“He is on the right.” “That party represents the right.” These are standard expressions that are familiar today in the West, including France. But as usual, few understand or even care about the precise meaning of the word. Most people either hurl it as an insult, or claim it as a virtue.
For example, after it became obvious that the new maverick of French politics, Mr. Macron, was about to win the recent presidential election, some of the so-called French Right, including his runner-up, Mr. Fillon, decided to side with him (while the others for the most part stuck to an uncritical “wait and see” attitude), although Mr. Macron always made it clear that he was not a right-winger. So is it that some simply decided to jump off the losing bandwagon, or that the right is not really what it is supposed to be (i.e.,the opposite of the left)? To sort things out, we must, as is so often the case, go back in the political history of France.
For centuries there was no such thing as “right” and “left” on the French political landscape. Instead, there had been one implicitly or explicitly hard dogma among the overwhelming majority of Frenchmen: The social and political structure of France was what it was because it was natural that it be what it was. What could be more natural for a country than to have a king as a principle of political unity, a unifying spiritual belief, and a population distributed among the different vocations necessary to the life of the city? In those times there could be only two kinds of citizen: those who adhered more or less wittingly to such a scheme of things, and those who did not mind disrupting the welfare of the whole—in other words, the criminals.
With the French Revolution, two things changed radically. First of all, the claim that there was a natural order of social and political things came to be ridiculed harshly for the simple and logical reason that the Revolution was supposed to initiate a Novus ordo seclorum, embodying the claim that thenceforth men were declared free to devise a society that would conform to their whims.
The second crucial innovation was rather paradoxical. Every policy of any sort was thenceforth supposed to reflect the will of the people, but in very little time that claim appeared farcical. It was easy for all to see that every possible policy was decided by a minority, those who occupied the center of power, the happy few who happened to be deemed the people’s elect. The people then found themselves at a loss to show convincingly that such was not their will.
Thus the groundwork for the power of an oligarchy was laid: For whom could the people vote, apart from those whose very will was to appear as the embodiment of the people’s will, even though it was obvious their small number could not reflect the will of all the citizens?
To that oligarchy were naturally opposed all those who deplored the upheaval—the counter-revolutionaries, who were disgusted with the slogans of the Enlightenment: liberty, equality, freedom of thought and belief, etc.
But then among the revolutionaries there occurred a schism, which may best be symbolized by the fight that quickly arose within the heart of the French National Assembly between the Jacobins (or the Montagnards) and the Girondins (or the Plain) who happened to sit respectively on the left and the right of the Assembly semicircle. The seating arrangement was a happenstance, but the denominations stuck.
The Jacobins comprised all the people who, like Robespierre, Marat, or Hébert, deemed themselves victims of the former regime; they were supported by the rabble, whose main passion was a ferocious hatred of all those who appeared to have enjoyed some sort of privilege in the former system. Most of the leaders of the Jacobins were semi-intellectual, ambitious individuals living on the backstage of the previous society, in an obscurity they considered undeserved. They were therefore quite eager to prove themselves worthy of embodying the new elite.
In front of them stood another supposed elite, the Girondins, thus named because many of them represented the region of Bordeaux, where the Gironde River flows. They were known for their opposition to the centralization of power sought by the radical revolutionaries. But the Girondins’ essential feature was that they were moderate revolutionaries. To put it succinctly, they were representatives of what Adams called the “moneyed interests,” a class devoted to making money through trade and banking, a class that had been growing in numbers and strength for centuries before the Revolution. This class came to be known as the bourgeoisie (i.e., the town dwellers). But for those whose business is making money, whatever makes money is good, no matter the moral, spiritual, or social cost; the only rule of the game is liberté for all, égalité among all (at least at the start). How can such people have any respect for the Church, the monarchy, or the nobility; traditional prejudices and institutions like the family; or, generally speaking, all social standards and regulations imposed by a purportedly superior authority of long-standing habit? In other words, this bourgeoisie constituted both explicitly and implicitly a social class eager for a social revolution; they were a fundamentally revolutionary class, undermining wittingly or not the aristocratic fabric of France’s traditional society. This is amply proved by the fact that they voted for the beheading of the hapless Louis XVI and supported an aggressive policy of war against the countries they considered a danger to the Revolution; or again by the fact that they did not hesitate to buy the property of the Church or of the exiled or assassinated nobles, property called biens nationaux (national property) by the National Assembly, and offered for sale to such people as themselves. Willingly or not, the bourgeois class, the Girondins, promoted the Revolution and its various slogans just as much as the Jacobins did.
But then, even though they went to bed with the Jacobins, they could not go all the way. Indeed, the hard-core revolutionaries (Robespierre, Marat, Babeuf) were men pursuing the implementation of a rather austere, authoritarian, and more or less socialistic society in which private economic activities were considered unpatriotic, and freedom in general, though not properly spurned, was thought to be achieved through the enforcement by the state of radical equality. The Girondins could not agree to such a program: Their professions primarily required strict limitations on political power over trade and all related activities, and unfailing protection of what individuals might have hoarded, whatever the inequalities that might result from such endeavors.
Hence, the contradictory stance of the Girondins. If being “on the right” meant a commitment to natural laws that no man should violate—a stance contrary to the Revolution’s basic principle—then the only bona fide right comprised the nobles, priests, and peasants who, in the name of a superior order of things, opposed the Revolution as soon as it got underway. But the very fact that, all things considered, the Ancien Régime was swept away and the Revolution triumphed meant that the true-blooded right was readily doomed and could survive only as a marginalized fraction on the new French political spectrum. What took its place and played the role of a right-wing faction was that portion of the French political “elite” that was both fundamentally favorable to the Revolution and, at the same time, strongly opposed to the Revolution.
Ever since then, the French Right has essentially been the town dwellers, people who make a living from trade and services, who have upheld, often vociferously, the famous principles of 1789, while being extremely anxious to rein in the revolutionary spirit. They have been condemned to fight the unfettered development of revolutionary ideas, even though they could not help feeling guilty about doing just that; they have never stopped voicing their opposition to any form of aristocratic authoritarianism, on the one hand, or to communism, the ultimate offspring of the revolutionary spirit, on the other. But inasmuch as they have stood firm against any return to a traditional order of society, they have been revolutionaries in their own right, in cahoots willy-nilly with the left, even though the latter was a faction that fundamentally loathed all individual profit-oriented endeavors.
I feel it necessary to insist: The basic and irretrievable weakness of the French Pseudo Right has always been that, when challenged by the left (“Since you agree on the need for significant social change, why are you suddenly so reluctant to achieve this change?”), they have always been unable to find any reason for their reluctance other than their own private interest. “Get rich,” they were famously told by François Guizot in the 1830’s, which was fine with them but not a convincing principle when they had to stand up to the socialistic crowds on their left. As history shows, the French Right has always relied on the French Left as its most natural ally, as long as the common aim was the downfall of the counter-revolutionaries. But the French Right has regularly been at a loss when seeking support in order to prevent the revolutionaries from going too far.
For this reason, the French Right has always yearned for a sort of protector, a kind of superman who is firmly opposed to the Old France, but nonetheless willing, at least apparently, to oppose the ultraleft. Hence the French Right’s embrace of every potential political savior who appears equally hostile toward “fascism” and communism, from Napoléon I to General De Gaulle and all of his successors.
This brings us to the present situation, which seems to me to be the direct and clear continuation of the one that prevailed as far back as the French Revolution. Indeed the same drama—or tragicomedy—is reenacted, I think, by the same renascent actors.
For some decades, there has been a more or less equivalent of the counter-revolutionaries of yesteryear, one that is more or less opposed to the continuing revolution (particularly in the realm of manners and morals), and by the same token opposed to the wishy-washy so-called right and its inability to criticize what is vaunted as “progress.” Such is the populist National Front, the only remnant of a true-blooded conservative party. For these very reasons, the National Front has been excluded from the club of regularly elected politicians.
On the opposite side dwell the actual heirs to the Jacobins, nowadays represented by the French Communist Party and its various satellites, like the affiliated workers’ union (the CGT). From its midst has recently emerged somebody who has been a hit on the political stage, a man called Mélenchon.
And then in the middle stands the usual right, the usual moderates, as usual adopting the principles of the Revolution but rejecting its ultimate consequences, and therefore equally terrified by the National Front and by the communists. Despite some superficial differences, this right resembles its 19th-century forebear: Both hate anything that smacks of a moral order. If anything, while the 18th-century right acted out of sheer class selfishness, the modern right is able to wrap itself in a mantle of self-righteousness, since whoever disagrees with absolute tolerance (the mantra of today) may thereby be accused of the narrow-mindedness displayed by all the former supporters of closed societies—the National Socialists being their most recent exemplification. This bulging middle has been, roughly since the end of World War II, represented and led by two parties, which are respectively to the right and left of the same center, meaning the moderate Socialists, on one hand, and those who today call themselves Les Républicains, on the other. These groups are in opposition to each other primarily because of the fact that they cannot all be elected at the same time to the same seats, but share a common abhorrence of the National Front, whom they consider fascists, and a common wariness of authoritarian communism.
Following the conclusion of the Second World War, the presidents of France have generally won election because of their ability to embody the primacy of the middle-of-the-roaders. When Mr. Hollande decided to forfeit his possible reelection, the leaders of both traditionally competing parties entered into total war against one another, which had a disorienting effect on a great many voters. At that point, as if out of the blue, appeared a Pied Piper who was careful to be considered neither a communist nor a fascist, but eager to cater to both of the former traditionally moderate parties, so as to build anew a moderate right as close to the moderate left as possible. Thus, his support of the various social reforms (abortion, homosexual marriage) that the moderate right had approved along with the moderate left. Many voters were disconcerted by a project that so clearly debunked the apparent bipolarity they were used to, and rather massively abstained from voting. But they nevertheless did not vote for either of the two old accomplices, the Socialists or the Republicans. Their inaction was tantamount to supporting the new Pied Piper. And since the latter made a better score than the two extremes did, he managed to carry a relative but indisputable majority, composed entirely of middle-of-the-roaders, the present equivalent of the “right” that is so careful never to antagonize the left. Mr. Macron is a natural leader for the relative majority of citizens whose dream is to be left to their petty routine, to be able to fill their baskets at the local supermarket, and to go holidaying at least once a year with their ilk. Mr. Macron helps them imagine that there can be a basically atheistic society in which everyone can do as he desires, without clashing with anyone else; a society that can extend throughout Europe, and then finally the planet; a society begetting the universal brotherhood of consumers; an “open society,” the opposite of the “closed” ones that are always eager to proceed with a holocaust of “settlers” who are deemed impure for no reason other than that they have only recently arrived. (Mr. Macron seems to have been influenced by Henri Bergson or Karl Popper, the intellectual guru of George Soros.)
In other words, Mr. Macron embodies that significant fraction of the mostly town-dwelling population who, fearful of any regime that is respectful of traditional values, favor an ongoing democratic revolution while, at the same time, fearing its logical outcome: the reign of terror that, already in 1793-94, Robespierre thought necessary to curb the growing disorder bred by the development of unfettered economic activity. Mr. Macron is the leader of a right that is, as it always has been, nothing but a noncommunist left, a moderate left.