The French Intellectual Right
In the latest issue of The American Conservative, editor Scott McConnell presents a well-considered and superlatively researched article on why France, and perhaps no longer the U.S., is at “the epicenter of today’s fearsome battle between Western elites bent on protecting and expanding the well-entrenched policy of mass immigration and those who see this spreading influx as the ultimate threat to the West’s cultural heritage, not to say its internal tranquility.” France has brought forth an intelligentsia—and, in figures like Marine Le Pen, political leaders—whose focus is on “national culture and its survival.” What in the U.S. is an almost totally marginalized political fringe, paleoconservatives together with elements of the alt-right, might feel at home in contemporary France; while our “mainstream think-tank conservatism,” with its emphasis on “lowering taxes, cutting federal programs, and maintaining some kind of global military hegemony,” would seem irrelevant to the French intellectual right.
For full disclosure, let me mention that at least one of Scott’s French contacts, Alain Imatz, who represents perfectly the kind of French intellectual he describes, is someone whom the author met through me. Alain and I have been friends and correspondents for over 30 years, and his understanding of the French nation and the enjeu social (social question) confronting his people make eminently good sense to Scott and me. Although I have focused on German more than French intellectual history, most of the authors and social critics whom Scott cites are for me familiar names. I agree with Scott that Éric Zemmour, a Moroccan Jew who has tried to revive the sense of French honor that he associates with the late General de Gaulle, illustrates the new identitarian French politics. So too does the iconoclastic novelist Michel Houllebecq, who, despite his shockingly erotic work, clearly loathes multiculturalism and despises French Islamophiles. Another figure in this Pleiades of intellectuals of the French right is Christophe Guilluy, who often sounds like the French Steve Bannon. In his books La Francepériphérique(2014) and Le crepuscule de la France d’en haut (2016), Guilluy comes to the defense of that 60 percent of the French population living on the “periphery,” that is, outside of metropolitan areas and the sprawling suburbs. These are the “les Francais de souche,” the true indigenous French, whom the globalist elites treat like human waste while they cut production costs by bringing in cheap labor from the Muslim Third World.
Although those who speak for the French grunges (les ploucs) would like us to think that they stand beyond right and left, Scott is correct to assign these tribunes of the people to the historic right. Our friend Alain Imatz would disagree, and in his long book that I just finished reading, Droite/gauche: pour sortir de l’équivoque (2016), argues that the terms right and left no longer apply to contemporary French politics. Imatz says we are dealing with a “huge displacement” in which the historic French nation is being sacrificed on the altar of globalist financial interests and “human rights platitudes.” Scott appropriately points out that once the conversation turns to historic nations and native workforces, those who do the defending will inevitably be classified as being on the right. No matter how often Marine Le Pen calls for protecting the jobs of French workers, she will be characterized by Fox News as well as CNN as a figure of the “far right.” In contrast, Emmanuel Macron, the spokesman for multinational business interests and the candidate of former President Obama and the French Socialist Party, fits our establishment-conservative notion of a “centrist.” Although their right and our conservative establishment operate on different wavelengths, our Republican media understand that the French right is most decidedly on the right. Where else can one place a movement that worries first and foremost about national identity and the survival of a millennial civilization?
Scott might have added to his sketches of the figures of the French right a few more personalities who help illustrate his key point. Philippe de Villiers, Jean-Yves Gallou, and Jean-Pierre Chevènement are all veterans of French national politics who strongly represent and even prefigured the French nationalist politics described by Scott. All of them, like Marine, are EU critics and Eurosceptics and relentlessly critical of Muslim immigration into France. The former Sarkozy advisor Patrick Buisson is also worth studying because of his heroic efforts to cement together an alliance between French populists and the French establishment center-right. The Sarkozy center-right, out of which Buisson has emerged, looks very much like our conservative establishment; and not surprisingly, Buisson’s efforts have generally met with skepticism from the French populist right. Scott is correct, by the way, not to bring into his piece a longtime acquaintance of mine, Alain de Benoist, progenitor of the not very new Nouvelle Droite. Benoist has been active as a publicist since the 1960s but has moved about so fitfully in his political stances, from supporting French Algeria to being an identitarian multiculturalist hoping to turn Europe into a collection of independent ethnic groups from all over the planet, that it may be hard to associate him specifically with those tendencies that Scott discusses.
I would not have included in this commentary on the French populist, nationalist right either the French social commentator Alain Finkielkraut or the Sorbonne professor Pierre Manent. Manent may be described (and indeed has described himself) as a French disciple of Leo Strauss; he has cultivated close relations with American neoconservatives for many decades. Although he has written critically about Muslim immigration and the erosion of European identity, it is hard to view this political theorist as being in the same ideological boat with Zemmour, Gallou, and the Front National. Despite Finkielkraut’s enthusiasm for the anti-democrat Martin Heidegger, he too seems to be something of a liberal-democratic centrist, and perhaps one who is nostalgic for an older left. Finkielkraut has gained publicity by criticizing the practice of allowing Muslim girls to wear head coverings (foulards) to public schools. But he also opposes with almost equal vigor the association of Christian and other religious symbols from what from his perspective should be an immaculately secular French educational system. Finally Finkielkraut holds a globalist vision of France as the source of the “rights of man,” a vision that sounds very much like the neoconservatives’ concept of America as a universal “propositional nation.”
Manent and Finkielkraut, it may be argued, are holdovers from the 1980s, when there was a thriving sodality of French neoconservatives, a company to which I would also attach the names Jean-Marie Benoist, Guy Sorman, and Jean-Francois Revel. This sodality, which arose in the wake of the victories of Reagan and Thatcher and was irrigated with American foundation funds, is well on its way to dissolving. It has little to do with the more genuine or more serious French right that Scott has presented. This, bear in mind, is not a value judgment, but an effort to put people in the proper political categories.
Paul Gottfried is the author ofLeo Strauss and the American Conservative Movement.