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How Emmanuel Macron Co-Opted the French Right

By winning over both Gaullist and liberal conservatives, he’s rewritten France’s political calculus yet again.

In his perceptive book Les Droites en France, the late historian René Rémond proposed a division of the French political right into three “spiritual families.” Shaped, like so much else, by the Revolution of 1789, these families reflect ideological cleavages that continue to divide French conservatism today. Through a kind of political thermodynamics, each branch changes and develops without ever disappearing or losing its distinctive character. Now, as Emmanuel Macron passes the halfway point of his presidency, this framework offers a key to understanding the state of his opposition—and suggests that he may be well-positioned to win a second term.

The first family in Rémond’s schema is the Legitimist or Counter-Revolutionary Right, which takes its name from those who sought to completely roll back the French Revolution and the secular republican vision it engendered. It was first represented by the Bourbon restorationists, and subsequently by such radical groups as Charles Maurras’ Action Française and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National. Typified by a strong commitment to a quasi-mystical vision of the nation (sometimes verging into outright xenophobia), deep social conservatism, and an enduring suspicion of democracy, parties of this tendency have rarely held power, though they have often been a major political force.

The second branch, Orleanism, is a kind of “small-l” liberalism. It advocates for a limited state with minimal involvement in the economy, to be governed according to a cosmopolitan outlook leavened by a mild social conservatism. This family takes its name from a 19th-century faction that sought to establish a liberal political order under a constitutional monarchy (headed by the House of Orleans—hence the name). Stripped of its monarchism, the modern incarnation of this tendency has counted two French presidents among its adherents: Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in the 1970s and Nicolas Sarkozy in the late 2000s. 

The third and last family, the Bonapartists or Gaullists, stands for a strong executive combined with a populist vision of democracy, a stridently nationalist foreign policy, and an economically interventionist state. Though as the name suggests, it originated as an overtly authoritarian tendency under Napoleons I and III, it evolved over time to accommodate itself to republicanism (although it remains suspicious of parliamentarism as interposing between the people and the leader). During the 20th century, this branch was profoundly shaped by the legacy of Charles de Gaulle, and dominated both the right and French politics as a whole for most of the postwar period.

Applied to the French political landscape of December 2019, the most coherent and visible tendency is Legitimism, as represented by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN). The RN occupies the hard right of the French political spectrum, advocating for hardline immigration restrictions and the preservation of what it sees as traditional French society, euroskepticism, non-intervention in foreign affairs, and a strong welfare state bolstered by protectionist trade policies. Since losing the presidency to Emmanuel Macron in 2017, Le Pen has been consolidating and regrouping, doing everything from rebranding the party (the old Front National name was dropped in 2018) to focusing resources on smaller and more winnable local races. 

So far, it seems to be working—in the European elections this past May, the RN finished first with over 23 percent of the vote, beating both Macron’s center-left coalition and the center-right Republicains. More importantly, the RN has become Macron’s only organized opposition. As a prominent French pollster put it recently, “there are only three real forces in the country: Macron, Le Pen, and the growing party of angry people.” With this last force, the gilets-jaunes, the RN has an ambiguous relationship; although fueled by similar grievances, Le Pen hasn’t been able to meaningfully co-opt the demonstrations. Ultimately, despite their organizational advantages, the enduring perception of far-right extremism (which kneecapped the party in the 2017 and 2002 runoffs) may impose a hard ceiling on the RN’s national ambitions. 

The second family, the Orleanist/liberal tendency, is represented institutionally by Les Republicains (LR),a center-right party founded in 2015 with Nicolas Sarkozy at its head. Although a successor to the nominally Gaullist Union pour une movement populaire (UMP) set up under Jacques Chirac, LR is suffused with economic liberalism. Its 2017 presidential candidate, François Fillon, campaigned on ending the 35-hour workweek and cutting government spending. In foreign policy, LR advocates a much closer relationship with the U.S. than either the RN or full-throated Gaullists would like (it was Sarkozy, after all, who brought France back into NATO’s unified command structure). As French journalist Alain Duhamel argues convincingly, the party “has forgotten its Gaullist roots,” embracing a style of “liberal conservatism” more closely resembling its cousins in the Anglosphere. 

LR is also a shambles. In 2017, Fillon failed to make the presidential run-off (an ignominious first for the center-right), and in the May European elections, the party came in fourth with a meager 8 percent of the vote. Electoral failures have translated into organizational disarray. Laurent Wauquiez (who had led the party since 2017, and, interestingly, tried to move it in a more conservative and identitarian direction) resigned following the disastrous May result. Party membership has halved over the past two years. LR, and the Orleanist family at its head, are increasingly slipping into irrelevancy. As commentator Matthieu Laine evocatively put it, they’re beginning to resemble the fictional town of Macondo from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a decaying backwater inspiring “pity and compassion” more than anything else.

This leaves us with the Bonapartist or Gaullist family. This tendency, so dominant over the past 60 years, has no institutional representative among today’s right-wing parties. Rather, its mantle has been claimed by President Macron. Ascribing to a “jupiterian” view of the executive, gearing his foreign policy towards the pursuit of French grandeur, and even posing for his official portrait with a copy of de Gaulle’s memoirs open before him, Macron has revealed an affinity for le General that’s been widely noted. What’s gone less noticed is that, in so doing, he’s sucked much of the oxygen out of the right. By assuming the most important aspects of Gaullism—strong executive leadership, an independent foreign policy, and a vigorous emphasis on the prestige and unity of the nation—Macron presents an attractive option to a number of otherwise right-leaning voters. One has only to recall the tremendous outpouring of national feeling that accompanied the September death of Jacques Chirac (“the last true Gaullist,” as the New Statesman aptly put it) to appreciate the symbolic potency here. Moreover, the fact that on economics Macron is more neoliberal than dirigiste is actually an advantage, allowing him to draw from LR’s base without losing those supporters attracted by the Gaullist mystique.

That this maneuver was possible is a function of another important phenomenon in French politics, which is the fluidity and multiplicity of parties. As political scientist Andrew Knapp puts it, “minimal party organization is a tradition on the French right.” Consider the lineage of Les Republicains: they formed in 2015 as a successor party to the UMP, which had itself formed only 13 years earlier as an amalgamation of several other parties. In such a dynamic and personality-driven environment, there is ample opportunity for an unconventional player like Macron to cross party lines and snatch up support.

With 2022 looming, it remains to be seen what effect this shifting of the political terrain will have. The next major political test will be the March 2020 municipal elections, in which each of France’s nearly 36,000 communes will pick their local leadership. Although these polls are notoriously difficult to predict, it seems likely that Les Republicains, and with them the liberal strain of French conservatism, will be decimated. In the ensuing vacuum, a Macron clothed in the Gaullist mantle may find himself occupying the commanding heights of the French right.

Luke Nicastro is a defense analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has an MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago.