they accused Macron of being a globalist culture-denier, his stance on French culture tantamount to treason.

The New Zealand Herald printed the “He says there is no such thing as French culture” statement in an Associated Press story which quoted the comment second-hand, by Marine Le Pen no less, without further comment or contextualisation. The Guardian had previously done a better job in relaying the quote – this time, via Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen - thankfully providing the appropriate context: “Macron has said that there is ... no ‘French’ culture,” she says, alluding to interviews in which the candidate has defended cultural diversity and pluralism.”

Take a closer look at what Macron actually said and you will see this is a classic case of out-of-context high-jacking by political opponents.

Macron has subsequently defended himself, maintaining his nuanced position. For example, in a speech in London, he cited Picasso and Chagall as symbols of the diverse origins of “French” art. 

Ironically, of all the leading presidential candidates in the first round, Macron was the only one to make culture (and education) a cornerstone of his campaign pitch. In the candidate profile I received in the mail as a French voter, perhaps as a foil to the combined culture-denial accusations of the right and far right, his platform puts education and culture (and “the transmission of fundamental understandings of our culture and values”) at the top of the list, before work, economic modernisation, security, democratic renewal, Europe and international affairs.

What has crystallised around this polemic are two opposing ideas of culture, art, and by extension society, national identity. One is an inward-looking self-congratulatory narrowly nationalist vision of both the right and the far-right, the other is open, inclusive, multicultural cosmopolitanism.

Macron is currently still far ahead of Le Pen in the polls, 63 percent of respondents declaring he won the latest televised face-off held just this week. But violent protests following Macron’s first round victory, and the far-left Melenchon’s refusal to back him (echoes of the US in October-November 2017, where Bernie Sanders was pointedly slow to back Hilary Clinton and where many of his supporters remained vociferously opposed to her candidacy) mean that the second round result is by no means a foregone conclusion.

So it is with some trepidation that I shall return to cast my ballot this Sunday along with some 47 million other registered French voters.

Results show that of French voters registered in NZ, 41 percent voted for Macron against less than 4 percent for Marine Le Pen.

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