A Le Pen de­feat won’t mean the end of French ex­trem­ism

His­to­rian David A. Bell says cen­trism has of­ten led to in­sta­bil­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @DavidAvromBell David A. Bell, a pro­fes­sor of French his­tory at Prince­ton, is the au­thor, most re­cently, of “Shad­ows of Revo­lu­tion: Re­flec­tions on France, Past and Present.”

This week­end, if pro­jec­tions are true, France will turn back from the abyss. This is the mes­sage that has dom­i­nated Amer­i­can com­men­tary since Em­manuel Macron, a charis­matic, po­lit­i­cally mod­er­ate for­mer So­cial­ist, in­vest­ment banker and eco­nomics min­is­ter, took first place in the ini­tial round of French pres­i­den­tial vot­ing last month. The re­sult showed that “the dikes are hold­ing” for “the Euro­pean project and lib­eral val­ues,” Sylvie Kauff­mann wrote in the New York Times. John Cas­sidy de­clared in the New Yorker that “the Euro­pean cen­ter has held.” Sunday, Macron is pro­jected to quash the far-right xeno­phobe Marine Le Pen and be­come France’s new president. Bar­ring an up­set far more dra­matic than Don­ald Trump’s vic­tory last Novem­ber, the cen­ter will hold again.

But what does it mean to be a “cen­trist” in French pol­i­tics? The coun­try’s his­tory sug­gests that the an­swer is not what de­fend­ers of the lib­eral or­der might ex­pect — and that this elec­tion may not presage a new age of sta­bil­ity in France, with ide­o­log­i­cal ex­trem­ists rel­e­gated to the po­lit­i­cal mar­gins. It may sig­nal quite the re­verse.

In the Amer­i­can con­text, “cen­trism” usu­ally im­plies a pol­i­tics of com­pro­mise, a balanc­ing act among com­pet­ing in­ter­ests and ide­olo­gies, an em­brace of trade­offs be­tween par­ties and the messy, sausage­mak­ing as­pects of po­lit­i­cal life. But in France, through­out mod­ern his­tory, cen­trism has most of­ten stood for a re­jec­tion both of ide­ol­ogy and of deal­mak­ing pol­i­tics. Suc­cess­ful

French cen­trist lead­ers, such as Macron, most of­ten do not seek a mid­dle course through the po­lit­i­cal fray. They try to rise above it and to unite the coun­try around higher, more no­ble ideals in­car­nated in a strong ex­ec­u­tive power. Some of th­ese cen­trists have met with con­sid­er­able suc­cess, in­clud­ing in the re­cent past. But when they have failed, they have failed spec­tac­u­larly, plung­ing the coun­try back into bit­ter ide­o­log­i­cal con­flict, some­times ac­com­pa­nied by vi­o­lence.

From the be­gin­ning of mod­ern French pol­i­tics in the revo­lu­tion of 1789, what Amer­i­cans think of as pol­i­tics — that is, deal­mak­ing be­tween par­ties to achieve pub­lic pol­icy — has had a very bad rep­u­ta­tion in France. Po­lit­i­cal fig­ures of all stripes warned sternly against the dan­ger of “fac­tion,” fear­ing that ex­ces­sive com­pe­ti­tion among dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal camps could tear the coun­try apart. In­stead, each at­tempted to pose as vir­tu­ous, dis­in­ter­ested de­fend­ers of the pub­lic good. The legacy of the pre-revo­lu­tion­ary ab­so­lute monar­chy, in which the king sup­pos­edly em­bod­ied the en­tire na­tion in his per­son, re­mained pow­er­ful.

