You have been following the political situation in France very closely for several decades. How do you see the evolution of the National Rally? Is the ‘normalization’ process successful, especially in capturing Les Républicains’ electorate and narrative? What do you think of the ‘schism’ between Marine Le Pen being more mainstream and Marion Maréchal speaking to a more radical audience?
The National Rally chronologically succeeded the National Front (NF) in 2018 after Marine Le Pen lost the presidential election to Emmanuel Macron and thought that it was necessary to signal, especially to conservative voters, that she wanted to move further away from the NF ideologically, as it used to be under the chairmanship of Jean-Marie Le Pen between 1972 and 2011.
Her basic idea was that her father had ruined all hopes of coming to power with his many, and almost obsessive statements, about the Nazi gas chambers being a mere “detail in the history of the Second World War” (1987) and the alleged power of the “Jewish International” (1989). Le Pen had also supported the idea that “Races are not [all] equal” (1996). It was Le Pen’s anti-Jewish ramblings, however, which convinced the conservative right that any alliance with him was morally unacceptable. Marine Le Pen’s “normalization” process began with her decision to forbid party members from simultaneously belonging to any extreme movement. She continued by stripping her father from his honorary chairmanship of the party. The message was clear:
Marine Le Pen wanted to prove that the new National Rally (NR) had nothing to do with the traditional far right, namely, that it was an “anti-system” but nevertheless democratic party.
How has she intended to capture Les Républicains (LR)’ voters? By telling them that they have been betrayed by conservative leaders since the 1980s in the sense that during electoral campaigns, presidential hopefuls always make promises through law-and-order policies, putting a halt to illegal immigration, and taking care of hard-working common folks. When they are elected, however, they pursue a liberal agenda. In her speech to the party’s Summer University (September 6, 2020), Le Pen asked the French to “wake up,” to rebel against both Macron and Les Républicains.
Her discourse on law-and-order was similar to that of many Republicans in the United States: zero tolerance for crime, life without parole for the most cruel crimes, and deporting convicted foreigners—she even cited Rudy Giuliani’s policies when he was Mayor of New York City. Her speech focused on crime much more than on immigration, although she suggested that crime and terrorism were two different faces of “chaos,” which she stated was emblematic of present-day France. In her criticism of the elites, the European Union, liberalism, globalization, and her “France above all” patriotism, she spoke the very same language I heard from the rank-and-file members of Chirac’s Rassemblement pour la République in the mid-1980s.
Le Pen continues to appeal to the “French Middle Radicals,” a category that is much like that of the Middle American Radicals (MARS), who were so dear to the late Samuel T. Francis, who remains famous for disseminating this concept within the American Right.
Marion Maréchal, her niece, sings a different song. When it comes to moral issues, she is a national-conservative with strong Catholic beliefs. When it comes to the economy, moreover, she believes in free enterprise but, like her aunt, she is a protectionist. She thinks that a free market is the only way to achieve prosperity but only on the condition that French goods, companies, and jobs are protected from unfair competition from abroad through tariffs. That, of course, means opting out of the EU and all other international free trade agreements. Is this “radical”, as opposed to Le Pen becoming mainstream? I do not think so, they simply belong to different generations.
Marion Maréchal, born in 1989, belongs to the young people who reject the values of 1968 and, instead, propound the traditional family, the Catholic ideal of the common good, and a kind of upper-middle class conservatism that refers to the social doctrine of the Church.
Interestingly enough, she said in August 2015 that she came back to Catholicism because of her involvement in politics rather than the other way around. The problem with this political agenda is that it appeals to a very narrow social base: unlike the United States, France is a highly secular country and we have nothing that resembles the religious Right.
