So, just before the first round of the French election, Adam was valiantly occupied in turning my raving and unprintable thoughts about the Turkish referendum into an article he could publish in a family newspaper. During our editorial back-and-forth, we exchanged a few tangential e-mails about the question on everyone’s minds these days: Why is the world going to hell in a handcart?
Now, I don’t usually expect anyone to offer me a serious answer to that question; so I was surprised I got one. He kindly gave me permission to reproduce it. To put it context, I sent him an email lamenting that the world was going to hell in a handcart. The upcoming French election was Exhibit A:
[T]here’s at least a 50 percent chance that at least one total lunatic will make it through the first round, and a non-zero chance that both could make it, in which case France is doomed. I don’t at all like this wild irrationality that’s coursing through the veins of the Western body politic. It just can’t end well, even if France squeaks through this time. And I just don’t know what it’s really about, do you?
I didn’t expect a real answer, so I was surprised to receive one:
As to what is really going on, in France and elsewhere Western, well, in something I wrote not too long ago I quoted Ortega y Gasset from 1930, and I wish people would pay more attention to exactly what the man said, really ponder what he said. I (cleverly) referred to this as the “revolt of the asses” in contemporary terms:
The Fascist and Syndicalist species were characterized by the first appearance of a type of man who did not care to give reasons or even to be right, but who was simply resolved to impose his opinions. That was the novelty: the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: “the reason of unreason.”
As to the source of it, I can cite three interwoven elements: the Heideggerian-inspired or inflected fatigue with reason; the lapsed attention spans that render deep reading, and hence thinking, increasingly rare; and the falling away of the moral discipline of the Abrahamic moral code. As to the last one, all I can say if whosoever does not like the jealous God must prepare to contend with the crowd that preceded him, for no vacuum is possible here. It’ll be Lord of the Flies, all day every day.
All this is what I was trying to get at back in the summer with my essays on the nadir of modernity. Ah, but you will say: Look, if the problem really goes that deep, then there’s not much we can do about it. And that would, I think, be correct.
Anyway, what is happened now in France is indeed scary. A fascist, a lunatic communist, and a kept child … none of whom has any chance of connecting usefully to a parliament elected by party. Quel dommage, eh?
Think you can explain the situation better than he did in that sentence about the three interwoven elements? I sure can’t. Give it a try, though, if you’re up for the challenge.
Preface: This article made no more than an average impression on my American readers.But to my surprise, it set light to a firestorm of Dresden proportions in Turkey, much of which you can read on Twitter. The debate and responses are a bit hard to follow,but not impossible, if you're willing to give them a few minutes.
It would be disingenuous for me to say I expected no controversy at all -- when you read it, you'll see that I obviously knew full well that I'd never eat lunch in D.C. again. But I was surprised, and I guess gratified, that it set off as much debate as it did -- much of it even constructive -- in Turkey. I do wish American readers would read some of that debate. Many comments are in Turkish, but just as many are in perfectly limpid English. And the new (vastly improved) Google Translate will make the general tone of the Turkish comments clear enough.
I don't think what I wrote was so unusual. I guarantee you that anyone who lived there during that time would have said, and still says, the same thing. But perhaps it was unusual for someone to put it quite so bluntly -- and I reckon the reaction it prompted among so many Turks is genuinely instructive. Many in the West, especially foreign-policy experts-in-prospect, would benefit from reading what they have to say. Their comments hint that I was not exaggerating about the loathing and contempt in which we’re now held in Turkey. And they suggest as well that I might be right about why.
The discussion also conveys what I find so unutterably sad about the whole business. So many people in Turkey who should naturally have been our friends and allies, men and women who deserved our loyalty -- and whose friendship would have served us well, especially now -- are instead thoroughly disillusioned about the West. (I know a unitary thing called "the West" only exists to a certain extent, but to that extent, that's what I mean.) So many feel so deeply betrayed by people they had long admired. This fills me with shame.
Young Western foreign policy experts who are only now beginning their climb up the greasy pole might do well to reflect a bit on what they're saying. Surely it can’t leave any of us feeling that we handled all of this as well as we might have.
Turkish democracy didn’t die all at once in last week’s referendum; it’s been languishing for years. Why did so many in the West fail to notice?
On April 16, Turkish voters narrowly approved a referendum that replaced their country’s parliamentary democracy with an “executive presidency.” Steven Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, was quick to pronounce modern Turkey dead. “RIP Turkey, 1921–2017,” read the headline of the article in which he explained that the Turkish public “gave Erdoğan and the AKP license to reorganize the Turkish state and in the process raze the values on which it was built.”
He rightly noted that the powers afforded the new presidency are vast. The office of Prime Minister has been eliminated; the President, once titular, now has sole and unsupervised authority to appoint and dismiss most judges, all ministers and other high officials, as well as issue decrees with the force of law, dissolve parliament on any grounds, and command the armed forces. Cook wrote that the passage of the Teşkilât-ı Esasîye Kanunu—the Law on Fundamental Organization—marked Turkey’s transition in 1921 “from dynastic rule to the modern era,” and this referendum, he added, brings the era to an end:
With massive imbalances and virtually no checks on the head of state, who will now also be the head of government, the constitutional amendments render the Law on Fundamental Organization and all subsequent efforts to emulate the organizational principles of a modern state moot. It turns out that Erdoğan, who would wield power not vested in Turkish leaders since the sultans, is actually a neo-Ottoman.
Cook noted with disappointment that “Erdoğan is an authoritarian, like those found throughout the world.”
I think if you were you to trace back, over the course of the previous decade…you would see that the Justice and Development Party had done everything that it can—while it has at times been under siege from other political forces in the country—trying to forge within the contours of Turkish secularism, a more democratic, open country in a predominantly Muslim country…. I think you had, especially in the early years, in 2003 and 2004, the Justice and Development Party, a party of Islamist patrimony, pursuing more democratic and open politics. They’re an interesting twist on their predecessors, who railed against the West. Justice and Development under Recep Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül, who’s now the president, sought to join the West.
Cook offered this optimistic assessment in 2012, following a massive wave of purges that targeted not only the military, but such figures as the physician Türkan Saylan, founder of the Turkish Leprosy Relief Association and steward of a charity devoted to the provision of education for girls in rural areas. She died in 2009 of cancer at the age of 73.* She had been accused of planning a military coup. As Cook spoke, many more innocents were languishing in jail. The Great Terror in Turkey had for years been underway.
I don’t single out Cook for special opprobrium. His name is just first, in alphabetical order, on a long list of experts who pronounced respectful ex cathedra encomiums to the AKP’s democratic instincts, often in near-identical language, throughout this period. This kind of praise, coupled with intimations that the AKP detractors were nothing but a bunch of rotten elitists who hated democracy, issued from a series of prominent think tanks, human rights organizations, university departments, and newspapers in the West. It poured forth, too, from the State Department, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, the IMF, the World Bank, the Council of Europe, and a long list of advisers on promising emerging-market investments. No English-speaking, literate Turk could regard these folk with anything but contempt. It is something of a mystery why this happened, and a torment; it is a story that we should try honestly to understand.
Perhaps the myth was connected to Turkey’s acceptance as a full candidate for EU membership, in 2004. “Turkey is changing in surprising and encouraging ways,” wrote the New York Times that year,
setting a constructive example for the entire Muslim Middle East. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamic politician who favors democratic pluralism, it has enacted far-reaching reforms that are intended to meet the exacting admissions criteria of the European Union.
Contra collective belief, though, the AKP did not enact these far-reaching reforms. The AKP collected the fruits of a process that had begun in 1999 in Helsinki and continued with previous parliaments’ passage of so-called harmonization processes. Those determined to defend the notion that the AKP in its early years did “everything it could” to bring to this long-suffering nation more democratic and open politics and to join it to the West must reckon with the EU’s progress reports during the years in question. In 2007, to choose a (typical) year at random, there are 62 instances of the words “no progress.” There were only 11 instances of “good progress” and these had nothing to do with democracy, openness, or other displays of democratic pluralism; rather, progress had been made in banking, insurance supervision, a transport infrastructure needs assessment study, a national innovation strategy and accompanying action plan, and a working group on the Credit Transfer System for Vocational Education and Training.
