The Impossible Union of Rights

Presidential candidate Éric Zemmour immediately posed as a man of the “union of rights”… with the success we know: five right-wing candidates in the first round and 7% of the vote for the one who claimed to unite them. Should we be surprised at this failure? Obviously not.

Two right-wing candidates will face each other on April 24, the same as in 2017 and with no possible union. On the one hand, Emmanuel Macron, outgoing president, five years standard-bearer – after so many others – of the political family I call “neoliberal Europeanist”. On the other side, Marine Le Pen, standard-bearer of the ‘identity nationalist’ political family. Two large families face to face, long established in the French political landscape, strong each of a quarter of the 49 million registered voters and a third of the votes cast.

A neoliberal and European right

How to define these neoliberal Europeans? Self-proclaimed “progressives”, they are the distant heirs of the supporters of the English monarchy of the 18th century, parliamentarian and censor (only the richest had the right to vote to elect the deputies), who admired Voltaire and the voters of 1791 , while like the Orléanists François Guizot and Adolphe Thiers. More directly, they are the heirs of so-called “moderate” liberal republicans, such as Jules Ferry, and their descendants Raymond Poincaré, Antoine Pinay and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

“Moderate Republicans, but not moderate Republicans,” said Poincaré, because enemies of the monarchists and Bonapartists, but above all liberals, because determined defenders of the capitalist organization of society; neoliberals since the post-war period when they became aware of the central role of the state in defending and promoting capitalism against its “collectivist” opponents of all kinds; Finally, since the 1970s, Europeans have continued to strengthen the integration of the French economy in “Europe” (the EEC and then the European Union), in the context of the third industrial revolution based on the “digital revolution”, often (mis) called “globalization”.

A nationalist and identity right

Opposite them are the identity nationalists, commonly called the “far right” or, by the left, “fascists”. Appearing with the Boulangist episode and the Dreyfus affair, they had in common to reject parliamentarism in favor of an authoritarian republic with a “strong executive power” embodied in a leader. The emergence of this new political family, initially composed of a faction of radicals, monarchists and Bonapartists as well as some Blanquists, took place in the double context of the desire for revenge after the loss of the Alsace-Moselle in 1871 and the increasing use of guest workers in support of the industrialization that began in the 1830s.

France, the first country to start its demographic revolution in the 19th century – the “fall in the birth rate” for the nationalists who already denounced the danger of an “invasion” of France by foreigners – was all the more poor in arms, since the rural exodus there was slower than with its competitors, the small peasant owners resisted step by step against proletarianization.

Long synthesized in the figure of the “stateless Jew”, the fear of the foreigner, from “the Boches” to the “Muslims” who go through “the rituals”, “the perfidious Albion” and “the Polaks”, is the basis of a nationalism inherited from Paul Déroulède and Édouard Drumont, Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras, the Leaguers of the 1930s and the defenders of French Algeria.

The turning point of 1984

More composed than the liberal family whose rise dates back to the irresistible rise of the bourgeoisie in the 18th century, the nationalist family (admirers of Marshal Pétain, conservative Catholics of the Manif pour tous, Alain de Benoist’s New Pagan Right, nostalgic des colonies , etc.) it also took much longer to get solidly organized on a partisan scale, if we don’t include the French Social Party in the late 1930s.

Founded sixty years ago, the FN (National Front) did not change from a small group to a major political force until 1984, on the occasion of the European elections, when the RPR (Rally for the Republic) renounced one of the foundations of Gaullism by drawing up a common list of the Giscardians who were supporters of European federalism – almost half of the Frontist voters in 1984 came from the RPR (Rally for the Republic) – while the PS (Socialist Party) finally renounced “change lives” and that the PCF (French Communist Party), unable to sever its ties with the USSR, continued its decline begun in 1979, on the rhythm of the successive crises affecting the countries of the “real socialism” shake. The FN took root in the 1990s by attracting a section of the working class, abandoned by the traditional organizations of the labor movement that had been eroded by mass unemployment since 1974.

To resist the rise of the FN, whose candidate qualified for the second round of the 2002 presidential elections, RPR and UDF (Union for French Democracy) decided to merge to form the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement). Alain Juppé presided over the birth of this new party, which held the majority in the National Assembly for ten years.

The founding of the UMP

The association of the Chiraquians (followers of Charles Pasqua had detached themselves from the party to join forces with Philippe de Villiers), the Giscardians and the Christian Democrats of Pierre Méhaignerie and Jacques Barrot, was made possible thanks to their common adherence to the neoliberalism. † The merger took place on the basis of a compromise: a Giscardo-Barrist program for a Chiraquo-Juppeist party.

In order to make the UMP a power equivalent to the German CDU or the British Conservative Party, Juppé planned in the long run to extend it to that of the socialists who rallied behind European neoliberalism, whose most prominent figure when Dominique was Strauss-Kahn. Uniting the “center right” and “center left” (UMP and PS) is not what the outgoing president of the republic, Strauss-Kahnien, when he was a member of the PS between 2006 and 2009, achieved in 2017, with the full support from Juppe?

But Juppé, convicted in the case of fictitious jobs at Paris City Hall, had to retire from political life at the end of 2004. Nicolas Sarkozy succeeded him on the basis of a new strategy: to make the UMP a major people’s party by adding to his original project, ie without denying the “openness” to the left (“DSK” at the IMF), a very nationalist identity side to reclaim the frontist electorate (creation of a ministry of national identity).

The operation was initially successful: the party grew to 350,000 members and more than a million lepenist voters voted for Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential election in 2002 – Jean-Marie Le Pen had his worst campaign.

But the new president signed the Lisbon Treaty, which takes over most of the measures of the European Constitutional Treaty, which had been rejected by 55% of voters two years earlier. Then came the 2008 financial crisis (known as the “crisis of” subprime ”) in which the president showed that he was above all the defender of the threatened European neoliberal order.

The FN resumed its rise, led by “Marine” from 2011. It started with the “demonization” of the party (rejection of anti-Semitism, Vichyism and homophobia – which Zemmour now partially adopts) and turned the hatred of foreigners on “Muslims”, all equated with “Islamists”.

Two incompatible tendencies

Not only was Sarkozy not re-elected in 2012, he left a party in bad shape. Leaving aside the rival ambitions of François Fillon and Jean-François Copé, the UMP, renamed LR (The Republicans) in 2015, had in fact been torn between two fundamentally incompatible long-term trends since 2007: members (and the majority of executives ) neoliberals on the one hand, nationalist supporters on the other. This deep division of the party was not overcome by Fillon, who in 2017 proposed a strategy close to Sarkozy’s, only further developing the alliance with conservative Catholics.

The LR Congress in December 2021 only endorsed this break: 60% of the members for Valérie Pécresse, Juppeist from the start (Deputy Secretary-General of the UMP in 2002), against 40% for Éric Ciotti, deputy spared by the RN (National Rally) in the Alpes-Maritimes in 2017 and declares itself closer to Zemmour than to Macron.

The union of rights is impossible today more than ever, no offense to Zemmour and his supporters. Neoliberals and nationalists not only defend incompatible social projects (European federalism against national identity, “opening” borders against leaving the “Schengen area”, “multiculturalism” and the marketing of culture against “traditions”), but their common defense of capitalism – then a few variants between the two camps – can no longer even push them to unite to block the left’s path to power. Indeed, these have been so defeated that they no longer seriously threaten the foundations of social organization.

By Gilles Richard, University Professor Emeritus in Contemporary History, Rennes 2 University.

The original version of this article was published on The Conversation.