Today, on the bus, I heard an old song by Jean-Jacques Goldman. You probably haven’t heard of him if you’re not French. Goldmann was (still is, although he doesn’t sing much anymore) a famous singer in the eighties and nineties, famous for writing songs about tolerance and exclusion. I didn’t quite enjoy his music as a teenager. I thought his lyrics were cutesy and his singing awful (to be fair, I haven’t changed my mind about the latter), and his preoccupation with universal love and brotherhood was cliché at best. Fifteen-year-old me craved more mature themes, like unrequited love, existential despair or premature death. You get the picture.
It’s hard to imagine nowadays that tolerance was once such a common topic in France that it felt like a tired cliché. The eighties had seen the birth of both the National Front and the antiracist movement, and in the nineties, antiracism was well on its way to becoming the dominant opinion in some parts of French society. Yes, it was clumsy and well-meaningly ignorant at times. I remember scoffing at an educational comic book about ‘racism’, which bundled all possible forms of discrimination under the word. It nonetheless had some insightful stiries, some of which I still remember, but at the time, it was just one more example of the ubiquitous and somewhat messy way we were educated about the evils of discrimination. Meanwhile the National Front gathered more and more supporters, but you could still safely assume that the person you were talking with was just about as disgusted with Jean-Marie Le Pen, its leader, as you were yourself. Good times.
I’m not sure when it started to change. In 2002, Le Pen landed the second place at the presidential election. Protests were staged across the whole country by people who couldn’t imagine we would even consider electing a man famous for his horrid brand of racism and antisemitism. Perhaps that took it one step too far. I started hearing classmates saying that after all, Le Pen was just another candidate, this was a democratic election and people had a right to vote for him, and after all not all of his ideas were bad. That’s when I discovered I had classmates my age who believed in bringing back the death penalty or kicking out foreigners suspected of sponging off French welfare. Perhaps they were right on one thing: public protests were taking it too far. Because in the years that followed, supporters of the National Front grew more and more defensive. Under the pretext of being shamed and silenced at every turn, they grew more vocal, to the point that expressiong racist ideas in public started being seen as a courageous move by some. ‘Saying out loud what the rest of us think for ourselves’ became a popular motto. Apparently, a larger-than-expected part of the population believed that ‘what the rest of us think for themselves’ involved nasty things about foreigners, women and LGBT people.
Now, about one quarter of the population in the area where I live and vote support the National Front in local elections. The terrifying thing is that you can no longer assume that people you’ve just met are on your side in this fight. Because yes, I think it’s a fight. I don’t think of the Le Pen dynasty as regular candidates. I don’t think of their ideas as democratic. I really, really don’t think it’s all right to spout out racist, sexist or homophobic crap in public. The scary part is that it makes me feel old. It makes me feel like a product of a bygone time when people really wanted to root out prejudice from our society, and really thought we light make it.
It makes me feel like listening to Goldman songs. What would my teenage self think of me…