Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Since the 1980s, the French left and right have formed a front républicain or cordon sanitaire to keep the Front national (FN) out of power. When Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine took over the party in 2011, she understood that the only road to electoral success was to purge the party of the anti-Semitism of its founder, her father—so she banished him. However, those who continue to denounce Jean-Marie Le Pen’s descendants as beyond the pale have forgotten how quarantines are supposed to work. Once the disease has been expunged, the patient can be readmitted to society. This fact was lost on those who decried Marion Maréchal-Le Pen’s appearance at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. They failed to see that Maréchal has not only declined to echo her grandfather’s toxic rhetoric (even dropping “Le Pen” from her last name), but has begun to articulate a new form of politics that it would be foolish to ignore.

In her speech, Maréchal of course stressed “France first,” and the will of the people against political elites. These sound like the standard themes of post-2016 American conservatism, but Maréchal took them in a very different direction. After making stock references to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as examples of populist revolts, she added a third: the Manif pour tous protests in defense of traditional marriage, which were among the largest protests in French history. Are there any American politicians who would so clearly link the defense of popular self-government to the defense of traditional marriage?

Moreover, Maréchal campaigns on bioethical issues, about which American conservative politicians are almost entirely silent. The Trump administration’s priorities on bioethics have been murky since 2016, and it has not yet replaced the Obama administration’s Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. Maréchal’s speech lasted less than ten minutes, yet she denounced transhumanism, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and gender theory. She speaks against “the right to rent a woman’s womb” and the commodification of pregnancy and children through surrogacy. Maréchal attributes these bioethical evils to an “atomized world of individuals” who exist “without gender, without fathers, without mothers, and without nation.” For her, it is a false conception of freedom that severs human beings from one another, especially their society, nation, and family. This erodes “the common good, natural law, and collective morality,” exacerbating the “reign of egoism.”

In other words, Maréchal is the voice of a French right that has turned against liberal individualism. To many, this observation will sound strange—surely the French right has always been opposed to liberalism! But that is a misperception born of stereotype. In fact, the modern history of the French right is one of liberalism’s rise to hegemony. To understand this, it is better to speak not of the French right, but of the French rights. In a classic of French political science, The Right Wing in France, René Rémond argued that the political factions composing the French right were divided into three traditions, with their origins in the nineteenth century: legitimism, Bonapartism, and Orléanism. Each of these had a different vision of France’s greatness.

Legitimism sought to restore the lost greatness of the ancien régime, found in its traditions and political institutions. Although out of power since 1830, it still had great influence through that century and beyond. Rémond places the anti-Dréfusards of the early 1900s and Action Française of the 1930s in this tradition, with some presence in the Vichy regime. Anti-republican and anti-liberal, it opposed the principles of the French Revolution.

Bonapartism seeks France’s greatness in a great French statesman, who scorns the political elite to act as the people’s representative. Its fullest expression was under Emperor Napoleon III, but it has clear parallels with Charles de Gaulle. When de Gaulle took power in 1958 to end the paralysis of the Fourth Republic, he made his case for strong national leadership in a Bonapartist way, asking the French people to approve his new constitution in a referendum. He won handily.

Taking its name from Philippe “Égalité,” the Duke of Orléans and cousin of King Louis XVI who supported the French Revolution, Orléanism thrived during the reign of his son King Louis Philippe I from 1830 to 1848. Sympathetic to the revolution, ­Orléanism draws support principally from the bourgeois. Orléanism is a version of liberalism. “Liberalism” here means liberal individualism, treating human beings as autonomous individuals who enter their social roles, moral commitments, and market exchanges by choice. Orléanism preaches skepticism of the traditional sources of authority that under­girded the ancien régime and threatened the autonomy of the individual. For Orléanism, greatness lies in individuals making their own free choices, in morals and markets, within a state unbound from traditions.

From 1958 onward, de Gaulle changed how these three traditions related to one another. Like the Third Republic, the Fourth Republic was primarily a parliamentary republic controlled by political parties. De Gaulle saw that this parliamentary system entrenched the views of the French party elite rather than the views of the French people. To break the power of the party factions, de Gaulle created a strong presidency that took major powers out of the hands of the legislative branch and placed them in the executive branch. The president could bypass the legislative branch entirely by seeking support directly from the people through referenda. Rather than build a normal political party to govern, de Gaulle appealed to France’s political traditions. His constitutional republicanism was overtly Bonapartist. But in his political program, he reached out to the Orléanists who otherwise might have been put off by his Bonapartism, championing economic liberty and growth. To solidify the republican regime, he realigned French politics by outmaneuvering the communists and socialists on his left and the political legitimists and Vichy sympathizers on his right. This was the origin of the front républicain.

