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Making France Great Again

“Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu,” presented by Charles Butler, 1895.

It’s nice to be remembered fondly 375 years after you’ve died. That’s the case for Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duke of Richelieu and of Fronsac, known to history as Cardinal Richelieu.

Richelieu’s name is easy to find in France; it’s on statues and plaques, street signs and postage stamps. And here’s the newest remembrance: France’s National Front, the nationalist political party led by Marine Le Pen, has announced its campaign platform for the 2017 presidential balloting, scheduled for April and May. A plank in Le Pen’s platform calls for a substantial increase in defense spending, including the construction of a new aircraft carrier, to be named, yes, Richelieu.

Richelieu might be best known to Americans as the scheming villain in Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling historical novel of 17th-century France, The Three Musketeers, which has been made into a movie at least two dozen times.

Of course, to be a proper villain, one must have power. Richelieu had plenty of power, and he used it to change France. And so even if Dumas chose to depict Richelieu as a villain, many in France think of him as a hero.

In fact, admiration for Richelieu is especially strong on the right; for instance, Éric Zemmour, the anti-PC author of the Le Pen-esque best-seller Le Suicide Français and many other works, is an ardent fan of Richelieu. And from the grave, the cardinal seems to admire the author right back: Zemmour is a laureate of the coveted Prix Richelieu.

Richelieu was no saint, to be sure, and yet, warts and all, he is remembered in his country as an effective champion of French power and national unity—more on that in a moment.

Le Pen’s National Front, of course, is the right-of-center party that combines a desire to control France’s national borders with a desire to control France’s international destiny—that is, to leave the European Union (EU). And while the National Front has its own warts, its unabashed nationalism is newly relevant—in fact, it’s now leading in the polls. Why, one could even say that the Front’s goal is to “Make France Great Again.”

Indeed, nationalist hostility to the EU is the force that propelled the United Kingdom toward “Brexit” last year. And so the National Front proudly takes its place among the many political parties in Europe that are opposing the EU, including the UK Independence Party and the Alternative for Germany Party.

It was the same nationalist spirit that animated Americans to elect Donald Trump. Indeed, in January, Le Pen and three of her colleagues were spotted having coffee at a café in Trump Tower in Manhattan. (It’s not known whom within Team Trump, if anyone, she might have met with.)

Okay, so who was Richelieu? And why is he important to French nationalists? Born to minor nobility in Paris in 1585, at the tender age of 21 he was consecrated as a bishop in the Catholic Church. (In those days, it was standard for younger sons—Richelieu was the youngest of three—to be fast-tracked into the clergy.)

Proving himself to be a talented administrator, Richelieu moved up fast; as he said, “Carry on any enterprise as if all future success depended on it.” In 1616, he was named secretary of state to King Louis XIII, and in 1624 he became, in effect, the prime minister. He served in that position until his death in 1642.

Without rehashing all the ins and outs of French politics during the era of the Bourbon kings, we can sum up Richelieu’s accomplishments in two specific points: first, an emphasis on national unity, and second, a practical determination to achieve national greatness in the international arena.

With the hindsight of history, not all of Richelieu’s works will sit well with American readers—or with any modern audience—and yet, nevertheless, they are worth knowing. Why? Because Americans have now come to realize that their country faces severe challenges; indeed, on close inspection, one can see that the U.S. in the 21st century faces some of the same challenges that France faced in the 17th century, notably, challenges to national unity and to national greatness.


So let’s look briefly at how Richelieu responded to and mastered these challenges:

First, an emphasis on national unity. At the beginning of Richelieu’s career, it wasn’t obvious that France was, or ever would be, a unitary nation-state with its capital in Paris. In those days, the aristocracy was strong; each nobleman had his regional domain and his own ideas about power and governance. To put that another way, the nobility viewed France as just a collection of duchies, each with its own army or militia, each with its own special powers of taxation and trade, and many with only a tenuous loyalty to France itself.

From the point of view of local autonomy—that is, local autonomy as controlled by an unelected duke—such an arrangement was fine, but from the point of national power, it was disastrous. And in fact, a decentralized France was riven by bloody feuds, rebellions, even civil wars.

