As the blood is mopped from the floors of the editorial meeting room of Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher grocery store in East Paris this week, the socialist government of François Hollande must be looking nervously over its right shoulder.
For there it will see standing Marie Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front, nodding furiously that she had predicted this mess for years and that no one had been listening.
Of course she is right. Le Pen and other nationalist leaders in Europe have vociferously pounded out a persistent drumbeat concerning the collapse of national identity and the apparent willingness of French politicians to surrender to multicultural demands.
But the prescription she is offering to cleanse the country of its Muslim problem is not one that her countrymen have been willing to hear and the government has responded by practically sentencing Le Pen to an inner exile. She was barred from joining in the 3 million person strong gathering in the Place de la Republique on Sunday and was forced to conduct her own memorial in the country’s south.
Across France, however, there is a painful awareness the growing fearlessness of Muslim attacks and a impatience with the weakness of governmental response. After the events of January 7th and 9th in Paris, no one can ignore the fact that the French Fifth Republic is itself wobbling under its failure to adequately address the growing restiveness of its Muslim population. A general consensus is emerging that a lawless population in the country’s heart is no longer an issue to be debated but one to be confronted.
Which leads to the question of what happens now? If an even bigger event is on the horizon (something intimated by the terrorist Ahmed Coulibaly to his hostages in the super market on Friday) then Hollande’s socialist government will come under unrelenting pressure to resign and the ensuing elections will almost certainly bring the Far Right into contention as a significant electoral player.
So liberal France faces one of its dystopian nightmares – the possibility that the country may swing hard right, which might lead, if history is any guide,to the steady erosion of democratic values and the rise of some form of autocracy.
It is not as if there is no precedent for it. The Directory of France in late 1799 turned to a thirty-year-old general to restore a level of order and a semblance of normalcy to Revolutionary France. Within a year, Napoleon Bonaparte had transformed his shared power arrangement into a virtual dictatorship. Fifty years later the Second Republic elected his nephew, under similar circumstances, to the Presidency and merely shrugged when he crowned himself Emperor in 1852. The defeated Third Republic collapsed in 1940 when it preferred the autocratic puppet regime of Marshal Petain to the direct rule of Nazi Germany.
Over the past 225 years there have been five republics in France – while only one in the United States – and for a very good reason: the French have never been entirely comfortable with the exercise of democratic principles and have struggled to shake off an addiction to autocracy as modeled by the ancien regime.
The Russians and Germans are not much better: the Weimar Republic in Germany folded from an economic failure and social dysfunction allowing a convicted criminal to take power in 1933. Vladmir Putin took advantage of social and political malaise in Russia to win power and cement his eventual dictatorship over the course of several years.
Are there other nascent Bonapartes and Putins waiting in the wings in Europe to take up the ultra-nationalist cause?
Quite possibly. Desperate situations bring out the inner autocrat in most ambitious men.
But while these men and women of destiny might feel compelled to apply very draconian measures to address the dangerous demographic problems and security threats of Europe, we would be mistaken to believe that they would not come without a steep price: the assault on individual freedoms and liberty, the institution of witch hunts and the ineluctable rise of anti-Semitism.
The soft democracies of the European continent will be looking to France in the coming twelve months to see how it handles the very complex problems posed by Muslim separatism. Anything less than an aggressive stance, which sends an unequivocal message that force will be met with brutal force, will only encourage the attraction of voters to the far right and the likely drift of the electorate in that direction.
If you want a sense of what this might eventually mean for France – and Europe – remember this: One of Napoleon’s first actions upon his appointment as First Consul under the Directory was to shutter over 300 newspapers and periodicals.
If this ever happened again the rather endearing refrain “Je Suis Charlie” will echo down the decades as a symbol of deep irony rather than one of calibrated resistance to the assaults on a free press and the challenges to western liberties.