De Gaulle’s successors interpreted “Gaullism” as an alliance between Bonapartism and Orléanism, in which they distanced themselves from anything resembling legitimism. But in time, pure Orléanism came to define the party of Gaullism. The major break came in 1974, when Valéry Giscard d’Estaing defeated both the staunchest Gaullists and the socialists to win the French presidency. Through stressing two major themes, he campaigned on an Orléanism purer than de Gaulle’s. First, Giscard d’Estaing favored the social changes brought about during the mass protests of May 1968. These protests were as much philosophical as political, being well-organized rallies against tradition and for autonomy. May 1968 taught a generation to absolutize individual freedom by despising all authority, whether it was found in the nation, political party, church, school, family, or university. Giscard d’Estaing emphasized that he was pour 68. He loosened France’s abortion laws. Second, he supported economic liberalization by means of intensifying European integration. He later chaired the commission for the European Constitution.

Since Giscard d’Estaing, the main, so-called Gaulliste party of the French right, in spite of its Gaullist rhetoric, has become fully ­Orléanist. It has backed European integration, supporting Brussels as it promotes the individual freedom of work anywhere in the ­European Union. In doing so, it has defied the popular will. Jacques Chirac, ostensibly a Gaullist, campaigned when president in favor of a European constitution during the referendum in 2005. Whereas de Gaulle always stayed on the side of the popular will, and resigned when he lost a referendum, ­Chirac defied ­precedent and stayed in power after the campaign failed. Even the next right-wing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who tried to run against Chirac’s legacy and appeal to the right’s unhappy base, defended the E.U.’s extension of powers during the Eurozone crisis; as the candidate of austerity imported from Brussels, he lost to François Hollande in 2012.

Despite the occasional speech of Sarkozy, the mainstream of the French right has also been pour 68, tacitly endorsing a permissive culture scornful of tradition. Consider national education. If you took the measure of French education in 2013, after almost two decades of right-wing presidents, what did you find? According to French philosopher and teacher François-Xavier Bellamy, you find a catastrophe: Only 6 percent of French students can handle complex texts, and 20 percent are functionally illiterate. In Bellamy’s persuasive analysis, the cause of this catastrophe is that the education system adopted a false conception of liberty from the 1960s onward. While the mission of teachers was once to draw from the deposit of language, tradition, and culture to transmit what they knew to the next generation, that mission must be extirpated because it is seen as at odds with freedom. The more the teacher tries to transmit, the more he deprives the student of his “primordial” liberty. This practice is an application of ’68: If authority is to be despised, then teachers must recognize that nothing they possess deserves to be handed on. Whether governed by the right or the left, France has been disinheriting its youth.

During these years, the leadership of the French right continually applauded itself for maintaining the cordon sanitaire, opposing the FN and avoiding its rhetoric. But the irony is that after the failures of Chirac and Sarkozy, the leadership was abandoning its own electorate to the FN. By 2016, the Gaullist party, renamed Les Républicains (LR), was bleeding support: One in five of its supporters in the 2012 election said they intended to vote FN in 2017.

Despite this hemorrhage of voters, the right has questioned neither its support for the European Union’s economic model nor its acquiescence to the attitudes promulgated by May 1968. It was no surprise, then, that in the 2016 LR presidential primary, the initial favorite was Alain Juppé. He portrayed himself as an Orléanist liberal and took the opportunity to attack his opponent François ­Fillon for having traditional values. In their last debate, ­Juppé criticized Fillon for being personally pro-life. Fillon’s surprise victory made it seem as if the American conservative dream candidate, an economic liberal and social conservative, could successfully be imported into France. Yet his position was far weaker than his partisans admit; he had been a senior member in both Chirac’s and Sarkozy’s failed presidencies. Even before “Penelopegate,” he was behind Marine Le Pen in the polls, where he eventually finished.

The standard analysis of President Emmanuel ­Macron declares he is an outsider. Yet his support of Europe and pour 68 rhetoric make him a ­younger version of Juppé, placing him in the tradition of Valery Giscard D’Estaing. Politically astute, Macron grasped that to win the French presidency, one no longer needed either the Socialist or Gaullist party. He ran as a straightforward Orléanist and won. With control over the executive and legislative branches, Orléanism—which is to say liberal individualism—now rules France absolutely. Its sympathizers have left the LR to join Macron.

The standard analysis of the significance of the 2017 French election declares that France is changing from a system dominated by two major left- and right-wing parties to one with three parties: a left, right, and center. But this analysis fails to say much about how these parties will understand themselves, especially the French right. Since Bonapartism provides the republican regime but not a political program, and legitimism has virtually no political presence, what remains are the battered institutional remnants of the LR and the shambles of the FN (presently renaming itself Rassemblement national). What should the French right mean?

