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Right On: The Origins of the French Right

ARTICLES - 28 July 2021

René Rémond published La Droite en France (The Right Wing in France) in 1954 and updated the text twice after that, once in 1963 and again in 1968. The book has had exceptional staying power. Some of its durability has to do with the stature of the author, an eminence of French political science. But the real secret of the book’s success lies in its thesis, which Rémond elaborated masterfully in an elegant prose. It runs something like this. 

The French Revolution invented the terms Left and Right. The Left was never a unitary phenomenon, and the same was true of the Right. Rémond identified three major rightwing currents or, as he sometimes called them, temperaments: Ultracism, Orleanism, and Bonapartism. Ultras flourished under the Bourbon Restoration (1814-1830). They were royalists and fervent Catholics, loyal to the alliance of throne and altar, who yearned to turn back the clock to an imagined pre-revolutionary past. Orleanists, who came into their own under the July Monarchy of 1830-1848, accepted the liberal, parliamentary order born of the Revolution, but they were also apostles of moderation, determined to keep power away from the demos and in the hands of enlightened elites. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the Emperor’s nephew, knew no such hesitations. He embraced the people and appealed to them time and again, agitating the banner of national glory to gin up enthusiasm, and such commitments found expression in the regime he created in 1852, the Second Empire. 

Rémond’s next argumentative move was to claim that these strains did not die out with the nineteenth century but found new incarnations: Ultracism in the Action Française, Orleanism in the Classic Right, and Bonapartism in figures as diverse as General Boulanger and Charles de Gaulle. Over all, Rémond’s story is one of continuities.

Looking at France’s present-day rightwing landscape, the continuity argument has a certain plausibility to it. Orleanism’s legatees are easy to spot. They are Les Républicains or ex-LR politicians like Xavier Bertrand. They espouse a center-right reasonableness and openness to market forces very much in tune with the Orleanist Weltanschauung. Now that the game is afoot, the eager player will have no trouble picking out who is successor to Ultracism and the Action Française. She is Marine Le Pen, and the case grows all the stronger when Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal, is added in. She retains the usual "France for the French'' bluster but laces it with religious rhetoric that accents the nation’s fundamental Christian character. That leaves Bonapartism’s heir or heirs for last. Not so long ago, President Emmanuel Macron paid homage to Napoléon, laying a wreath at the Emperor’s tomb under the dome of Les Invalides.

Macron is a latter-day Bonapartist. Rémond got it right. France’s right wing was and remains tripartite. 

That leaves Bonapartism’s heir or heirs for last. Not so long ago, President Emmanuel Macron paid homage to Napoléon, laying a wreath at the Emperor’s tomb under the dome of Les Invalides. There is no doubt that Macron, like de Gaulle before him, is a man of the state, who knows its inner workings and believes in what it can do. So that clinches it: Macron is a latter-day Bonapartist. Rémond got it right. France’s right wing was and remains tripartite. 

I have some issues with this schema, however. It seems to work well enough so far as Orleanism is concerned. To be sure, the filiation from July Monarchy liberalism to the Classic Right of the Third Republic (​​1870-1940) is far from seamless. Republican politicians held no brief for the House of Orléans. They were democrats, rather, who exhorted backers to come to the urns. This was a far cry from the position of an Orleanist notable like François Guizot, a partisan of a limited, property-based franchise. To citizens desirous of voting, he had an exhortation of his own: enrichissez-vous! 

The Bonapartist line of descent poses yet more serious problems. Louis-Napoléon’s son, the Prince Imperial, died in colonial fighting in 1879 and with him died hopes of restoring a Bonaparte to the throne of France. Of course, just because the line petered out does not necessarily mean that the Bonapartist temperament ended along with it. Yet, was de Gaulle, let alone Macron, a genuine Bonapartist? General Bonaparte executed a coup d’État in 1799, bringing an end to France’s First Republic and replacing it ultimately with an imperial regime. In 1851, Louis-Napoléon plotted a coup d’État that culminated in the razing of the Second Republic and the construction on its ruins of the authoritarian Second Empire. Both emperors were driven from power in the wake of lost wars, and both died in exile. De Gaulle, by contrast, presided over the creation of two Republics and left office, not in the wake of a military debacle, but because of a setback at the ballot box. He may not have begun life as democrat, but he ended it as one, and he died at home, in France, rather than in a foreign land. 

