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20 April 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:32pm

Is Emmanuel Macron a neoconservative? French politics and the legacy of 1968

The neoconservatives defined themselves in opposition to the French student protests of 1968. 

By Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Ten years ago, a young French philosopher by the name of Serge Audier penned a polemical book on the legacy of May 1968 in France. Titled, La pensée anti-68, Audier expressed his worry that in the candidacy of Nicolas Sarkozy, France was seeing the importation of an “American” discourse on the right. Sarkozy famously denounced Mai 68 as the source of contemporary France’s problems. The student revolts against bourgeois society introduced a “relativism”, he argued, that undermined national identity, the spirit of honest work, and the institutions of democracy.

Audier observed this rhetoric to be essentially identical to that of the American neoconservative thinkers who played a key role in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory and had served as a core element of the American right since then. At the time, neoconservatism was potentially on the wane in the US, due to the candidacy of Barack Obama. Yet Audier worried that as an “international tendency,” it had a long life ahead of it on the continent. Needless to say the book created a stir in France.

Audier was right that neoconservatism is an “international tendency,” and it has a history on both sides of the Atlantic. But as the 50th anniversary of Mai 68 approaches, this once-ascendant ideology now looks rather different.

Neoconservatism was a term coined in the 1970s to refer to a group of liberal intellectuals who turned to the right in response to the student movements of the late 1960s. These thinkers – including Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer – believed that the students revolts at Berkeley, Columbia and Cornell signaled that the left had gone too far (the role of organised labour in the uprisings on both sides of the Atlantic were not a part of their story). America’s Mai 68 set these “vital centre” post-war liberals against the radicals they believed to be increasingly in control of the discourse on the American left. In the face of students’ rejection of the “establishment,” the neoconservatives sought to reinforce the legitimacy of liberal democracy, the authority of political and technocratic elites, and the validity of bourgeois culture. They were liberals convinced that only conservatism could save liberalism.

By the time Reagan ran for president in 1980, many of these neoconservatives had begun to support the Republican Party. They believed the Democrats had been misled by the ideas of the New Left, both in its rejection of bourgeois norms and, most importantly, in matters of geopolitics. While Democrats looked to George McGovern, a foreign policy dove, the neoconservatives embraced Reagan’s hardline stance against the Soviet Union. A number of these neoconservatives, such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Robert Kagan, were members of Reagan’s administration, serving in strategic and diplomatic positions.

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Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, neoconservatives continued to play a central role on the American right. They denounced the individualistic decadence of American liberalism of the 1990s, marked by what they described as a culture of “political correctness.” This, they argued, was an egalitarianism pushed to the extreme. Such a culture atomised society into increasingly miniscule categories of personal “identity.”  This 1990s liberalism was, of course, inspired by the neoconservatives’ old enemies, the ‘68 radicals, now reincarnated as university professors.

At the moment of America’s geopolitical victory against the Soviets, the neoconservatives called for unity around projects for “national greatness.” Under the mandate of George W Bush, numerous neoconservatives, veteran “hawks” of Cold War geopolitics, saw in the invasion of Iraq the perfect opportunity to advance such a project.

This neoconservatism – that of Reagan and Bush, the Cold War and the “War on Terror” – appears to many in Europe as a specially American phenomenon. Yet we find intellectual equivalents of neoconservatism across the continent, and above all in France. In particular, the journal Commentaire has long served as a space for exchange between American neoconservatives and French liberal-conservative opponents of the legacy of Mai 68. The journal was founded by a number of prominent students of Raymond Aron, a respected liberal philosopher who became increasingly conservative after the publication of his critique of Mai 68, entitled La révolution introuvable. In the pages of Commentaire, one finds not only a project of interpreting the classic texts of liberalism through a conservative angle, but also an ongoing critique of the 1960s and its influence on societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Its title is a direct translation of Commentary, the neoconservative magazine run by Norman Podhoretz. Along with other US neoconservatives, Podhoretz served on Commentaire’s editorial board, and much of these American neoconservatives’ understanding of what was dangerous about the 1960s were informed by their French colleagues’ critiques of Mai 68.

Aside from a brief flair with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in the 1970s, these French neoconservatives never found the political home that their American counterparts did in the Republican Party. Today, however, the inheritors of this intellectual orientation find themselves more and more isolated from the major currents of political thought in both countries.

In the United States it was not the hopeful progressivism of Barack Obama that ended neoconservatism’s dominance, but the right-wing nationalism of Donald Trump. By driving the Republican Party far to the right, away from its liberal base, he galvanized a small group of “Never Trump” Republican holdouts that are mainly neoconservatives, such as William Kristol, David Brooks, and David Frum. These thinkers are both highly visible and nonetheless increasingly marginal within the conservative movement. To them, Trump’s childlike behaviour and openness to Russia are no less reprehensible than anti-bourgeois revolts of ‘68 and the “détente” policy of the 1970s. Neoconservatism today is often little more than anti-Trumpism, and as a result many of today’s prominent neoconservatives are barely distinguishable from moderate “Resistance” Democrats.

The post-Gaullist right of Nicolas Sarkozy never became the figurehead of a liberal-conservative revival in France. Today, the former president and his political heir Laurent Wauquiez represent a far less liberal right than ten years ago. French neoconservatism remains a purely theoretical construct. As for Commentaire, although it continues to publish the neoconservative school in this illiberal moment, one of the journal’s key figures, the philosopher Pierre Manent, maintain links with members of the French New Right such as Alain de Benoist. 

Is Emmanuel Macron a neoconservative? The young president is certainly attached to a certain idea of liberalism, and even if he wants to move beyond “right and left,” his program is clearly that of the moderate right. But Macron disavows any conservative character of his policy. He does not claim to seek to restore order or reinforce cultural identity, but rather to enact “reforms” and “liberate” France’s economic energies. Macron does not denounce Mai 68, and has even suggested a desire to celebrate it.

We have not yet seen the full impact on our societies of the seismic shock of Mai 68 on both sides of the Atlantic. But as for the once powerful neoconservative enemies of this revolt and its legacy, it is difficult to imagine their place in our radically transformed political world.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a lecturer in the religion department at Yale University. Jacob Hamburger is the editor of Tocqueville 21​.

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