The rise of France’s new young conservatives

The term “conservative”, long taboo in France, has gained a growing audience among a new generation of right-wing activists. 

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In a speech to the Oxford Union in January, Marion Maréchal expressed her desire to “form a new elite, united by social harmony and close to the people”. The former French MP, and niece of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, retired from politics in 2017 to focus on her private Institute for Social Sciences, Economics and Politics (ISSEP) in Lyon.

Maréchal, 29, echoed the remarks she made in a speech at the school's launch in 2018: “Before winning electorally, we must conquer culturally. That’s precisely the aim of my school.” She was invoking the language of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in a bid to resurrect France’s moribund conservatives.

Maréchal appears to have returned to politics or, at least, to political commentary. Reacting on French TV to the the centre-right Républicains’ disastrous European election results (the party won just 8.5 per cent of the vote), she called for a “great coalition” between the right (the Républicains) and Le Pen’s National Rally, which she emphasised could not “attract the entire right-wing vote on its own”. Though Maréchal said she has “no personal ambition”, she is ready to “render herself useful” to the cause.

It could be the message that a particular group of French right-wingers have been waiting for. Young voices are emerging on France’s conservative right and echoing Maréchal’s values: opposing gay marriage, calling for tighter restrictions on abortion, and backing the reinstation of the death penalty. 

“Anti-modernists, right-wing dandies, spiritualists, royalists, sovereignists, critics of identity politics and social progress, mixing the traditionalist with the charismatic, these representatives of ‘well-mannered France’ have diverse sensibilities,” journalist Pascale Tournier wrote in her 2018 book The Old World is Back: Investigating the new Conservatives.

Tournier noticed the wind turning during the 2017 presidential primaries. The word “conservative” has long been taboo in France for its echoes of the Vichy regime, reviled for its collaboration with Nazi Germany. Yet the term is making a comeback, strengthened by politicians such as François Fillon, the 2017 Républicain presidential candidate.

“[Fillon] targeted values that touch the conservative electorate”, Tournier tells me. His 2016 book on Islam and totalitarianism spoke directly to the Catholic right. “There is a feeling of civilisational swaying, of a sociological rupture… they talk about the ‘loss’ of their values,” she says.

The “Manif pour Tous” movement that took to the streets to oppose France’s gay marriage law in 2013 proved the fulcrum for a generation of new conservatives. Tipped as the conservative equivalent of the May 1968 protests, the movement gave vitality to an ageing conservative electorate and energised a new generation of right-wing activists. Yet the new conservatives found themselves leaderless after Fillon lost the first round of the 2017 presidential election and Le Pen subsequently conceded defeat to Emmanuel Macron.

Historian René Remond famously divided the French right-wing parties into three different currents: Legitimism, referring to the royalists who refused to accept the 19th-century republic, Orleanism, associated with economic liberalism, and Bonapartism, describing a dictatorship or authoritarian state with a strongman leader. 

The new French conservatives are closer to the counter-revolutionary “legitimist right”, Tournier says. Many come from affluent backgrounds and from large, Catholic families. Without a political figure to rally around, the new conservatives are instead adopting a Gramscian strategy: dominating cultural terrain to normalise political ideas.

“The old world is back”, the title of Tournier’s book, was also a remark by 27-year-old journalist Eugénie Bastié on French TV. Bastié, who attended a private Catholic boarding school and now writes for the opinion section of centre-right newspaper Le Figaro, is part of the new conservative vanguard and has authored articles objecting to modern feminism, abortion and the #MeToo movement.

Conservatives like Bastié rail against gender politics and universalist values while quoting the views of Charles Maurras, a deceased author and the principal ideologue of the right-wing, anti-Semitic party French Action. As Tournier points out, many young conservatives are revisiting authors their elders would never dare quote. They are emancipated from the past – and disconnected from historic reality.

“This is not a dominant current in French society, but it is gaining strength,” Tournier says. “They almost got their candidate to the presidency.”

These Tories à la Française, as Tournier describes them, have a long-term vision. At the 2017 launch of right-wing magazine The Incorrect, editor-in-chief Charles Beigbeder, an ally of Maréchal, said: “We are destined to rebuild the right, culturally and politically speaking. We must be the sentinels of a live civilisation so that it isn’t dismantled.”

Tournier, who attended, reports a guest saying: “Thirteen years passed between May 68 and 1981 [when the left came to power]. We started in 2013, why couldn’t we be in power by 2027?”

Though the conservatives have advanced in the field of culture, politics is more complicated. For now, Maréchal is staying out of the electoral sphere. Conservatives hoped the Républicains’ European election candidate, François-Xavier Bellamy, a self-proclaimed conservative Catholic who objects to abortion, would fill the void left by Fillon, at least temporarily. But he failed, securing only 8.5 per cent of the vote and leaving the conservatives leaderless once again.

Maréchal might not have personal ambitions to return to French politics, but her nationalist world tour continues. She vowed to “Make France Great Again” in front of Washington Republicans last year, spoke in St Petersburg in February, is close to Matteo Salvini’s Italian Lega, and was invited to Brazil by president Jair Bolsonaro. Meanwhile, France’s new conservatives find common ideological ground with the anti-immigration stance of Salvini, and the Christian revivalism of Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin. Though France’s new conservatives may have no designated leader yet, a young generation is already striving to rebuild the French right.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.