Yet still the Western party line remained unchanged over many years:
“Turkey is now a vibrant, competitive democracy….” —New York Times, June 8, 2010
“A vibrant democracy…an example of reform in the region….” —Foreign Policy, May 26, 2011
“Regionally, a vibrant, democratic Turkey no longer under the military’s thumb, can offer the Arab world a true model…. The Turkish model could also provide a model of how Islamic factions can coexist alongside liberal and secular groups, despite their clashing worldviews….”—Haaretz, August 15, 201
“A vibrant democracy…led by Islam’s equivalent to the Christian Democrats….” —Financial Times, September 15, 2011
“A template that effectively integrates Islam, democracy and vibrant economics….” — New York Times, February 5, 2011
“Turkey is poised to become one of the most successful countries of the 21st century, a model of Muslim democracy and a powerful force for regional peace… —Boston Globe, June 14, 2011
“One of the most remarkable success stories of the past decade…a vibrant democracy and dynamic economy under the Muslim equivalent of Christian Democrats”…—Financial Times, April 19, 20121
The Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP and widely (if meaninglessly) described as a “moderately Islamist” party, came to power in 2002, at which point the rubicund encomiums from the press and foreign spokesmen began. I began visiting Istanbul in 2003, moved there a year or so later, stayed until 2013, and left after the so-called Gezi protests, when, only then, the cheery music in the media fairly abruptly stopped.
The West’s collective assessment of Turkey throughout that time, displayed in official diplomatic statements, the mainstream press, and just as often in the specialized media, was notably weird and notably wrong. It was either the cause or the consequence of an exceptionally poor understanding of Turkey by Western publics and their policymakers. It resulted in the crafting of policies toward Turkey that were neither in Turkey’s interests nor the West’s, and helped, at least to some extent, to usher in the disaster before us today.
There were distinguished exceptions: Joe Parkinson of the Wall Street Journal deserves every prize he gets. Gareth Jenkins, above all, is an outstandingly informed and meticulous reporter. It seemed, though, that only specialists read his work, and if it had an impact on American or European policy, I couldn’t discern it. Mostly, the foreign media sounded to me—as it did to most Turks who could understand it—kind of insane. And on the diplomatic side, I observed, to put it bluntly, that if my intention were to ensure that my country be held in contempt by the better angels in the Turkish public, I would have behaved precisely as our diplomats did—of which more below.
A large part of the reason Western observers got Turkey under the AKP so wrong is probably that they were fixated on the wrong things. Those things had to do first with a war gone haywire in Iraq and then the Syrian civil war, both of which, seriatim, turned Turkey in American eyes into a subsidiary consideration of more central geopolitical concerns. It seemed unwise to many to reprove what we hoped would be a useful ally in a pinch.
Probably even more important is that after 9/11 a lot of people in the West got Islam, Islamists, and the like on the brain to the exclusion of nearly everything else. So it followed, sort of, that many came to see that the most significant thing about the AKP was its “moderately Islamist” character. Many were perhaps so thrilled that they didn’t begin hanging homosexuals from cranes that they uncritically accepted the rest of the AKP’s story about itself: It was opening up an ossified system that was, in its words, “radically secularist.”
There is much truth in the criticism that the system was ossified, and it was also true that it was unfair to the visibly pious. It was even true that developments deep within Turkish society, well described by Ernst Gellner’s term “neo-fundamentalism,” explained the AKP movement’s rise and legitimacy. But this was the wrong focus. The same tunnel vision caused others to dwell hysterically on the impending prospect of sharia, which never arrived, even as they failed to notice the bog-standard authoritarianism that did. They had sweated exotic dictionary bullets to learn words like taqqiya, and they were going to use them, damn it. The concept they really needed—kleptocracy—eluded them.
The AKP early on grasped the jargon of structural reform and the hypnotic power it had over the international finance community. Within a month of the AKP’s inauguration, the IMF declared Turkey a success story and the senior managers of the World Bank welcomed it as model for other Islamic countries. “While other Muslim societies are wrestling with radicals,” reported the New York Times, “Turkey’s religious merchant class is struggling instead with riches.” The government claimed that it had trebled the size of the Turkish economy in a decade. Everyone began repeating this, including the Economist, even though it was not only untrue, but absurd.
The government boasted at some point that Turkey had become the 17th-largest economy in the world. This too was repeated by everyone. Remembered by few was the fact that Turkey’s economy had become the world’s 17th-largest in 1990. Nor was it, as the government kept saying, the world’s fastest-growing economy. Turkey’s GDP growth during this period was a very average 4.7 percent a year, below the 6.2 percent average for middle-income countries. The period of AKP rule was just like the preceding 52 years as far as GDP growth was concerned; in both periods, the annual average growth rate was 4.7 percent.2 What made people feel so good, by contrast (so long as they weren’t in jail), was consumption—fueled by vastly more expansive credit.
The phrase “privatization,” too, so beloved by authors of investment-advice newsletters, really meant the sale of state assets to Erdoğan’s relatives and sycophants. Anyone who agreed in exchange to lend their political and financial support to the party could buy stuff up; anyone who didn’t, couldn’t. “Improving the investment climate” meant improving it for AKP loyalists. For everyone else, there were punitive tax fines and exclusion from public procurement and tenders.
Beginning in 2008, the government promoted policies to stimulate the consumption of durables. This created the appearance of an energetic population with rising purchasing power. Credit card and consumer debt stood at three percent of GDP in 2003; ten years later it was 21 percent. In short, the AKP ran the economy on construction, credit, and surging capital inflows, mixed with a dash of crime. It worked well enough, but was nothing like a miracle. Now the capital is taking flight again. Years were wasted, with nothing really to show for it but a bubble of unsold housing and a balding, furious Sultan in a thousand-room palace, busily scheming to kill his enemies.
Now, no doubt, the AKP’s Sunni majoritarian politics are a real part of the problem. But this element of the party’s nature has been for a very long time now overstated compared to its far more significant problem; to wit, Erdoğan’s drive to bring the entire Turkish state apparatus under his personal control. While Turkey under the AKP became dangerously different, it was not, mainly, because it became more Islamic. Islamist politics were not the end, but the means. Power was the end.
As Cook was right to observe, there was no golden period of liberal democracy prior to the AKP’s ascent; that too is a myth. But the AKP did change Turkey’s internal balance of power—arrogating it all to itself—with consequences the West now, at last, sees clearly. These consequences should not have been hard to predict. All the warnings were there. Yet the West accepted, for at least a decade, that Turkey was not only liberalizing, but doing so vibrantly, to such an extent that it deserved promotion as a model for the rest of the so-called Islamic world.
In promoting this line, Europe and the United States made a substantial contribution to the inflation of Turkey’s reputational bubble, with baleful consequences. To extend the economic metaphor, Turkey’s political stock traded at prices considerably at variance with its intrinsic value; much of this discrepancy was owed to our eagerness to purchase large volumes of that stock. Turkey failed to benefit from honest and deserved criticism, both in the form of pressure from the United States and Europe to genuinely liberalize—to which it might even have responded, given that we held many cards we never used. Likewise, foreign investors firehosed cash into the country in part because we insisted so ardently that it was liberalizing—the phrase “EU candidate country,” in particular, soothed anxieties—and this deprived the country of the stern but constructive criticism that properly informed markets might have offered.
“Everything seemed to be going so well in Turkey,” wrote Howard Eissenstat, Amnesty International’s Country Specialist on Turkey, in September 2013, “until this past summer when popular protests broke out and were met by a violent government crackdown.” 2013? Really? By 2011, wives and daughters of the military officers arrested in the Balyoz trials had been begging Amnesty International to take up the plight of their fathers and husbands. They had presented the organization with hundreds of pages of evidence of the trial’s legal flaws and improper procedures. Amnesty didn’t want to know. Perhaps coruscating condemnation from human rights groups would have shamed or deterred the government; that’s the raison d’être of such groups, after all, and it’s been known to work.
Nothing can be said to be “going so well” when a government is holding massive show trials. These trials could have been sound; the sinister events to which they were said to be a response really happened; a credible investigation that unearthed the truth about those years would have served the country. But the trials held instead were notable for their contemptuous—and obvious—mockery of the principles of sound jurisprudence. The international media—prompted or echoed by timid, blind, or corrupt Western politicians—found this unworthy of remark.
That the United States failed to express displeasure about this was particularly bizarre given that many of those arrested were senior figures in the Army and Navy. Turkey’s NATO allies had every right, if not an obligation, to ask what effect this would have on the alliance’s military preparedness. Clearly, it couldn’t have been enhanced with some 10 percent of the land and air force officers and as many as 80 percent of the naval officers charged with defending NATO’s southern flank in prison. Perhaps this question was posed in private, but journalists from NATO countries neither asked the question nor speculated about the answer. Our Ambassador, Frank Ricciardone, offered only that he was “confused” by the trials. I am sure he wasn’t confused when a senior AKP official retorted that he shouldn’t “piss on a mosque wall”—an idiom meaning, roughly, that his demise was coming and that he had hastened it.
In the wake of this past summer’s failed putsch, the government undertook a fresh set of purges, targeting a different group of military officers, bureaucrats, judges, and civilians. You’ve read all about these purges. But why, actually? That our media put these purges on the front pages when it was blasé to the point of stone silence about the earlier ones leaves many Turks with an odd taste. It doesn’t suggest to them that we’ve suddenly developed an abiding interest in the integrity of their justice system and the quality of their democracy. The conclusion they draw from this is wrong, but it is natural. They figure our boys lost. They reckon we’re infuriated by it.
When Westerners were suddenly appraised, in 2013, of Turkey’s alarming “democratic drift” and “democratic backsliding,” they were shocked, even though there was no backsliding to speak of. What in fact happened was this: The rift between Erdoğan and the Poconos-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who had worked together for years to attack their shared enemies, deprived the Prime Minister of the more sophisticated strategists in his external relations arm. Only then did Westerners learn that Erdoğan believed in something called “the interest-rate lobby,” or hear that a senior adviser subscribed to the theory that enemies of Turkey were attempting to kill the Prime Minister by means of telekinesis. The gist of these stories was that the formerly balanced and reformist Erdoğan had taken a sudden plunge off the precipice of lucidity. But tales of Erdoğan’s keen interest in a so-called interest-rate lobby and his intimates’ penchant for bizarre conspiracy theories could have been reported in tones of equally extravagant horror ages before. Why weren’t they?
Does it matter? Well, consider that 2013’s massive protests against the government, and the crackdown that ensued, came as a surprise to senior figures in the U.S. policymaking establishment. If we’d had in mind a realistic portrait of Turkey, we would have known this kind of explosion was possible and known how harshly it would be repressed. Turkish police had been behaving like this for a decade. The crackdown was bigger only because the crowds were bigger, but, said Senator John McCain, “None of us expected this in Turkey.” To be so misinformed is dangerous. Still, why would he have thought otherwise? He reads the same papers we all do. Thus Reuters from June 10, 2011:
A rising power with a vibrant, free economy and a U.S. ally that aspires to join the European Union, Turkey is held up as an example of marrying Islam and democracy and has been an oasis of stability in a region convulsed by ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. AK has also overseen the most stable and prosperous period of Turkey’s history with market-friendly reforms….
These news outlets were literally parroting the language the AKP used about itself. Here is the Turkish President at the College of Europe at Natolin, Poland, on June 7, 2011: “Turkey is also becoming a source of inspiration of a vibrant democracy…”
It wasn’t Turkey that changed during the Gezi protests, nor was it Erdoğan. What changed were the victims of the crackdown: This time they included foreign journalists, diplomats, and politicians. Previously, the police had confined themselves to brutalizing Turkish citizens. This time, too, the media began directing its bile toward foreigners in novel way, provoking Erdoğan’s base to insist that something be done about them. So suddenly it was reported that Erdoğan, the great liberalizer, had gone mad, even if the exuberant violence of the police crackdown was so predictable to people who lived in Turkey that they in fact predicted it.
The vibrant democracy lie was especially galling to Turks who were struggling against the strangling of democracy because it was so resistant to contact with reality. Perhaps it would have helped if everyone who applauded Turkey’s vibrant democracy instead complained with the same regularity that Turkish politicians enjoyed virtually unlimited immunities that made them untouchable and unaccountable, or lamented that the corruption and cronyism with which Turkey had long been plagued had become worse under the AKP. Turkish journalists were afraid to report on this corruption for fear of losing their jobs or their liberty, and many did. But foreign journalists could have stepped up to the plate, and they mainly didn’t. Only in 2013 did the Committee for the Protection of Journalists at last usefully declare Turkey one of the world’s largest jailers of journalists.
Ordinary citizens were muzzled every bit as much as professional journalists. Some were arrested and subjected to years of legal harassment for drawing cartoons, waving a banner, or recycling a thought crime on Twitter. These things happened before Erdoğan came to power, and he expanded the tradition on his ascent. What was galling, though, is that without repealing or changing in substance the laws upon which these arrests were predicated, Turkey ceased to be a country of concern:
“Turkey’s vibrant democracy is an inspiration to Arab countries throwing off their autocratic yoke and their Western patrons…. the openness of the Turkish press cannot be denied.” —Middle East Online, June 16, 2011
Turkish citizens took to the internet with great enthusiasm as soon as it became possible for them to access it affordably. Their government took to restricting their access to it just as enthusiastically, becoming one world’s most comprehensive (and clumsy) internet censors. Throughout the vibrant-democracy years, the state indulged in extensive illegal wire-tapping. Personal information obtained from this surveillance was leaked to government-friendly newspapers to end rivals’ political careers or shape the public mood prior to their arrest. The AKP’s enemies, and Gülen’s, languished for years in pre-trial detention or trial under remand; the trials themselves became the punishments. The list of unsolved murders connected in some fashion with the state grew longer. Yet, thus sayeth the Economist on October 21, 2010: “Turkey is heading in a good direction. It remains a shining (and rare) example in the Muslim world of a vibrant democracy with the rule of law and a thriving free-market economy….”
During the vibrant-democracy decade, Turkey actually became a police state, in the simplest sense of the term: As the army’s visibility receded, the police replaced them in form and function. Foreign pundits and politicians heralded the military’s return to the barracks, but to those who confronted the Turkish state this was a distinction without a difference. Yes, political protesters were sometimes left in peace. But often, and increasingly, they were drenched by water cannon or choked in clouds of tear gas. During the Gezi protests, clouds of gas were visible from space, but long before, Turks had taken to publishing the #dailyteargasreport on Twitter. It was wise to consult it before heading out to buy groceries or take your cat to the vet.
So the real story throughout was that Turkey, a mildly authoritarian state as such states went, remained an authoritarian state. The flavor of this authoritarianism changed, it is true: Whereas before Turkey’s state-worship centered around Atatürk’s cult of personality, now it centers around Erdoğan’s. Turkey enjoyed a steady period of economic growth under the AKP—normal growth, but by no means the oft-reported “miraculous” growth. This, in tandem with the incompetence of Turkey’s opposition parties, enabled Erdoğan to stay in power long enough to transform the internal power balance of the country. And as the AKP managed to arrogate to itself powers that few parties had amassed in the history of the Republic, the swallowing by the executive of all rival power centers—the military, in particular—was hailed by the West as a democratic miracle.
Why would we have encouraged Turkey’s flawed but real parliamentary democracy to become a one-man regime that shares none of our values, one whose behavior is so erratic as to undermine our alliance? The cynical answer—believed by many Turks who can’t be judged insane for believing it—is that Turkish parliamentary democracy didn’t work for the United States either. Had Erdoğan been running a one-man show back in 2003, for example, he would have pushed through the resolution enabling the United States to invade Iraq through Turkey. Gülenist propagandists, and Americans on their payroll, made this point ceaselessly: Those secularists might look like Westerners, but trust us, we’re your real friends.