After exiling her father from the party, Marine Le Pen offered one answer. With the assistance of Florian Philippot, she developed a strategy for the French right that appealed to the disgruntled working-­class base of the old left. Economic problems were to be resolved by a vigorous assertion of French sovereignty. She advocated state intervention to protect French industry and agriculture, and the restoration of independent monetary policy—all economic areas now controlled by Brussels. As part of this strategy, Marine took a stance against the European Union, but she has been pour 68. In the face of challenges to French culture from Islam, she has defended individual autonomy and secularism. This has helped her gain some support from the secularist left.

This strategy addressed the “social question,” the classic nineteenth-century term for solving the grievances of the social class of wage-earners stemming from the rise of industrial capitalism. But it set ethical and cultural questions aside. It turns out those questions are of rising importance to voters, which is why the FN made few gains with the religious electorate. While it is commonplace to think that more religious, traditional voters in France prefer the Front national, practicing Catholics in fact tend to disdain the FN. Beyond these practicing Catholics, there is the larger population of so-called “zombie Catholics” who, while not practicing Catholics, see France’s greatness in her Christian history and culture and worry about its erosion. They fear that the conception of freedom promulgated by May ’68 cannot sustain culture. Defining freedom as liberation from social relationships and obligations culminates in national ruin. That is at least how Benedict XVI framed the issue for his French audience. In a 2008 address to the representatives of France’s Ministry of Culture, he said, “It would be a disaster if today’s European culture could only conceive freedom as absence of obligation, which would inevitably play into the hands of fanaticism and arbitrariness.” Benedict’s worries, shared by many Catholics and “zombie Catholics,” have been largely ignored by the French right, both the LR and FN.

Marion Maréchal is significant because she explicitly rejects both the liberal individualist idols of the Gaullist party elite: European integration and the spirit of ’68. She shares the FN’s emblematic stance against the E.U., but unlike Marine Le Pen, she announces, “I am part of this anti-May ’68 generation. . . . My generation has experienced the consequences of its undermining of ethics and morals on the front line.” Her focus is on French culture. “Our youth want French culture to be defended—and that includes our Christian roots, our Latin roots and our Greek roots. They do not want to see those roots disappear.”

Unlike the LR and FN, Maréchal grasps that the base of the French right, whether they are the working class or the bourgeois elite, favors a cultural and sometimes a social conservatism. She sees Orléanism as the source of France’s present ills. The problem is not that it has been improperly implemented or half-successful: It has been too successful. It undermined French education, culture, families, and national loyalties. Liberal individualism’s slow conquest of the French right has been its victory, but France’s defeat.

While Maréchal’s anti-Orléanism has a powerful appeal, it would be a mistake to believe it is on the cusp of political power. The parties of the French right, divided, bear old grudges, and Maréchal no longer holds public office. In a recent article for Valeurs Actuelles, a prominent French conservative magazine, she writes that her priorities are outside electoral politicking, in the realm of a “métapolitique” that seeks to redirect cultural and social practice. She has recently founded a post-secondary college in Lyon, called the Institut de sciences sociales, économiques et politiques. Its first class commences in September 2018.

Rather than predict electoral success or failure, it is more important to acknowledge the emergence of a new political tradition. The once-conflicting strands of the French right are discovering intellectual and political unity through a critique of liberal individualism. For this reason, anti-Orléanism could realign French politics in a way not seen since de Gaulle.

De Gaulle’s achievement was to draw the more traditional cultural forces of the French right into the orbit of republicanism. He used the resources of Bonapartism to fix the errors of the Fourth Republic and build a lasting republican regime. But his alliance with Orléanism was a Cold War ­alliance of convenience to hold off more sinister forces. While Orléanism is to the right of communism and socialism, its conception of freedom makes it an ally of all attacks on traditional authority and culture. When French communism weakened and French socialism became bourgeois, this alliance ceased to make sense. In a way, what France has witnessed since 1989 is a return to 1789. As was evident then, Orléanism is ontologically left. It votes to execute the king.

The test for the French right is whether it has the virtue of prudence. Can it identify the problems of new decades and new circumstances that de Gaulle never addressed to create a new political alignment? While it must hold to de Gaulle’s republicanism, it must confront its real foes more directly than Gaullism ever did. Thus the sine qua non of the French right is a new cordon sanitaire. Curing the body politic of its ills requires quarantining liberal individualism and detoxifying France of May 1968.

Nathan Pinkoski is a 2017–18 James Madison Program Thomas W. Smith Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University.

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons. Image cropped.