The New French Right — C’est Catho!
Mark Lilla has a fascinating essay in the current New York Review of Books, about a new kind of conservative emerging on the French Right. Unfortunately it’s behind the NYRB paywall. I’m going to quote some of it here. Reading it, I thought, “They are talking about my Benedict Option friends in Paris.” When I sent those friends the text of the Lilla piece, I discovered that they talked to him at length for it.
He begins by talking about Marion Maréchal Le Pen’s addressing CPAC here in the US. I found her speech to be galvanizing, but Lilla rightly says that most American listeners probably couldn’t understand what she was getting at. The Lilla essay explains why. From the introductory section:
Something new is happening on the European right, and it involves more than xenophobic populist outbursts. Ideas are being developed, and transnational networks for disseminating them are being established. Journalists have treated as a mere vanity project Steve Bannon’s efforts to bring European populist parties and thinkers together under the umbrella of what he calls The Movement. But his instincts, as in American politics, are in tune with the times. (Indeed, one month after Marion’s appearance at CPAC, Bannon addressed the annual convention of the National Front.) In countries as diverse as France, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Italy, efforts are underway to develop a coherent ideology that would mobilize Europeans angry about immigration, economic dislocation, the European Union, and social liberalization, and then use that ideology to govern. Now is the time to start paying attention to the ideas of what seems to be an evolving right-wing Popular Front. France is a good place to start.
At the core of Lilla’s analysis is European Christian nationalism — a rising sense among younger Catholics on the continent that Christianity is a core part of European identity, and that Europe needs a politics based on a more intentional Christianity — a Christianity that regards the secularist liberal settlement of the European establishment (including center-right parties) as poison.
But they aren’t National Front types either. Lilla talks about the meaning of the massive La Manif pour Tous movement to block same-sex marriage, on the grounds that every child needs a father and a mother. Though we American Christians are supposed to be so much more religious than Europeans, nothing remotely like La Manif happened in America.:
The Catholic right’s campaign against same-sex marriage was doomed to fail, and it did. A large majority of the French support same-sex marriage, although only about seven thousand couples avail themselves of it each year. Yet there are reasons to think that the experience of La Manif could affect French politics for some time to come.
The first reason is that it revealed an unoccupied ideological space between the mainstream Republicans and the National Front. Journalists tend to present an overly simple picture of populism in contemporary European politics. They imagine there is a clear line separating legacy conservative parties like the Republicans, which have made their peace with the neoliberal European order, from xenophobic populist ones like the National Front, which would bring down the EU, destroy liberal institutions, and drive out as many immigrants and especially Muslims as possible.
These journalists have had trouble imagining that there might be a third force on the right that is not represented by either the establishment parties or the xenophobic populists. This narrowness of vision has made it difficult for even seasoned observers to understand the supporters of La Manif, who mobilized around what Americans call social issues and feel they have no real political home today. The Republicans have no governing ideology apart from globalist economics and worship of the state, and in
keeping with their Gaullist secular heritage have traditionally treated moral and religious issues as strictly personal, at least until Fillon’s anomalous candidacy. The National Front is nearly as secular and even less ideologically coherent, having served more as a refuge for history’s detritus—Vichy collaborators, resentful pieds noirs driven out of Algeria, Joan of Arc romantics, Jew- and Muslim-haters, skinheads—than as a party with a positive program for France’s future. A mayor once close to it now aptly calls it the “Dien Bien Phu right.”
The other reason La Manif might continue to matter is that it proved to be a consciousness-raising experience for a group of sharp young intellectuals, mainly Catholic conservatives, who see themselves as the avant-garde of this third force. In the last five years they have become a media presence, writing in newspapers like Le Figaro and newsweeklies like Le Point and Valeurs actuelles (Contemporary Values), founding new magazines and websites (Limite, L’Incorrect), publishing books, and making regular television appearances. People are paying attention, and a sound, impartial book on them has just appeared.
Whether anything politically significant will come out of this activity is difficult to know, given that intellectual fashions in France change about as quickly as the plat du jour. This past summer I spent some time reading and meeting these young writers in Paris and discovered more of an ecosystem than a cohesive, disciplined movement. Still, it was striking how serious they are and how they differ from American conservatives. They share two convictions: that a robust conservatism is the only coherent alternative to what they call the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of our time, and that resources for such a conservatism can be found on both sides of the traditional left–right divide. More surprising still, they are all fans of Bernie Sanders.
The intellectual ecumenism of these writers is apparent in their articles, which come peppered with references to George Orwell, the mystical writer-activist Simone Weil, the nineteenth-century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, the young Marx, the ex-Marxist Catholic philosopher Alasdair Macintyre, and especially the politically leftist, culturally conservative American historian Christopher Lasch, whose bons mots—“uprootedness uproots everything except the need for roots”—get repeated like mantras. They predictably reject the European Union, same-sex marriage, and mass immigration. But they also reject unregulated global financial markets, neoliberal austerity, genetic modification, consumerism, and AGFAM (Apple- Google-Facebook-Amazon-Microsoft).
One more passage, then I’ll stop:
That mélange may sound odd to our ears, but it is far more consistent than the positionsof contemporary American conservatives. Continental conservatism going back to the nineteenth century has always rested on an organic conception of society. It sees Europe as a single Christian civilization composed of different nations with distinct languages and customs. These nations are composed of families, which are organisms, too, with differing but complementary roles and duties for mothers, fathers, and children. On this view, the fundamental task of society is to transmit knowledge, morality, and culture to future generations, perpetuating the life of the civilizational organism. It is not to serve an agglomeration of autonomous individuals bearing rights.
Most of these young French conservatives’ arguments presume this organic conception. Why do they consider the European Union a danger? Because it rejects the cultural- religious foundation of Europe and tries to found it instead on the economic self-interest of individuals. To make matters worse, they suggest, the EU has encouraged the immigration of people from a different and incompatible civilization (Islam), stretching old bonds even further. Then, rather than fostering self-determination and a healthy diversity among nations, the EU has been conducting a slow coup d’état in the name of economic efficiency and homogenization, centralizing power in Brussels. Finally, in putting pressure on countries to conform to onerous fiscal policies that only benefit the rich, the EU has prevented them from taking care of their most vulnerable citizens and maintaining social solidarity. Now, in their view, the family must fend for itself in an economic world without borders, in a culture that willfully ignores its needs. Unlike their American counterparts, who celebrate the economic forces that most put “the family” they idealize under strain, the young French conservatives apply their organic vision to the economy as well, arguing that it must be subordinate to social needs.
Most surprising for an American reader is the strong environmentalism of these young writers, who entertain the notion that conservatives should, well, conserve. Their best journal is the colorful, well-designed quarterly Limite, which is subtitled “a review of integral ecology” and publishes criticism of neoliberal economics and environmental degradation as severe as anything one finds on the American left. (No climate denial here.) Some writers are no-growth advocates; others are reading Proudhon and pushing for a decentralized economy of local collectives. Others still have left the city and write about their experiences running organic farms, while denouncing agribusiness, genetically modified crops, and suburbanization along the way. They all seem inspired by Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’ (2015), a comprehensive statement of Catholic social teaching on the environment and economic justice.
Maybe you can understand why I feel so much more at home when I’m in Europe with Christian intellectuals like these people than I do anywhere among American conservatives (unless Patrick Deneen, Mark Mitchell, Jeff Polet or someone in their Front Porch Republic circle are hosting). If you have a subscription, read the whole thing.
Lilla points out that many establishment intellectuals in France don’t take these young Catholics seriously. They mistakenly (says Lilla) view them as National Front apologists. I can tell you from personal experience that Lilla is right: this is simply not true at all. This is typical left-liberal ideological stupidity. I would not be at all surprised if the center-right Gaullist were making the same mistake. We saw Establishment conservatives in the US make the same kind of mistake with Trump.
Lilla points out that Marion Maréchal Le Pen left the National Front’s successor party, and dropped the “Le Pen” from her name. Unlike her infamous grandfather and her aunt Marine, Marion is an intellectual and a serious Catholic. And she is young. She is the kind of political figure that certain young right-of-center intellectuals in the US want Trump to be, but that’s beyond his capacity. He’s just not that into it.
I wish J.D. Vance would get to know the Limite and L’Incorrect crowd (I could make introductions!). He could be our own Marion, I think — though I concede that might be my own unrealistic political fantasizing. Marion Maréchal, like the writers and thinkers around those small magazines, come out of and speak to a coherent conservative cultural view that we simply do not have in America. Our conservatism is far more classically liberal, and captive to uncritical worship of the free market. The new French conservatives are not anti-capitalist, but they believe that economics should be understood and practiced with a more holistic ideal of the common good and national flourishing.
Some of these new French conservatives are readers and followers of The Benedict Option (indeed one of them, Hubert Darbon, translated it into French). Lilla points out that the Limite crowd is more inclined to move to villages, plant gardens, and raise kids in traditional Catholicism — check out my posts from earlier this year about the Journeés Paysannes — whereas the L’Incorrect gang is more interested in confronting the decaying Establishment, and undertaking a Gramscian march through the institutions. There’s a lot of crossover between Limite and L’Incorrect, in real life — my friend the journalist Yrieix Denis writes for both. I see no contradiction between the two approaches. I would only counsel strongly that those who favor more direct engagement with the world should make absolutely certain that they do so from a position of real spiritual strength and discipline.
