Photo by Karen Minasyan / AFP

Liberté autorité identité

France pivots to liberal authoritarianism, not conservatism

Artillery Row

French political discourse has not shifted rightwards so much as caught an authoritarian flu. Whether its variant can be traced to China, Hungary or the US is moot the point remains that the cockpit of western Europe plays catch-up and not pathfinder as this strong (but potentially misconceived) article by Aris Roussinos in Unherd argues.

A latecomer to this political terrain, France suffers erratic outbursts of populism, reaction, conservatism and illiberalism, each with their own respective political genealogies, outlooks and logics. The archetypal royalist Stephane Bern, displays the muddled thinking of many when he proclaims: “My religion is the Republic… [Whoever you are] if you are [in France] you have the same rights as me.”

Yet it is hard to blame him when most sail on badly-charted waters, seas where the landmarks of resistance to liberalism are less l’oriflamme or Maurras than the “green wave” of EELV or the bureaucratic competence of red cities. Put simply, liberalism is rarely countered by rightist totems but rather a watermelon (leftist-green) blob, a movement that’s as comfortable critiquing technocracy as it is disavowing rightward shifts as crypto-fascist. A glance at the loyalties of the major cities reveals Lyon as green, Strasbourg too, Marseille as red, Lille also, Bordeaux as green, Paris as red and green and so on.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the fever surrounding the sixty-three year-old Eric Justin Leon Zemmour is hot air. But the journalist will have to swiftly make friends (such as his recent coup with Philippe de Villiers) if he is to surmount the next hurdle of five hundred signatures of elected officials by early March, 2022. So far he has roughly two-hundred-and-seventy-five. Given votes are public, few officials will risk their skins for un etranger, especially a polemical one.

The vulpine Zemmour at least appears to have the courage of his convictions, and luck is often the reward of the bold. Which is perhaps why Eric Ciotti (conservative and authoritarian) unexpectedly jettisoned party loyalties and declared his support for the upstart after losing to Valery Pécresse (conservative and economically liberal) in the run-offs to lead Les Républicains in the next election.

Whether Ciotti is a kingmaker, however, is another question. Thanks to his strong base in Nice, he can afford to be gung-ho on the national stage. Hence his pivot on 12 December back to a position where Zemmour could “no longer win because his profile doesn’t sit at the centre of the anti-Macron opposition”.

Zemmour represents Fortress Europe, and he’s not even the first

Much of these ructions are due to Zemmour’s mystery element. A suspicion lingers that he represents something big but few can put their finger on what. Marine Le Pen hardly clarified matters when she noted, “Zemmour n’est ni un adversaire, ni un partenaire, c’est un concurrent.” Which sounds more like legal exegesis than a battle-cry. But who can blame her — rightists of every stripe are less devoted to the bogeymen of Maistre, Maurras, Raspail or [Renaud] Camus than curating the Enlightenment’s [liberal] image in a manner reminiscent of Whig politics in the high noon of Victoriana. In that world of pink maps, Gladstone was the free trade lib, Palmerston the gun-boat lib, Asquith the wet lib and so on. The pig remained the same, only the lipstick changed.

For all Zemmour’s political nativism, the truth is that, far from guiding the global political discourse, he takes his cues from the two superpowers: first, the “total sovereign” China which builds Sino-World in an interminable series of debt traps and, second, a US which stands on a “America first” platform, whether it advertises this fact or not.

In this mould of thought, Zemmour represents Fortress Europe, and he’s not even the first major figure on the continent to adopt such a stance given Orban was elected in 2010. Incidentally, Zemmour’s utterances on the Hungarian leader focus less on the leader’s policies than his image as a martinet. Recently he claimed, “Orban is not authoritarian. He just doesn’t let himself get intimidated [by the EU].”

An old tune is not necessarily a wrong one. Zemmour is probably correct to perceive France as half-mangled on the face of an ideological iceberg that — if it does not actively abhor the historical nation — at least passively refuses to privilege the Franks as the core community of whatever is being born. But whether Zemmour’s position is demonized as “ultranationalist” or vaunted as “Gaullist”, it risks failing to build a narrative that isn’t simply aggregating those left behind by Macronist progressivism. Binding exasperated gilets jaunes, grandparents wistful for its first-rate power stature and Gen Z activists crippled by qualification inflation and dehumanized by job markets, there’s a risk that Zemmour forms an ephemeral glue for the discontented rather than a true movement.

Perhaps the most permanent aspect of “Zemmourism” will be its mirroring of Islamism’s logic that the state tends to award its enemies rather than those who seek to influence its internal ideology. The state’s outlook claims to be incontestable and moving in only one (neo-Marxist) direction. It only grants concessions to factions that present an (a) constant threat of (b) mass obstructionism and (c) ideological opposition.

Whether it’s helpful to characterize this realization as “rightist” or “leftist” seems less relevant than the fact that — partisanship aside — a potentially very large demographic now stands in opposition to the prevailing state ideology. This is a huge switch in tone from a France that repeatedly pleaded its mission civilisatrice to one that pleads “Les notres avant les autres” on its own territory.

In fairness to Roussinos, he observes that “Zemmour probably won’t win but he’ll set the tone…” It’s worth highlighting that despite suffering frequent terrorist attacks (thirteen alone during Macron’s reign), polls still show that purchasing power and the environment rank as more pressing issues than Islam.

Both Zemmour and Le Pen risk splitting the right-wing vote and cancelling one another out

Even the French willingness to openly address its decline can hardly be said to facilitate a right-wing candidate in the Anglophone sense. What appeals to the French is not so much a conservative figure than a liberal armed with extraordinary powers to be authoritarian, and perhaps a less politically-correct EU (or at least a less “corrupt” incentive structure, e.g. removing the “woke” agendas imposed on the police). Furthermore, political speculation aside, there’s little to suggest Macron won’t simply appoint a token Zemmour-esque figure to allay his constituency, just as he appointed Gerald Darmanin as interior minister to remove the sting from Le Pen’s tail.

Moreover, it’s not clear — and perhaps won’t be until election night — that Zemmour adds to the right-wing voting pool rather than smuggling water from Le Pen’s well. Both risk splitting the right-wing vote and cancelling one another out. Zemmour has Le Pen down as putting up “lamentable” performances against Macron and embarrassing the right: “We all know she cannot win, even she knows it,” he sniped. Meanwhile Marine pinned Eric as “arrogant” and “disrespectful of women”. Only her father is bothered to build bridges, complimenting Zemmour and sending his advisor (Lorrain de Saint Affrique) to his first campaign rally.

In short, Britain broke many of its liberal shibboleths with Brexit but now wrestles a domestic elite that is indistinguishable from that which governs the EU. Conversely, France looks to break its own particular chains but the system — as currently constituted — has a frustrating habit of reframing Zemmour-esque figures as lightning rods (of the general Boulanger model) not strongmen. And it’s not clear that this will change by 2027, or later.

Perhaps adopting authoritarian liberalism is a more effective strategy than conservatism. Co-opting and subverting liberal principles at least runs with the blob, while Tory assaults against it appear to be exercises in futility.

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