But surely someone, somewhere in the U.S. policymaking apparatus had to have been clear-sighted enough to see that if what we needed was a son-of-a-bitch of our own—to recall FDR’s famous (but maybe apocryphal) description of Anastasio Somozo—Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was not the son-of-a-bitch we were looking for. Erdoğan? How could we have told ourselves, in all seeming sincerity, that this was a vibrant democrat and a model for the Muslim world to boot?
The luminous Natalie Portman is the meme of the moment on Turkish social media. “So this is how democracy dies,” laments Senator Amidala in one of the Star Wars prequels. “With thunderous applause.” But that is not right. There is thunderous applause among Erdoğan’s supporters, of course. But even officially, only 51.3 percent of the voters approved the referendum. Its opponents took 48.7 percent of the vote. The poll took place under a state of emergency. A third of the judiciary has been fired; some are still in jail. Three members of the Supreme Election Board are in prison, too. It’s possible that they’re mostly Gülenist coup-plotters as charged, and possible that jail is exactly where they ought to be, but this doesn’t obviate the point: Nothing like an independent judiciary buttressed this referendum. In some cases, authorities prevented “no” campaigners from holding rallies and events; those opposing the motion were tear-gassed (of course), and prohibited from carrying signs or assembling, or even beaten or shot at. The “yes” campaign received vastly more publicity; its supporters were given hundreds of hours on television stations. Opponents, almost none. The government stripped the election board’s power to sanction stations that failed to devote equal time to both sides. The leaders of the leftist HDP, the third-largest party in the parliament, are now in jail, as are many other members of the HDP. Countless Kurds displaced by war in southeastern Turkey may have been unable to vote.
Hundreds of election observers were barred from doing their jobs, and at the last minute, the election board changed the standards required to prove accusations of ballot-box stuffing. Many instances of voter fraud appear to have been captured clearly on camera. Istanbul, Ankara, and the rest of Turkey’s largest cities voted “no,” which doesn’t necessarily imply fraud, since Erdoğan failed to carry many of these areas in the most recent presidential elections, too. But it does suggest this referendum would have lost under normal circumstances. Thunderous applause this is not.
At least this time there’s hand-wringing in the West. The EU issued a statement devoid of the word “congratulations.” The constitutional amendments, it said, “and especially their practical implementation, will be assessed in light of Turkey’s obligations as a European Union candidate country and as a member of the Council of Europe.” It would of course have been much more helpful had the EU murmured a word or two of disapprobation eight years ago, when these proposals were first mooted. The OSCE issued a withering report on the handling of the referendum, blasting the campaign, the media environment, and the government’s handling of voter registration and election observers. Too little, too late. Donald Trump became the first leader of consequence to call Erdoğan to congratulate him, but Lord only knows what that means; he’s probably playing Banach-space chess.
There was thunderous applause in Turkey, however—juxtaposed by almost total indifference in the West—when Turkey’s constitution, designed to maintain a balance among the parties, was dynamited by a constitutional amendment in 2007 permitting the direct election of the President. And thunderous applause, again—or well-mannered applause, at least—in both Turkey and the West for Turkey’s 2010 constitutional referendum, which was when Turkish democracy, what there was of it, really did die. This latest referendum was more like a burial than a murder, really. Why did the West—the media, the Turkey specialists, and a wide cohort of policymakers—pay so little attention to those earlier referenda? And yes, again, why did they herald them as democratic advances? In 2010 the European Union welcomed the approval of constitutional changes by Turkish voters, calling them “a step in the right direction.” The Spanish Foreign Minister said the referendum results sent a “clear signal of Turkey’s European vocation.” The Swedish Foreign Minister said, “This opens the European door.” The Council of Europe called it “an important step forward towards bringing the country closer to European standards and practices.”
The United States? We ritually praised the “vibrancy of Turkish democracy.” And here, really, we cannot absolve ourselves. No one appreciates more avidly than an American that the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary are essential to democracy. Any bright high school student should have been able instantly to see the problem with bringing so much of the judiciary under the control of the executive, abolishing the critical check on Erdoğan’s power, which is exactly what that 2010 referendum did.
That referendum, too, flagrantly violated the Venice Commission’s code of good practice for referendums by bundling the poison pill into a package of otherwise salutary or neutral amendments. Voters couldn’t choose the amendments they favored: It was all or nothing. It should never have been submitted to the public in that form. And it would have been easy for the EU to object to it on these grounds alone, just as it would have been easy for Washington to pressure the EU to object to it on those grounds alone, or to do the pressuring ourselves. Instead, the Obama Administration publicly applauded it. Said State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley on September 13, 2010: “The referendum was an opportunity for the people of Turkey to have a strong voice in the future direction of their vibrant democracy.”
Why? Carelessness? Did Obama think he couldn’t afford to irritate Erdoğan, given Turkey’s strategic importance? If so, why not ask the question that naturally follows: Given Turkey’s strategic importance, was it wise to praise a move toward tyranny in a NATO ally as a democratic advance?
Polls show that Turkey is one of the most anti-American countries in the world. This is a recent development; it wasn’t true in the 20th century. A roughly accurate explanation for this is that some 30-40 percent of Turks hate us because they are Islamists or communists and truly do hate our values. But a considerable number—perhaps just as many—hate us because they embraced our values but feel we betrayed them. They are correct.
At times like these there is an unmistakable tendency for faces to get long as memories get short. On Monday, April 17, the Guardian published a lament by Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar echoing the lachrymose verdict of Senator Amidala. “Turkey as we know it is over; it is history.”
The collapse of the rule of law that took place in slow motion after the Gezi Park protests has been followed by the erosion of the separation of powers and the annihilation of the independent media.
Baydar’s repetition of the fiction that the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the independent media were robust until the Gezi Park protests is unsurprising. It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
Of course it’s gone down Baydar’s memory hole that he used to favor annihilating the independent media. But why has it also gone down the Guardian’s? The evidence, after all, is only a Google search away. Also just a Google search away: the dates on which the governing party took control of the police, the higher education board, the directorate of religious affairs, the Turkish statistics institute, Turkey’s science funding agency, and Turkish Academy of Sciences. That is how democracy dies—not with thunderous applause, but piece by piece, with widespread international indifference, or “mild concern” followed by grudging acceptance. This includes the indifference of many Turks who registered their objection to their democracy’s death by posting the Amidala meme. I know who some of them are and what else they did: nothing. They should have been fighting when they still could. Instead they rolled over. But I can’t really blame them. It was a juggernaut; they were just kids. Besides, who wants to wind up in a Turkish prison?
It was disgraceful, though, that those outside of Turkey, who were at no risk at all of winding up in a Turkish prison, didn’t notice, didn’t care, or applauded democracy’s death. The George Marshall Fund’s expert commentator on Turkey, Joshua Walker, after offering the obligatory paeans to Turkey’s vibrant democracy, surveyed the situation in 2011 and decided that “one-party rule does not necessarily equate to weakening democracy and can often be a welcome formula for consensus-building, economic success, and political stability.” That Cuba, China, and North Korea were the most notable examples of this welcome formula did not trouble him.
For once, Erdoğan was perfectly correct when he said the recent referendum merely legally formalized the longstanding de facto state of affairs. His new palace, with its 1,100 rooms and toilets that are not made of gold (he’ll threaten to sue you for saying they are), had long since replaced the Turkish parliament. This referendum was actually more unusual for being widely noticed as a travesty than it was for actually being one.
Make no mistake: Turkey did this to itself. It’s an inexcusable conceit to imagine that everything that goes wrong in the world is somehow under American control and thus our fault. But we sure didn’t help. At every turn we misunderstood events, deliberately or through laziness; at every opportunity to speak when it might have made a difference, we were silent or said precisely what was least useful; we rewarded every step toward despotism with praise, indifference, or investment.
Had all the experts, politicians, human-rights monitors, and democracy-promoters spoken up before this and all the previous democracy-eviscerating lies and purges and referenda, who knows whether they might have made a difference? At least the West would have appeared to stand for something, to have principles. We were so quiet that you could be forgiven for thinking that this—one referendum, one day—is how democracies die. No: they die bit by bit, lie by lie. It’s hard to kill even a democracy of the imperfect sort Turkey’s was. It takes years.
