Les Republicains (LR) right-wing party's candidates for the 2022 French presidential election. Credit: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Gaullism at a crossroads

The French Right faces its old demons and its moment of truth

It’s a banality to say that a presidential election is about the future. That truism nevertheless takes on a lugubrious resonance for those contenders, parties and candidates, who seem stuck in the past or are nearing obsolescence. As I argued in a previous post, such is the sad case of the once-formidable Socialist Party. It also applies to Les Républicains — the last incarnation of the Gaullist current of the French Right.

On Monday the five LR candidates vying for the party’s nomination held a debate. One of them declared that had François Fillon been elected in 2017, “France would still be the great country that it once was.” Set aside the absurdity of a statement meant to pay homage to a trainwreck. Focus instead on its nostalgia: the fear of decline and the romance of past glories are LR‘s main themes. Take Xavier Bertrand, currently ahead in the polls for the nomination. He reiterated that he would ban all on-shore wind turbines because “la France, c’est des paysages” and wind turbines are “massacring” these Arcadian landscapes. Another candidate, Valérie Pécresse, announced that she would institute a national “day of heroes” during which schools would teach children about great French men and women from “Vercingétorix to Marie Curie,” so as to give “our kids role models,” on grounds that “la repentance, ça suffit” (“enough with repentance.”) The party faithful may respond favorably to these jeremiads, and after all they are the ones voting on December 4th to designate LR’s presidential candidate. But suffice it to say, crotchety proclamations blasting impolite kids and melancholy about the bygone days of France’s grandeur are not exactly forward-looking. It is the aggrieved blather of people watching the world passing them by.

Nobody seems to know what Gaullism stands for anymore

One big absent loomed large over the proceedings: France’s most popular politician and former Macron Prime Minister Édouard Philippe. A lapsed member of Les Républicains, the world is not passing him by. Philippe is biding his time and waiting for the world to catch up. He recently endorsed Macron’s reelection and founded his own political party. He christened it “Horizons.” The Gaullists are mired in the past. Édouard Philippe believes that he is the future.

We are witnessing the slow agony of Gaullism as an organized political force. Just like the Socialist Party, Les Républicains remains a well-oiled electoral machine. Note, however, that both Valérie Pécresse and Xavier Bertrand won their respective regions after quitting the party, as if the label was a drag on their national ambitions. They reluctantly rejoined after failing to break through the noise as presidential contenders. Both need the party apparatus and its militants to run a national campaign.

Nobody seems to know what Gaullism stands for anymore. Sure, it stands for France’s greatness, but who doesn’t? Despite LR candidates’ protestations and criticisms, you would be hard pressed to conceive of what they or their party would have done differently from what the Macron government did, both before and during the pandemic. And for good reasons! Édouard Philippe, the Prime Minister, was a member of LR (he left the party upon taking the assignment, but he had risen through its ranks.) The current Prime Minister, Jean Castex, was a close Sarkozy adviser. The minister of finances, Bruno Le Maire, a long time LR member, was Sarkozy’s minister of agriculture. Gérald Darmanin, a Sarkozy protégé, is minister of the interior. The list goes on.

Gaullism, the political doctrine and the political force, is a vexing object. As historian Nathaniel Powell reminded me, in one of his most cutting mot d’esprit, François Mitterrand had dismissed Gaullism as “De Gaulle plus la police.” That formula might be a bit too witty but it nonetheless captures some of the fleeting nature of Gaullism, a politics of feeling and affinity built around charisma and nationalism. The only analogue I can think of is Peronism: full-throated patriotism, totemic attachment to the caudillo, business-friendly by inclination and architect of the modern welfare State by the accidents of fortune.

The unflinching loyalty to De Gaulle obscures the fact that Gaullism was a genuine invention. It represented an epochal rupture in the tortuous history of the French Right.

To make it simple: before World War II the French Right was roughly divided between the industrial and provincial bourgeoisie on the one hand, and the anti-Republican, Catholic reactionaries on the other. The lines were porous, and both factions fed off each other. Socialists, Communists and Jews were the enemies, and oftentimes the democratic institutions of the Republic as well. France’s defeat and Pétain’s treason brought about a clarification of sorts. Vichy was the moment of truth for the Right.

