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The closing of the conservative mind: Between revolution and reaction

In the latest article in our series, we look at the state of French politics and the emergence of Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who aspires to unite the far right with the traditional Catholic right. 

The primaries to choose the candidate for the Republicans in the 2017 French presidential election took place in November 2016. There were three main candidates: the early frontrunner Alain Juppé, the former president Nicolas Sarkozy and the outsider François Fillon. To everyone’s surprise, Fillon came first in the first round of voting on 20 November, relegating Juppé into second place and eliminating the former president he had served under as prime minister. In the second round, Fillon beat Juppé by winning more than 66 per cent of the vote.

What was striking about the contest is that each candidate seemed to incarnate one of the three “rights” traditionally associated with France: the “liberal” Juppé, the “authoritarian” Sarkozy and the “traditionalist” Fillon. Juppé was the modernising “Orléanist”, keen on reform. Sarkozy was the populist and authoritarian “Bonapartist”, who had scant regard for intermediary bodies. Fillon was the “Legitimist”, relying on the nostalgic conservative Catholic vote.

It was the historian René Rémond who elaborated the thesis of the “three rights” in his 1954 book La Droite en France de 1815 à nos jours (“The right in France from 1815 to today”). It has had several editions, notably in 1963 and in 1968, when it changed its name to Les Droites en France; the fourth and final edition was published in 1982. Rémond’s thesis, as the 2016 primaries show, still captures something essential about French politics.

Legitimists can be traced back to the royalists who rejected the French Revolution and value tradition, Catholicism and order. They supported the House of Bourbon, and were in power during the Bourbon Restoration after the fall of Napoleon in 1815: they attempted – and failed – to reverse the changes inaugurated by the revolution and restore the Old Regime to France.

They were overthrown during the July Revolution of 1830, when the Orléanists came to power. The Orléanists supported constitutional monarchy under Louis Philippe of the House of Orléans and were liberals, especially economically. The period is closely associated with banking, industry and finance; Louis Philippe was known as the “Bourgeois King”. The two dominant figures were the left-of-centre Adolphe Thiers and the right-of-centre François Guizot, whom the king favoured.

Today we might call these two men “aristocratic-liberals”: they were in favour of parliament but suffrage was strictly limited to propertied men. Thiers was in favour of expanding suffrage, and organised several colourful campaign banquets to promote it, but Guizot was implacably opposed. His answer to those who wanted to vote was “enrichissez-vous!” (enrich yourself!). In short: earn enough money so that you have the right to vote. The monarchy was overthrown by the popular revolution of 1848.

The Bonapartists hark back to the “little general” himself, but they came to prominence after 1848 when Napoleon’s nephew Napoleon III discarded the Second Republic, to which he’d been elected president, to found the Second French Empire in 1852. Bonapartism is associated with a strong charismatic leader who legitimises his rule through plebiscites, thereby integrating the lower classes, in contrast to the old nobility (Legitimists) or the upper classes (Orléanists), into politics. Like the Orléanists, who tried to reconcile the French Revolution with the monarchy, the Bonapartists accept the legacy of the revolution and call for a strong nationalist state.

Throughout the four editions of his book Rémond tried to keep his thesis up to date. After the fall of the Bourbons the reactionary “Legitimist” faction settled into opposition, but it made a return in the 20th century through the Action Française, a nationalist, anti-Semitic group founded in reaction to the Dreyfus affair. It grew to prominence in the interwar years under the leadership of Charles Maurras, becoming a royalist, counter-revolutionary, anti-parliamentary and anti-liberal movement. It supported Catholic Integralism (that Catholicism should be the state religion) as well as the collaborationist Vichy regime and Marshal Pétain, becoming entwined with fascism, with which it has a complicated relationship.

The Orléanists came back to power in the aftermath of Napoleon III’s defeat to Bismarck in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which led to the collapse of the Second Empire. Adolphe Thiers returned to become the first president of the Third Republic (1870-1940), where he put down the Paris Commune and forced the Prussian troops to leave two years ahead of schedule. In his revised 1982 edition, Rémond classified the liberal presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (1974-1981) as an Orléanist presidency. 