The story of what really happened in Turkey still matters, even if it’s too late to help Turks. We all need to have a good think about how democracies die, because they’re dying like flies. It’s not too late to learn how it really happened. If we don’t, we can’t hope to draw the right lessons. These might apply to democracies still alive. They might even apply to our own.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Turkan Saylan died in prison. She died in the hospital.
1I am indebted to Okan Altıparmak for compiling this list.
By the end of the day, journalists will at last be able to stop writing the same column about “the most unpredictable election ever” and the awful choices France confronts. Voting has begun. The first exit polls will be published when polling stations close at 8 p.m. They’re usually fairly accurate. The final result will be in at about midnight. There’s one thing we needn’t worry about: I’m told by people who’ve long monitored these polls that they’re fraud-proof. I believe it.
Anne-Elizabeth Moutet published this (excellent) piece for CapX yesterday about why this election is so hard to predict. She lamented on Facebook that the piece “was longer in coming out than a newborn auroch.” How I sympathize: My own pre-election piece wasn’t even ready before the election. I did finish the one about Turkey’s referendum (I’ll post the link when it’s up). But on this one, I failed to get the job done. Pretty rare for me. It happens, but I wish it hadn’t.
So today, I’ll do something else I don’t usually do. I’m just going to post part of that unfinished article here. Some of you have been puzzled by my reaction to Marine Le Pen and have asked me why I dread the prospect of her success. At least in this, you’ll have my answer.
By tonight, I pray, my answer — and this whole discussion — will be completely irrelevant.
Let’s begin in America. Steve Bannon is said greatly to admire the Le Pen family and France’s National Front. Breitbart has announced its plans to expand to France; Bannon has made his support for Le Pen clear, even going so far as to declare France “the place to be,” with “its young entrepreneurs, women of the Le Pen family.” He described Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen—also a senior National Front figure—as “the new rising star.” Marion Maréchal-Le Pen has reported, on Twitter, that Bannon offered her concrete political support: “I answer yes,” she wrote, “to the invitation of Stephen Bannon, CEO of the Trump presidential campaign, to work together.” It is not clear what prompted her to say this.
Many Americans are excited by the idea of a Le Pen presidency in France. And why wouldn’t they be? They’ve been told the Le Pens are an entrepreneurial family of rising stars. Marine and Marion, according to Breitbart, are “a clear voice of courage and common sense in a country and continent in need of both.”
Marine Le Pen has made several visits to the United States in recent years to court American conservatives. She has focused on prominent American Jews in her campaign to “de-demonize” the National Front. Then, two weeks ago, she managed in a flagrant moment of (surely unconscious) compulsion to re-demonize the party wholesale.
The details of this story, if better known, might give Americans pause. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what Bannon, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged Bannon, envies. Look at this tangle of thorns.
Had I time to recount this story properly, I would begin with the fall of France in 1940, de Gaulle’s exile in London, and the establishment of the Vichy government. But I don’t. Still, it is important to understand that while half of France was occupied, and the Vichy government nominally ruled the whole country, Paris was run by the same French administration that had been in place before the occupation.
The Vélodrome d’Hiver, or Winter Velodrome — the Vel d’Hiv — was an indoor stadium on the rue Nélaton near the Eiffel Tower. On July 16, 1942, 4,500 French police and gendarmes, acting on the orders of the French administration, began carrying out plans to arrest 30,000 foreign adult Jews. This operation was given the codename “Spring Breeze.”
The arrests began at 4:00 a.m., but the initial results were disappointing. Many of the Jews on the list for detention, having been warned by the Resistance or hidden by neighbors, could not be found. The police, therefore, decided to detain 4,000 Jewish children instead. The Nazis had not asked for these children. Most had been born in France. The order was given by Maréchal Pétain’s minister, Pierre Laval. It was a wholly French innovation.
Some families were sent to internment camps near Paris, where the children, mostly aged between two and twelve, were separated from their families by the French police, drenched in water, and bludgeoned. Their parents were sent directly to Auschwitz.
Others were taken to the Vel d’Hiv. The few lavatories there were sealed, lest children escape through the windows. The children were left, alone, for five days in the unbearable heat, with only the scarce rations of food and water brought to them by the Quakers and the Red Cross.
From there, they were sent to the internment camps of Drancy, Beaune-la-Rolande and Pithiviers. Then in August, the children were sent, alone — on French rail cars, by the French government — to Auschwitz. The youngest child sent to Auschwitz, under Laval’s orders, was only 18 months old. Laval, according to the historian Julian Jackson, told an American diplomat that he was “happy” to get rid of them.
Not one returned. All were exterminated.
There is no dispute about this. It is as well-documented a historical event as exists, confirmed by the records of the Préfecture de Police, countless eyewitnesses, and in particular, by the past four decades of historical research, which have comprehensively documented the eager collaboration of the wartime French government. Police Chief René Bousquet, who organized the roundup, impressed his German counterparts with his energy. France “did not have a knife at its throat,” writes the historian Philippe Burrin of these events in his authoritative history, La France à l’Heure Allemande. “Without the help of the [French] police, the SS was paralyzed.” The American historian Robert Paxton notes that France was the only country in Western Europe to use its own police force to round up Jews in territory that was not occupied by the Germans.
Everyone in France knew it then. Everyone in France knows it now. A block from my apartment there is a lycée, a high school. I walk past it every day. The teenagers with backpacks, in their jeans and short skirts, are like teenagers everywhere. They flirt, they giggle, they gossip; they sneak cigarettes before class on the street outside the doors of the school.
There is a plaque on the wall of the school, one with the words written on so many walls in this city. It draws my eye whenever I walk past. It says:
Arrêté par la police du gouvernement de Vichy, complice de l’occupant Nazi, plus de 11,000 enfants furent déportés de France de 1942 à 1944 et assassinés à Auschwitz parce que nés Juifs. Plus de 500 enfants vivaient dans le 4ème arrondissement, parmi eux les élèves de cette école. Ne les oublions jamais.
My translation: “Arrested by the police of the Vichy government, accomplices of the Nazi occupiers, more than 11,000 children were deported from France between 1942 and 1944 and assassinated at Auschwitz, because they were born Jews. More than 500 children lived in the 4th district, among them pupils of this school. Never forget them.”
A few blocks further, there’s a playground with a list of the names of the 87 children (les tout-petits) from the 3rd arrondissement. They weren’t yet old enough to go to school before they were sent to the camps. Most were exterminated in Auschwitz and Birkenau. Several thousand perished in the German death camps; some thousand more were executed in France. I always look at the children, playing, and ask myself what we all ask ourselves: What would cause ordinary men and women, and they were ordinary men and women, to starve, bludgeon, gas, and exterminate children? Look at your own children, any child, and ask yourself: Could you ever imagine that the right thing to do? Of course not. Humans aren’t capable of thinking such a thing. It goes against the most fundamental, the most primitive instincts we have. But apparently, that’s not true. We are capable of it. It’s unsurprising that so many don’t want to believe it. But it is the truth, and to deny this is to kill them twice.
Until 1995, it had been Gaullist doctrine to deny French responsibility for the roundup, this on the grounds that the Vichy Regime itself was illegitimate. The argument was preposterous. The Vichy government initially enjoyed wide support; its bureaucrats and officials came from the pre-war bureaucracy. “To isolate Vichy from the French population,” one of the leading French historians of the period, Henry Rousso, remarked, “doesn’t hold up for one second. You only have to look at the newsreels of the crowds applauding Pétain.” But Vichy was, more importantly, only nominally responsible for the Vel d’Hiv roundup. The authorities in Paris took their orders directly from the Gestapo.
For years, this was too unbearable to confront, and so France did not confront it.
Shortly after his election in 1995, however, President Jacques Chirac delivered a speech at the site of the Vel d’Hiv. (It had since been destroyed. Confronted or not, they knew.) He recognized, on behalf of the nation, French culpability. “These black hours,” he said,
will stain our history for ever and are an insult to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal madness of the occupant was assisted (secondée — facilitated, encouraged) by the French, by the French state. Fifty-three years ago, on 16 July 1942, 4,500 policemen and gendarmes, French, acting under the authority of commanding officers, obeyed the demands of the Nazis. That day, in the capital and the Paris region, nearly 10,000 Jewish men, women and children were arrested at home, in the early hours of the morning, and assembled at police stations … France, home of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.
