French voters should remember that the stage is set for dystopia to become reality

France might be closer to dictatorship than it has been since the end of the second World War

Supporters of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP

On Monday morning, under bleak Paris skies, I come across my friend Amelia. It is the day after the first round of the snap legislative election called by president Emmanuel Macron, in which the far-right National Rally has received a vote of more than 30 per cent.

“When the National Rally come to power,” says Amelia,” they’ll just put me on a flight back to Portugal!” She has a quick laugh, but the joke is half-hearted. Amelia was born in Portugal, and her family moved to France when she was still a baby. French is her mother tongue, and she only ever goes back to Portugal for the occasional holiday. She enjoys freedom of movement within the EU and never applied for French citizenship.

“I never even thought I would need it,” she says. “I think I’ll apply for it now before it’s too late.” This quick chat on the pavement leaves me heartbroken. I, a freelance translator and writer with French citizenship, was living in the UK at the time of Brexit. I know all too well Amelia’s conflicted feelings about a country that she thought welcomed her and turns out to be hostile.

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I try to reassure Amelia. France is still in the EU, I want to say, and I don’t think anyone will send you anywhere against your will. But there is a nagging doubt at the back of my mind.


Officially, Frexit is no longer part of the National Rally’s ambitions. But who knows what can happen if they are in power? The thought of the infamous British planes taking off for Rwanda keeps popping into my head.

Then Amelia says something else. “I don’t understand why we should be treated like this. We Portuguese are hard-working people, not like those other foreigners coming to France to live off the welfare state.” Sadly, this sentence rings a bell, too. “I’m sure you’ll have no trouble staying here in the UK,” a British friend once told me. “Your English is perfect. You are not like all those people moving in here without speaking a single word.”

For my British friend, the artificial “good foreigner” vs “bad foreigner” distinction was based on language. In France, the stumbling block is the welfare state, which is more generous here than in the UK or Ireland. You just need to turn on French TV to hear about “those foreigners living on government money”. Never mind the fact that said foreigners work in the toughest jobs in hospitality, building, cleaning or the care sector.

Many of the people currently working on setting up the infrastructure for the Paris Olympics are undocumented immigrants, not protected by labour law. A recent parliamentary vote barred them from access to public health insurance. The only person I ever met who was “living off the welfare state” is a former high-school classmate who once told me he could not be bothered working. He is a young, white French man (and, incidentally, a supporter of the far right).

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And so the problem, it seems, isn’t about financial matters at all. The “good” immigrant is the one who speaks my language without an accent, looks like me and lives like me. The good foreigner is the one who doesn’t look, well, too foreign. The people expressing these sort of discriminatory views should not forget one thing: any of us can become a foreigner by the simple act of moving abroad.

In Switzerland, which shares a common border with France, some are prejudiced against French workers (“les frontaliers”), who are accused of stealing Swiss people’s jobs. Some French people use this same rhetoric towards immigrants from North Africa.

Last January, I read Paul Lynch’s powerful novel Prophet Song, in which the author depicts life in a dystopian, totalitarian Ireland. The novel was so vivid and realistic it caused me to have a bit of an anxiety attack on the Eurostar. Lynch is asking what makes people choose to leave their country and reminds us that each and every one of us can be confronted with this dramatic decision.

In many European countries, we tend to take peace and freedom for granted. War, hunger, dictatorship are faraway things happening to people we know nothing of. And yet, France might be closer to dictatorship than it has been since the end of the second World War, even if the results of this weekend’s election remain uncertain.

In the wake of the 2015 terror attacks, which have left an indelible imprint on French political life, many laws have been enacted or reinforced that could easily be used for political repression. Preventing police officers from taking your fingerprints is a legal offence. Journalists can be held in custody for writing about international corruption. Algorithmic surveillance has been put in place all over Paris in preparation for the 2024 Olympics. The settings are in place for dystopia to become real. I don’t think anyone will ever put my friend Amelia on any plane against her will. But I do wish the people casting a ballot for the far-right this Sunday remembered one thing: you are always someone else’s foreigner.

Bénédicte Eustache is a Paris-based freelance writer and translator. She specialises in culture, literature and the arts