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The Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle and Gaullism are all instances of nationalist Bonapartism. De Gaulle was charismatic and authoritarian. He positioned himself above the party political fray and ruled through plebiscite, the centralised state being the main actor of political reform. The Fifth Republic, founded in 1958, institutionalised that form of rule, so that today the structures of the French state, with a powerful president, remain Bonapartist.

The ongoing struggle between the Orléanist and Bonapartist right during the Fifth Republic is well captured by the failed re-election campaign of Giscard in 1981. He lost to the Socialist François Mitterrand in large part because Jacques Chirac, who had taken on the Gaullist mantle, refused to back him. Giscard had served under De Gaulle, but had set up his own more liberal party within the Gaullist coalition, and had expressed some reservations over de Gaulle’s plebiscitary rule, which Mitterrand characterised as a “permanent coup d’état”.

Giscard’s presidency was marked by social and economic liberalisation, modernisation and a firm commitment to the European project, of which de Gaulle had been critical. When Chirac came to power in 1995, he reinstated French state authority, and returned to the dirigiste principles of how to run the economy.

If it hadn’t been for “Penelopegate” – the “fake jobs” scandal engulfing Fillon’s English wife, Penelope, and questions about who was paying for his fine tailored suits – Fillon might today be president of France. He didn’t miss out by much, claiming 20 per cent of the vote in the first round of the elections in April 2017 and finishing third, just a little over a percentage point behind Marine Le Pen, who came second. Emmanuel Macron won 24 per cent in the first round and defeated Le Pen in the second round of the contest on 7 May, 66 to 34 per cent.

The moment that best captured Fillon’s doomed candidacy was the rally he held on the Trocadero in Paris on 5 March 2017, where he stoically gave a speech in heavy rain. At that point most of his party had deserted him because of the scandals, but a large crowd had been bussed in because of the efforts of “Sens Commun” (Common Sense). This is a micro-party within the Republicans, founded on the back of the 2013 anti-gay marriage protests known as the “Manif pour tous”. These conservative Catholics came out on the day for Fillon, as they had to help him win the primaries.

It has been reported that Fillon might have had some support from Russia: he called Putin the defender of Christians in the Middle East. In supporting both Fillon and Le Pen – he met the latter in Moscow during the campaign and offered loans to the National Front (FN) – Putin thought he had his bases covered. Macron was smeared during the campaign: there were reports on Russian networks that he was in a relationship with Mathieu Gallet, chairman of Radio France, and that the “Jewish lobby” supported him.

In the event, Macron’s victory destabilised the balance of French politics. The old left vs right binary has in large part been replaced by the opposition between a liberal, pro-European centrism, as represented by Macron, and a nationalist, populist far-right.

The European Parliament elections in May were won by Marine Le Pen’s re-­baptised National Rally (from the historic FN), which edged out Macron’s Renew Europe list. As they did with Macron’s La République En Marche!, the elections confirmed the anchoring of the National Rally (RN) in French political life. But here we come to the limits of Rémond’s “three rights”. Where does the National Rally fit in? Should there also be a “fourth” right?

That is the view the Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell put forward in his 1978 book La Droite révolutionnaire, 1885-1914: Les origines françaises du fascisme (“The revolutionary right, 1885-1914: the French origins of fascism”). In it he argued that there exists a distinct fourth “revolutionary” right in France: it is revolutionary because although it rejects the French Revolution like the “Legitimist” right, with which it shares certain characteristics, it does not call for the return to the Old Regime. Instead it calls for the establishment of a new regime: fascism. For Sternhell, the revolutionary right cannot be simply subsumed under the “Legitimist” label as it incorporates elements of the radical left: it is a merger of George Sorel’s revolutionary syndicalism and the Action Française.

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France has long been home to many of the leading theorists of the far-right, but Sternhell’s thesis of a specifically French fascism and its incarnation in the Vichy regime, particularly in his subsequent book Ni droite ni gauche: L’idéologie fasciste en France (Neither Left Nor Right: Fascist Ideology in France), has been an ongoing source of controversy. And yet, isn’t the phrase “neither left nor right” precisely one of Marine Le Pen’s slogans? (Nigel Farage has used it too in the UK.)

When Marine Le Pen became leader of the FN in 2011 her aim was to break the glass ceiling of 18 per cent of the vote her father Jean-Marie Le Pen had achieved as party leader in 2002, when he reached the second round of the presidential election, losing to Chirac. She achieved this ambition by winning 34 per cent of the vote against Macron.

How did she do it? If Le Pen senior was nicknamed the “Devil of the Republic”, his youngest daughter has set about “de-­demonising” the party, breaking with her father over Holocaust denial (she formally expelled him in 2015) and purging skinheads and other extreme groups from rallies. Her acceptance of the democratic rules of the game militates against Sternhell’s view of the existence of French fascism – although he was quick to point out that the French far-right in the end came round to accepting elections.

The origins of the Front National are to be found in the short-lived Poujadist movement of the 1950s. This was a revolt of small southern Catholic provincial shopkeepers against taxes, the (“Jewish”) Parisian elite and immigration. If the movement faded after the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 – Pierre Poujade, the leader, supported the centrist Jean Lecanuet in 1965 and voted for Mitterrand in 1981 – it marked French political life. It was there that a young firebrand by the name of Jean-Marie Le Pen first entered politics, and he went on to found the FN, whose main electorate at the time was the “pieds-noirs”, the white European settlers who had been forced out of Algeria during the war of independence.


Long shadows: leader of Vichy France, Marshal Pétain (right), with General Franco in 1940​. Credit: Three Lions/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

The FN was at first economically libertarian, identitarian Catholic and anti-immigration. But that electorate can get you only so far. Marine Le Pen began to hunt on the old grounds of the moribund Communist Party. She got her political break in the north, where she became a regional councillor in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the former mining region blighted by deindustrialisation. There she saw an opportunity to expand the FN vote: while immigration remains the main platform in the south, in the north she married it with economic nationalism.

Here is an echo of Sternhell’s thesis: the French far-right comes about through the mixing of the far-left and the far-right. Sternhell reminds us also that although there were revolutionary “red” trade unions, there were reactionary “yellow” ones too. Today Le Pen’s RN has the largest share of the working-class vote.

Much of this shift can be attributed to her former right-hand man Florian Philippot. He is an openly gay graduate of the elite École Nationale d’Administration. He started his political career close to Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a former Socialist minister who resigned over Mitterrand’s pro-­European stance. He was the driving force behind the new souverainiste (pro-French sovereignty) and economic nationalist platform of the FN. Philippot pushed Le Pen (who is twice-divorced, pro-choice and comfortable around gay people) to advocate for “Frexit” – France’s exit from either the EU or the eurozone – during the presidential election. That backfired, as older voters were concerned about their pensions and savings, and the Brexit debacle on the other side of the Channel wasn’t particularly edifying. Leaving the eurozone isn’t a vote winner in France, and after the election Le Pen fired Philippot and dropped the policy.

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Macron has been accused of playing with fire by making French politics a contest between him and Le Pen: if he loses does that mean Le Pen will become president? In truth, it is difficult to see the RN gaining more than
40 per cent of the vote in the second round of a presidential contest.

However, there is an emerging politician of the right who is attracting interest and whose mission is to unite the far right and the traditional Catholic right. She is Le Pen’s younger and equally blonde (seemingly a necessity for populists nowadays) niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.

Maréchal retains the libertarian anti-tax economics of her Poujadist predecessors but she is also socially conservative: although she too is divorced and has a daughter, she is Catholic, pro-life and anti-immigration. Nor is she as anti-European as one might assume: Jean-Marie Le Pen at first supported European integration, which he thought would increase France’s prestige, and Maréchal continues to hold that view, wanting to balance the EU back in favour of France. But the most important issue for her is to defend Christians against Muslims. As she put it in June 2016 during an interview on the French news channel BFMTV: “A father is afraid of his daughter wearing a burqa. It doesn’t matter whether she will buy it with francs or euros.”