Chirac was widely applauded for his remarks, even by the Gaullist establishment. They were, everyone knew, long overdue.
But Jean-Marie Le Pen—Marine’s father, then president of the National Front—found them offensive. Chirac, he sneered, had just “paid his electoral debt” to the Jews.
Perhaps the most direct progenitor of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front was Action Française, the militant street league founded in opposition to the defense of Alfred Dreyfus. Its principal ideologist was the proto-fascist, anti-Protestant, and morbidly anti-Semitic Charles Maurras, whom Steve Bannon is said particularly to admire. Whether this is true, I don’t know; I doubt it; it seems too vividly grotesque to be true.
Maurras was a monarchist, a counter-revolutionary (contra the French Revolution, that is), against parliamentarism, an anti-internationalist, and one of the foundational theorists of integral nationalism—an ideology embodied by his slogan, “a true nationalist places his country above everything.” Maurras thus endorsed Colonel Henry’s forgery on the grounds that defending Dreyfus would weaken the French army and justice system; Dreyfus, he held, must be sacrificed to the state’s interests. He himself was an agnostic, but sought on like grounds to restore Roman Catholicism as the state religion. Action Française supported the Vichy Regime and Pétain. After the war, Maurras was arrested as a collaborator. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Meanwhile, in 1928, Jean-Marie Le Pen was born. His father was a fisherman in a small seaside village in Brittany. Orphaned in adolescence when his father’s boat was blown up by a mine, he was raised a ward of the state. He entered the faculty of law in Paris, in 1944, and began selling Action Française’s newspapers in the street. He was repeatedly convicted of assault.
He later enlisted as a paratrooper, arriving in Indochina only after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu, then at Suez after the cease-fire. He returned to France to begin his political career, joining the populist leader Pierre Poujade’s Union de Défense des Commerçants et Artisans— the Union for the Defense of Shopkeepers and Craftsmen. Poujad and his eponymous movement were also known for anti-parliamentarism (Poujade called the National Assembly “the biggest brothel in Paris” and the deputies a “pile of rubbish” and “pederasts”), their anti-intellectualism, their anti-Semitism, and their support for French Algeria.
After becoming, in 1956, the youngest elected Member of Parliament, Le Pen re-enlisted to serve in Algeria. He led a military intelligence unit that was later accused of electrocution, water torture, beatings, and rape. Le Pen sued the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and the Socialist former prime minister Michel Rocard for making these claims. He lost.
In 1972, Le Pen co-founded the National Front. The party emerged against the background of the Algerian War, beginning its life as a marginal collection of Vichy apologists and nostalgists for French Algeria. Nazi collaborators were prominent in its early leadership, including members of the French SS. Many viewed the abandonment of Algeria by Charles de Gaulle as treason. Notably, Le Pen insisted upon the rehabilitation of the reputation of the Nazi collaborators. “Was General de Gaulle,” he had asked during the 1965 presidential campaign, “more brave than Marshal Pétain in the occupied zone? This isn’t sure. It was much easier to resist in London than to resist in France.”
He averred to the editor of the Front’s mouthpiece, Rivarol, that he had never considered Pétain a traitor. “I believe we were very severe with him at the Liberation … I never considered those who kept their esteem for the Marshal to be bad Frenchmen, or infréquentables [people you wouldn’t want to mix with].” The German occupation, he told Rivarol, was “not particularly inhuman.” By the end of the 1980s, Holocaust denial was an integral part of the Front’s ideology.
There is scant evidence that Le Pen believed he could become, or intended to be, a national figure. He was popular in the south of France. His loyalists admired him for his refusal to abandon the men who had sacrificed themselves in the Algerian War. I’ve met some of them, and to my surprise found them sympathetic. It is true that loyalty is a meaningful quality, and I understood why they valued his.
Le Pen enjoyed his dominion over his party. He enjoyed his reputation as the Devil of the Republic among his opponents, whom he genuinely loathed, and the adoration of his supporters, which he genuinely loved. If seeking an American analogy, you might think of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, or perhaps of Lew Rockwell. Now imagine that Lew Rockwell had three daughters, one of whom had a real gift for national politics—as well as an inexpressible lust for power. Hold that thought.
BRUTUS AND THE DETAIL
In the 1974 presidential election Le Pen won 0.75 percent of the vote. No one—certainly including him—expected him ever to surpass this achievement. But when France’s so-called glorious thirty postwar years came to an end, and as unemployment began to rise in the 1980s, the French began casting protest votes, really, for the National Front. They did so in large measure as a gesture of contempt for the political establishment.
In 2002, to the nation’s astonishment and horror, this phenomenon launched Le Pen all the way to the second round of the presidential election. The Left and the Right, stunned, united in panic to stop him. It worked. He received only 18 percent of the final vote. This—or so everyone believed—at last showed the limits of fascist nostalgia as a viable political strategy in France.
But there was a twist. Of course there was. In 1960, Jean-Marie Le Pen had married Pierrette Lalanne. Their union resulted in three daughters. After a quarter of a century of marriage, Pierrette walked out on them all, abandoning her daughters to set up home with a journalist. (She did not speak to Marine, we now know, for fifteen years.) Her husband refused to pay her alimony, suggesting instead that Pierette earn her living as a maid. She responded by posing for the French edition of Playboy in a maid’s outfit.
Enter Bruno Mégret. In 1985, Mégret joined the National Front, at first as Le Pen’s protégé. But the electorate’s growing tendency to vote for the Front gave rise in Mégret to a forbidden thought: The movement might have real potential as a national party were it not for the Old Man and his ludicrous, embarrassing, insistent defense of politically poisonous positions.
In 1987, journalist Olivier Mazerolle—remember that name—interviewed the elder Le Pen and asked his views about the revisionist theses of Robert Faurisson, the Franco-British Holocaust denier who had claimed, among other things, that Anne Frank’s diary was a forgery. Faurisson had been fined by a French court in 1983 for declaring that “Hitler never ordered nor permitted that anyone be killed by reason of his race or religion.” Le Pen, as was his wont, shot off his mouth. “The gas chambers,” he said, were “a detail of history.” The video below doesn’t show this episode, but rather one of the many times he later repeated the comment; I couldn’t find a subtitled version of the original.
His associates considered this comment—for which Le Pen, too, was fined—the greatest political error of his life. The party’s slow insinuation into mainstream political life reversed itself.
Mégret’s charisma, and his popularity within the party, won him support against his rival for Le Pen père’s affection, Bruno Gollnisch, whom the Old Man had made the party’s vice-president and general secretary. In 1998, Le Pen physically assaulted Annette Peulvast-Bergeal, a socialist politician, for which he was prosecuted and convicted. He was suspended from the European Parliament (he had long ceased to win his bids to sit in the National Assembly), and banned from seeking office for a year.
Inspired by accusations that Le Pen was too old and too gaga to lead a vigorous political movement, Mégret saw his chances and he took them; he attempted to stage a coup, mounting an effort to take over the National Front entirely. He failed. So Mégret—or Brutus, as Le Pen called him—defected. He started his own party, the Mouvement National Républicain. Another Frontiste, Philippe Olivier, defected along with him, becoming Mégret’s strategist. The eldest of the Le Pen daughters, Marie-Caroline, was Olivier’s lover.
She defected with Olivier.
Her father disowned her.
The elder Le Pen was, in the end, indeed too old and too gaga to lead a vigorous political movement. But the youngest of his daughters, Marine, was not. To her surprise, no doubt, and certainly to her father’s, she discovered in herself a real lust for power — national power, which she could imagine herself obtaining. Through nepotism, she took over the party. Through ambition, she saw a clear path. She embarked on a campaign to “de-demonize” the National Front, which in practice meant distancing it from her lunatic Pop. Like Mégret, she appreciated that there was, in France, a market for a modern Eurosceptic and populist party, one that targeted disaffected youth and lower-class voters who had many complaints, to be sure, but no interest in getting together with their war buddies and reminiscing about Algeria.
