The New Face of the French Right

It wasn’t so long ago that all politicians in France were former Trotskyites except for those who still were. Today, the left is in shambles and parties of the center and the right dominate. Recent opinion polls have the current President, centrist Emmanuel Macron first in the run-up to next year’s election. Nationalist-right candidates are second and third, and a center-right candidate (either Xavier Bertrand or Valérie Pécresse of Les Republicans) fourth.

Until recently, next year’s presidential race was seen as certain to result in a run-off between Macron and nationalist-right Marine Le Pen. But, attendez une minute!  There’s a new player in the game: Éric Zemmour. 

Zemmour, a writer and commentator, is a self-described Gaullist or even Bonapartist.

A Gaullist is, of course, someone who follows in the manner of Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle was a pragmatic nationalist and anti-communist, hence clearly of the right, as opposed to a classical liberal or even a fusionist reconciling liberal and conservative inclinations. De Gaulle sought national unity and sovereignty, and a strong presidency within a strong state, while embracing the principles – as he perceived them – of the French Revolution. De Gaulle also believed in French exceptionalism, and sought an independent role for France in the mostly binary U.S. versus Soviet Union cold war of his day. And he ended France’s colonial wars on pragmatic grounds, because they were a drain on France’s economy and unity.

Most of de Gaulle’s agenda subsequently became consensus within France. In particular, France’s independent role in world politics, and the formation of the European Union as a confederation of independent states influenced by France. It is not too far from the truth to say that while England ruled the world for centuries through the policy of divide and conquer, France and Germany today rule Europe through the policy of unite and conquer. But, if these positions are consensus, what does it mean for someone to describe himself as a Gaullist? And, for that matter, what is a Bonapartist?

Bonapartist refers to Napoleon Bonaparte and his successors and the efforts by them and others to restore France to monarchy and imperial power. The term Bonapartist is sometimes used derisively, as by Marx and his followers, to refer to counterrevolutionaries who, by essentially deceitful appeals to the masses, seize and maintain power. In such a manner, Napoleon Bonaparte, eventually Emperor Napoleon I, coopted the French Revolution, and Louis Napoleon, as Emperor Napoleon III, overthrew the Second Republic. But, as a self-description intended to be positive, Bonapartist would mean something like a return to greatness under a charismatic leader that transcends politics, and perhaps also to restore some Francophone countries that gained independence at the end of the colonial period, to formal relations with France.

France faces a dilemma. During the 19th century, the French came to be defined as a language and a culture, not as a bloodline. But, today, the Lingua Franca of the world is English, the reserve currency of the world is the American Dollar, and even within the European Union, the influence of France is countered by the influence of Germany in economic matters. The distinctiveness of France, and the ability of its language and culture to unify people of various bloodlines is under challenge. It is one thing to recognize this challenge, as Zemmour does, but the question is what to do? Is it even possible to retreat into nationalism without cutting yourself off from the emerging global economy and society?

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