A Le Pen defeat won’t mean the end of French extremism
Historian David A. Bell says centrism has often led to instability
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.