The Amer­i­can Found­ing Fa­thers had much the same views of fac­tion, as the quick­est glance at the Fed­er­al­ist Pa­pers will re­veal. But by the first decade of the 19th cen­tury, the United States had none­the­less de­vel­oped a rel­a­tively sta­ble and en­dur­ing party sys­tem. The French Revo­lu­tion, by con­trast, pro­voked mas­sive di­vi­sions, civil war and the “Reign of Ter­ror.” Al­ready in 1795, a new mod­er­ate revo­lu­tion­ary govern­ment was promis­ing to heal the coun­try’s wounds and to bring the French to­gether around a strong, non­par­ti­san ex­ec­u­tive (al­though, to min­i­mize any re­sem­blance to the monar­chy, it was split among five “di­rec­tors”). As a sign of its in­ten­tions, it took the Parisian square once called the Place Louis XV, which the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies had re­bap­tized as the Place de la Révo­lu­tion, and re­named it again. Now it would be the Place de la Con­corde, a sym­bol of har­mony and unity. But this govern­ment fell into vi­o­lent fac­tional con­flict as well and lost pop­u­lar sup­port quickly, and after just four years, an am­bi­tious gen­eral named Napoleon Bon­a­parte seized power. He, too, im­me­di­ately promised to stand above the fray, claim­ing that he wore nei­ther the red heels of the old aris­toc­racy nor the red lib­erty caps of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies (“ni talon rouge, ni bon­net rouge”). Rather, he said: “I am na­tional.”

This mode of govern­ment, which the French his­to­rian Pierre Serna has nicely dubbed the “ex­treme cen­ter,” has re­mained a per­sis­tent temp­ta­tion in French his­tory. After cat­a­strophic mil­i­tary de­feat led to Napoleon’s fall, a se­ries of gov­ern­ments in the 19th cen­tury at­tempted to build na­tional unity around strong ex­ec­u­tive cen­ters. But the act proved dif­fi­cult to sus­tain. Stand­ing above the fray made it hard to cul­ti­vate the sta­ble base of sup­port that po­lit­i­cal par­ties can pro­vide through a shared ide­ol­ogy and pa­tron­age net­works, while strong ex­ec­u­tive power was hard to rec­on­cile with the demo­cratic as­pi­ra­tions un­leashed in the revo­lu­tion. One per­son’s “strong ex­ec­u­tive” was an­other per­son’s tyrant.

The “ex­treme cen­ter” was not, in the end, a recipe for po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity, and as France lurched from regime to regime, two kings and an­other em­peror (Napoleon’s nephew) fell from power. The most long-lived regime in mod­ern French his­tory, the Third Re­pub­lic of 1870-1940, no­tably lacked a strong ex­ec­u­tive fig­ure. But “party” re­mained some­thing of a dis­rep­utable con­cept, and a sta­ble party sys­tem along Amer­i­can or Bri­tish lines failed to de­velop.

In 1958, after the short-lived Fourth Re­pub­lic col­lapsed amid the strife of Al­ge­ria’s war of in­de­pen­dence, an­other gen­eral came to power promis­ing to serve as the strong cen­ter of unity: Charles de Gaulle. Per­haps never be­fore in mod­ern French his­tory had any fig­ure played this role so well. Aloof and dig­ni­fied, clad in the man­tle of his heroic lead­er­ship of the wartime Free French and ca­pa­ble of bril­liant, soar­ing rhetoric, de Gaulle man­aged to es­tab­lish a sta­ble regime — the Fifth Re­pub­lic — that has lasted to this day. It is built around a pow­er­ful pres­i­dency that de Gaulle en­vi­sioned as non­par­ti­san and uni­fy­ing.

Dur­ing the Fifth Re­pub­lic, a sta­ble party sys­tem of sorts did take shape. De­spite de Gaulle’s de­sire to tran­scend di­vi­sions, in or­der to work within a demo­cratic sys­tem, he needed a party base to pro­vide a par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity and to fill govern­ment posts. A party called the Union for the New Re­pub­lic was founded to sup­port him, and it sur­vives to­day, al­though it has gone through half a dozen name changes (it is now called the Repub­li­cans). It func­tions, ef­fec­tively, as the French con­ser­va­tive party. Then, in 1971, the most im­por­tant left-wing leader in re­cent French his­tory, François Mit­ter­rand (president from 1981 to 1995), brought to­gether older left-wing groups to re­make the So­cial­ist Party. Gaullists and So­cial­ists have al­ter­nated in power for most of the past sev­eral decades.

