Fabien Roussel, national secretary of the declining French Communist Party (PCF) and candidate for the presidential elections in April, is an outlier in his ideological camp. Roussel distances himself from environmentalism in favor of degrowth, from multiculturalism that would like to soften secularism in the face of practices such as the Islamic veil, and from systematic criticism of police violence. While angering many of his coreligionists on the left, he is drawing applause from the right.
The latest controversy erupted on Sunday when, in a program on the France 3 network, the communist leader declared: “A good wine, a good meat, a good cheese: for me this is French gastronomy. But, to access this good French gastronomy you have to have the necessary means, so the best means of defending[la] is to allow the French to access it”.
The statements could seem bland, but they unleashed one of those storms in social networks and radio and television talk shows that are usually ephemeral and inconsequential. For talking about wine, meat and cheese, they accused him of appealing to signs of identity of eternal France, signs that supposedly despise a diverse and multicultural France and that some identify with the extreme right.
Sandrine Rousseau, leader of the left wing of Europe Ecology-The Greens, declared on the LCI chain: “These words exclude a part of the gastronomy that takes place in France (…). You can be French and French for generations and love couscous.” “I do not drink. I am vegetarian. I hope I am not anti-France,” former environmentalist deputy Sergio Coronado wrote on the social network Twitter.
The communist replied in the liberal newspaper L’Opinion. “From what I have understood, on the left the defense of France, of the nation, of sovereignty through culture and gastronomy is surprising. Pity!” he said. In the interview he also defended “massive investments in French agriculture” to develop quality livestock versus “factory farms.” And, alluding to recent battles by some ecologist mayors, he stated: “I am not an ayatollah who wants to ban everything: from the Christmas tree to the Tour de France and going through meat. Life based on quinoa and tofu is bland. It’s not my France.”
The controversy, itself, is not much more than the crossing of invectives. But it serves to understand the position, heterodox today but surely orthodox a few decades ago, of a candidate who distances himself from the new left. And it shows some fractures on the left that go beyond feeding.
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“The declaration of Roussel”, analyzes Jean-Laurent Cassely in the weekly L’Express, “crudely reveals the abyss between a part of French society, culturally conservative in the culinary field, and the environmentalist left that is at the origin of the most virulent criticism and that totally questions mass consumption based on intensive farming” . Cassely adds: “The reactions reveal that, to the class struggle, the struggle between lifestyles is now added, and even replaced.”
It is not the first time that Roussel (Béthune, 52 years old) has caused hives in his field. When he attended a police demonstration in May, he was accused of taking to the streets with the extreme right, although few candidates have been as forceful as him against the ultra Éric Zemmour. On nuclear power, he is much closer to the centrist president Emmanuel Macron than to the entire left, from the Socialist Party to the populists of La France Insumisa. “We propose to build new nuclear reactors,” he said a few days ago on Twitter. “It is a clean, durable and inexpensive energy.”
On secularism, the principle that in France rigorously separates the State from any religion, Roussel declares himself “universalist”. That is, reluctant to adapt these principles to religious minorities, and specifically to Islam, the subject of intense debate on the left. A few days ago, the dazzling building of Oscar Niemeyer in Paris, a tribute to the journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo assassinated in 2015 by Islamists for mocking Muhammad.
“They died for their ideas, for defending beloved principles of our Republic, secular principles,” said Roussel, who claimed the right to blaspheme. They might sound like the words of a lifelong leftist, but parts of the French left have been highly critical of the mockery of Charlie Hebdo to Islam and even in his party the act felt bad.
The communist deputy Elsa Faucillon, after defending the idea of honoring the magazine, criticized the fact that among the guests there were intellectuals who militate in strict secularism. “The selection of the guests,” he declared, “confirms the political turn of my party for a few months.”
Roussel’s electoral expectations are more than mediocre: he moves between 2% and 3%. But the rest of the left does not raise its head either. The so-called cultural wars within it – about ecology, about secularism, about security – are one of the reasons for the division.
But their positions take up some of the principles of the old PCF, which in the post-war decades was hegemonic on the left, and seek to appeal to the working-class voters who went to the extreme right. It also seduces conservative intellectuals, such as Alain Finkielkraut. “Fabien Roussel”, Finkielkraut has sentenced, “is very interesting”.