In the media cacophony over Donald Trump’s wife’s possible apocalyptic pilfering of pensées from Michelle Obama, you might have missed word about the gay vegetarian mayor of Hayange, France. Any pretext to toss folderol in front of the Trump juggernaut is understandable. Still, the accusations of “plagiarism” being leveled at Melania Trump hardly hold a candle to the doings of Monsieur Fabian Engelmann. Mr. Trump, after all, will either be – or not be – the next President of the United States regardless of whether his wife steals quips from the current First Lady or silverware from the White House dining room. But the obscure M. Engelmann’s actions signify something much farther reaching. As reporter Ben Judah writes in a fine piece of journalism for the UK’s Standpoint Magazine, the mayor of the economically depressed town northeast of Paris near the Belgian border is a touchstone for a seismic shift in French political life, and so for the near to middle-term future of Europe. If that makes it all feel a long way from home, especially with the hallucinogenic circus of the 2016 presidential campaign going on next door, it remains a good idea to think of it as much closer than it seems. Granted, the prospect of Donald Trump presiding over the world’s largest economy, and history’s most powerful military, sparks whole-body Spidey tingling. It’s like watching a real life Wile E. Coyote drive an Acme dynamite truck through a warehouse filled with plutonium-powered giant magnets. Something could go wrong. The very immensity of the American presidency, however, imposes a discipline to mitigate the cartoon chicanery of even Donald Trump. Self-created clown he might be, but the very office to which he aspires makes it unimaginable that he will ever conduct himself as destructively as his outlandish campaign rhetoric portends. In Hayange, in France, and in Europe even limits are being strained to the breaking point. If Mayor Engelmann and company have their way, those limits will snap in in the next presidential contest. The unimaginable that is increasingly becoming the foreseeable is the election of Marine Le Pen and her hard right Front National to the Élysée Palace. The prospect of either Le Pen or Trump gaining presidential office is admittedly cause for worry warts. But any serious comparison of the two stops with the North American intelligentsia’s nonsensical charge that the latter is a fascist. He certainly is not. There is no such certainty about her. Trump is a toxic shyster mixed with cynical song-and-dance man: a multi-tasking political pickpocket who entertains his marks while fattening his ego on their distracted credulity. But listen to him speak. His syntax isn’t fractured. It’s non-existent. It demonstrates an ideational attention span too short to understand even an ideology as brutally basic as fascism. Marine Le Pen bristles these days at being branded a fascist, though few ever called her father – and Front National founder – Jean Marie Le Pen anything but a fascist. She has purportedly rid the party of its gaucheries such as homophobia and lingering, malodorous Vichy-Catholicism. Her success in that regard, it appears, is at least in part why the likes of Mayor Engelmann are working to have her become Madame Le/La President(e). (There is, as all things French, a furious debate afoot about which is grammatically correct and which is politically appropriate.) Until 2010, Ben Judah reports in the Standpoint article, Engelmann was a gay vegetarian leftist. Now he is a gay vegetarian who has travelled across the political spectrum to firmly embrace Le Pen’s vision of a France restored. If that sounds eerily like Trump’s promise to “make America great again” it is nothing of the kind. For Trump, those four words are a marketing dream of a slogan but he clearly has no interest, intention, understanding, or idea of how to convert them to reality. Le Pen at least has, if not an idea, then an ideology borrowed from her father and, as such, rooted in the very depths of French soil and the French soul. America might be boiling over with inchoate anger at the moment, but France is a country riven with deep-seated fear. Fear not just from the vile episodic violence of the Charlie Hebdo shootings or the Bataclan massacres in Paris or last week’s horrific truck attack in Nice. The fear is driven by what Le Pen and followers such as Mayor Engelmann call The Great Replacement. France may be under attack by jihadi lunatics. But it is also, the fear is felt, being forever transformed by even peaceful Islamic immigrants. As a responsible journalist, Judah points out that this fear, at least expressed