Opinion

What France can teach American conservatives

Forget Hungary. France has a brand of non-liberal nationalism that might travel much better across the Atlantic.

I'm old enough to remember when American conservatives had contempt for France. Around the turn of the 21st century, it stood for all the effete and decadent tendencies in Western civilization. One pundit gleefully dubbed the French "cheese-eating surrender monkeys from hell" (adapting a line from The Simpsons animated series). For daring to suggest that the Iraq War was ill-advised, the French were punished with removal of their name from the menu in the House of Representatives cafeteria — even for the beloved fried potatoes possibly invented by Belgians.    

That dismissal of an important ally, a great culture, and wise strategic advice was deeply stupid. So it's basically a good thing that interest in France and its statesmen is enjoying something of a revival in right-of-center circles. That's partly due to a broader rediscovery of European political traditions. Unlike Hungary or Poland, France is a big country with a revolutionary past, sense of global mission, and multiethnic population. As such, it offers more realistic lessons for its fellow republic. 

Those lessons may be surprising, though. A Hapsburg revival or Central European-style "illiberal democracy" are going nowhere in this country. Yet we know from experience that a politically incorrect celebrity can not only shake up the policy consensus, but also threaten basic elements of constitutional government. Despite his criticism of American influence around the world, the pundit turned maybe-presidential candidate Éric Zemmour has been hailed as the "French Trump". But he also provides a hint of what a more coherent and perhaps effective American nationalism would look like if and when Trump leaves the scene.   

Despite its reputation as a bastion of the highbrow left, political imports from France don't necessarily emanate from tenured radicals. To the contrary, France has a venerable tradition of conservative and reactionary thought. During the French Revolution, the Savoyard political theologian Joseph de Maistre denounced the upheavals as literally satanic. He also regarded the American experiment with self-government as futile.

Maistre's idiosyncratic theory of Christian monarchy is obsolete. But other ideas that emerged from the French right proved more enduring. In the 19th century, France entered a prolonged period of stagnant population. As its rivals enjoyed rising birthrates and the industrial revolution attracted immigrants from less-developed parts of Europe, some French intellectuals became convinced that a cosmopolitan elite was contriving to replace the native population with culturally subversive aliens, particularly Jews. Although the antisemitic version is now unfashionable, that argument has been revived and reframed around Muslims by French writers including Jean Raspail, Renaud Camus, and (in moderated form) Michel Houellebecq. 

The influence of the French right isn't limited to ideas. French nationalists were an electoral force a lifetime before anyone had heard of Viktor Orban. In the 1950s, Pierre Poujade led arguably the first major populist-nationalist movement in a Western country after World War II. Later in the 20th century, the mantle of the right passed to Jean-Marie Le Pen, who started his political career as a Poujade supporter and went on to establish the Front National (FN) and found a political dynasty that now includes his daughter Marine Le Pen and his granddaughter Marion Maréchal. 

In 2002, Le Pen shocked the world by reaching the runoff of France's two-stage presidential election. Although he was badly defeated by the establishment conservative Jacques Chirac, the contest marked the eclipse of the Socialist Party as the main opposition party. Over the last 20 years, the basic division in French politics has evolved from a choice between right and left to one between the center and the right. That's old news in Paris, but shocking to Americans who imagine it's still 1968.

Yet Le Pen and his heirs are constrained by the milieu from which he emerged. The mix of sympathizers with the wartime Vichy regime, diehard opponents of the withdrawals from Vietnam and Algeria, and small businesspeople to whom he appealed were never enough to win a national election. Le Pen also delighted in provoking the metropolitan elite with outrageous statements, including Holocaust denial. These remarks won him plenty of attention (as well as several prosecutions for hate speech), but they were too edgy for many voters. 

This pattern of self-defeating behavior led to Le Pen's replacement as party leader by his daughter in 2010. Trying to expand the party's appeal, she made alliances with mainstream politicians and rejected some of her fathers more outrageous statements. Along with a sharp turn of opinion against immigration, these efforts won her a place in the 2017 presidential run-off but nowhere near enough votes to win. Some supporters believed that with a different name, she'd have won by double digits. 

That's where Zemmour comes in. The author of several books lamenting national decline, he's steeped in the intellectual tradition of the French Right. A longtime journalist and experiened media presence, though, he doesn't come off like a cranky grandpa. Above all, Zemmour's descent from a family of Berber Jews who came to metropolitan France to escape the Algerian War protects him against the accusations of anti-semitism that dogged Le Pen pére. Although he's made some of the same claims that got Le Pen in trouble, Zemmour can position himself as a teller of inconvenient truths rather than an old-fashioned hater. 

Zemmour's penchant for revisionism has generated a cottage industry of rebuttals that set the record straight about collaboration with the Nazis, the Dreyfus affair, and other historical matters. Although they're valuable as far as they go, these efforts also miss the point. Zemmour's real argument isn't that the facts have not been revealed. It's that France needs to shake off the burden of historical guilt that undermines its institutions and dampens its aspirations. Expressed in a more familiar idiom, Zemmour expects to be taken seriously but not literally.  

Zemmour can also claim to practice what he preaches. Although he apparently keeps a kosher home and claims to attend synagogue on major holidays, Zemmour has embraced the French version of assimilation, in which minority religion and ethnicity are completely subsumed by obligations to the nation as a whole. This expectation is associated with the Republican tradition that Charles de Gaulle eventually synthesized with cultural conservatism. Ironically, many of Zemmour's intellectual and political forebears rejected both the Republic and de Gaulle, whom they saw as complicit in France's geopolitical decline.  

More than his media savvy or specific policy views, it's his instrumental approach to history, insistence on 100 percent assimilation, and secular public persona that could make Zemmour an inspiration to the "postliberal" right across the Atlantic. Despite his tribute to the glories of the past, he's a very modern nationalist who denies that personal background, religious or ethnic affiliation, or intellectual probity should constrain political ambition. Unlike Trump, he's also smart enough to know what he's doing.  

It's possible, of course, that Zemmour's prospects don't justify the extraordinary attention he's attracted from media worldwide. He still hasn't declared his candidacy and is polling at just 17 percent — relatively high but still far from the majority he'd need to win office. Still, Zemmour's celebrity raises the chances of uniting the provincial, Vichyite, and pied noir elements of the old Le Pen coalition with the "bourgeois patriots" who preferred Macron to Marine in 2017.

If Zemmour's formula works, its success may not be limited to France. 

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