Le Pen’s Long Shadow

Le Pen’s Long Shadow

If you want to understand the wave of right-wing populism erupting in Europe and the United States, France is a good place to start.


Before Donald Trump, before Nigel Farage and Brexit, before Viktor Orban and Geert Wilders, there was Jean-Marie Le Pen. As far back as 1984, this crude, bullying, narcissistic, and bigoted former paratrooper shocked French opinion when his far-right National Front party received nearly 11 percent of the vote in elections for the European Parliament. 

Le Pen’s party—and his style of nationalist, right-wing populism—has grown steadily ever since, sending tremors of panic through the French political establishment at regular intervals. Its current leader—Le Pen’s daughter Marine—has overall led in the polls for the 2017 presidential election for several years. And while a Le Pen presidency still looks unlikely, given the long-standing tendency of French voters to unite against the National Front in the second round of the country’s two-part elections, it is not at all inconceivable.

If you want to understand the populist fury now crashing over the West, France provides a good place to start. Not only has the country had its own Trumps for a long time now, but the conditions under which Trumpism can flourish have been present in France for much longer than in much of the rest of Europe and the United States. There is a good case to be made, in fact, that France was the “patient zero” of the West’s current epidemic of populist fever. 

Think of the conditions that helped propel Trump to the American presidency. Eco­nomic stagnation? Since the 1980s, the French economy has expanded at barely half the pace of America’s, and for all but a few brief moments over this long period, unemployment has remained stubbornly at over 8 percent. Resentment of entrenched ruling elites? A very high proportion of France’s political and business leadership graduates from a handful of small, ultra-elite grandes écoles, and is widely criticized as aloof and out of touch. Perceptions of national decline? In many ways, France has still not recovered, psychologically at least, from its loss of great-power status and its colonial empire. Loss of sovereignty? France has surrendered far more to the European Union than the United States has done to any combination of international organizations and multilateral trade pacts. Xenophobia and controversies over immigration? Already in the 1980s, the expansion of the French Muslim population was giving rise to alarmist headlines such as “La France islamique?” in the mainstream French press. Terrorism? Spectacular terrorist attacks traumatized Paris in the early 1980s and again in the 1990s, and again in our own moment. 

Just as in the United States, but over a much longer period, these factors have come together to propel the career of both Le Pens—­
political outsiders who, like Trump, have exploited an ethno-nationalist politics that admires power above all else, makes its case through veiled and not-so-veiled appeals to racism, and has built a base among the aggrieved and resentful older members of the country’s white working class. 

Three new books—Jean-Yves Camus and Nicolas Lebourg’s Far-Right Politics in Europe, Jonathan Fenby’s France, and Maurice Samuels’s The Right to Difference—help illuminate different but related parts of this story. Camus, a political scientist, and 
Lebourg, a historian, place the National Front at the center of their wide-ranging survey of far-right parties across Europe. Fenby, a British journalist, surveys French politics since 1789 in an attempt to offer a better historical context for the country’s current crisis. And Samuels, a literary critic, examines modern French attempts to deal with ethnic and religious difference through a close analysis of the place of Jews in French culture. Each book, in its way, highlights many things that are peculiarly French about the country’s current crisis. But taken together, they provide a troubling account of just how easily ethno-nationalism can establish itself in a self-consciously liberal democracy—even one in which ethno-nationalism seemed permanently discredited because of the way its adherents in an earlier generation collaborated with fascism.

Opponents of the National Front are quick to label the party “fascist,” but as Camus and Lebourg argue, this is a mistake. The party certainly shares traits with older fascist groups, including, above all, a sense of the national society as an organic whole under threat from parasitical alien intruders (Jews and Muslim immigrants have both filled this role). But it has no paramilitary wing, no program of seizing power other than via elections, and no revolutionary vision of molding human beings into a new form, as was the case with German and Italian fascism. As Camus noted in an interview, the use of the label “fascist,” and comparisons of the present day to the 1930s, ironically employ a “cyclical” vision of history that was often dear to fascists themselves. “Human beings,” Lebourg adds dryly, “are capable of inventing liberticidal regimes other than fascism.”

So what is the National Front if not fascist? Camus and Lebourg suggest that it’s a “national populist” party that has managed either to co-opt or marginalize most other elements of the French far right, including neofascists, royalists, and Catholic fundamentalists. It is ideologically flexible and opportunistic. At its origin, in the early 1970s, it defined itself principally against corrupt elites and didn’t devote much attention to immigration or Islam until the electoral utility of doing so became clear. More recently, Marine Le Pen has tried to scrub the party of its anti-Semitic taint and has even actively cultivated Jewish support (against the common Muslim enemy, of course); she has tried to “de-demonize” the party and to make it more appealing to centrist voters. 