But now, in 2017, amid the eco­nomic stag­na­tion, po­lit­i­cal paral­y­sis and ter­ror­ist threats that helped doom the pres­i­dency of in­cum­bent So­cial­ist President François Hol­lande, this party sys­tem seems to have col­lapsed. The un­charis­matic So­cial­ist can­di­date, Benoît Ha­mon, tarred by his party’s as­so­ci­a­tion with Hol­lande, stag­gered into a dis­mal fifth place two weeks ago, with barely 6 per­cent of the vote. François Fil­lon, the scan­dal-tainted can­di­date of the Repub­li­cans, did bet­ter with al­most 20 per­cent but still came in third be­hind Macron and Le Pen. For the first time in the his­tory of the Fifth Re­pub­lic, a Gaullist or Gaullist-al­lied can­di­date did not make it into the sec­ond round of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

This is the con­text in which Macron has emerged as the heavy fa­vorite to be­come president. Like so many pre­de­ces­sors, he has pre­sented him­self as a fig­ure of unity, a cen­trist in the sense of bring­ing the dif­fer­ent sec­tors of French so­ci­ety to­gether har­mo­niously around him, rather than in the sense of forg­ing deals and com­pro­mises among th­ese sec­tors. Tellingly, his elec­toral or­ga­ni­za­tion, En Marche (On­ward), is not a party but a move­ment that was cre­ated for the sole pur­pose of get­ting Macron elected. The fact that he is run­ning in the sec­ond round against the ul­tra-di­vi­sive, ul­tra-right Le Pen, and has re­ceived en­dorse­ments from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum (in­clud­ing from Ha­mon and Fil­lon, al­though not from the fiery left­ist Jean-Luc Mé­len­chon), has made it all the eas­ier for him to call him­self the truly na­tional can­di­date who reaches “beyond di­vi­sions.”

But how would Macron — who is just 39 years old and has never held elec­tive of­fice — ac­tu­ally gov­ern? His first task would be to put to­gether a slate of can­di­dates for leg­isla­tive elec­tions in June, be­cause with­out a par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity, he can ac­com­plish very lit­tle. In a clas­sic cen­trist move, in the French sense of cen­trism, he has called for “as broad a union as pos­si­ble” that will fea­ture “new faces” pre­vi­ously un­in­volved in pol­i­tics. His elan and charisma may just pos­si­bly al­low him to win a leg­isla­tive ma­jor­ity in this way, es­pe­cially if he crushes Le Pen de­ci­sively. But even so, he may not be able to as­sert much con­trol over his deputies, es­pe­cially if he hopes to in­tro­duce con­tro­ver­sial mea­sures, such as loos­en­ing France’s no­to­ri­ously rigid la­bor reg­u­la­tions (at­tempts to do so by both Gaullist and So­cial­ist gov­ern­ments have left pres­i­dents bat­tered and weak­ened). And if he does not win an out­right ma­jor­ity of deputies pledged to him, he will need to forge one through the messy, deal­mak­ing “pol­i­tics as usual” that his en­tire cam­paign was de­signed to tran­scend.

Macron has grand am­bi­tions. He wants to jump-start the weak French econ­omy and push it in a more dy­namic di­rec­tion while pro­tect­ing work­ers from the worst ef­fects of dereg­u­la­tion and glob­al­iza­tion. He wants to rene­go­ti­ate France’s place in the Euro­pean Union. And he wants to ease the bit­ter con­flicts over im­mi­gra­tion and na­tional iden­tity that have been sharp­ened by the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of the past two years. He does have a nar­row win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to ac­com­plish th­ese things, thanks to the pow­ers of de Gaulle’s for­mi­da­ble pres­i­dency, as­sum­ing he can put to­gether a sta­ble par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity. But if the win­dow closes, he may find him­self in the same situation as so many of his French cen­trist pre­de­ces­sors: strain­ing to rise above the po­lit­i­cal fray, only to be dragged down into it and tram­pled un­der­foot. Un­der th­ese con­di­tions, ex­trem­ism can flour­ish.


French pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Em­manuel Macron has pre­sented him­self as a uni­fy­ing fig­ure who will rise above pol­i­tics and bring “new faces” to the govern­ment.

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