Of course, the reference to “civil war” reminds us of our own Civil War, from 1861 to 1865. The many debates over that conflict will never be resolved, but this much we should know for sure: if the Confederacy had not been defeated—if the Union had not prevailed—the resulting political fragments of North America would never have been able to survive against the emerging world superpowers of Britain, Germany, Russia, Japan, and, yes, France. So we can see a hard imperative of geopolitics: get big or get eaten. It’s the law of the global jungle: the strong swallow the weak. As Richelieu knew, national strength is a matter of sticking together for the sake of survival; it’s hard to think of a higher patriotic value than that.

We might also pause here to note that in our time, it will take a strong central government to put a stop to the foolishness of “sanctuary cities” and even “sanctuary states.” If California, for example, is allowed to keep open its border with Mexico—and through Mexico, with the whole wide world—then that’s a reckless policy that will imperil, too, the other 49 states. So we can see: if we are to be a secure and confident United States, as opposed to an insecure collection of endangered states, then we need a strong national policy. Four centuries ago, Richelieu thought the same thing.

Back in his day, on behalf of French unity, Richelieu never hesitated to take strong action. Through cajolery when possible and force when necessary, he squelched the independence of the nobility.

In addition, and much less pleasantly, he squelched the political power of the Protestants, known in France as Huguenots. The Huguenots were a threat to French unity, Richelieu believed, because they were naturally allied with the Protestant states of Europe, notably, France’s traditional arch-rival, England. As we all remember from school days, in the previous century, the German Martin Luther, a onetime Catholic priest, had launched the Reformation; in the resulting schismatic war within Christendom, most of Northern Europe broke away from Catholicism, embracing Protestantism. And in Richelieu’s time, too, the Catholic-Protestant split was the bloodiest politico-military dividing line in Europe.

From Richelieu’s perspective in France, the choice for his country was clear: Since the vast majority of Frenchmen were Catholic, the best course for national unity was Catholicism. We might note, with a sigh of lament, that the idea of individual freedom of conscience—choosing one’s own faith—was only just beginning to come into existence. One might even hope that a Richelieu of today would be more tolerant, even if still, in his steely way, determined.

Yet back in the day, if the Huguenots didn’t like the idea of having only limited religious freedom under Catholic hegemony, well, they had to either leave the country or be persecuted, even killed. Once again, by modern standards, such harshness is hard to comprehend, let alone justify, and yet it must be said, by way of explanation, if not defense, that such enforced religious unanimity was the general rule back then, on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide.

Ironically, even though he was a champion of Catholic power—he was himself, after all, a Catholic cleric—Richelieu was no Catholic zealot. Indeed, some contemporaries wondered if he believed in God at all.

Interestingly, in that era, it was hard to be a devout Catholic and a national political leader at the same time, because as far as the Roman Church was concerned, true devotion to Catholicism meant submitting to the political will of the pope, and few leaders were willing to do that—and certainly not Richelieu. The greatness of France was Richelieu’s true faith. And so, just as with the Huguenots, the once-powerful Catholic hierarchy would have to bow down to the national interest. Paris before Rome.

So yes, the cardinal wanted Catholics to dominate France, but at the same time, he wanted France to dominate Catholics. And as a practical matter, that meant that the French king, embodying the nation as a whole, would make all the decisions—with Richelieu, of course, helping out.

Indeed, as we look at Richelieu’s wily politicking, we can see beginnings of the idea of “nationalism,” even if the word itself wasn’t coined until the 19th century. (In France, by the way.)


Thus we’re starting to see why Richelieu, flaws and all, is relevant to today: in his time, he saw himself as the upholder of united French sovereignty against multinationalism—the multinationalism of both the Protestants and the Catholics. And now, four centuries later, Marine Le Pen is similarly seeking to uphold French sovereignty against the multinational EU, as well as, more broadly, the myriad powers of globalism.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., champions of American sovereignty—now led, of course, by President Trump—find themselves in a tough struggle against international combines. That is, American nationalists must defend their country’s uniqueness against the encroachments of, for instance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and the United Nations.

So despite all the differences between then and now, Richelieu can be seen as an early champion not only of French nationalism, but also of all nationalism, in every country. Yes, wherever a leader believes that the basic unit of decision-making ought to be the nation-state, there, also, is the spirit of Richelieu.

Second, a determination to achieve national greatness in the international arena. Richelieu’s France found itself in a dangerous neighborhood—that is to say, Europe. The greatest power of that era was the House of Hapsburg, which, at that time, controlled ruled much of Central Europe and Italy. And a different branch of the the Hapsburg family reigned over Spain and also, for a time, Portugal, as well as all their overseas possessions, including the fabulous gold mines of Mexico and the silver mines of Peru. And oh yes, present-day Belgium and Holland, too.

