‘La Taverne des Patriotes’: The Power of Civic Imagination and Participatory Politics—A Comparative Study of the French and U.S. Alt-Right Movements, Part Two

By Margaux Gatty

4. Third Spaces and Public Spheres

Next, I’d like to look at the 'tavern' metaphor, its implications and the way the concept gets discussed within the Patriots’ Tavern’s self-representation; how they understand it operating and what this means for the concepts of third space and public sphere when compared in the French and American contexts.

The first metaphor of the Tavern here is a reference to Gaul, which is arguably the ancestor of France as we know it today, and which inspires much of French culture. The term tavern here was specifically taken from the popular comic Astérix et Obélix, which also spawned several movies and an amusement park—referring to the “original” French in a show of strong patriotism. Indeed, Astérix and Obélix tells the story of French “origins”: in ancient France—Gaul—a group of villagers fight the Roman invader. This is in line with their self-representation as "more French" than the rest of the French citizens, and their strong refusal of any immigration policies that would benefit immigrants. It also shows that the group exists through its constant struggle. It tells a tale of regaining nationalism through the use of popular culture. Aside from that, Astérix and Obélix also provided useful material for memes that fit Zuckerman’s “cute cat theory” as they used the inoffensive material to convey offensive Alt-Right messages, as I  mentioned above. They also use many other pop culture reference from Pepe the Frog, Tintin, Pokemon, late queen Marie Antoinette, to famous paintings such as La Liberté Guidant le Peuple (one of the most symbolic painting of the French Republic). Some images are arguably more offensive than others and most were found on an image database shared by the French Alt-Right and started by the U.S. Alt-Right movement specifically. This database, still in use, is named ‘Pepe2France’ (Pepe from France) memes (Pepe2france, 2018). Below are a few examples:

 (Pepe2france, 2018)

(Pepe2france, 2018)

 (Pepe2france, 2018)

(Pepe2france, 2018)

 (This isn’t so clear here, but we can see Marine Le Pen’s face instead of the original la Marianne guiding the French People.)

(This isn’t so clear here, but we can see Marine Le Pen’s face instead of the original la Marianne guiding the French People.)

Taverns were also historically a third space or public sphere where political actions took place. The phrase “third spaces” derives from considering our homes to be the “first” places in our lives, and our work places the “second” (Oldenburg, 1997). Today, the third space extends the notion of the real and the virtual by suggesting a hybrid space that allows remote participants to engage in social relations with one another at a distance (Packer, 2014). This is exactly what is happening for the Patriots’ Tavern (and the U.S. Alt-Right). They called it a tavern because the platform allowed remote participants to engage at a distance in their “civic actions."

Third spaces foster political debate. They historically served as forums for political debate and discussion. And as third spaces disappear, so does political literacy in a country. Third spaces are entertaining, and the entertainment is provided by the people themselves (Oldenburg, 1997). Hence, the virtual Tavern is a new form of third space where political ‘debate’ is created. And no matter the good or bad goals of the Patriots’ Tavern, it did show that the young participants did have strong political literacy.

In discourse of dissent, the Third Space has come to have two interpretations:

  • that space where the oppressed plot their liberation- the whispering corners of the tavern or the bazaar;
  • that space where oppressed and oppressor are able to come together, free (maybe only momentarily) of oppression itself, embodied in their particularity (Bhabha and Homi, 2004).

The Tavern movement really embodies that first interpretation of the discourse of the dissent. Indeed, the idea behind the Patriots’ Tavern was to create enough whispers in the shadows to disturb the mainstream, a space where they plotted to discredit mainstream political leaders in order to “free the country of oppressors and corruption” as they saw it. And after all, the platform on which this “tavern” is hosted, created specifically for these alternative informal political movements, is called “Discord,” synonymous of conflict or even chaos.

Taverns and cafés were also public spheres according to Jürgen Habermas (1989) as they were places where public opinion was generated. These spaces quickly rose up to challenge traditional public spheres of the police and the government. (Brennan, 2005). Taverns have a particularly important history in France, which is why the Alt-Right, who considers themselves strong patriots of the ‘old France’, chose to use that word. Indeed, taverns in the public sphere in 18th century Paris demonstrated the evolution of a third public sphere from a space monopolized by royal control to one in which the populace constituted a public with its own discursive practices and norms. In their increasingly autonomous use of taverns, the people of Paris were developing a model of behaviour that extended to the political life of the city during the French Revolution (Brennan, 2005). This is similar to the “digital revolution” where the growth of the unregulated internet led to the breakdown of traditional authority. And indeed, the early internet fed the far right (Bartlett, 2017). Mike Godwin proposed a law of early internet behaviour whereby the more one talks online, the more likely you’ll be ‘nasty’. And indeed, these nationalists are using internet—“supposedly the very essence of openness, progress and tolerance”—to promote an agenda which agitates for the precise opposite. But that is not surprising as the radical right has frequently been the most avid and enthusiastic adopters of shiny new technology and have long found the internet a uniquely useful place. And many of the members of the actual far right in France are internet adepts indeed (Bartlett, 2017). For example, Phillipot, Marine Le Pen’s right hand during the 2017 French presidential campaign, is a notorious YouTuber who knows how to appeal to a young crowd. And the new forms of reaction that we are witnessing keep mutating, evolving and planning in a subversive obscure forum that we’ve never heard of yet.

In an article titled “In Praise of (Loud, Stinky) Bars” posted in the National Housing Institute’s Rooflines blog, Michael Hickey wrote:

“The vaunted ‘third space’ isn’t home and isn’t work it’s more like the living room of society at large. It’s a place where you are neither family nor co-worker, and yet where the values, interests, gossip, complaints and inspirations of these two other spheres intersect. It’s a place at least one step removed from the structures of work and home, more random, and yet familiar enough to breed a sense of identity and connection. It’s a place of both possibility and comfort, where the unexpected and the mundane transcend and mingle. And nine times out of ten, it’s a bar” (Benfield, 2012).

And indeed, the Patriots’ Tavern functions as a space at the intersection of their home and workplace, where the “patriots” can freely form an imagined identity that answers their civic aspirations. Indeed, a study found that, just like taverns used to, “the political use of the internet by extremist groups is significant and plays an important role in identity formation, for organisational contacts, and individual and organisational mobilisation purposes” (Bartlett, 2017).

Furthermore, in light of Putnam’s evidence of the decline of crucial and social institutions, it may well be that the classification “lacking bridging social capital best characterizes the everyday American citizen.” (Steinkuehler and Williams, 2006). And with, in parallel, the rise of the digital era, these third spaces where imagined communities thrived turned to the virtual space to create “virtual taverns”. For example, multi-player video games all have taverns, inns, bars (Vas, 2013) present where the players can meet regroup, swap stories, exchange resources and advice, etc. and so it is a metaphor which bridges between the realms of politics and gaming. The Patriot’s Tavern started from the same idea. They self-identify as a tavern where people of similar political affiliations regroup to plot actions against a government they feel is illegitimate. “By providing spaces for social interaction and relationships beyond the workplace and home, MMOs have the capacity to function as one form of a new ‘third space’ for informal sociability. Participation in such virtual ‘third spaces’ appears particularly well suited to the formation of bridging social capital – social relationships that, while not usually providing deep emotional support, typically function to expose the individual to a diversity of worldviews.” A tavern accessible from your own room (Steinkuehler and Williams, 2006). The same is true for the Patriots’ Tavern, except they only share one worldview and are then, arguably, not bridging social capital as they grow anonymously.

I wish to look more closely at the concept of the public sphere as understood by Habermas here as I believe that it should be rethought, just like Fraser did in 1990. The idea of “the public sphere” in Habermas’s sense as I mentioned above,

“designates a theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk. It is the space in which citizens deliberate about their common affairs, and hence an institutionalized arena of discursive interaction” (Fraser, 1990).

It is a conceptual resource that can help overcome societal problems such as, for example, contemporary feminism. Feminists have used the term “public sphere” (the congregation of the state, the official economy of paid employment, and arenas of public discourse). The gathering of these three things can give practical political consequences when, for example, agitational campaigns against misogynist cultural representations are confounded with programs for state censorship or when struggles to deprivatize housework and child care are equated with their commodification. In both these situations, the result is to obstruct the question of whether to subject gender issues to the logic of the market, or whether the administrative state is to promote the liberation of women. This arena is distinct from the state and therefore these issues can be discussed apart from the state and be more 'objective.' This arena is also distinct from the official economy as it is not an arena of market relations but rather one of discursive relations, a theatre for debating and deliberating rather than buying or selling. In theory, this concept of the public sphere allows us to keep in view the distinctions among state apparatuses, economic markets, and democratic associations. Yet I disagree in that in the case of both the U.S. Alt-Right and the French Alt-Right, their arenas are not distinct from the state and therefore what they try to achieve cannot be dissociated from the state. Indeed, whilst in the Habermasian public sphere the assumption is that a functioning democratic public sphere requires a sharp separation between civil society and the state, this separation today no longer exists. This is because the Habermasian public sphere is too old and based on a liberal model of bourgeois society. We need a new form of public sphere that moves away from the bourgeois liberal model of early 20th century, a new post-bourgeois model in order to continue using the arena’s critical function and to institutionalize democracy and ensure movements such as the U.S. and French Alt-Rights do not get so much space in this public sphere. Indeed, Habermasian public sphere became a masculinist ideological notion that functioned to legitimate an emergent form of class rule and today, an emergent form of extremism.

In the light of this example, the concepts of bonding and bridging social capital have therefore to be looked at more closely.  Whilst the Patriots’ Tavern acted as an ‘underground political actor’, people knew of them and acknowledged them, thus bringing a certain diversity of views as they were discussed within the French public sphere at a crucial time for the future of France. In this sense, this group, whilst obscure and 1-goal oriented, did get close to bridging social capital. Hence, the concepts of bonding and bridging social capital need to be revised. They also need to be tried against a series of case studies that exist in different political and cultural contexts to understand the extent of their usefulness. Indeed, whilst in the U.S., groups such as the HPA Harry Potter Alliance) and Nerdfighters, but also the Alt-Right struggle to bridge social capital because the U.S. history has made people believe in the power of silence as a tool to dismantle such groups (although they failed in the case of the Alt-Right in 2016), France believes in the power of dialogue, no matter how bad the opponent is. This difference might stem from a hard lesson France had to learn. They were the true authors of the Traité de Versailles, taking all legitimacy and power of dialogue away from the German nation that lost WWI, and that eventually is what brought the Germans back to France during WWII and led them to occupy our country. It taught France that silencing a group, or in this case a nation, does not work as it just gives it legitimacy to attack in full force in retribution to them being silenced.