There were those who, out of antisemitism and opposition to the République, wholeheartedly embraced Pétain’s Nationale Révolution to its bitter end — the collaborationists, per Stanley Hoffman’s characterization. Then there were those who had followed De Gaulle right away. He was one of them, a young reactionary Catholic officer, a romantic nationalist for whom France was greater than just a succession of monarchs and empires and Republics. Une certaine idée de la France, as the saying goes. Then there were those in the middle, the most numerous, who had supported Vichy at first and then later defected to the Résistance (or simply laid low).

The non-communist factions of the Résistance — all the aristocrats, bourgeois misfits, civil servants and even Socialists who had taken up arms against the Nazis at great personal cost — soon embraced the so-called Troisième Voie. The Troisième Voie (or third way) was not De Gaulle’s invention proper. Rather, it was the French elites’ recognition that something had not worked out with unfettered capitalism in the run-up to the War, and that at the same time the violence of fascism was an impasse and a foreclosed option. The Troisième Voie saw both capitalism and communism as two sides of the same coin, the grinding materialism of industrial modernity, but deliberately refused fascism. It hoped to find the narrow path out of the secular conflict between Right and Left, between Soviet Communism and Anglo-Saxon capitalism — a new and rejuvenated France where the interests of the working class and that of the capitalist bourgeoisie would finally be reconciled under the larger project of a just and harmonious national community.

Troisième Voie was no mere idealistic reverie born out of the maquis of the Résistance. It was above all a practical, technocratic plan for France’s post-war reconstruction. It infused with its idealism the sweeping program of the Conseil National de la Résistance, put together by all the factions, Communists included. It borrowed equally from the Christian humanism of philosopher Emmanuel Mounier and from economist William Beveridge’s extremely influential report on social insurance (remember: De Gaulle and the France Libre were based out of London!)

The experience of the Résistance precipitated a radical aggiornamento of the French Right. Fighting Nazis and French traitors, and dying side by side with Communist militants will completely alter your world-view. The War thus enabled the French Right to cede to the pressure of the working class, chiefly represented by the Communists at the time. It made it amenable to negotiate the reconstruction of France as a welfare State.

The reforms of 1945 and 1946, which enshrined into laws the program of the Conseil National de la Résistance, were indeed a social revolution. I think Theda Skocpol defines revolutions by their outcomes: at the end of a revolution, the basis of power has shifted in a decisive fashion. That is what happened in France after 1945. It was arguably as sweeping as the Revolution of 1789. The old order, the Ancien Régime, was dead, at least in the métropole. The final transformation would come later with decolonization. The remarkable part about that revolution was that both Left and Right did it in tandem — just as they had fought against the Nazis and the French fascists. The onset of the Cold War would soon pull apart the former comrades-in-arms and shatter the great élan of national unity, but it could not undo what had been won.

Much of what you know and appreciate about today’s France came out of that revolutionary moment: women’s right to vote, nationalization of electrical production, public retirement system, public crèches, public healthcare, public transportation, the TGV, etc…, etc… In many cases I say “public” but in practice that means cooperative management by labor and capital — what is known in the US as co-determination. It is a form of cooperation where the State, along with stakeholders, directs growth and industrial policy for the public good. Germany took that concept further than France, arguably to even better results.

That is the proud heritage of Gaullism, shared in common with the other components of the Résistance. It’s not so much De Gaulle that invented the Troisième Voie but rather the Troisième Voie that made Gaullism viable as a political force. It created the ideological framework for the French Right to accept liberal democracy.

As late as the 1995 presidential election, Gaullist candidate Jacques Chirac invoked the Troisième Voie as the heart of his program. It is so entrenched in French political culture and in its everyday life that even the most reactionary (or the most neoliberal) do not imagine knocking down its pillars. To wit, in her 2017 platform, Marine Le Pen promised to increase funding for the public healthcare system.

