Histoire de l’extreme droite en France. – book reviews

Mark Falcoff

Michael Winnock, editor (with Jean-Pierre

Azema, Pierre Birnbaum, Pierre Milza,

Pascal Perrineau, Christophe Prochasson,

and Jean-Pierre Rioux)



(Paris: Seuil, 1993), 323 pp. 135 FF

Reviewed by MARK FALCOFF

Recent events in France have served to underscore the fact that the homeland of the modern revolutionary tradition is not always-has not always been–a country of enlightenment, progress, and tolerance. Although Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, the current political expression of race hatred, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, seems finally to have peaked politically, French history over the longer term suggests that one can never be sure. The extreme right is part and parcel of modern France, a kind of eternal poltergeist to the tricolor and the slogan “Liberty-Equality-Fraternity.” Even in periods of dramatic decline, it never loses its capacity for ultimate recuperation.

That, at any rate, is the view–underpinned by an astonishing richness of evidence-advanced in Histoire de l’extretne droite en France, a collaborative volume published earlier this year by a group of young French historians under the direction of Professor Michel Winock of the Institut d’etudes politiques in Paris. It takes the reader from what Winock calls “the counter-revolutionary heritage” (the “anti-89”) through Boulangism, the Dreyfus affair and Action Francaise, the 1930s and the Vichy period, to Poujadism and the National Front. It is, therefore, in a certain sense a complete political history of modern France, but with the historian’s lens purposely trained on the exotic (but far from irrelevant) world of reactionary thought and action. In this world, Winock writes, “the enemies are always clearly designated, even if their particular rank order is being continually reevaluated in the light of changing circumstances.”

But some things never change. For the French of the extreme right, the foreign enemy-any foreign enemy, even Germany–is always a secondary or even distant danger. It is always the enemy within that is the principal target–whether the revolutionary, the liberal, the intellectual, or the alien resident in France. More often than not, he adds, the entire peril, the anti-France, is resumed in “the myth of the Jew.” Indeed, anti-Semitism is such a pervasive theme in extreme right-wing thought in France–from the counter-revolutionary philosophers to Jean-Marie Le Pen–that one puts this book

down wondering why the Holocaust was perpetrated by Germans rather than Frenchmen. As it is, one of the major ironies of modern history remains the fact that, as late as 1929, Germany was regarded as a far more hospitable place for Jews to live than France!

Most of the themes that have dominated extreme fight wing thought and action for the last two hundred years can be traced to the first decade of the modern period–that is, from the convocation of the Estates General to Napoleon’s coup on the 18th Brumaire, ten years that, as Winock writes, “have weighed upon our history as if ten centuries.” From a purely political point of view, to be sure, the Jacobin-Napoleonic project effectively destroyed the ancien regime: even the Orleanist restoration in 1815 felt obligated to adopt the tricolor. Moreover, after the Count of Chambord spurned the opportunity to become a constitutional monarch in 1873, the future of France was decisively republican. Never again was monarchy a serious political option.

But if the counterrevolution was a failure in its narrowest sense, it was no less “the source of a powerful philosophical and political tradition” but rather more philosophical than political; indeed, if anything, the fathers of this tradition, Joseph de Maistre and Louis-Ambroise de Bonald, were anti’political. That is, as believers in a divinely-appointed order in which individual choices are predetermined by Providence, they naturally rejected politics as part and parcel of the Enlightenment presumption that man could better his condition through reasoned action. This makes some of their tracts very curious reading today.

For example, in his Considerations sur la France, de Maistre argued that the revolution was an instrument of Divine Providence to punish the French for their sins. The principal object of the counterrevolution, then, was not to restore the ancient regime as such, but to win redemption by watering French soil with the blood of martyrs. Bonald, who wrote a generation later, strikes a more modern note, at least by comparison, condemning alike the free market, money, industrialization, and urbanization. But the apocalyptic tradition of De Maistre could be heard as recently as the early years of this century, when Leon Daudet declared that for France’s salvation he awaited “the Cossacks of the Holy Spirit.”

By the final quarter of the nineteenth century, the counterrevolutionary tradition had abandoned serious hope of a royalist restoration and, as Christophe Prochasson shows us, thought instead in terms of a dictature de substitution. But its precise ideological content was never clear, other than an extreme version of clericalism and somewhat conventional Catholic views about divorce and the family. Indeed, between 1873 and 1940 what characterized the extreme right in France was a kind of programmatic vagueness. No longer monarchist, neither was it consistently fascist nor even proto-fascist; rather, it cast about for a new political synthesis that could be somehow both republican and antidemocratic.