Above all, Le Pen père and fille have shown a talent for reworking a classic element of European right-wing ideologies, namely the vision of a lost golden age of a happy, organic society that the corrupt elites and alien invaders have combined to destroy. But whereas older right-wing parties associated this golden age with a rural, preindustrial society, the Front associates it with the heyday of heavy industry, when factory workers could earn a decent wage and aspire to a middle-class life. Obviously, this is a vision that Donald Trump has also deployed to great effect.

Far-Right Politics in Europe has much of interest to say about the broad span of right-wing movements in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Eastern Europe; about the influence of thinkers like the antidemocratic Italian philosopher Julius Evola (a favorite of top Trump adviser Stephen Bannon) and Alexander Dugin, the intellectual guru of Putinism; and about the contacts among all of these. Still, the book appeared in French in 2015, and so some of its analysis already has a dated feel. An updated version would have to take into account Brexit, the repressive actions of the Law and Justice government in Poland, and the effect of jihadist terrorism on European politics. 

In one important sense, though, the book has been quite prescient. It emphasizes that oppositional politicians like the Le Pens tend to do best when the mainstream parties appear to have few differences between them. This has certainly been the case in France, where Socialist president François Hollande, elected in 2012, adopted centrist policies favorable to globalization and the EU that were in many cases virtually identical to those of the competing, center-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy (who later changed the UMP’s name to Les Ré­publicains). Marine Le Pen has long delighted in conflating the UMP and the Socialist Party into a single “UMPS,” and, in fact, derives much of her electoral success from doing so. 

Camus and Lebourg argue that the entire phenomenon of a political “far right” ultimately had its origins in the French Revolution of 1789, when the most steadfast opponents of that event chose to sit on the benches furthest to the right in the meeting place of the new National Assembly, even as the most radical deputies sat furthest to the left. For this reason, Camus and Lebourg argue that “to understand the far right in Europe as it now exists, we must in fact begin with French history.” But, as French academics who originally wrote for a French readership, they take a great deal about French history for granted. Readers unfamiliar with the subject may wish, at least initially, to turn elsewhere.

One such destination is Jonathan Fenby’s breezy new historical survey of France from the Revolution to the present, which provides an engaging, if very traditional, introduction to the subject. Fenby is a British journalist with more expertise on China than France, and in this book has relied heavily on secondary sources by other British writers. But he has put together a colorful, entertaining narrative, enlivened by gossipy passages about the scandalous private lives of public figures and pungent sketches of leading political figures. He has a journalist’s eye for entertaining trivia, such as the fact that a leader of a protest during the Revolution of 1848, shot dead by police, was an artist’s model for paintings of Jesus Christ. 

Fenby gives pride of place to high politics in metropolitan France, and he takes relatively little advantage of the work done by professional historians in recent decades to reorient the study of the French past around questions of social transformation, gender, migration, and overseas empire. He provides a sympathetic and intelligent overview of French art and literature, but does less well with philosophy and social thought. He calls Jean-Paul Sartre a “gnome-like philosopher” and, in the one sentence devoted to Michel Foucault, explains that he “published ground-breaking research on social institutions, psychiatry, medicine and prisons” (Well, yes, but this most disruptive of philosophers wasn’t exactly a quantitative social scientist.) But the center of Fenby’s book is political history, and he does quite well with recent politics, providing a lucid introduction to the important personalities and parties. He follows the National Front in particular detail, starting with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s involvement with the xenophobic, short-lived right-wing movement led by the shopkeeper Pierre Poujade in the mid-1950s, before turning to the foundation of the Front itself. 

Fenby is also very useful in his account of Marine Le Pen, deftly recounting her effort to “de-demonize” the party, which included a very public repudiation of her father when she accused him of damaging the Front because of his repeated racist and anti-Semitic remarks. It might also be noted that unlike Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen has little desire to reduce the size of government. In fact, in some ways, she wants to reinforce the powers of the central state as a way of breaking the power of the entrenched elites. She shares this ambition with populist politicians on the left like Jean-Luc Mélenchon; the difference is that she wants to expand government not for the sake of all, but for the sake of a specific “native French” population.

Fenby’s overall argument, though, doesn’t go much beyond what could be found in most conservative British newspaper columns about France over the last half-century. In his reading, the French “prefer to reject economic modernization in favor of…­tradition”; they “have become prisoners of the heritage of their past” and so have fallen into a deep crisis. But Fenby himself provides plenty of material to undermine these simplistic theses. As he notes, in recent decades the French have provided technological leadership in fields ranging from aerospace to railroads to nuclear power, and they have a higher hourly productivity rate than the British or Germans. The French are every bit as committed to economic modernization as their European neighbors. 

Fenby also devotes considerable space to the role that terrorism has played in shaping French politics. He opens his book with a long, gruesomely detailed account of the terrorist attacks of 2015–16, which left some 240 people dead. But he’s too quick to connect terrorism to the country’s other travails. While the misery of the heavily Muslim housing projects on the outskirts of Paris certainly helped to nourish the anger of the terrorists who carried out the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket in January 2015, the roots of jihadist radicalism obviously stretch far beyond France, and to understand them one cannot focus only on the French past. The leader of the much bloodier attacks in November 2015 and some of his followers were, for example, born and raised in Belgium. These attacks did have a devastating psychological effect on the French public. But terrorism is a fundamentally separate issue from the country’s economic travails—it is almost, by definition, global in scale—and commentators, Fenby included, should resist the temptation to conflate a wave of terrorist attacks and long-standing social and economic problems into a single, all-encompassing “crisis.”

Maurice Samuels’s book starts in ex­actly the same place as Fenby’s—with the terrorist attacks of 2015—but he does so for a very different reason. Samuels isn’t concerned with terrorism per se, like Fenby, or with the extreme right, like Camus and Lebourg. Rather, his subject is the place of ethnic and religious minorities in France, and the efforts made by political and cultural elites to “integrate” them into the nation. He sees the country suffering from a “minority crisis” that the attacks exacerbated and cast into harsh relief, and which, Samuels believes, have contributed to the rise of the National Front. 

But Samuels places the current crisis within a very different perspective from the other authors. The Right to Difference is principally concerned with the long, vexed story of Jews in French society. As Samuels convincingly argues, Jews have served as the principal “test case” for the integration of minorities in France since before the Revolution of 1789. Today, debates about the integration of France’s much larger, and more recently arrived, Muslim minority fall into the rhetorical grooves first dug with respect to French Jews. 

A noted literary critic, Samuels tells his story through a series of largely literary case studies, tracing competing literary representations of Jews from the 18th century to the present. As these case studies reveal, even supposedly philo-Semitic French advocates of Jewish integration and equality have often sounded suspiciously like dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semites. Henri Grégoire, a Lorraine priest who became an important revolutionary after 1789, made his reputation with an essay that called for granting Jews equal rights as part of a project for their “physical, moral, and political regeneration.” He emphasized their disagreeable physical features (as Samuels summarizes: “sallow complexions, hooked noses, hollow eyes, prominent chins, frizzled hair”) and called them prone to personal filthiness, skin diseases, and masturbation. But Grégoire believed that they could be rescued from such ailments: The ultimate purpose of granting Jews equal rights was to erase their differences and eventually to have them convert to Catholicism.

Intellectuals have often seized upon this example, and many more recent ones, to argue that the French have grounded their ideas of nationhood in a rigid brand of universalism that requires minorities to be, in Samuels’s words, “shorn of all particularities.” Some, like the American political theorist Wendy Brown, do so to criticize this supposed French model of universalism as repressive and intolerant, while in France, thinkers like the prominent neoconservative Alain Finkielkraut do so to celebrate France’s emphasis on national cohesion as opposed to what he believes is American-style individualism.

But Samuels brilliantly subverts the entire premise of this debate. As he shows through his case studies, the supposed “French model” of universalism has never really existed. The rigidly universalist position adopted by figures like Grégoire and Finkielkraut amounts to only one end of a spectrum of approaches to Jewish integration in France. Other approaches, which Samuels usefully uncovers, have involved considerably more tolerance for Jewish difference. 

Samuels notes, for instance, that in the French Revolution, the politicians who granted Jews full civil status did not require the sort of radical assimilation (and ulti­mately conversion) demanded by Grégoire. They required Jews to give up special communal privileges, but not the exercise of their religion or what present-day French critics call (mostly in reference to the hijab or burqa) “conspicuous” signs of religious adherence.

Samuels also shows how this alternate model of universalism manifested itself in literary works and intellectual debates throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. One bravura chapter traces the career of the great French-Jewish actress Rachel Félix in the years around the Revolution of 1848 (she appears on the cover of the book, singing “La Marseillaise”). While some critics at the time ridiculed the idea that a person recognizable as a Jew could interpret the great tragic roles of the French stage, many others disagreed, and Félix’s very success testifies to the fact that their view prevailed. These critics, Samuels writes, “carved out a place for Jewishness at the very center of French culture.” 

