On a bright Wednesday afternoon in late February a bunch of French Muslims gathered in an upstairs room at the Café du Pont Neuf on the Seine. They had summoned a group of Internet journalists before whom they intended to lay out a few grievances. Their leader, Farida Belghoul, a 55-year-old Frenchwoman of Algerian Kabyle background, is a veteran of the movement that, back in the 1980s, sought to rally North African immigrants’ children (known as beurs) behind Socialist president François Mitterrand. Belghoul was the eloquent and camera-friendly voice of the so-called Second March of the Beurs in 1984, but she drifted from view after that. She has spent the intervening years teaching, writing novels, making films, studying, and, most recently, living in Egypt. Journalists who have written about ethnicity, immigration, and left-wing politics in decades past retain a vague memory of her name.
Those who have reacquainted themselves with Belghoul in recent months have been shocked to see what has become of this onetime hope of socialism. She has seen a few things. She has drawn closer to God. And she has become the sworn enemy of the French Ministry of Education’s ideas about what children should be taught about sex. In the audience at the café, silhouetted against the windows that face across the Seine toward the towers of the Conciergerie, there were women in headscarves. But the speakers sitting at Belghoul’s side included leaders of Christian organizations, conservative politicians, a priest, and a former member of Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet. Many of them until quite recently thought of Muslim immigration as a menace to the Republic. All were there to pay their respects to a woman who, for now at least, has become one of the most important right-wing leaders in France.
An embitterment has entered French politics under the presidency of François Hollande, the first Socialist to run France since the last century. Voters chose Hollande in 2012 as a way of administering a slap to the brassy martinet Sarkozy, but Hollande’s popularity has fallen steadily since. The economy is flat. Hollande’s advisers—mostly people of retirement age—keep scolding the public about how they ought to work harder. The Red Bonnets, a movement of protest against the green taxes that are hitting farmers hard, have been on the march in Brittany. Economic inequality has worsened, and the Paris economist Thomas Piketty—whose new book on inequality has made bestseller lists—took to the pages of the daily Libération to describe Hollande as a “serial bumbler.” Hollande is his party’s most prominent champion of French involvement in the 28-nation superstructure of the European Union, at a time when a majority (58 percent) of Frenchmen want less of it. The country’s unemployment rate is over 10 percent, and Hollande’s approval ratings have fallen into the teens. Never in recent decades has a Western European leader been less popular.
It is not usually fruitful to compare foreign leaders with American presidents, but there is a reason Hollande hit it off so well with President Obama on his state visit last month. Both have a mild manner that is an inestimable asset when the leader of the party that likes to shake things up is courting swing voters. Both, though, are ideological adventurers, with a reverence towards what the university utopians in their party dream up, even if they are not dreamers themselves. But Obama has trump cards Hollande lacks: a reserve currency, an empire, a vast army. He also has Republican opponents who have restrained him from nominating too many Van Joneses and Debo Adegbiles. Hollande has had the personal good fortune, and the political bad fortune, to get the allies he has wished for. He has wound up beholden to the Europe-Écologie party (EELV), which is too radical for most French voters’ tastes.
It was partly at the EELV’s suggestion that Hollande went out on a limb last winter and legalized gay marriage. It was a mistake. The law has been more ferociously resisted in France than in any Western country. As with President Obama’s health care reform, the passage of the law has done nothing to settle the argument over it. The protests have continued. The problem, it is clear, was not just the law itself but also the spirit in which it was offered. “It’s a reform of society,” said justice minister Christiane Taubira in late 2012, “and you could even say a reform of civilization.” That remark, and others like it, awakened a section of political France that had been slumbering for decades—the Catholic part, the traditionalist part, the sort of people who have five kids, favor cardigans over hoodies, and can describe France as the “eldest daughter of the church” without snickering.