Maréchal and Marine Le Pen were once close but their relationship has become strained: even though Maréchal was, at 22, the youngest deputy in modern political history to enter the French parliament in 2012 (the previous youngest was Saint-Just in 1791), Marine publicly rebuked her niece in 2017 by saying she would not be made a minister if she became president because of her lack of experience. Maréchal also clashed with Philippot over abortion.

After the 2017 election, Maréchal retired from politics to found the far-right Institute for Social Sciences, Economics and Politics, a training school in Lyon. There she hopes to educate the future intellectual shock troops of the culture wars. Its programme of speakers has included the xenophobic polemicist Éric Zemmour, the essayist François Bousquet, and the trans­humanist surgeon Laurent Alexandre.

Maréchal has kept active, commenting on events in the media, organising dinners with supporters and, as Mark Lilla reported in the New York Review of Books, attending the American Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February 2018. Lilla noted how her attack on individualism struck a strange chord at a meeting of private property absolutists and gun-rights fanatics (the attack on individualism as the root cause of all social evils has been a
staple of reactionary ideology since the French Revolution).

Inspired by the CPAC event, Maréchal organised her own “Convention of the Right” in September, bringing together Zemmour and Alexandre. She also invited the philosopher Raphaël Enthoven as a respondent to their planned debate on a “critique of the elites”. In a recent article in Atlantico, a libertarian online magazine, she outlined her vision. Alongside the usual tropes about immigration, she repeated her attack on “international finance”, and defended the artisan small businesses and families, whom she believed were taxed too much by the French state. It was distinctly Poujadist.

After a transformative presidency such as Macron’s, which redefines the centre ground, the left-right opposition in France tends to reassert itself. Maréchal’s ambition is to form a “union of the right”, bringing all the rights together. This strategy is a thinly veiled rejection of her aunt’s approach, which tries to be “neither left nor right”; Maréchal believes the pathway to the presidency lies on the right. Historically that certainly seems to have been the case, and the old idea was to bring the Bonapartist and Orléanist strands together, as exemplified by the tussles between Giscard and Chirac. But Sarkozy broke new ground by combining authoritarian Bonapartism with elements of the nationalist far-right, especially on immigration and identity issues (he set up, for example, a “Ministry for National Identity”).

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Maréchal faces formidable obstacles. The first, most obvious one, is her aunt: Marine Le Pen’s authority within the National Rally is uncontested, and she will have a hard time dislodging her.

A more propitious route would be to go hunting on Fillon’s old turf of the “Trocadero right”: Fillon’s support base was conservative Catholics but he tried to appeal more broadly to the right through a neoliberal economic programme, more extreme than anything Macron was offering. This combination of Legitimist Catholic and libertarian neoliberal strands would be Maréchal’s most natural habitat, and after the 2017 election she dropped “Le Pen” from her surname, distancing herself from the RN brand.

The “Legitimist” base still exists, but only represents about 8 per cent of the voting share: what the Republicans, stripped down to their very bones, were able to achieve in the European elections in May. The problem for Maréchal is that the liberal right has been largely captured by Macron, and his strategy has been to drive a wedge between liberals and conservatives by opposing “progressives” against “reactionaries”.

For Maréchal to succeed, she would need to generate a new conservative pole, combining conservative social values with neoliberal economics. She would, in short, need to endorse the politics of the Atlanticist New Right of the late 1970s, and become a sort of French Margaret Thatcher.

Sternhell was right to point out the existence of a radical right in France, one that combined elements of the far-left and the far-right. But he also correctly saw that the radical right on its own would never be strong enough to come to power without outside assistance. The bulwark against its rise remains the vibrancy of the “three rights”: and uniting them is still the route to power in France today.

Hugo Drochon is an historian of late nineteenth and twentieth century political thought, with interests in continental political thought, democratic theory, liberalism and political realism. His book Nietzsche’s Great Politics came out with Princeton University Press in 2016. 

This article appears in the 30 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone