Conservative, Moi? Jamais De La Vie!

It’s the political label that dares not speak its name in France. And Nicolas Sarkozy’s latest rebranding exercise will change nothing

“A certain idea of France”: Charles de Gaulle, pictured in 1963 (photo: Gnotype)

The British general election had an astonishing outcome in the eyes of the French public. Not because the Tories won, not because UKIP lost, not because the SNP broke through, but because unsuccessful British political leaders tend to do something utterly surprising when they lose: they resign. I come from a country where unsuccessful political leaders, when they lose, say they are going to quit politics for ever, earn millions touring the world attending conferences, and return to politics as though nothing had happened — France, of course. Nicolas Sarkozy, our former and now would-be president did exactly that when he announced his comeback last September and won the presidency of his former party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), in December. He did even better when he decided, with one of those magic tricks that only he can pull off, to wipe the slate clean and change the name of his party. In May, after a majority of docile members accepted the new branding, the UMP became Les Républicains.

And branding it is because one struggles to see any deep meaning in this facelift. It is a way to leave the party’s failure in 2012 behind, to highlight Sarkozy’s comeback and to annoy the Left by appropriating one of its core concepts, the Republic. Plus, in playing the music of rassemblement, Sarkozy is cannily silencing his opponents within the party, who were forced to appear under his banner like loyal cheerleaders.

Still, much ado for a dubious result, because Sarkozy is still Sarkozy, even if his party has a new name. It is a particularly bizarre move for a party on the Right, supposedly conservative, hence willing to uphold the past, beginning with its own. Can you imagine the British Conservative party, which dates back to 1830, changing its name for no other reason than a tactical manoeuvre, and a childish one at that? The Tory party, like any other great party, has experienced great failures and internal battles throughout its history, beginning with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, which almost destroyed it. The party recovered, remaining loyal to its legacy while adapting to new challenges. But the French Right seems to be obsessed with superficial change, unable to keep the same name for more than a few years. The Gaullist party has had no fewer than 12 names since 1945. Each time there was some supposedly new purpose, hiding personal rivalries and electoral calculation; each time there was the illusion of a renewal, with the same people involved. As we say in French, on prend les mêmes et on recommence.

This is no coincidence. There may be in this fickleness something more meaningful, this truly unconservative attitude being a symptom of a more fundamental fact of French politics: that there is no such thing as French conservatism as a political and intellectual tradition.

The international press, when discussing the French Right, talks about “conservatives”. It has no choice: the only way to make what happens abroad understandable is to use concepts that your own readers will understand. But the striking fact is that no French person described as conservative abroad will use the term to describe himself at home. No leader on the Right will ever claim to be so, either with a small or capital “c”. I remember Jean-François Copé, a former president of the UMP, saying in 2013: “I will never let people say that the Right is conservative.” He may have been stating his suspicion of any kind of status quo, but he was also expressing something deeper. In France the name “conservative” doesn’t belong to the common political vocabulary; worse, it is understood as an insult: the conservateur is our political taboo. It is an intellectual one as well: when I interviewed a French intellectual on the subject, one of those you immediately think is the epitome of conservatism, he told me he was not a conservative because his Christian belief made him too much of a revolutionary in the current climate. He was playing with words to avoid reality. Last August, the thinker Marcel Gauchet was caught in the middle of a media storm because it was deemed impossible by some that he, a supposed conservative, was to introduce an academic conference about “rebellion in history” — the funniest thing being that Gauchet is not a conservative at all, merely an intelligent scholar.

There are understandable reasons for the French suspicion of conservatism. The French Revolution was a traumatic event because it forced the French to choose between the monarchist past and the democratic present without any compromise being available. The first “conservatives” were of necessity the monarchists, implacably opposed to the Revolution. In time, some of them adapted to the new political system, the Republic, especially after Napoleon III, but the great mistake of the contre-révolutionnaires was to remain so even at the end of the 19th century, when the Republic showed itself to be a success. Being stubborn monarchists and reactionaries, they were fundamentally anti-liberal and totally unable to accept that French society couldn’t survive in its old shape. Still, they preferred to be sidelined, becoming less and less numerous and more and more radical. In the 20th century, eventually, they found refuge in the extremism of Charles Maurras and his bitter anti-Semitism, which fortunately died with the end of the war, when the true colours of the revanchist Right were unveiled.

That is why in France today, for someone on the Right who would like to think of himself or herself as a conservative, there is nothing which compares to the richness of British political or intellectual conservatism. Where is the intelligent balance between tradition and change to be found? Where is the preference for everything which grows from below to anything inspired by the state? Where is the strong belief in liberty and the rule of law? Sometimes the British complain that their politicians lack intellectual substance. But at least British conservative politicians can place themselves, if they wish, in a philosophical tradition. British conservatism has a political and intellectual existence — even if it is “not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition”, as Oakeshott famously stated.

Does this ambiguous legacy necessarily imply that, beyond the political and intellectual definition, there is no such thing as French conservatism as a cultural concept? On closer examination, the situation in France is more complex. As in Britain, the French Right is not monolithic. A large section of it, in a rather pathetic attempt to mimic the progressives, prefers to boast about “reform” and “renewal” — which, once it is in government, rarely happens. Some of them are sincerely progressive—why not? — while others say they are because they deem it to be fashionable. Another part of the Right, though smaller, has a more conservative character. Sarkozy’s speech at the Républicains conference stated everything dear to a cultural conservative’s heart: strong criticism of egalitarianism, praise of meritocracy and entrepreneurship, and love of the family. It does not mean that Sarkozy has become a conservative, but that he and his friends express now something closer to conservatism than they did before.

Some Anglophone commentators saw the “Republican” rebranding as a sign that the French Right — and the pro-American Sarkozy — wanted to move closer to its US counterpart. I doubt it very much, for the simple reason that when the French say “Republican” they mean “the Republic” — that is the only liberal tradition, in the sense of political liberalism, that they have. By seeking to appropriate the Republican legacy Sarkozy irritated the Left, even provoking an unsuccessful court appeal. But to associate the Republic only with the Left would be to forget that the French Republic is indeed a shared inheritance, even if the Revolution was a leftist product. The moderate Right progressively accepted the Republic throughout the 20th century, culminating in De Gaulle’s reign and the Gaullist Fifth Republic, which were all about the nation and pride in being French. Simultaneously, the progressive Left, trapped by its own pledge of extending the “rights” of individuals further and further, sacrificed the Republic — and is still doing so — on the altar of identity politics, leaving the inheritance ready to be claimed by others. The French Right, in claiming the name Les Républicains, is not taking the side of Rousseau but that of Jules Ferry, twice prime minister in the 1880s.

In that perspective, an important distinction needs to be drawn between the Republic and the Revolution. The Revolution was a breach; the Republic is a stable and secure regime. The French Right has found in it a suitable and moderate tradition, but not all the Republics are alike: the one that the Right cherishes is the Republic in its first manifestation, rigorous and meritocratic, not socialist. While the Left is still aiming at a permanent revolution, now focused on minorities and gender, the Right is keen to halt the Republic where it is. Hence the paradox: this Republic now has all the characteristics of a conservative regime, and indeed embodies French conservative tradition. This French conservatism is rather special: it has arrived, through another route, at some of Anglophone conservatism’s conclusions; but at the same time it cannot take the side of Burke against Paine because of Republican history. It has to take both sides at the same time, as nonsensical as this may sound. As much as I admire Burke and believe he was right in everything he wrote about order, tradition and continuity, he was probably unable to see that the only possible transition for the French people from absolutism to liberalism was by means of a violent disruption — that of 1789, though not the Terror. To be Republican is the only way for the French Right to be liberal. To be old-style Republican is the only way for the French Right to be conservative.

It would greatly help if part of the French Right could gather under a conservative banner. But as a conservative, I have to accept that the tradition of the French Right is to be divided and promote change, even superficially. I have to accept as well that this conservatism is rather statist, has more to do with the Catholic than the Protestant tradition, and that the Burkean “little platoon” is at best unknown in France, at worst mostly feared, because it is seen as a dangerous symptom of the separatist aspirations of a “community” — another French taboo. French conservatism resembles Mrs Thatcher’s “society”: when thinking “there is no such thing as French conservatism”, you have to believe that there is one really, but not the one you usually imagine.

In those circumstances, let’s be conservative with what we have and accept that in France a conservative stance is possible, but the name isn’t, if one hopes to appeal to the majority of the Right. For its philosophical roots, we can count on the many cultural conservatives among French intellectuals. But the political task will be the hardest.

What is to be done? Save French schools from catastrophe while there is still time, uphold French culture and the French nation, give people a little more autonomy and business some fresh air. And no more name-changing, please. That would make a nice conservative start.

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