Strange as it may sound today, Gaullism was from its inception a true mass political movement. The party name changed over time as did its supreme leader (De Gaulle, Chirac, Sarkozy) but it did retain its broad popular appeal. The RPF, then RPR and its successor UMP were exceptional for a right-wing party in that they cut across classes and constituencies. De Gaulle himself bristled at the notion that he was a right-winger — he had broken with the old anti-Republican Right, the revanchists who had led France into the abyss of collaboration. His original RPF welcomed left-wing intellectuals and Résistance companions like André Malraux and Jacques Soustelle, socialists, trade unionists, Christian Democrats and Centrists.

In the 1970s the RPR was as much a party of peasants, workers and employees — the so-called beaufs and français moyens — as it was the home of ambitious technocrats and upper-class politicians. It ran the gamut from the seedy, mob-adjacent Charles Pasqua to the brainy, sophisticated Alain Juppé and the aloof Édouard Balladur. The RPR of yore was in a way a faithful portrait of non-communist France, exactly as De Gaulle had envisioned it. And who better to embody these values than Jacques Chirac — a jocular, if pugnacious, everyman who smoked gitanes, drank beer, loved fromage de tête (pork head pâté, don’t ask), and who also cultivated an encyclopedic knowledge of anthropology and a taste for Japanese poetry.

Jacques Chirac’s political success rested entirely on his opportunism. He was against European integration in 1979 and for the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. He became the first “cohabitation” Prime Minister in 1986 after running on a Thatcherite platform, and acceded to the Presidency in 1995 by campaigning to the left of the Socialist Party. Chirac remains to this day the only right-wing French politician of the Fifth Republic to win a second presidential mandate, in large part because of his very Gaullist ideological flexibility (De Gaulle does not count, his first election as President in 1958 was not by popular vote.)

These points of history are crucial to understand the current predicament of Les Républicains. The Troisième Voie was central to Gaullism, but not exclusive to it. Other parties adopted it, in particular the Christian democratic center, along with significant portions of Socialists. That’s why it made real sense for latter-days dye-in-the-wool Gaullists like Édouard Philippe and Bruno Le Maire to cross over to Macron’s side. It wasn’t just out of a misguided thirst for power and glory. These honorable civil servants are animated by old-fashioned ideals of patriotism and national unity. You may disagree with some or even all of their policies, but you cannot deny that they govern with democratic legitimacy. That is neither the legacy nor the political culture of the pre-war populist French Right. In fact it is its exact opposite.

If it is to survive as a modern, democratic actor, the French Right needs to rekindle the generous and fraternal spirit of the Libération

And so now we are approaching another moment of the truth for the French Right. Some among Les Républicains are tempted to veer towards a slightly more well-mannered version of right-wing identity politics and authoritarianism. A part of their voting base has relapsed into pre-war radicalism, balancing between the lukewarm Le Pen and the ignoble Zemmour. This has been percolating for a while: without a trace of irony Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian aristocrat and a Greek Jew, created a ministry for “national identity,” and liked to surround himself with political advisers who flaunted their admiration for Charles Maurras, Vichy’s organic intellectual. Last month a lieutenant of Laurent Wauquiez (another one of LR’s barons) went on a public rant about whether Vichy was good or bad for the Jews (pro-tip: it was bad.) Although he was censured by his colleagues and lost his leadership position on Lyon’s municipal council, that excursion into historical denialism, by a sitting Senator, signals the depth of the problem. Unsurprisingly, those who tip-toe around these questions also tend to harbor virulent anti-immigrant positions and express curiosity towards racist fantasies of “great replacement.”

That, more than anything else, is the end of the road for Gaullism. Here’s why: I am quite certain that the Conseil National de la Résistance and the Gaullist Right from that era would not have tolerated any kind of antisemitism nor apology for the Vichy regime. In that same vein I very much doubt that they would have tied anti-immigrant sentiment to fears of social chaos, impoverishment and national decline, and exploited it for political gain. I’d like to believe that they would have tackled the issue head-on, bringing to bear the State’s powers to mend, heal and uplift the disadvantaged and the poverty-stricken — regardless of religion or skin color and to everyone’s benefit.

If it is to survive as a modern, democratic actor, the French Right needs to rekindle the generous and fraternal spirit of the Libération. It should make the effort to remember that it is a major part of its history, that it has it in itself.

This post originally appeared on Manu Saadia’s substack ‘La Campagne’ on the 9th November 2021. 

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