Before the FN: An Intellectual History of the French Far Right
Just a few days before Sunday, May 7th, France’s second round of the presidential elections, it has become imperative to comprehend what the election of Madame Marine Le Pen as the 11th president of the Fifth Republic would imply. Despite increasingly appealing, in recent years, to the center and the left of French politics, she remains the leader of the National Front (FN) and the most assertive and effective spokesperson of the extreme right in France, and possibly, its freshest and newest face in history. And this is the case despite – or perhaps thanks to – her efforts at modernising and “detoxifying” the party after the many years of controversy under her father’s leadership, her somehow convincing feminist stances, and her seemingly more socially liberal positions.
But why is that so important to understand? The ramifications of this election extend beyond contemporary political debate. It’s not really about Marine Le Pen’s political talents. Rather, it’s about the unprecedented historic opportunity she may be able to seize, exactly where her father failed during the second round of the 2002 presidential elections, as did, before him, the different avatars embodied by the French far right throughout history.
That the unparalleled conjunction of international and domestic circumstances may propel Marine Le Pen and the extreme right towards victory, raises another question: Is France capable of resisting the wave of protectionism surging from the Atlantic? Moreover, are the French capable, contrary to what its history has shown, of finally bringing the far right to power?
A short history of the French far right
In this regard, the history of the French far right can teach us crucial facts about this composite current, of which the historical continuity lies in its chameleon-like fluidity:
- It has never been a united movement, always relying upon many leaders, clans and contradictions. On a practical level, this means that Jean-Marie Le Pen’s project was the first to federate all tendencies in one united (national) front, by far its most disciplined and organized expression.
- This also means that Le Pen is not the founder of the far right movement which is in fact two centuries old. Its history dates back to the French Revolution and it has been fuelled since by some of France’s brightest intellectuals and writers.
- Its history is a list of failures but it always resurrects during times of crisis and uncertainty.
- It’s based upon a set of traditional values that forged its unaltered political views over the decades: the rejection of the parliamentary system, the demand for a strong executive, strong protectionist stances, the subjugation of socialists and communists as well as anti-Semitic and xenophobic beliefs.
Let’s take a deeper look at the roots of this set of traditional values that the Front National is trying to promote today despite the makeover of its public image. It can only be understood by paying particular attention to the intellectual history of the far right in France, for its political history was a record of defeated attempts – with the exception of the Vichy government, which embodied a certain kind of extreme right, winning by means of the exceptional circumstances of defeat and collaboration. There is a common thread running through its history that links the counter-revolutionaries of 1789 to the Le penists, passing through Vichy, which incidentally explains the revisionist remarks of the Front-National as well as Jean-Marie’s tribute to Petain.
Indeed, the Counter-Revolution is the most remote and old source of the extreme right. The counter-revolutionaries were the the Anti-89s, the ones who rejected the legacy of the French Revolution, which was arguably the most decisive and disruptive event in the modern history of France. Idiomatically speaking, they were known as being “plus royalistes que le roi” [more royalist than the king himself].
First embodied by Louis XIV and the privileged, the Counter-Revolution was also fuelled by some peasants’ revolts against the upheavals brought about by the Revolution. The best-known example is the Vendee uprising of 1793, when the “peasant-soldiers”, backed by the nobility, revolted against the Paris-based National Convention in the service of “God and the King” . The Vendee thus became a sanctuary region of the right-wing tradition and demonstrated the persistence of royalism in rural areas.
Within the Constituent Assembly, the deputies who grouped themselves “on the right-hand side” (later known as the right-wing) were those who continued to demand a constitutional monarchy. Following the death of the Louis XVI and the exile of Napoleon Bonaparte, these people fought continuously for a Restoration in the 19th century. But the proponents of the Counter-Revolution suffered many failures between 1815 and 1845: Louis XVII, Louis XVIII, and even Charles X the absolutist and Louis Philippe I, all failed to restore the monarchy durably. And so the Third Republic finally settled in 1870.
Main figures and principles
Therefore we can see how the Counter-Revolution of the 18th century laid a fertile ideological foundation for the extreme right groups of the 20th century. It emerged as a solid doctrine after 1814 and the definitive fall of the absolute monarchy, thanks mainly to influential writers. In this way, the extreme right is nowadays a powerful political tradition, with a longstanding history, full of genealogies and legends, regional heritages and other political imagery. This explains why it continues to resonate today in France: Far from being a system of coherent thought, it’s the result of over 200 years of political brainstorming and upheaval. However, as a standalone ideology, it appeals more to sentiment than to common sense. Edmund Burke, who was one of the first thinkers of the French Counter-Revolution, considers the French Revolution unnatural – unlike the Glorious Revolution – in that it made a “clean sweep” of the whole civilization which preceded it . The creation of a constitution ex nihilo, inspired by Enlightenment philosophy, he says, cannot really apply to the real world, where men are naturally unequal. Here lie the origins of the extreme right’s anti-intellectualism and their condemnation of left-wing intellectuals, blamed for destabilizing the social order with their “far-fetched” philosophical considerations.
