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Interviews

Juan Branco on Julian Assange, the Yellow Jackets and the “Twilight” of Macron

Lawyer, academic, investigative journalist and writer, Juan Branco has seemingly done it all at the age of 30. He has attained four master’s degrees and a PhD from France’s most prestigious universities and taught as a visiting lector at Yale. He has served as chief of staff to MP Aurelié Filipetti, as an external advisor to French foreign minister Laurent Fabius and as special assistant to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at The Hague. He has even run for parliament in the Clichy-sous-Bois and Montfermeil districts of Paris, which were the backdrop to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and the Banlieue Riots of 2005. 

What is perhaps difficult to guess by looking solely at his wealth of elite credentials and well-to-do background is his radical politics. Dr. Branco has been part of the legal defense team of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange since 2015. He has represented the French socialist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, as well as Maxime Nicolle, a principal figure in the Yellow Vests movement. He has also published six books, the latest of which, “Crépuscule” (Twilight), has garnered much acclaim and controversy in France for its scathing critique of the Macron presidency. 

I came across Dr. Branco’s name when I was writing a report on the European Union’s external migration policy and learned that he was one of the two lawyers taking Europe’s leaders to court over their response to the refugee crisis. While at first I hoped to reach out for a brief conversation focused exclusively on that case, I kept digging and discovered an intriguing detail at every turn. We ended up covering so much ground that this subject of my initial curiosity came up only briefly towards the end. The result was a long conversation by any measure, but also a very interesting one, regardless of one’s views on any of the topics discussed. 

Special thanks to Dr. Branco once again for taking the time to speak with The Politic.  

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The Politic: Yanis Varoufakis and Elizabeth Warren both have the same story of meeting Larry Summers. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but he’s supposed to have told both of them: “You can either be an insider or an outsider. Outsiders get to say whatever they want, but insiders don’t listen to them. Insiders get a lot of access and can push their ideas, but the condition is they never criticize other insiders.” Now, I understand you’ve had brief stints as an insider of sorts, and I think you could have easily been one for life, with the credentials you have. How did you make the choice that you’ve made?

Branco: Maybe there are two reasons: first is, to become servile, you need to have a project that is worthwhile to submit yourself to. To create servility, a system has to provide the people it wants to submit, first a personal incentive, but also a symbolic and collective incentive that is well connected to the first. If you only provide the first or connect it in a deficient way to the second, the system you have created is doomed, as only people abiding by their interest will get in, progressively tensing your creation until implosion or swallowing it until consumption. If you only have the collective incentive, the result is corruption, as people still need to survive or to have a level of life that corresponds to their social position. In France, the individual incentive is still there, but it is only accessible through the predatory use of the collective resources. Consuming the system that has propelled you is the only way to get to the top today. And this anthropophagic tendency is destroying it.

To put it in other words, although the French Republic has still a strong symbolic attraction power—especially thanks to its “meritocratic system”, of which we’ll talk later—it finds itself today increasingly unable to give tangible collective incentives to the ones who want to serve it, creating political and administrative tendencies to pillage. Macron is an epitome of this functioning.

This decorrelation can only trigger three things for a child of the elites, either corruption— which means trying to use the deficiencies of the system to your profit—passivity and progressive renouncement—which is the case for the vast majority—or my trajectory, which is trying to break things down and rebuild them differently. The latter necessarily gets you expelled at some point from the system, but depending on how you handle it, it can give you enough weight and power—including through the use of all the connections and insider capital that you had been accumulating until then—to actually trigger a revolution.

I am a failure of this system. Whilst supposedly a perfect match for it, one of its ideal soldiers in which large investments were made, I progressively found myself lacking stimulation or interest in putting myself at the service of the people that suggested me to become one of theirs, with the hope that maybe, progressively, after years of serving, I would take over their position and therefore gain a social and economic [standing/influence] that would be worthwhile. This is a big issue, triggered, I think, in part by the constant depredation the French political system has suffered in the last 40 years, and its submission to a wider power structure dominated by the US, that symptomatizes, I believe, a much wider failure.

The worst thing is that I really tried, actually, to submit myself. It’s not as if from the beginning I had the ethos of an anarchist or the rejection of belonging to a system of power, on the contrary. But what I was not ready to do was concede on a few basic principles, and most of it, on actually being able to use the power we were theoretically provided with, in order to do things and try to transform reality. I think that, in the moment I understood that the people I was meeting were asking me to renounce that. In the moment they asked me to just put myself at their service, the service of their position and the existing world—and they themselves had largely renounced their principles in order to get where they were—so it became impossible for me to keep going. 

The how of it was very progressive; there was not a single event. I went to Yale after having stopped working at the foreign affairs ministry in France—that was between 2013 and 2014—because I wasn’t agreeing with the Syrian policy and because I felt useless. And I didn’t go making a scandal, because I understood that I was very young and that I couldn’t influence French foreign policy as a whole, which was itself not autonomous on this subject or many others. I was just frustrated with my lack of capacity to do much and the unwillingness of my superiors to actually use their power to weigh on reality, rather than remaining satisfied with its appearance. I just left quietly and went to Yale to try to reinforce my symbolic capital, mainly, and to come back more powerful, still believing that with this added power, legitimacy and so forth, I would be able to weigh more. 

And in between, I kept on fighting for a few of my ideas. I always had these parallel trajectories, which were accumulating symbolic capital as much as possible, and, on the other hand, putting it immediately at the service of struggle or an idea. I had fought very strongly on the question of copyrights in France a few years beforehand, and this brought me to meet Julian Assange whilst I was at Yale.

It was this moment in your life in which, if you come, say, in the US, from an Ivy League, in France from Normale Sup, you are basically courted from everywhere. It was in winter break; I had gone for two weeks to Central Africa to report on the civil war for Le Monde Diplomatique—which is a very good French magazine, one of the rare independent ones. I came from one of the most elite French institutions, and I was doubling the bet by being at Yale. When I arrived in Paris, I had this ministerial agenda: I was to meet ambassadors, the director of Le Monde, Xavier Niel—one of these billionaires I talk about in my book—but also Julian Assange. My comrades from the copyright struggles we had been pushing a few years before had proposed me to meet Julian Assange, in order to help him get out of his embassy in London. 

So the day before, I find myself in front of this tech billionaire Xavier Niel, who had recently bought many media outlets and was about to help Macron rise to power. Niel spoke to me about Macron as the future president of France; we were in January 2014, no one knew about him at the time apart from a few insiders, but he was pushing for him and wanted me to know of their proximity. I had been approached to work with him, but I felt we had nothing in common and felt quite staggered. I was to meet with the head of Le Monde, which is the main French newspaper and was recently bought by this Xavier Niel. I hadn’t told either of them. She was about to be pushed away by Niel but wasn’t aware of it. So I found myself having just learnt that the owner of her publication was to push for a political leader and was to kick her out to fulfill his ambitions, and I heard her telling me of difficulties she thought to be genuine, without being able to say anything. I felt the precarity and lack of independence that the position was imposing on her, whom I had admired for her work. 

I was barely 24, and a mixture of extraordinary chance and predetermination had just made visible the intertwinements of all complex net of power that would change France’s destiny. The cumulus of symbolic capital and a lot of luck had put me in this rare position which allowed me to see the different extremities of the system. Generally, it takes you long years, once you have had access to a position of power, to discover its interconnections and what it fuels, as each part of this system ferociously protects itself from the others. But they all were courting me at the same time and giving me hints as to what would happen then in order to attract me.  Macron was secretly building a political team with the help of Niel and a few others that in the next months would give him a decisive help through Le Monde and other billionaire-owned media, in exchange for which he would start implementing policies that were favorable to their interests, increasing their capacity to weigh on political processes. Meanwhile, the journalists, trying to fight for an illusory independence, were being used as the unconscious accomplices of this mechanic. 

Wherever you sat in this circle, liberty was missing. I felt it physically, even before understanding it, and it would take me years before, having connected all the dots, I would end up completely exiting this system through the publication of Crépuscule. For now, I was just left with a sort of anxiety and a full lack of desire to participate in any part of this huge venture. So when I met Julian Assange the next day, I suddenly felt an explosion of relief. I found myself before an extremely bright, modest and curious person—far from the portrayals that were done of him at the time. He was not dedicated to show off anything or to serve anyone, but rather to defend very firm and strong convictions—a behavior which would be confused with arrogance by many journalists, I’ll let you guess why. He had this strength the head of Le Monde lacked, because his independence was total, and this, again, could be felt physically. Very quiet at the beginning, he progressively asked me of the situation in Central Africa—which, of course, was a question none of the others had asked me—of the situation at Yale, and so forth. In a paradoxical way, these 20 square meters he had been detained in for almost three years felt much wider than all the previous places I had been in. So I naturally started working with him. 

What I was about to discover is that once you make that choice, you don’t really have a choice. To put it mildly: once you work for WikiLeaks, you’re fucked; there’s no way out that is not revolutionary. I came back to the US, to Yale, two or three days after meeting Julian, and I was immediately put in secondary screening. So it was systematic after that. I never came back to the U.S. without having to spend four or five hours in secondary screening in which they would not ask me anything, just check on my luggage, give me a TSA notice and pretend nothing had happened. What would follow next would make these initial “incidents” quite light and fun.

I hadn’t forgotten about what I had just been exposed to in Paris but needed some time to fully grasp it. It would take me a few more years to decide to blow it off.

What’s next for Mr. Assange, now that he has been arrested and indicted?

The next step is in late February when he’ll have an audition for extradition. Here we touch on the limits of law. When you are integrated political systems like the U.S. and the UK are, law is a tool until certain limits, then it becomes not a tool for individuals but a tool for power structures. As lawyers, we’ve tried to do our best in order for law not to be used by our enemies as an excuse. What we have been fighting for, and it’s a very exhausting fight, in the last years is to avoid an instrumentalization of law against us. Therefore, we have fought very hard to dismantle all the legal fictions that they had to tried to create over Julian. There has been successively a lot of them; the last one has been the espionage charges that you know about. 

And what we have attained from that is just a relief from the huge pressure that he is suffering. But we know that it is not the solution and that the solution can only be political. It’s a question of political bargaining and the political balance of powers. Law has always been an excuse and will always be an excuse in this case, because legally speaking, they have nothing against Julian unless they want to start a trial against the New York Times, the Washington Post and all other outlets to the extent they revealed these documents in partnership with him at the exact same moment. Because the whole process is theoretically—and here is another fiction—only about Cablegate, we really have to remember that every time. That is the reason they are formally trying to extradite him.

One example of how the law has been used just to achieve a political objective in this case is the following. I don’t know if you remember, but before all the charges on Julian were revealed, they had only made public the piracy charges which were supposed to amount to five years maximum, enough for an extradition judge in the UK to say, “Oh, it’s not that bad. Though it could be politically motivated etc., in the worst case, the risk is not that high, so I will authorize the extradition.” It took them a month and our efforts to reveal the actual extent of the charges and the fact he was also charged for espionage and so forth, and that he would potentially serve a life sentence if he was extradited to the U.S. 

This is a micro example, but for seven years we have been trying to reveal the actual extent of the persecution, always fighting against pseudo-naïve interlocutors who pretended that we were delusional. A year ago, I was still asked about the fact that he was persecuted by the US; people would say, “No, come on, you are inventing this; he is just there because of the Swedish case; there are no charges; you’re making this up,” and so forth. And I’m talking about high level interlocutors, at the state level or from the best press outlets. So you have to imagine the level of exhaustion of having to demonstrate what you know in the future everyone will accept as plainly evident, but that in the present finds a lot of individuals ready to pretend it isn’t. Of course, all this is completely clear for anyone that has a minimal political sense, no? Of course, it’s political revenge: they want to destroy him because he humiliated U.S. elites. 

