The more we go into this Charlie Hebdo story, the more I realize that I know next to nothing about France and how it works politically. For your consideration, here’s a fascinating 2012 analysis by John Gaffney of the London School of Economics, in which he observes that Marine Le Pen is making the Front National more acceptable to the mainstream by dumbing it down. Excerpts:
The French far right has two ideological sources, two streams that irrigate it. The most visible today is ‘populist’, with its cult of the leader, and themes of law and order, anti-immigration, xenophobia, and the exclusion of the ‘other’. The second stream is its intellectual tradition, and it is this which distinguishes the French far right from so many of its sister movements in other countries, such as the UK, and offers us lessons in the study of politics,
The French far right is intelligent. This makes it the more compelling and the more disconcerting. Compared to, say, the BNP in Burnley or Nick Griffin’s appearance on the BBC’s ‘Question Time’, we are talking of some of the best and the brightest. Far right thought is a rich and textured seam in the French intellectual imagination. It emerged in part from the writings and philosophy of highly influential and intellectually respected reactionary thinkers like Chateaubriand and de Maistre who began, as it were, a right wing narrative – dialoguing with their adversaries over the next two centuries – in negative reaction to the French Revolution of 1789. And they dialogued. In and out of the right, centre right, and far right, and even the left. They are part of the landscape.
In the twentieth century, writers on the nationalist far right such as Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras became enormously influential—and their influence was felt well beyond the right. Even today, the French intellectual class wrestles with its conscience over someone such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a fascist intellectual, a nasty antisemite, and yet a brilliant and innovative novelist. Not surprisingly, the triumph of the far right reached its zenith during the Nazi Occupation and Vichy France (1940-44).
Marine is good on TV, she’s a reasonable debater, and she seems to have chosen to walk away from lots of the right’s traditions and manners. But the detox also involves – apart from all the other things it involves – losing one’s intellectual tradition. Does this have advantages – for her and/or for those who oppose the FN? Marine Le Pen is ‘ordinary’, in fact, very and deliberately ordinary. She is, in the true tradition of the far right, a very forceful personality. But she’s a particular forceful, and a particular ordinary. She’s a twice divorced mum who lives with her partner and their respective kids. That is a far cry from far right values, in itself. And the fact that it is a woman leading this movement is fascinating, a movement whose philosophy and populism loves the leader, but never imagined it might be a female leader. But she is not like Joan of Arc, the FN’s female heroine. She has no visions. No grace inhabits her; she is more like a bossy and assertive middle manager at Asda.
She certainly doesn’t look as if – unlike her father – she has read Barrès or Voyage au bout de la nuit…. as have all French politicians and intellectuals. One gets the impression that not only has she not read them, she doesn’t give a toss either.