So if we look at a map, we can see not only that the Hapsburgs, writ large, were preeminent in power and wealth, but that, in addition, they had France surrounded. And the fact that the Hapsburgs were Catholic, same as the French, meant nothing; the Hapsburgs were as eager to gain control over Catholic Paris as they were to regain authority over Protestant Berlin.

So what to do? How to keep France from being crushed? Richelieu had a simple but shrewd idea: Realpolitik. That is, he would step across the religious divide and work with the Protestant powers to check the might of the Hapsburgs. It was not high-toned “moral clarity” that inspired Richelieu; it was bottom-line practicality. That worked a lot better.

In 1618, the many religious tensions in Europe once again erupted into open conflict, in what came to be known as the Thirty Years’ War. During that fighting, Richelieu’s France didn’t just make alliances with Protestant countries such as England, Prussia, and Sweden; it also paid them subsidies to keep their armies in the field—that is, fighting the Hapsburgs. The warfare was savage; the main battlefield was Germany, and it’s been estimated that the population of that ravaged land fell by a third during those three horrible decades. And yet, in the end, the French-led coalition emerged victorious.

From the perspective of nearly four centuries, it’s understandable that most people today might not care about all this history, and yet it’s easy to understand why the French do care. And that’s why Le Pen’s National Front wants to build a new warship and name it after a man who died in 1642.

Okay, so now: What are the implications of Richelieu’s career for the United States? What’s the takeaway for us? We might draw three key lessons:

First, American unity can no longer be taken for granted, and so we must develop a positive strategy for reinstilling nationalistic togetherness. That is, a half-century of unchecked immigration and government-subsidized multiculturalism have taken their toll on our collective solidarity. So even after we regain control of our border, we’d also better find a way to restore the idea of “patriotic assimilation” and policies appropriate for the furtherance of that goal. That is, we can be multi-ethnic, but we must not be multicultural, and down that road is … chaos. We need to be one nation again.

Obviously, the specific tactics that Richelieu used for national consolidation are not applicable anymore, although, of course, the same can be said for many once-accepted elements of life, then compared to now.

Yet still, Richelieu’s larger nationalistic vision is enduringly essential, and that’s what Le Pen is choosing to enshrine. As the Bible said before Richelieu, and as Lincoln said after Richelieu, a house divided against itself cannot stand. And today, as we all know, our own house is tottering—and so we’d better get serious about fixing it. And studying history is a good way to learn about possible repair tools.

Second, America must be realistically practical, as opposed to unrealistically ideological, in pursuit of its national objectives. If, for example, our main goal is to defeat and eliminate Islamic terrorism, then of course we should be working with other countries that share the same goal.

And as we discovered in Afghanistan and Iraq, we can’t do it by ourselves. In both of those forlorn wars, the U.S. and a few half-hearted allies faced not only the active hostility of the insurgents, but also the quiet hostility of many of the major powers in Asia, notably Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan. To put the matter bluntly, in those wars we suffered from a bad case of too many enemies and not enough allies. As Richelieu understood, the goal of diplomacy is to divide one’s enemies, not to unite them.

So if we want to win in the future, we need to “flip” some countries from foes to friends. That’s what we did in World War II, when both Russia and China were on our side in the fight against fascism. Today, some nations, such as Iran, may be hopeless enemies, but other powers could be allies, because they too are confronting the threat of Islamism. Thus Richelieu, who was willing to work with anybody to achieve his national objectives, could be a valuable historical guide.

Third, countries tend to be remember their great leaders—and properly so. And that’s why, four centuries later, France still honors Richelieu.

In the meantime, the United States of America is not even three centuries old, and so most current judgments about our history must be regarded, in the long eye of history, as merely tentative. And yet it’s safe to say that a special place in our pantheon will be reserved for those leaders who have kept our country together.

James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel.

about the author

James P. Pinkerton is a longtime contributing editor at The American Conservative, columnist, and author. He served as longtime regular columnist for Newsday. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, National Review, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, Fortune, and The Jerusalem Post. He is the author of What Comes Next: The End of Big Government--and the New Paradigm Ahead (1995).He worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and in the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. 

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