But elites have this amazing belief in their mastery of reasoning, which can be used against them. You just need to feed journalists, for example, the Swedish case, and then you create the debate. So, of course, the immediate reaction is “Okay, this is bullshit, no? This is just a set-up.” But you just need to feed some rational elements on the procedure etc., and, because there is this unconscious deference to the apparatus of power and a natural skepticism to whoever would oppose it too roughly, you create a debate that never ends. Then people start believing the actual narrative that he might be a rapist, and that he might have become a rapist the week after he had revealed Cablegate. Suddenly, people, because they are paid to think, paid to comment and paid to get into these crazy loopholes—and because they are in structures that are actually way closer, more dependent and useful to the apparatus of power than they’ll ever admit—lose completely the big picture. They become actual accomplices of the structures of power who are provoking this, and they become so without realizing it, either because they buy everything that comes to them—those are the less dangerous because they are often identified as being servile or propagandist by the public—or because it doesn’t come to them directly, and they find themselves manipulated.

 This latter group is way more dangerous, as their capacity to appear “neutral” on most of the subjects makes them paradoxically capable of provoking way more damage in the public sphere when they fall in a trap. It’s not like in totalitarian states in which you have direct propaganda. It comes filtered through independent media, which are supposed to be a filter, but show themselves to be particularly vulnerable to manipulation in certain circumstances, the latest Iraq War being this century’s worst occurrence. When it comes to a “democratic” power, journalists have a natural tendency to reduce their filters and preventions, and to serve as relays. When you are in a position as Assange, in which you radically oppose what most journalists still consider “legitimate” institutions, you very quickly find yourself in an asymmetric 1984-esque struggle just to establish super simple evidence. In front of you, you have not only a strong apparatus of power, but you also have dormant accomplices that do not even realize they are being grossly manipulated and will have hard time admitting it.

When I said WikiLeaks was the point of no turning back, I mean I have seen what it was to fight against the world just to state the truth again. And I saw how all these powers, apparently innocuous, friendly and committed to the truth and progressive values, like the Democratic Party and the New York Times etc., could very easily be manipulated—mainly because they don’t think enough, but also because they find it in their interest to avoid that—and just be used to crush people and crush causes. I don’t want to do stupid comparisons, but I think Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years because of that. Today everyone thinks he’s a hero and that it was self-explanatory that he hadn’t done anything wrong since the beginning. But he stayed in prison because for 27 years because a debate was allowed and fueled by apparatus of power about the actual nature of his fight, his personality, his sincerity and so on—who remembers that it was actually “legitimate” to discuss his “terrorist” nature? 

People forget easily how strongly propaganda can be deployed in in liberal democracies in order for apparatus of power to “gain time” and effectively crush just causes, and how effective this technique is in actually eliminating opponents from the public sphere and forbidding them to push for their legitimate ideas in a fair way. Very few resist the violence of these techniques, and Julian has this very sensical word on the matter: “I don’t want to be a hero. A hero is the expression of the dysfunction of a society. There should be no heroes”. The manipulation of the public space allows for destroying human lives and causes to protect private interest and the apparatus of power, and the role “free press” plays in these games is way too underestimated. Because you end up hoping for a miracle, and it’s a miracle that someone like Julian Assange has survived. Everyone will agree at some point, “Of course he was not a rapist; of course, it was good what he did,” etc. By then, our lives will have passed, and we’ll be left with asking: “Okay, thank you, guys, but where were you for the last 30 years?” You were just following the general trend, one that was set by the apparatus of power. 

I understand the fact that the weight given to the voice of the apparatus of power is more important than any guy that just appears from somewhere. Because in an ideal system, which is perfectly democratic, it is of course normal to give preeminence to an apparatus of power that is dominated by those that have been elected by the people and are meant to represent their interests. It’s normal that you give added weight to these people. But our systems and our democracies are very violently dysfunctional; the apparatus of power is far from being pure, and so this asymmetry actually is too often used against the interests of the people. 

I understand that your new book “Crépuscule” [Twilight] has caused quite a stir in France. I also realize the question is very broad, but could you perhaps give us your main critique of the Macron presidency, the forces that shaped it and the policies that it has pursued so far?