demographically, is without factual foundation. Muslims comprise seven to eight per cent of the French population – not 31 per cent as widely believed. By 2030, that number may rise to 10 per cent, far from the predictions of a majority Muslim population by mid-century. What the numbers debunk, however, a reportorial trip to the “new France” at the end of Metro Line 13 in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint Denis affirms. Judah visits the Cathedral of Saint-Denis where French kings from Dagobert I to Louis XIII are buried. He exits the cathedral to visit a mosque 200 metres away on Rue de la Boulangerie, where 3,000 Muslims are holding Friday prayers, and is visibly reminded that he is in “Muslim majority territory.” It is a reminder almost forcibly reinforced during a visit to a lycée, where the stark “division between Islam and the Republic” become vividly generational. In a class for a volunteer anti-racist project called Coexist, a 15-year-old named Mohammed presents a picture drawn by the members of his group. It reads: Jews = Sons of Bitches = $. A girl wonders aloud if the Shoah is some kind of drug. If the school’s overwhelmingly Muslim students think of Jews as something entirely foreign, they, too, are constantly reminded that they are Arabs, not French. Yet when they are asked if they consider themselves French, all but three raise their hands. “The children of this great wave of immigration are living in failure,” a local police official tells Judah. “The failure of integration, the failure of schooling, the failure of employment.” Every day, Judah adds, “Islamists are gaining ground in Saint-Denis. Militant Salafist and fundamentalist groups are active around the mosques, says the prefect, who finds the imams worryingly reluctant to speak to his officials.” The ground Islamists gain comes, first of all, at the expense (will history never stop repeating itself?) of French Jews. They are being pushed out not just by school children with crude, anti-Semitic signs, but by frightening level of daily physical violence. Three quarters of Jews wearing traditional skullcaps report being assaulted. Jewish communities are collapsing or fleeing into collective refuges where they will be safe. Since the Charlie Hebdo attack, and the simultaneous murders at a Jewish market in Paris, 10,000 French troops have guarded Jewish sites in France. And as pollster Jérome Fourquet points out, the flight of French Jews to safer havens within France is a harbinger of other demographic groups as well: “There is now massive flight of the non-immigrant population. Things that were previously felt by the Jewish community are not felt by the population at large.” As France fractures, Marine Le Pen flourishes. So does her fear-driven ideology that is profoundly anti-immigration, anti-Islam, anti-pluralist, anti-European. That is, in other words, seen as the salvation of the country from what is happening in Parisian suburbs such as Seine-Saint-Denis. “This new France is (her) good fortune. Her rank and file call her Joan of Arc, France’s saintly heroine come to lance the Muslim peril and slay the Brussels Hydra. Marine is the leader of what she calls ‘the first party of France.’ “This claim is serious. Her Front now has more members than the governing Socialist party and came first in the first round of 2015’s regional elections with nearly a third of the vote. (In the second round, tactical voting kept them out.) Marine is becoming a serious contender for the presidency.” Even gay vegetarian former leftist small town mayors living far from Paris’ troubled suburbs see her as not just as a legitimate alternative, but the only possible option. “The left’s ideology is muddled, the right’s is vague, but Marine’s is crystal clear: France is ceasing to be France demographically, that slowly this century the old majority is being replaced by a new one, of immigrant ethnicity,” Judah writes. “Immigrants are arriving in large numbers and having more children than natives. Unless this is stopped, the idea that true French will become a minority will constantly be on France’s mind.” The fracturing between “Muslim majority territory” in places such as suburban Seine-Saint-Denis and the hinterland such as Hayange “will shape the future of France.” It is a future that carries a deeply troubling resonance from the past as Judah drives back to Paris from the border with Belgium “through the valley of the Marne…over the battlefields of Verdun…past the graves” of those fought bloody world wars over something far more apocalyptic than a handful of possibly plagiarized words.
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