Samuels makes a similar argument with regard to Jean Renoir’s great film about World War I, The Grand Illusion. Renoir has come in for withering attacks for attaching stereotypically Jewish qualities, including ostentatious wealth and physical weakness, to the film’s Jewish character, the soldier Rosenthal. But Samuels, in a subtle, careful reading, insists that the film expresses a more ambiguous attitude toward the Jews and ultimately endorses a “more open form of universalism” that accepts them—­however strong their marks of difference from other French citizens—as full members of the French nation.

Although Samuels makes a convincing case, his work might have benefited from some international comparisons. It’s worth noting, for instance, that the “place for Jewishness” carved out by Félix in French culture pales in comparison with the role played by Philip Roth, Woody Allen, or any number of Jewish writers, actors, and musicians who have infused large areas of American culture with a distinctly Jewish flavoring. 

In America, important parts of cultural life as a whole have taken on a recognizably Jewish flavor. Something similar happened in Vienna and Budapest in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but nothing of the sort ever occurred in France. Allowing Jews to play a role as Jews is one thing; allowing them to help change the culture is another.

Still, Samuels’s book fits well with the work of a number of historians who have maintained for many years now that the rigid universalist model defended by intellectuals like Finkielkraut—and by French politicians across the political spectrum—is not, in fact, the only possible “French model.” These historians—scholars like Jean-François Chanet, Anne-Marie Thiesse, and James Lehning—have shown that the supposedly conformist Third Republic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries tolerated very large degrees of regional cultural difference, and that the Fourth Republic of the 1950s stood ready to introduce affirmative action for Algerian Muslims in France in its effort to keep Algeria a part of the country. 

Their work—and now Samuels’s—has serious political implications. Today, nothing is more common in French political discourse than the insistence that French Muslims give up the bulk of their religious and ethnic particularities in order to “integrate”—­perhaps even that they adopt a new, benign “French Islam” effectively controlled by the French republic. Commentators all too easily conflate active expressions of hostility to France by alienated Muslim youths with the sporting of “conspicuous religious symbols” in schools, or the wearing of a bathing suit seen as overly modest on a Mediterranean beach. 

These attitudes have a doubly corrosive effect. They exacerbate the alienation of young Muslims who already feel caught between two cultures, accepted nowhere and discriminated against everywhere. And they reinforce millions of other French people in their conviction (belied, in fact, by the social-scientific evidence) that Muslims will never successfully integrate into the national community and don’t really belong in France at all. In other words, they play directly into the hands of Marine Le Pen and the National Front.

As the presidential election approaches (the two rounds of voting will take place on April 23 and May 7), the political situation in France remains enormously volatile. Both major parties are nearing a state of collapse, with the candidate of the center-right Républicains, François Fillon, now under indictment, and Socialist elected officials, including former prime minister Manuel Valls, fleeing their own candidate for Emmanuel Macron, the charismatic, centrist former banker. It is entirely possible that Macron will end up crushing Le Pen in the second round, despite her long-standing lead in the first-round polls. If so, commentators will joyously proclaim that the center has held, as it did in the Netherlands on March 15; that the worst have gone down to defeat despite their passionate intensity; and that the Western world’s populist fever has finally broken.

But there is little indication that a centrist government led by Macron will do any better at addressing the problems of economic stagnation that have plagued France for so long, or that he will help to palliate the country’s anti-elitist and anti-EU sentiment. In fact, things might only get worse under a Macron presidency. He is, after all (like Fillon and Hollande), a graduate of the much-hated, ultra-elite École Nationale d’Administration, and also a strong advocate of free trade and the EU. Right-wing populism, under these conditions, would continue to fester. Macron has tried to distance himself from the rigid universalist model of integration criticized by Samuels, insisting that “no religion is a problem in France today,” and he has also condemned the “crimes and acts of barbarism” committed by France during its rule in Algeria. This is certainly an important move in the right direction, and one that is rare among mainstream French politicians. But it will also likely drive away voters convinced that the integration of Muslims into French society is a futile proposition. 

There are some other faint signs of hope. Benoît Hamon, the official candidate of the Socialists (and several smaller, allied left-wing parties), has put together an innovative program centered on the reduction of inequality, the environment, and greater economic flexibility for France within Europe. A sort of low-key French Bernie Sanders, Hamon offers a populist vision shorn of nationalism and xenophobia. His campaign this year has failed to catch fire, in part because of competition from another, angrier, more explicitly nationalist left-wing populist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But in the longer run, such a program might draw working-class voters away from the National Front (which, by most measures, is now the principal party of the French working class) and back to the left. 

Even with such positive changes on the horizon, however, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s long shadow continues to cast itself over French politics. The conditions that have brought it into being developed over many decades and have taken deep root in the country’s political landscape, much like similar conditions have now done in the United States. For this very reason, the right-wing fever consuming patient zero—and now, much of the West—is unlikely to break anytime soon.

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