If you read French, check out Limite here. Here is a translation of the magazine’s “manifesto”:
Limite is an ecology magazine founded in 2015.
The journal promotes an integral ecology that is based on the sense of balance and respect for the limits specific to each thing.
Ecology, because it is a science of interactions and conditions of existence, can not choose the human against nature or nature against the human.
Promoting integral ecology means caring for the most vulnerable and the oppressed as well as opposing all that our ways of life can have degrading and alienating.
Refusing the omnipotence of technology and money, Limite wants to work towards ecological awareness by promoting sobriety, the relocation of our lives, conviviality and fraternity.
In this perspective, Limite is orchestrated by different sensibilities that coexist in a common project: encouraging all alternatives to the market society. Refusing the “alternation without alternative” of the right/left split, Limite reaches out to all those who fight the double empire of soulless technology and the lawless market.
Here is the website for L’Incorrect, which is much more straightforwardly political.
Marion Maréchal, as Lilla points out, is very much on the side of firm and decisive engagement and battle. Her CPAC speech (watch it below) was about this. I honestly don’t know if this kind of conservatism can ever take root in America, but I deeply hope so. It has a better chance in Europe — and, as I’m reading right now Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, and learning in much greater detail how the European establishment — left wing and right wing — sold out their civilization to mass immigration for the sake of global capitalism and “diversity,” I believe that that Establishment deserves to be smashed. The new French conservatism, and its political frères in the former Eastern Europe, represent the best hope Europe has to avoid real fascism. EU-style technocratic, deracinated liberalism is dying, and deserves to die.
UPDATE: Well, this from a conservative French Catholic reader is discouraging. I had forgotten that Marion abandoned her husband. And I did not know the Maurras/Mauriac distinction with the Limite movement. I would appreciate further explanation and discussion by French readers about these things:
I don’t share your enthusiasm for Marion Maréchal, however. Her conception of the “French identity” indeed is based on religion but above all on race, which has always been – and hopefully will remain – a notion foreign to French culture. Also she is a hypocrite, having divorced her husband and father of her daughter after a few years of marriage to live “sinfully” with a National Front cabinet member. That’s not the behaviour you’d expect from a faith-on-her-sleeve Catholic.
I’m also distrustful of the Limite movement, though it’s home to some remarkable people. Their Catholicity owes more to Maurras than Mauriac. I agree with them that secularism is a poison but we shall overcome by being better, not by conforming to the enemy’s clichés. Unlike them, I feel a stronger connection to my conservative, modest Muslim neighbour than my progressive, secular and Charlie-loving fellow-compatriots, and those I feel threaten most my way of life and values are not those they think.
UPDATE.2: From reader Robert_C:
As a young French Catholic I can say: great article! Both yours and Lilla’s. A few points:
– “A large majority of the French support same-sex marriage.” This was false at the time of the debates. As the debates progressed a small majority became in favour, but I am pretty sure that if there had been a referendum they would have lost (because unlike in the US, most people in favour of same sex marriage here don’t really care about it that much – those against it were passionate.)
–”That mélange may sound odd to our ears, but it is far more consistent than the positionsof contemporary American conservatives.” Yes !
– “Most of these young French conservatives’ arguments presume this organic conception [of society].” Very sharp point and very true – as well as very needed. It also seems like this conception is simply true. The modern atomised individual is an abstraction, and I think that most of its proponents used to understand that at least intuitively. Not anymore.
A final comment on your reader’s response. I agree with him to a limited extent on Marion Marechal, but she also does have a courage which is inspiring. Even though she does not live up to the ideas she is defending, she *is* giving them a vital presence in the public square. Nevertheless, I would not vote for her. Though I fully disagree with your reader on the Limite crowd. Though some of them are from reactionary backgrounds, they do not owe much to Maurras. There *is* a movement of Maurrassian young Catholics and it is getting stronger, but they lack the seriousness of the Limite crowd. In my view, the Maurrassians are mostly young reactionaries who want to have a thrill while affirming their identity. Arguing with them is almost impossible. On the contrary, the Limite crowd are hungry for all good ideas they can find, and they are very open to debate from all sides. I think they have the right attitude.
Maybe once this movement matures you can be a bridge between them and American conservatism. Post-Trump, once it has crashed and burned, it is going to need new and serious ideas to rebuild. Maybe France can be the laboratory for them.