I have written two books: one is “Contre Macron” [Against Macron], and the other is “Crépuscule”. “Against Macron” is the theoretical set-up, and Crépuscule is the factual demonstration. I wrote the former in July 2017 and the latter in October 2018, so just before the Yellow Jackets. For me, ontologically speaking, the Macron power could only be authoritarian, because the way he accessed power in France made it impossible for it to be otherwise. 

It is very difficult for me to summarize the whole argument, of course, but one of the factors is that we are in a system in France in which ten people own 90 percent of the national written press and, in terms audience, 45 and 40 percent of radio and TV. These figures are literal, I must insist on it. Ten people, who are all billionaires, and whose fortune all depend on their relationship to the state. None of them is a “media mogul”. These guys know each other, live next to each other and even sometimes sleep with each other: for example, Xavier Niel, who lived in a gated community with Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and billionaires and media owners Vincent Bolloré and Arnaud Lagardère,  married the daughter of Bernard Arnault, who’s the second wealthiest man in the world and the owner of LVMH. Arnault himself lives in the former house of Jean-Luc Lagardère, owner of one the main political newspapers, main radio and main gossip magazines and of a military condominium, whilst the daughter of Vincent Bolloré, owner of a logistics empire and of some of the most powerful French media organs, married the nephew of Martin Bouygues, owner of the main French TV channel [TF1] and of a construction empire. Xavier Niel owns Le Monde, the equivalent of New York Times, while Bernard Arnault owns the equivalent of Washington Post and is the main advertisement provider for the whole French press, which he has been compulsively pressuring these last years. They’re the same family now. 

These ten guys have, of course, concentrated this huge mediatic power in the last twenty years for only one reason: to be able to influence political proceedings, in order to buy influence over politicians, in order for them to maintain their position. And they have succeeded, using the symbolic power Macron had—because of his relative success in the French meritocratic system—to propel him towards the Presidency. That’s what we call an oligarchy.

In France, we have this very specific thing which you would call “state capitalism”, in which the state is very implicated in the economic system, either through regulation or through direct ownership. It’s difficult to make money out of the public sphere; all the most profitable sectors and industries are in a way or another related to the state. To give an example: Bernard Arnault’s LVMH, which consists of Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and so forth, is the biggest luxury group in the world. You could think that it has nothing to do with the state or it would be weird for the state to regulate it, but that would be ignoring two factors: the first is that the luxury economy in France comes from the state’s commands; I’m talking in terms of centuries, from Louis XIV, basically. It has always grown by being very close to the state and the public command. And the second is that Bernard Arnault, got this group, LVMH, thanks to the state: the state gave it to him, literally, with a huge subsidy. The group was called Boussac at the time, and it was in financial difficulty, so the state saved it and gave it back to Bernard Arnault with a lot of subventions. Because he was part of the same system I was in—the Grandes Écoles, which is the equivalent of the Ivy League in France—he had gained access to this resource, with the belief that he would use it well and compensate the politicians that has helped him access it.

These four schools, the Grandes Écoles, admit between one hundred and four hundred people a year each from tens of thousands of candidates. Their selection process is supposed to be perfectly neutral and objective. Once you get in, you are part of this aristocracy that will give you access to public resources and positions of power at a very early age, and most importantly, recognition from the political, economic and administrative elite of the country, which is 90 percent composed of the alumni of these institutions and their heirs. So once you get in, at 20 years old, you know you’ll be in a position to choose between entering one of the big companies in France with the ability to quickly rise through the ranks, entering the French administration, or going into politics. 

All these people who know each other since the end of high school—and often before, because the process is actually extremely selective, socially speaking—will then share their power, exchange services and reproduce their privileges. They will also just trust each other because they know that they come from these very elite establishments that, theoretically, allow only the best of the best to get in, even though it has just become a tool for social reproduction. Trusting each other reinforces mutually their position. 

See the statistics from my school [École Normale-Supérieure], whose entrance exam Macron has failed three times—and that’s a trauma for him because, in France, that’s how you judge people basically, from what they did when they were 20. In this university, which is the most prestigious of all along with École Polytechnique, you have today 1 percent the sons and daughters of workers and 6 percent the sons and daughters of employees, whilst these two categories account for 50 percent of the French population. On the contrary, you have 65 percent who are the sons and daughters of the “CSP+”, the highest social class in France. 

These universities were built upon the French concept of meritocracy and nominally selected for the best through anonymous exams, which, along with the lack of fees and public schooling, meant that anyone was in theory given the same chance to rise to the top. But they have been progressively absorbed by the bourgeoisie and became a system for the reproduction of their power for their descendants. Yet the meritocratic myth is still vivid, and belief in it is strong, making it much more effective in preserving power in the hands of few without triggering indignation or revolt. 

You have to understand that France is still a revolutionary country, in the sense that the system comes from the French Revolution, and these universities, these Grandes Écoles, were a tool to fabricate a new elite that would replace the aristocracy. So, because we were theoretically entering into a democracy, but a liberal and representative democracy because it was too brutal to give power to the people directly, they needed to create a new class which would speak and decide on behalf of the people. This is why you invent elections. Liberal and representative democracies are not about people having the power. It’s about the people choosing someone to speak for them, and that’s basically the only power you have in it—all you have is the ability to choose who will speak in your name. So, to nourish that class and make this system efficient, you needed to create all these Grandes Écoles that would select them and form them through other criteria and means than the previous aristocracy, expanding notably the source of who has access to power. 

The issue is that you create a new class, the bourgeoisie, that necessarily, after a few generations, will use its access to the core of the system to take the power for themselves and to reproduce their privileges. Because with this power comes a lot of advantages: you have the symbolic recognition, a nice way of behaving, a nice way of living, access to public resources, and so forth. And therefore, generation after generation, things gets worse, until you end up with these oligarchs and their heirs on the one hand, and, on the other, the furious Yellow Jackets, who are just normal people who want not only to feel represented again, but to also have a direct access to this power that is supposed to be theirs. And you have this natural horrified reaction from the bourgeoisie that feel that they could be ejected at any moment – that their very function and nature is at stake. Hence the rhetorical battle to crush the Yellow Jackets by accusing them of all the worst, most horrible things, using the tools the Yellow Jackets provided them—access to language and visibility—theoretically to represent them, in order to defend their interest rather than to fulfill their initial mission. And thus, the increased violence and so forth.

So, you have this system that, in one hand, makes the heirs of the bourgeois believe that they were selected just because they are the best and which, in reality, only chooses them because they are just the heirs of this class that was created 200 years ago. And progressively these people reproduce themselves and use power only for themselves and no longer for the society. They just become pillagers. Who uses that? Of course, these oligarchs. These ten guys use the people who have a huge legitimacy capital—simply because the French people keep on believing in this myth. 

People still believe that it’s a question of talent, and these guys just think they are the best. So Macron arrives thinking he’s the best, even though he failed [the entrance exam for ENS] three times, he then got into another one [École Nationale d’Administration], after another failure. You have to think: Macron spent five years of his life, the best years of his life from age 20 to 25, if I remember correctly, preparing for an exam at the end of the year and failing them four times before he got in the fifth time. Of course, when he got it, it was such a huge relief that he couldn’t think that this didn’t mean anything. Of course, he had to believe that this meant he was super brilliant and legitimate. It’s like if you had spent five years trying to get into Yale and doing only that. I think you have this with the JDs, no? To get into a JD you have to pass this exam, the LSAT or whatever. Imagine yourself, coming from a privileged background, spending five years only preparing for this shitty exam, for which what you learn is completely useless for the rest of your life, and finally getting in. Imagine what effect it might have on you. Well, that’s what Macron did, and it’s extremely important to understand what happened next.

Add to that the fact he came from a small city, in an extremely centralized country, and that he was married with this woman who was thirty years older than him and who was fragile because of that—she had left a conservative place in France and needed to succeed in Paris. And that they were this close to failure. Imagine their fragility and ambition. Exposed to flattery, exposed to manipulation, in a system that is made to absorb this kind of people to make them their servants. Well what happened is of no surprise. They were successively approached by six of these ten guys, who spend their days meeting similar profiles—that’s the why of my meeting with Xavier Niel—and who saw them as the perfect candidates to protect their interests and more broadly the interests of the dominant class. In exchange, they gave him visibility; they pushed him in the high sphere; and whilst his superiors—the layer of “meritants” I just described—made him minister without having been ever been elected, the oligarchs picked him up to become their candidate. 

At first, they had supported him that thinking he might be useful in the future, but then what happened is that their candidate, which was Sarkozy at the time, lost the right’s primary. And they were fucked. So, they needed a substitution candidate, and they chose him.  And then, out of the blue, he got all this very positive public coverage from the media that was controlled by them, which was completely absurd. Literally, out of the blue. This unknown, rather mediocre person, with no known engagement or public record, was suddenly presented in tens of outlets as a genius pianist, extraordinary philosopher, brilliant student and so forth. “Mozart” was his more recurrent nickname. All this came out to be false, but much later. 

This process, this interference, comes at a huge cost: waste of confidence, increase of distrust, and loss of resources, which are progressively consumed by this system to reproduce itself through depredation of the country. Because of course, all the policies adopted by Macron in favor of those oligarchs and their apparatus of power come at huge cost, to the point when the Yellow Jackets ended up revolting against a tax on fuel which was meant to finance the reduction of taxes on the owners of the biggest French companies.

I’m not joking. Macron was about to tax literally all French citizens to offer a few more billions to already billionaires. And no one, in the current system, was capable of stopping them before enraged citizens took their jackets and rose up. Sometimes, caricature is nothing compared to reality.  

One last point on the French system, that allows you to understand the absurdity that gave birth to Macron: you have to understand that the introduction of primaries in France is not at all like in the U.S. It’s very novel, and it’s very disturbing for the elites of our country because until then, they had full and direct control on whom to propel in the public sphere. The primaries were introduced in France as democratization tool, and it actually brought them to lose part of the control they had on the political selection of who should be elected or not. It disturbed completely the calculus, and it triggered all this confusion which actually brought Macron to power after having brought François Hollande to power, which was not meant to happen. Without the primaries he would have never got there. Not because it was a democratic progress, but because the political system was so rotten that the emergence of an uncontrolled popular element was sufficient to blow off all the “traditional forces” in less than a decade, forcing the elite to introduce exogeneous but better controlled ventures.

In the presidential elections of 2017, many called for the French left to set aside whatever qualms they may have with Emmanuel Macron and vote strategically to thwart a Le Pen victory. I’m curious, and I’m sure our American readers will also find this relevant: how did you view the choice between Macron and Le Pen at the time?

Macron would bring us to Le Pen. The policies that are adopted by Macron are the ones that nourish Marine Le Pen, because they nourish the resentment that is felt by a part of the society against an elite not only obsessed with its own and sole interests, but also unable to admit it. The voters of Marine Le Pen are very similar to the voters of Donald Trump, I think. It’s basically people who feel left behind by globalization, by the East Coast elites—which is the equivalent of Parisian elites in France – and that couldn’t stand anymore the insufficiency and the mediocrity triggered by this self-reproducing system. If you wanted to trigger the rise of this neo-fascism in France, you really apply the program of Macron from the beginning to the end. We were lucky enough to have the Yellow Jackets in between to try to put a stop to this program of predation and maybe have them reflect a bit on what they were doing. But I think they don’t think enough for that. One of the key sentences of Crépuscule is the following: “They have no ideas, they have only interests.”

I said on TV, between the two rounds of the presidential election, that I wouldn’t vote for Macron. Because I knew that it was just making it worse, in the sense that when Le Pen would arrive to power in 2022, she would have even more power, and we would be in an even worse situation from which we would have to defend ourselves. And if I voted for Macron in 2017, I would lose any legitimacy to then be perceived as part of an alternative or a real, dignified opposition to Marine Le Pen. 