That synthesis was finally achieved, quite inadvertently, by the Dreyfus affair, which led to a rapprochement between royalists and right-wing republicans, with anti-Semitism as the binding agent. Indeed, Jew-hatred became such an effective instrument of mobilization and unity that Charles Maurass, founder of Action Francaise, was led to remark that “if one were not driven to antiSemitism by patriotic impulse, one would still have to embrace it on simple grounds of expediency.” The fact that Captain Dreyfus was eventually exonerated mattered not at all; what remained of the anti-Dreyfusard cause was an enduring polyclassist constituency made up of “Catholics, bourgeois victims of economic competition, and workers exploited by capital” attracted to a sort of “integral xenophobia.” From that point to the consummation of the Vichy state, the philosophical route proved short and straight.

But the line of succession is less obvious in sheer political terms. As Pierre Milza points out in his extremely interesting chapter on the 1930s, the various extreme right groups, fascist parties, and anti-Semitic leagues amounted to very little in electoral terms before the war. The one party that might most nearly be said to resemble the Nazi party in Germany–Doriot’s parti populaire francais (PPF)–was in “extreme decomposition” by 1939. What the ultra-right did do in the 1930s, Milza concludes, “was to domesticate certain foreign ideas rather alien to France’s republican tradition”–that is, an extremely narrow (racial) conception of nationalism, a rejection of individualism, egalitarianism, and above all, anti-intellectualism.

We need to be reminded, however, that only a historical accident–military defeat by Nazi Germany and a humiliating peace that divided France in two–made it possible for those ideas to be put into practice. Vichy was, evidently, the great historic opportunity for the French right-cum-extreme right, each current of which was represented at Marshal Petaln’s court at the Hotel de Parc. However, Vichy by no means exhausted the possibilities. As Jean-Pierre Azema points out, the basic division in France for most of the first half of the 1940s was not between collaborators and the Resistance, but between two poles of right-wing thought and action, Paris and Vichy, with Paris representing the “ultra right,” those Frenchmen whose political convictions owed less to Maurass than to what might be called Nazi-envy.

The fact that the distinction became rather moot after 1944 should not lead us to forget, Azema reminds us, that the gentlemen of Vichy were almost moderate and even sensible when compared to the red-hot collabos in Paris, many of whom were, by the way, recruited from the ranks of ex-Communists or people with a background in left-wing pacifist movements. To be sure, the difference was often one of nuance and tone rather than substantive beliefs of practices. Those who worked directly with the Germans in Paris were less inclined to euphemisms, yelling “Death to the Jews!” from the housetops rather than under their breath.

After 1945, the extreme fight, tarred by the collaborationist brush, virtually disappeared from French politics. As Jean-Pierre Rioux points out, however, there was a “zone of discreet slippage” between the former extreme fight and the legal right, a process of cooptation and mutual need somewhat refreshed by the Algerian war. The far-right constituency–as opposed to far-right parties-constituted a political audience somewhat bigger than the electoral scores (7 percent at best) would indicate. Rioux suggests that the need for these votes pushed the center of political gravity somewhat farther to the right, particularly after the emergence in the early 1950s of an anti-tax movement led by Pierre Poujade. (Poujade’s right-wing populism may actually have helped consolidate the Fourth Republic by draining off some of the extremist venom still around from Vichy–this, at any rate, is Rioux’s contention.)

Then came the “divine surprise”–the Algerian war, “at once a laboratory of extreme fight enthusiasms, a Far West where the faithful could fraternize with thousands of desperate adventurous Frenchmen… an Eldorado of Revenge so long awaited.” But the episode is rich in irony: the Algerian conflict destroyed the hated Fourth Republic, but only at the cost of bringing General de Gaulle to power, and with it, the effective liquidation of the French colonial empire. What could have been less expected? The defeat was total, all the moreso inasmuch as it was inflicted by someone who was capable, at the same time, of coopting the symbols and rhetoric of the mainstream French right. What, after all, did De Gaulle represent in 1958 if not the dictature de substitution so long dreamed of?.

Indeed, for more than a generation the extreme right was forced back into what Rioux calls its “chapels.” Certainly no political party, not even the National Front (rounded in 1972), made any impact whatever on the triumphant Gaullist synthesis, even well after the general’s retirement in 1969 and death the following year. In the 1981 elections, which brought the French Socialist party to power for the first time, for example, the far right registered its worst performance in the entire history of the Fifth Republic.

