France no longer resembles a divided but tolerant family. It is catastrophically fractured | Andrew Hussey

In the past week, since Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) stormed into its daunting lead in the first round of the French parliamentary elections, a menacing graffito has appeared in my neighbourhood in Paris, on a busy street corner between the boulangerie and the wine shop. Written in black, in a clear and steady hand, it reads “Les nerfs sont tendus, les Fachos seront pendus” – “Nerves are being stretched, the fascists will be hung”.

As France has advanced towards the runoff second round of the elections, life has been quietly humming along in the quartier – Euro football matches in the cafes, shopping and commuting have all been as normal. But the graffito has always been there, an ominous backdrop to everyday life, a sinister threat and a warning about the tensions in France right now.

Emmanuel Macron has not been shy about using the term “civil war” to describe the situation, and commentators have been unsure whether he means it as a metaphor or something that might happen. On Thursday, 30,000 extra police were deployed across the country in anticipation of civil disorder in the wake of the elections. There has also been much talk in the media of what comes after the election. The consensus seems to be chaos. The philosopher Michel Onfray, not the typical supporter of the far-right RN – although a longtime advocate of “Frexit” – says that what is happening is the death of European liberalism and sees political violence as almost inevitable.

At the Métro station on rue Pernety, Gabrielle, a 22-year-old marketing student, has been handing out flyers for Céline Hervieu, the local Socialist candidate for the New Popular Front (NFP) – the opposition coalition to the RN – all afternoon. She is footsore and weary, having had the same conversation all day with voters. “It’s always the same,” she says. “Emmanuel Macron has inflicted a deep wound on our democracy. Everyone repeats that he is a cynic who cares only about himself and not the people. I agree.” This was an unusually jaded opinion from someone who was effectively canvassing to keep Macron in power.

The RN has not been a visible presence in the area, and would very quickly be made unwelcome in this multi-ethnic district. Yet, sitting at a cafe terrace you silently wonder who has voted for whom. People will, however, quietly reveal their affiliations. Arturo (not his real name) is in his seventies, of Portuguese origin, and has lived in this neighbourhood all his life. He is voting RN for the first time. “It is the only party that has the interests of the people in its heart,” he said to me over a pastis in the Café Métro. “People think the RN are divisive but really they just want to establish some order, and that’s in the interests of everyone, black, Arab, or whatever. France has been falling apart for a long time and Macron or the left just don’t see or just don’t care.”

The current standoff is not simply between two opposing sides, left and right. Alain Finkelkraut, another philosopher, has talked recently about the “Lebanonisation” of France, a society disintegrating into fragments, into warring factions with no common interest. What Finkelkraut fears is a splintered state and the crumbling away of “la République indivisible” – the first pillar of the French constitution.

The urban geographer Christophe Guilluy has been observing this process close up for many years and explains it as the result of changes in the deepest structures of French society – the “desertification” of large swathes of provincial France and the domination of self-interested metropolitan elites. He explained to me that, until recently, France had always been like a family, divided between right and left, who might hate each other but everyone knew their place. This had fragmented and French people no longer stood by traditional class identities. He has not been in any way surprised by the RN’s great leap forward in 2024. “It’s an unstoppable movement,” he said, “a movement of ordinary people who want their voice heard.”

Certainly, the extremes are dangerously far apart. This much was demonstrated in the past week with the vying viral popularity of two music anthems from the right and the left. The song Je partira pas (“I ain’t going” in bad French) has now been banned from TikTok but it is still a massive hit with the rightwing gen Z youth. It begins with the voice of an immigrant being deported before crashing into a bouncing Euro-pop refrain with the catchy chorus “Si, si tu partiras” (“oh yes, you’re going” in correct French), taunting the deported immigrant to pack his djellaba and go home.

The anti-RN rap opposition is not heartening. No pasarán, concocted by DJ Kore and a rap collective, takes aim at the RN but is loaded with misogyny, death threats, conspiracy theories, Islamism and antisemitism. As such, it may well be an accurate reflection of political nihilism in the banlieues but is hardly a rallying cry. Rather, it affirms every easy prejudice that RN supporters and others have about the culture of the suburbs. The track is, however, the sound of “nerves being stretched”, as the graffito says.

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France has not been so politically fraught for decades. Whatever happens today, whether or not the RN gains the full majority it craves, France has reached a historical moment from which it cannot easily step back.

Andrew Hussey is the author of The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and its Arabs

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