Liberals need to heed the messages writ large


French conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon waves as he arrives to deliver his speech during a rally in Orleans, central France. Christophe Ena / AP Photo

A recent news report on France’s presidential election campaign and the prospects of far-right leader Marine Le Pen is worth parsing because it says something so politically blasphemous as to be barely believable.

John Laurenson reported for the BBC from among French people whom Britain’s prime minister Theresa May might have called “left behind”. He probed the views of a community that United States president Donald Trump might have called “the forgotten”. And he found enthusiasm for Ms Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-hijab policies among, wait for it, second-generation immigrants from North Africa and headscarved Muslim women.

They explained their resentment of the suggestion from left-wing parties that blacks and Arabs had no choice but to support them. They said they didn’t see what their ethnic identity had to do with political choices and that they were as French as everyone else. They offered support for Ms Le Pen’s proposals that immigration should be reduced to nothing. And finally, they went on to hand down this damning judgement: the left is racist for imprisoning voters like them in their ethnic identity.

It’s probably reasonable to judge this to be a minority view among France’s coloured, Arab and Muslim minority groups. And yet, the accusation about left and centrist parties playing identity politics is increasingly heard, not just in France but in the US, United Kingdom and India too.

The argument, mostly made by right-wing groups, goes as follows. Pleading for minority interests stereotypes and typecasts entire groups of people. Far more democratic and fair, to consider the nation as a indivisible whole, thereby acknowledging that most people have similar hopes and fears, as well as similar aspirations for their families and their lives. It is an appealing argument but it makes all sorts of unsustainable assumptions. First, that we live in an ideal world in which everyone enjoys equality of opportunity (even if not of outcome). Second, that India’s Muslim minority, African-Americans and coloured immigrants in France and the UK are rarely, if ever discriminated against.

Obviously, neither of those statements is true, which brings us to the role of those who press for special protections for racial and religious minorities. How has it come to pass that left-wing and progressive movements are denounced as segregationist for championing special causes?

Perhaps because they have done the job too single-mindedly and have failed to add or even acknowledge the caveats. In Britain, France and much of western Europe, the left and centre-left has effectively drowned out expressions of concern — say, about immigrant and/or Muslim integration (or the lack thereof) — as racism of the most reprehensible sort. In the US, where there is no real immigrant or refugee problem per se and Muslims are solidly in the mainstream, the left has focused too sharply on other, relatively niche minority groups.

In India, the Congress party arguably used Muslims as a vote bank for decades, allowing the Hindu nationalist BJP to prosecute the case for an all-encompassing idea of the nation. In September, prime minister Narendra Modi denounced a “twisted definition of secularism”, which saw the Muslim minority as “a vote bank” rather than as “our own.”

Unsurprisingly, at least in the West, the elite of the liberal left is calling for a recalibration. Former British prime minister Tony Blair recently said that “progressives need to acknowledge the genuine cultural anxieties … on immigration, the threat of radical Islamism and the difference between being progressive and appearing obsessive on issues like gender identity.”

In his forthcoming book The Road to Somewhere, self-confessed “apostate” liberal David Goodhart investigates the populist revolt in Brexit Britain as a reaction to the supreme dominance of the “Anywhere”. These citizens of the world, with portable “achieved” identities, he writes, clash with the “Somewheres”, whose “ascribed” identities are rooted and more selective about change. Goodhart says his book “is a plea for a less headstrong Anywhere liberalism (and less) Anywhere overreach.”

But even last autumn, back when Donald Trump’s election victory was unimaginable, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek was saying something similar about the liberal tendency to sugarcoat, if not ignore uncomfortable truths. Mr Zizek said there is an enor­mous gulf between western values and those of the thou­sands arriving in Europe from the Middle East and North Africa region and it was dangerous for liberal politicians to refuse to acknowledge the fact. That refusal, he warned, would allow the far right to set the terms of the political debate, causing intolerance to rise to socially unsustainable levels.

It’s fair to say that we are more than half way there. Ms Le Pen is expected to win the most votes in next month’s first round of voting in the French presidential election and her ideological brother, the nativist, Islamophobic Geert Wilders, is in a dead heat with The Netherlands’ moderate incumbent ruling party in the March 15 general election. But there are some signs that the message is starting to get through to centrists and liberals.

In late January, Netherlands’ prime minister Mark Rutte adopted an unexpectedly tough line on cultural values. Anyone who cannot respect Dutch customs can leave, he said in an attempt to show that a moderate political party can care for sons and daughters of the soil just as much for more recent imports.

Perhaps that is the way forward for the left and the liberals. Empathy starts at home.