On Nov. 11 — a mere month-and-a-half ago — world leaders gathered to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I. There were a lot of distractions that day: The U.S. president was afraid of some rain; the Russian president was insouciantly late. Since then, there have been more distractions: the gilets jaunes (yellow vest protesters), Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s resignation, the stock market drop.
But as 2018 draws to a very strange close — during Christmas, President Trump sat alone in the White House, surrounded by the synthetic glow of television screens — it’s worth pausing to remember the speech made that day by the French president, Emmanuel Macron. If nothing else, it might point the way to a better 2019.
Ostensibly, Macron’s subject was the First World War, the brutal moment when “Europe very nearly committed suicide.” But the real theme was France — or rather, the two different visions of France that have competed with each other for more than a century. On the one hand, the French president described a nationalist, isolationist, internally focused vision of France; this definition of the nation has been around for a very long time, and it does have a deep, primal appeal: “Our interests first and who cares about the rest,” as Macron put it. This is something everyone can understand.
But Macron also laid out another way of thinking about his country, a “vision of France as a generous nation, of France as a project, of France promoting universal values . . . the exact opposite of the egotism of a people who look after only their interests.” This more idealistic patriotism — “the exact opposite of nationalism,” said Macron — is a more difficult cause to support, and yet over the years, many in France have supported it. This is the France that overturned the verdict in the Dreyfus trial, the France that believed all citizens, and not just ethnic Frenchmen, should be treated equally under the law; this is the France that joined the Resistance instead of Vichy, the France that agreed to share power and sovereignty with Germany in the wake of World War II, the France that helped build prosperity across the continent.
That kind of patriotism, linked to bigger ideals about democracy and the common good, is important to think about right now. It might be an antidote to the polarization that social media accentuates; to anger, the emotion that travels most rapidly online; to the cynicism that dominates the Internet more broadly. Some are already trying to make it work. A few weeks ago I spoke with Flavia Kleiner, the 28-year-old co-founder of Operation Libero, a Swiss online movement. Provoked by the electoral success of the nationalist, anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party, Operation Libero campaigns on a different vision of the country. “We are offering a more positive view of Switzerland; we don’t want it to be an open-air museum with an idealized past,” Kleiner says.
Like other spontaneous new organizations, her group’s members find one another online, outside of traditional political party lines. But instead of mobilizing “against,” they mobilize “in favor”: in favor of rule of law, in favor of a historic tradition of Swiss liberalism and in favor of a Switzerland that plays an important role in Europe and the world.
Since it formed, Operation Libero’s army of volunteer tweeters, comment writers and Facebook posters has helped win a string of referendums; Kleiner says their social media following is now bigger than that of the populist right. That success has had some echoes elsewhere: In Poland, Hungary and Slovakia this year, street demonstrators protesting the politicization of the judiciary and the corruption of nationalist governments waved national flags and sang patriotic songs.
Of course, it won’t always work. Macron’s own efforts to rekindle a different sort of patriotism in France are in trouble, threatened by precisely the kind of online anger he is seeking to combat. But even if, some three years from now, he turns out to be a one-term president, Macron’s message will last much longer, maybe proving even more important than his political career: Don’t let the nationalists steal patriotism remains the most important political statement of 2018. In 2019, I hope many more people will put it into practice.
Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist, covering national politics and foreign policy, with a special focus on Europe and Russia. She is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a professor of practice at the London School of Economics. She is a former member of The Washington Post's editorial board.