But in a pattern that had already repeated itself many times before, the ascendancy of the left provided the far right with new opportunities. By the mid-1980s, the Front seemed well on its way to becoming a third force in French politics, with the capacity, if not to govern, at least to prevent the two traditional parties of the right from replacing the Socialists. Indeed, so dramatic were the electoral advances in sheer percentages, that by extrapolating in a straight-line fashion, it was possible to predict that eventually France would be the first country in postwar Western Europe to vote a fascist government into power.

In the longest chapter in the book, Michel Winock explores this phenomenon in considerable detail. In some ways, he explains, the National Front is quite different from its most immediate electoral predecessor, the Poujadistes. Poujade’s vote was rooted above all in rural areas; but in the 1984 elections, the Front’s performance in these areas was at best mediocre. The Front did very well, however, in regions historically associated with a strong left-wing vote, notably Aquitaine, Languedoc-Rouslllon, and Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur–as well as in France’s major cities, particularly Paris, Lyon, and Marseilles.

The key to this shift is a change in issues and ideology. The old far right was rooted in nostalgia; the new extreme right draws strength from discomfort with life in urban France today–above all the rise of street crime and unrestrained immigration, particularly from North Africa. In fact, repeated polls show that these two issues dominate the concerns of Front voters to the almost total exclusion of other issues, such as inflation, unemployment, etc., which matter most to the average French voter. It is, above all, immigration that explains the astonishing growth of Front support in old left-wing bastions like Provence and the Cote d’Azur. (The presence there of former French settlers in Algeria does not hurt either, but does not fully explain the phenomenon.)

Winock cites surveys that show that the archetypical Front voter is young, masculine, economically active, and drawn generally from classes and regions where the classic right has never done particularly well. But–and this is the point–few social strata in France are completely impervious to its appeal–only the elderly, people belonging to the most prestigious professions, people with advanced educational degrees, or practicing Catholics.

The Front is doing well in former left-wing bastions because the institutions that once reigned supreme there are in frank decomposition-particularly the Communist party. At the same time, many normally left-inclined voters have been alienated by the Socialist government’s “anti-racist” policies, and other aspects of what we Americans would call political correctness. In particular, the Front is benefiting from a conscientious effort by both left and right to undermine the historical foundations of French citizenship. As Winock dryly observes, “both Jean-Marie Le Pen and Harlem Desir [head of SOS-Racism] render homage, each in his own way, to the right to be different; the right of the French nation to be different for the first, the same right for the communities that compose it for the second.” In this confrontation, he concludes, “the notion of an integrating French nation, rounded on the right to be alike and on the universalist spirit of the Revolution, no longer has Value.”

After a long winning streak throughout the 1980s, the Front finally stumbled in 1989 and has been in decline ever since then. Winock attributes this partly to a frontal attack on the Jews by Front leaders, as well as Le Pen’s attempt to trivialize the Holocaust (“a historical detail”), remarks that shocked responsible members of the French right and led even some Front people to turn in their party cards.

Two other events have also led to a decline in the Front’s popularity. The first was the Carpentras affair, involving the ghoulish exhumation and desecration of the corpse of a recently deceased Jewish citizen of a well-established community in southern France. While the Front was apparently not involved, Le Pen was reluctant to condemn the act or disassociate himself from the people who perpetrated it. The other was Le Pen’s decision to oppose French participation in the Gulf war–a curiously pro-Arab position for a politician whose entire appeal at home was based on fear and loathing of the very same ethnic group. (Polls at the time showed, not all that surprisingly, that the typical Front voter was even more in favor of Operation Desert Storm than French voters generally.)

There is one more reason why the Front seems to have entered terminal decline. The two parties of the mainstream right–as well as some sectors of the Socialist party itself-have begun to grapple with the immigration issue, so that a more respectable (and perhaps also more realistic) approach to the issue may effectively preempt the Front’s appeal to many voters. Having once served as a vector of protest, the Front seems headed for the dust heap of French electoral history. Given the history of the extreme right in France, however, we can expect that the xenophobic and anti-democratic impulse will reemerge again, though in some yet unanticipated form. Winock’s discussion of contemporary French politics suggests that this depends as much or more on how the parties of the mainstream right and left conduct their business, as on anything that happens in the “chapels” and covens.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Heldref Publications

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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