Another of the most eminent thinkers of the Counter-Revolution is Louis de Bonald, a fervent critic of Rousseau . There are three strands of extreme right discourse which stem from him: First, anti-individualism and the promotion of a holistic society, based not upon a social contract, but upon a superior will. Second, the criticism of modernity and all of its manifestations such as market economy, monetary circulation, industrialization and urbanization, which destroy the harmony of families and villages. Finally, a nostalgic return to France’s glorious past.
It is disturbing and fascinating to see how these topics resurface in extreme right platforms today. A quick glance at Marine Le Pen’s program shows the astonishing ideological continuity of the extreme right: an exit from Europe and the common market, a taxation of imported products, an end to free circulation within the Schengen area, a return to the single currency, a specific appeal to farmers, and a call to return to a “Powerful France” and a “Proud France” – all in all, a very protectionist stance taken against globalization, the monstrous variant of modernity.
Joseph De Maistre was a continuous source of inspiration for counter-revolutionary thought. His interpretation of the Revolution is a theological one: it is a divine punishment imposed on France, for having failed in its Christian vocation . His popularity reminds us that the mainstream audience of the extreme right was always the uncompromising Catholics. De Maistre was one of the first to have theorized the causal links between Protestantism and parliamentary liberalism. For the Counter-Revolutionary, the Catholic faith is the main cement against adversaries, and is therefore part of the genetic heritage of France. It was in this context that, during the second half of the nineteenth century, a “right-wing” social Catholicism developed. Its main purpose was to redress Socialist evils and to safeguard the nuclear family through Catholic faith.
The promotion of strong family ties – which today manifests itself as the prohibition of abortion and all means of contraception – becomes a leitmotiv of the extreme right. In this sense, the counter-revolutionary spirit, relegated to the ranks of the opposition within the parliamentary system, will be channeled mainly into an anti-liberal Catholicism, specifically described as “integrist”. These Catholic integrists will criticize widely the laws of secularization adopted by the Third Republic and are characterized by their intransigent and extremist temperament, and their unwillingness to acknowledge opposing viewpoints. They will therefore pass on to the extreme right an attitude of obstinacy and a refusal to compromise, of which Jean-Marie Le Pen is a perfect illustration.
In the 20th century, a new thinker and writer of the Counter-Revolution emerges: the very talented Charles Maurras, founder of neo-royalism. He directed the newspaper “L’Action Française“, and spearheaded the movement of “an integral nationalism”, which is counter-revolutionary, anti-parliamentary, and especially anti-Semitic. Unsurprisingly, Maurras joins forces with Barrès and the anti-Dreyfusard Movement. The novelty of Maurras’s thought, in contrast to that of De Maistre, comes from his political, as opposed to theological, bent. At the heart of his thought, the Counter-Revolution mingles paradoxically with the new national-populism , which appeared in France in the 1880s, during the era of Boulangism. Combatting the pluralism of the modern world, his ultra-nationalist ideas gain popularity along with conspiracy theories – appearing at the same period – which accuses the “judeo-maconic” machination of destroying France, the “eldest daughter of the Church”. By the end of the 19th century, extremist groups had become fervent supporters of conspiratorial history, which explains the anti-Semitic and anti-communist sentiment of the extreme right, which has been demonizing, for a long time now, all leftist derivatives. Frightened at all times by change and progress, the extreme right rejects the plurality of opinions and cultures, and today has designated the immigrants as their new target.
What does History tells us? That although the extreme right has never been able to reach the highest levels of power in France, it has made substantial progress since the 1980s. Since the Counter-Revolution, it has survived in several vestigial forms, from Boulangism, to the Anti-Dreyfusard Movement, to the French Action, to the fascist leagues of the 1930s , to Vichy, the supporters of French Algeria, to Poujadism, before finally emerging as the National Front. Its intellectual history demonstrates that it has always been an attractive political current, because it’s based upon a culture of refusal, stemming from a desire to control, and the rejection of the Other. Especially, it addresses the fears of a marginal population inclined to anxiety in the face of continuous change. In the absence of a monarchical order, it would advocate a dictatorship of substitution with a strong executive. Its spiritual wellspring is a pessimistic anthropology, which prefers to hang on to the components of the old order. Long unable to propose a real political program, today its main actors paint it as a renewed project for the future, which can be very tempting in times of generalized turmoil.
Beyond the second round of the elections, and beyond the much-discussed competence of candidate Emmanuel Macron, the ideological ramifications of the success of the French far right must be seriously considered. We should always remember that knowledge of the past can sometimes prevent what we mistakenly assume as unthinkable and imperceptible.