There’s an article that was published between those two rounds by the Mediapart chief editor Edwy Plenel, who’s been very supportive of Macron until he got elected and very critical of him since—which is less the result of compromise than of lack of thought. He did a description of what France would look like if Le Pen were to get elected to try and push people to vote for Macron. And if you read it today, you realize that’s exactly how France is. These are extremely violent policies used by Macron today, in all senses, and they don’t diverge from authoritarian regimes at all, including from the fascists he claims to be fighting against. 

For example, on migration policies, he has been trying to trigger this opposition with Matteo Salvini, trying to show that he would be the progressive one and Salvini would be populist one and the fascist one. But he’s refusing to host all the humanitarian rescue boats that save people coming out of Libya. He’s exactly the same thing as Salvini; the only difference is that Salvini boasts about it, and Macron doesn’t speak about it. Carola Rackete, the captain of Sea-Watch, said that she was refused to have access to France. “Migrants” in Paris are systematically harassed by police, taken their blankets off in full winter, and so forth. So immigration policy is very similar, as is often the case with “extreme centrism”.

And in terms of police, it even gets better: to be fully honest, I think the extreme right would not have been able to be as violent as Emmanuel Macron. Lacking legitimacy, they would have feared a revolution even more than Macron, and would have restrained themselves much more. The police violence that we have seen in the streets of French cities in the last eight months is not even comparable with Russia. Even Russia doesn’t go to that level, at all. The only difference in favor of Macron is that in France, you can still be an opponent without fearing for your life in terms of assassination, and it’s a big difference. But in all the street demonstrations and so forth, the repression is extremely violent. It has been frightening to see that police in Hong-Kong were way less brutal than in Paris.

It’s good you also brought up the issue of migration policy, because I know that you and Omer Shatz are taking the European Union to the International Criminal Court at the Hague for their response to the migration crisis. Could you tell us briefly how the case came together, and what your expectations are going forward? 

We started three years ago, with a video that was sent to us by Forensic Architecture. They filmed a shipwreck in the Mediterranean that was responded to by EU actors that wouldn’t intervene. They would let people drown until the Libyan Coast Guard arrived. And [Forensic Architecture] asked us, “What do you think we could do against this in terms of law? Should we go to the European Court,” and so forth. And so we discussed this with Omer, whom I had met at Yale while he was doing his L.L.M. at the Law School. He came from Israel because he was specialized in refugee law and Palestinian laws, and he had freed 1500 people with only one decision from the Supreme Court in Israel. Because of his work on refugees but also on Palestinian rights, the pressure had become too high for him to stay in Israel, so he just left. He had this huge experience in refugee law, and I had on my bit the international criminal law. We were good friends, so we decided to combine our knowledge and start this investigation. 

We did it pro bono, fully; it took us a bit more than two years. And we found that crimes against humanity were being committed by EU leaders because all of these policies were adopted consciously, through specific targeting, in consciousness that these policies would trigger the deaths of hundreds or thousands of people. The way it was handled showed that they had an objective of deterrence which suffered no limits, and that they elaborated a complex scheme to avoid their legal responsibilities at the national and the EU level. So we decided to do this 250-page legal document that would prove that and open the door for prosecution against them.

I want to try and end on a somewhat lighter note. You’ve grown up in the world of cinema, in a way, owing to the work of your father Paulo Branco. I’ve read that Don DeLillo even credits you with the idea to adapt “Cosmopolis” for the big screen. So, before we leave, could you recommend us a film or two? 

I screened in Yale, when I was at the Law School, “Le Petit Soldat” [The Little Soldier] of Jean Luc-Godard, and I still recommend it as one of the most important movies on cinema, on truth, and on politics. It’s not necessarily a very accessible movie to people who don’t have a movie culture, but I think it can really open—and it’s very poetic, so it’s really important. Basically, movies from Godard are essential to me. 

“Parasite” is also kind of good, I don’t know if you saw it. It’s the Korean film which got the Palme d’Or in Cannes this year; it’s on social conflict and class violence, so it’s a really good one. But my favorite, the one I felt more intensely, was maybe “Thin Red Line” by Terrence Malick, from a spiritual perspective more than anything.