The fate of the Ultra tradition raises yet another set of problems. The Bourbon line terminated with the death of the Comte de Chambord in 1883. Once again, it is fair to counter that the Ultra temperament, even in the absence of a genuine royal body, may have found a new home for itself elsewhere. According to Rémond, this is just what happened, and that new incarnation was the Action Française. Yet, there is another way to think about the Action Française: not as an avatar of counterrevolutionary royalism, but as a rightwing league, one among many born of the Dreyfus Affair. These were rabble-rousing organizations, ready for street action, which harangued sympathizers in populist accents, lambasting parliamentary elites as out of touch with the true needs of ordinary folk. They were also xenophobic, a theme Rémond does not make enough of. Germany was, of course, a main target, but so too was France’s Jewish minority. The Right that emerged at the time of the Affair was, in all these respects, something altogether new.

To account for such newness, it helps to think of the late nineteenth century as a watershed moment. France’s dynastic past was fast receding, even as the nation, at the very same time, was learning to make its own the democratic creed of the Third Republic. The New Right, from this angle, was a creature of democratization, which is why France, a precocious democracy, was the phenomenon’s continental homeland. 

The notion of a fin-de-siècle climacteric also helps to make sense of where Gaullism came from. France’s industrial expansion chugged along at a steady, but unremarkable pace for much of the nineteenth century, but then lurched forward as the twentieth century dawned. The acceleration posed a fundamental challenge that had both an economic and political dimension: how was France to manage this new industrial order and the world of labor protest that it engendered? Think tanks like the Musée Social and elite schools like Sciences Po and the École Polytechnique mulled over how to address these problems, while remaining wedded to the laissez-faire shibboleths of the nineteenth century. The Great War, the Depression, and then the shock of defeat and penury of the Vichy era chipped away at such faith in free-market solutions. A new idea began to take hold. What France needed was a strong state to take charge - to steer the economy and regulate labor - and one led by competent, public-spirited elites who grasped the big picture. Sciences Po came to understand the training of such elites as its core mission.

Now, here’s where de Gaulle comes in. At the Liberation in 1944, he oversaw a massive state build-up and the creation of an entirely new institution, the École Nationale d’Administration, to help hone the cadres needed to staff a beefed-up public administration. In 1958 and the years following, he cut parliament down to size, in the process enhancing the power of the nation’s burgeoning technocracy. He may have come to power in a coup d’État. For sure, François Mitterrand thought so. But it was a coup that did not destroy the republican idea so much as reorient it in a statist direction. In the long run, Mitterrand’s own career acknowledged as much. He ended up playing by regime rules and running the system himself for fourteen years, all the while assisted by an élite rose of socialist technocrats.

The Left’s implosion has mitigated the costs of such an evolution, enabling Macron to experiment with neo-liberal policies without incurring too heavy a backlash from progressive constituencies.

So, am I proposing a revised, albeit temporally truncated version of Rémond’s thesis, with Les Républicains cast as the Classic Right’s heir, Le Pen as a descendant of the anti-Dreyfusard leagues, and Macron as a continuation of Gaullist technocracy? Not quite, for I believe that decolonization, the economic crunch of the 1970s, and the globalizing wave that followed upon it constitute a second watershed moment. It is a moment that has compelled states of all kinds to adapt to a new reality, one where information and capital race around the world at breakneck speed and tens of millions have pulled up roots to migrate in search of jobs and a better life. So, what are policy-makers to do in the face of these daunting realities? Stick by the statist habits of old? Back off, and let capital do its thing? These challenges have played havoc with the state-centric labor Left, which for the moment lies in shambles. They have fired up populism everywhere, with Le Penism as populism’s standard-bearer in France. The Rassemblement National is less violent than its league forebears but every bit as xenophobic in its denunciations of today’s embodiments of foreignness, the European Union and Muslim immigrants from the Maghreb. At a quick glance, Les Républicains appear to be well-positioned to profit politically from the present state of affairs. Indeed, France might well have an LR president today, were it not for scandal. And were it not for Macron. He is a forceful personality, who does not lack self-assurance. He is also an ex-socialist, a member himself of the élite rose, who has shifted rightward, rallying technocrats of many political stripes along the way. The Left’s implosion has mitigated the costs of such an evolution, enabling Macron to experiment with neo-liberal policies without incurring too heavy a backlash from progressive constituencies with nowhere else to go, above all if confronted with a choice between Macron and Le Pen. 

The accent in this line of analysis falls, not on continuity as with Rémond, but on moments of rupture, when economic transformation enforced a renegotiation of the relations between the state and an ever more democratic social order. At each transition, policy-makers and the public alike have found themselves confronted with a question. What kind of state, dynastic or democratic, will France have? What place does labor occupy in such a state? And what role, if any, remains for the market to play in the shaping of public affairs? This last issue now stands front in center and not in France alone. The Right, in all its variety, is wrestling with it. So too is the Left, but for the moment, in France if not elsewhere, the Left is not yet setting the pace. 


Copyright: UPI / AFP


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