Thus began her drive to “de-demonize” the party. She sought to transform the Front from her a cult of personality centered around her father to a serious national political movement. In the vein of Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders, she offered voters a mix of economic protectionism, imprecations against Brussels bureaucrats, and a non-stop diet of railing against foreigners. The party advocated abandoning the principle of jus soli, or birthright citizenship, in favor of jus sanguinis–citizenship by virtue of “French blood.” She revised the party’s economic doctrines: Once the Front had been strictly liberal—in the traditional, economic sense; now it made promises to the working class of such lavish and economically illiterate grandiosity that even socialists would blush. She promised to raise the minimum wage, lower the retirement age, and pay for it all, somehow, by jettisoning the Euro and getting rid of the immigrants. The party became popular in regions plagued by deindustrialization and high unemployment. Its chief strategist, Florian Philippot, is actually a convert from the Eurosceptic left; he is said to be the author of the party’s focus on leaving Europe and expanding the welfare state.
But — and this was key — Marine took pains to expel or conceal the party’s most embarrassing elements. Anti-Semites and the Holocaust deniers, she insisted, had no place in the new, de-demonized National Front. As much recent reporting suggests, though, she was not as successful in expelling them as had been thought. (That’s all I could find in English; it’s much more detailed — and worse — in French.)
She did work assiduously to shed the party’s Jew-hating image — which was not just its image, but reality; her father’s well-known attitudes toward Jews were shared by a significant percentage of the party’s core supporters. Changing that image was an absolute electoral necessity: Anti-Semitism has declined markedly in France over the past half-century; it now resembles American levels, that’s to say, polls show that significant anti-Semitic attitudes are held by no more than 20 percent of the population, probably less; the numbers seem to come out in the teens or low-teens, in both countries. Among the true anti-Semites, though, a significant number support the National Front, which is their natural home. But no overt anti-Semite could win a French national election.
The party has not, at its grassroots, changed all that much. It still attracts the anti-Semites and the conspiracy theorists. But Marine’s innovation, and it was successful, was to minimize public expressions of anti-Semitism and replace them with implacable hostility to Muslims.
Marine, unlike her father, does not come across as an anti-Semite. I have friends who insist she’s not one at all: She has Jewish friends, they point out. She supports the State of Israel, which her father never did. French Jews have rejected her overtures, though, and so have Israelis: The party’s history, and the company she keeps, make it radioactive to them. Still, Marine had to be accepted by Jews, somewhere; this was the key to making the Front respectable and to convincing other parties it might be seen as respectable to work with her. Hence her charm offensive in America. (My friend Arun Kapil has an interesting discussion of her effort to court American Jews and conservatives, here.)
Now, this whole business with the Front and the Jews is hardly the only reservation a sensible person might have about her and her party. There’s her economic program, of course. But worst of all, Marine and her entourage are among the most enthusiastic supporters of Vladimir Putin in Europe. Or more accurately, Putin is among her most enthusiastic supporters; her party’s finances have been sustained by loans from Russian banks. She has repaid the loyalty, for example, by praising the results of the Crimean referendum. Her main diplomatic adviser, Aymeric Chauprade, embraces Putin as “a model for all those who want a multipolar world … where Europeans are liberated from American domination and consequently of the European Union which is itself the product of this imperialism.” (In 2011, Chauprade was fired from the French war college for intimating that 9/11 was an inside job, and here is her father, by the way, insinuating the same thing. I’m sorry I couldn’t find a subtitled version.)
Still, by 2014, her strategy had begun to pay off. The party was represented throughout France; it had won mayoralties, seats in the National Assembly, and, for the first time, the Senate. In local elections that year, the National Front made significant gains.
ENTER OEDIPUS, KARAMAZOV, THE BORGIAS, ATREUS, AND KING LEAR
Only great literature — and Sigmund Freud — have the power to explain what happened next.
Marine’s success proved too much for her father to bear. Christiane Chombeau, in her 2007 book Le Pen, Father and Daughter, reports that Marine said to him, “Whatever happens, you are my father. I love you and I will never hurt you, but I need to believe in what I do. I want to be myself.” But so jealous of his daughter did Le Pen prove that every time the National Front earned a victory — every single time — he toddled out to the balcony, opened up his yap, and reminded all of France why the National Front had been demonized in the first place.
At first, bizarrely, Marine continued not only to defend him, but to live in his home, an opulent mansion in a Paris suburb, built by Napoleon III for his chief of staff. Even more weirdly, her mother, too, continues to this day to live on the property, which Le Pen père inherited — along with a substantial fortune — from the monarchist son of the cement industrialist Leon Lambert. Reportedly, Marine only stormed out of his home, at last, at the age of 47, when her father’s Dobermans dramatically devoured her cat.
The party’s surprise success in French local elections, without him, was visibly just unbearable to her father. Within a month, he again announced that the gas chambers were a detail of history, then, seriatim, again defended Pétain, called for an alliance between France and Russia to preserve the white world, and complained that France was ruled by immigrants — by whom, he specified, he meant the Spanish-born Prime Minister. “Valls has been French for 30 years. I’ve been French for 1,000 years. Has this immigrant really changed?”
Marine responded by trying to remove her father as the party’s candidate, in elections later that year, in the region of the south that includes Marseilles and the French Riviera, her father’s old stomping grounds (and the only grounds that truly mattered to him). “I get the feeling,” she said, “that he can’t stand the fact that the National Front continues to exist when he no longer heads it.” It took no laser-light of insight to see this.
I am not sure of the dates or the sequence in which her father said the following things, I must double-check; but he responded by suggesting the Ebola virus might take care of the African immigrant problem “in three months,” sharing his enlightened views on the inequality of races, lamenting the excessively high representation of minorities on the French soccer team, and declaring that the Nazi occupation of France was “not particularly inhumane.”
Marine replied that she “deeply disagreed” with her “deliberately provocative” father.
Her father replied that he “never regretted” saying the Holocaust gas chambers were relatively insignificant.
Marine suspended her own 86-year-old father from the from the party he founded.
Her father disowned her.
BY ANY MEANS POSSIBLE
Le Pen vowed to attack his daughter by any means possible, suggesting their war was only just beginning. It would be “scandalous,” he said, if his daughter were to become head of state. “I’m ashamed that the president of the Front National bears my name. I hope she gets rid of it as fast as possible.” He proposed she do so by marrying her adviser Florian Philippot (who had recently been outed as gay by a gossip rag).
He said he had no intention of retiring from politics, as his daughter wished; he was thinking only of how to attack. When asked what he made of Marine’s insistence that he had been deliberately provocative, he replied that it was a lie, a plot. He accused Marine of a “betrayal of her father.” This, he said, would never be accepted by the true members of the party, for whom loyalty was all. Said Le Pen: “She is sawing off the branch on which she sits with these actions, which even revolt her enemies.” (“Sawing off the branch on which she sits?” Good Lord. Don’t tell me Freud is dead.)
Only one of Le Pen’s daughters — Yann — has escaped his wrath. Only she visited him in the hospital when he was rushed to the emergency wing with coronary artery blockage complicated by a pulmonary condition. And it is Yann’s daughter, Jean-Marie’s granddaughter Marion Marechal-Le Pen, whom Bannon has called the party’s “new rising star.”
Marine was worse, her father said, than her political opponents, because “those adversaries fight you to your face. She is stabbing me in the back.” Her betrayal was all the more indecent, he said, because she would be nothing without him: He had facilitated her career. He stood outside the party headquarters and vowed “they will have to kill me” to silence him. “You should know” he later told AFP, “that if my corpse is found, I won’t have committed suicide.”
Then a French court ruled, to his delight, that he would be allowed to maintain his title as honorary chairman of the party. When the French singer Patrick Bruel, who is Jewish, criticized the Front on the obvious grounds, Le Pen, then 88, celebrated the court’s verdict by posting a video on the party’s website suggesting of Bruel that “next time we will put him in an oven.”
In 2015, at the National Front’s annual May Day rally, Marine — as tradition dictated — laid a wreath before the statue of Joan of Arc. To her astonishment, Jean-Marie, who had been conspicuously uninvited, emerged from nowhere, toddled toward the statue, and cried out to Joan of Arc for help. When Marine tried to take the stage to speak, he marched before the platform, arms outstretched, beaming dementedly, to cheers from the crowd. Marine, stunned, stood silent and glaring.
Marine later said—stating the obvious, to say the least—“I think that was a malicious act. I think it was an act of contempt towards me.”
A SLENDER HOPE
Marine’s odds were always long. Her ceiling, pollsters say, is no more than 30 percent. Of course, that’s what they said about Donald Trump, too. But the French electoral system really is different. She is toxic to the rest of the electorate. When last she ran, in 2012, she only took 18 percent of the vote. She will need to triple that, almost, to win an outright majority today. Even assuming the polls aren’t just off, but wildly off — even assuming she’s able to win as many votes in the first round as Charles de Gaulle — she still can’t win, because the rest of the electorate will unite to vote against her in the runoff. Or so it was assumed.
Before last week, most polls showed her and Emmanuel Macron winning the first round, taking 25 and 24 percent of the votes, respectively. They then showed Macron resoundingly beating her, with 62 percent of the vote, in the finals.
But there was a but. Of course there was. She had one hope: Indecision and abstention. The polls suggest that millions of voters remain undecided, and almost half said they could change their minds. This was the highest rate of indecision France had ever seen at this point in an election. The electorate seems to hate all of the main candidates. Perhaps, pollsters wondered, this could lead to unusually high rates of abstention in the final round. Some groups are more likely to abstain than others: the young, ethnic minorities, and the unemployed. These groups would usually vote left, but might abstain instead of voting for Macron. If the left stayed home in large numbers, Le Pen could benefit.
BACK TO THE VEL D’HIV
In this context, at last, perhaps you’ll see what just transpired here and why I think this woman’s a lunatic. There were two weeks to go before the first round. Marine Le Pen was not on the verge of victory, but she was on the verge, astonishingly, of an outside chance. Then on Sunday, the ninth of April — the eve of Passover, 5777 — she found herself on the LCI television channel’s weekly show. It had been a chaotic day. The moderator of the show — you remember his name — was Olivier Mazerolle. The fatigue of the campaign was obvious in her eyes. Mazerolle tossed her an easy question (or he broadsided her, depending on your perspective). “Was Jacques Chirac wrong,” he asked, “to make his speech about the Vél d’Hiv?”
Now, it should have been a reflex, for a de-demonized Le Pen. The right answer, the only answer in France, for more than twenty years, has been: “Of course he wasn’t wrong, it is a matter of great pride that we are a France that squarely confronts its past.” In fact, this generation in France really has no idea there has ever been any other answer.
But the Devil got her tongue.
Instead: “I don’t think France is responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” she said, as viewers’ jaws fell agape throughout France and its territories. “I consider that France and the Republic were based in London during the occupation. The Vichy regime was not France. I think that generally speaking, if there are people responsible, it’s those who were in power at the time. It’s not France.”
She tried to find firmer footing: France had “taught our children that they have all the reasons to criticize and to only see, perhaps, the darkest aspects of our history,” she added. “So, I want them to be proud of being French again.”
She realized, almost immediately, what she had done, quickly saying that this in no way exonerated those who participated in “the vile roundup of Vel d’Hiv and all the atrocities committed during that period.” But it was too late. The program had barely ended when a press release went out from her campaign headquarters to clarify her position. This is rare for the National Front, which usually holds there is no reason, a posteriori, to issue a communiqué explaining the president’s speech; their philosophy — usually — is that she means what she said and she said what she meant, and their leader is faithful, one hundred percent. The very fact of the press release indicated the recognition of an error, a grave misstep. By Monday morning, she was expressing regret. “If Olivier Mazerolle hadn’t asked me the question,” she said, “you can well imagine I wouldn’t have spoken of it.” (That sentence has two meanings. I’ll let you think about them.)
Her entourage was every bit as aware that the Devil had possessed her as they were the first time Mazerolle had entrapped him. Florian Philippot quickly issued a statement on her behalf, insisting that her posture was “Gaullist.” And indeed it was, though few Frenchmen of this generation are even aware that de Gaulle held the same view. (What’s more, de Gaulle had excellent reason to believe he would have acquitted himself as honorably in the war as de Gaulle. He was de Gaulle.)
Her enemies pounced. “By denying the responsibility of the French State for the Vel d’Hiv, Marine Le Pen joins her father on the bench of indignity and denial,” wrote the Républicain party president of the Provence-Alpes-Côte region, Christian Estrosi.
“Some have forgotten that Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen,” said her rival, Emmanuel Macron.
Well, they remember now. No matter how she spins this, voters who until now may have chosen to sit out the elections out were given a solid reason to vote. And those who do vote for her can’t pretend they didn’t know what they’re doing.
Years of effort — hers, and so many others — to de-demonize her party, derailed. A poll by Odoxa for Le Parisien last month found that 98 percent of National Front sympathisers had a positive image of Marine Le Pen. Only 28 percent had a positive image of her father, and 87 percent of the party’s sympathisers felt it was high time her father withdrew from political life altogether. So why, when it mattered most, did Marine become her father’s ventriloquist?
The answer is both complex and simple. The simple answer: She and her family are nuts.
But for the complex answer, Freud — and only Freud — will do. Her father is the embodiment of the narcissistic perversion, as described by the psychoanalyst Paul-Claude Récamier. That’s a cliché with the force of the obvious. The narcissist, intolerably damaged in his youth, manipulates and imprisons his entourage — exerts on them constant violence — to escape his own internal torment. He is the center of the world, the law itself; he is not to be transgressed. Those who love him are but the extension of his own glory; if they leave, they deserve to be destroyed. He attracts and creates need, he undermines and weakens those who love him; lacking love, he humiliates; he encloses and fascinates, all the while posing as a victim.
And worse, he passes on his disorder.
The astonishing aspect of Marine’s gaffe extraordinaire is the psychological compulsion behind it. No one but Freud could even begin to offer an insight into her decision to say that, to say it now — precisely as she had, at long last, a small — but real! — chance of achieving the ultimate prize! Was it just a slip of the tongue? You’d have to be utterly psychologically naive to believe that. Was she shoring up the anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying vote? She had it already. Where else were they going to go?
After so many years, after working so assiduously, so strategically, so deliberately, to de-demonize the National Front, and at such cost — after distancing herself from her father to the point of political patricide, and perhaps, given his age and his health, literal patricide, too; after being disowned by him (as her mother and sister were, pour le mémoire), to say this now? Only Freud offers the insight that could make sense of such a thing. She could not bear the unconscious guilt. And so she had to kill herself, politically, too — to punish herself, and to repair her love affair with her father before his death.
That’s the only theory that I find a satisfying explanation of an otherwise inexplicable act of self-destruction, not to mention a grotesque insult to the memory of children who were separated in terror from their parents, starved, bludgeoned, and killed, by the French authorities, as every man, woman, and child in France knows only too well; and the destruction, too, to her life’s work, her party, her friends, her career and her movement — all in one comment, made in a blazing moment of unconscious but spectacular intentionality.
She simply couldn’t forgive herself for killing her father. But at last, at least, the Old Man must be so proud.
IT’S UP TO YOU
So this is the story. If it leaves you at ease with the idea that a member of this family could come to power, today, in a nation critical to the past and the future of Europe, one with an independent nuclear deterrent, at that, then we’ve come to the end of the discussion. Let’s be polite and mature about it: You go your way; I’ll go mine.
But I trust that most of you, now that you know all of this, will get it, too. She is no amalgam of Joan of Arc and Winston Churchill; she is not what a demoralized France so needs. She is a cut-rate Eva Peron surrounded by honest-to-god Vichy-apologists and neo-Nazis nuts, and not insignificantly, a neurotic, a hysteric, one in the grip of such powerful family demons, that she can neither control herself nor exorcise them. This is hardly the woman we need in this role when the world is already busily spinning off its axis, is it?
Let’s pray that in a few more hours, at least, we will no longer have to worry about it.
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