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I come from a family of French Jews. During World War II, my great-grandfather fought in the French Resistance. I grew up hearing the story of him being taken to a concentration camp, which he survived, but his mom and nephew did not. Now, as the French presidential election is nearing, my family is closely following the news. On May 7th, we’ll know if France’s next president will be Emmanuel Macron, a career politician, or Marine Le Pen, a controversial outsider.
Le Pen has stirred concern because of her harsh stance on immigration, her father’s open anti-semitism, and her own overtly racist statements. Her popularity is awakening a familiar, bitter fear in many ethnic and religious minorities and French liberals–including those in my own family.
My mother’s side of the family came to the United States from Paris in 1948, immediately after World War II. My grandmother, who was born in Paris during the War, now lives in France part of the year.
And only a few years ago, I lived there too.
Between 5th and 7th grade, my family and I stayed in one of the most progressive parts of Paris, in the Latin Quarter. My classmates came from a range of backgrounds and religions. But in the schoolyard, I got used to a much higher level of casual racism and homophobia than I was used to as a white kid growing up in the Bay Area. One of my black classmates at my Parisian school was nicknamed “Mouton,” or “Sheep,” because of his hair. The verb “araber,” or “ to arab,” was slang for “to steal.” No one escaped being called “pédé,” or “homo,” at least once a day.
I am not saying that France is more racist than the US, but rather that the threshold for what is alright to say is much higher in France. This makes Marine Le Pen’s boldly racist rhetoric seem even more scary. When she accused black protestors of being “three bottles of rum and 800 blunts deep,” her words do not sound very different from the jokes Parisian elementary schoolers sarcastically throw around in the schoolyard.
So when I read the headlines about the election, I can’t help thinking about those experiences and wondering if the media might be wrong about Le Pen’s chances, especially with polls projecting that 19-22% of voters are planning on staying home on election day.
As for my grandmother, who is in Paris now, she alternates between feeling sure Macron will win and feeling terrified Le Pen might pull out an upset.
I wrote to her to ask her about the election. She wrote to me in French, which I’ve translated here to English.
Sometimes I realize that the people around me are not afraid and I find them to be complacent. But I think the collapse of the normal is not easily imaginable.
She compares the contemporary political moment to that of her own childhood.
I was born in 1940 so I was a baby and very small child. I do remember the fear, the dread, the bombs, the sirens, the shadows of men we were afraid of.
My grandmother says her father (my great-grandfather) rarely spoke to her about his work in the French Resistance. She keeps a big lockbox of his effects in her closet in Vermont. Recently, I dug through it. As I held in my hands his certificate of membership for the French Resistance, his false identification papers, and his correspondence with other Resistance members, I was connected to the past with an immediacy I’d never felt before.
Most people I know in France — my cousins, my friends — are fairly certain that Macron will win. French newspapers frame Le Pen’s chances as small. They say she could never be elected, because she’s too nationalistic and racist, and appeals only to a small population of racist nationalists.
But what if Le Pen’s racist rhetoric turns into more than just talk? The attitude of French citizens and news sources is remarkably similar to that of the American press about Donald Trump, until he won the presidency. Before November 8, most American liberals’ biggest fear about Trump was the slew of racism and sexism he unleashed.
That is why I am scared of Marine Le Pen. Like my grandmother, I’m worried that French citizens might not be worried enough.