Marine Le Pen, born in 1968, is in the tradition of the Populist Right as we know it from Général Boulanger to La Rocque and Pierre Poujade’s movement. She fits well into the category of Bonapartism, which, according to Roger Eatwell, “sought to synthetize charismatic leadership with plebiscitary legitimacy”, claiming to be “neither Left nor Right, or to be above parties and social interests that divided the nation” (Eatwell, Fascism, 1995). Though she is culturally Catholic, this does not shape her worldview, as evidenced by her very cautious stand on same-sex marriage (to be replaced by a “civil contract”) and abortion. She is also much less of a free-marketer than her niece, and her voter base is certainly broader among the working-class, the lower middle-class, and the young. On the opposite, Marion Maréchal (born 1988) does not want to go beyond the left and right, as she regards herself as belonging to the right and is proud of such an association. Whether she really understands anything about the many shades of American conservatism when she delivered her speech at the 2018 CPAC Convention is dubious, but she fits somewhere in between President Trump and Pat Buchanan.
The transnational connections of illiberal movements have been in the spotlight these last few years. Do you think trans-European strategies have worked so far for European illiberal groups and their leaders? What about US and Russian influences, do we tend to overstate them?
Illiberal movements are not a united force. In the European Parliament, Fidesz is not completely out of the European People’s Party group, while RN, together with Vlaams Belang, the German AfD, the Austrian FPÖ, the Italian Lega and Geert Wilders’s PVV, sit in the Identity and Democracy group. The European Conservatives and Reformists group include the Polish PiS, the Spanish Vox, the Swedish Democrats, the Czech ODS, the Latvian TB/LNNK, and the Dutch Forum voor Democratie. These are big or relatively big players in the politics of their respective countries. So, despite Le Pen’s and Matteo Salvini’s efforts prior to the 2019 European election, in addition to having Fidesz and PiS join them, the illiberal movements remain divided.
That said, does it really matter what European Parliament (EP) group each of these parties belong to? There is a tactical aspect of joining any group. What really matters is ideology, and regardless of their affiliation, all the aforementioned parties share a few basic beliefs that constitute the core values of far-right populism, such as: believing that only a nation can provide for legitimate decisions; thinking that representative democracy must be replaced with direct democracy through referenda; favoring a strong presidential regime that restricts the powers of the legislature and the judiciary; and defining nationhood and citizenship along ethno-religious and ethno-linguistic criteria, as opposed to the idea of the Enlightenment according to which one can, by contract, choose to what and where one belongs.
Ultimately what is important with these illiberal parties is that they have, since the 1980s, reshaped the political landscape of the broader right by breaking the post-1945 monopoly of the liberals and classical conservatives.
With regard to foreign influence, one must be reminded that both the USSR and the US have been trying to influence politics in Europe for decades! That was part of the Cold War’s strategies and was further concerned with both ideology and geopolitics. The USSR relied on the communist parties but also tried to influence the Gaullist right. The US, furthermore, had a significant role in funding anti-communist groups such as the center right’s “Paix et Liberté” in the 1950s, and in supporting the anti-communist left in France, including trade unions which were opposed to the communist-aligned Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT). Though the present situation is different, one truth remains: it is not because a party receives money from a foreign state that it will support this or that state. The opposite is true. Instead, a party’s ideology may be aligned with a nation that provides them with financial aid.
In other words, it is not because the National Front/National Rally allegedly received money from Russia and borrowed money from a Russian bank that they will speak in favor of Putin. They look at Russia as a model of an ideal society and a good government.
Both share values, with a common goal of weakening the EU. Both also reject the United States, and at any given moment, some specific Russian actors may bet on either Le Pen or Maréchal. But Russian money did not “buy” the NR. Maréchal and the Orthodox oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, for instance, have common concerns. Le Pen, Thierry Mariani, and others have their own channels. Dugin’s influence has been exaggerated and does not go beyond influencing a limited number of national-revolutionaries outside of the NR, for example, Christian Bouchet and his group, once named “Les nôtres”, which is French for Nashi, is part of the New Right. The only NR official I know of who has participated in a Dugin-sponsored Eurasian conference is MEP Hervé Juvin.
Looking at the United States’ influence, Steve Bannon’s role has been grossly exaggerated. His attempt to build a coalition of the European illiberal right has failed miserably.
It is also highly doubtful that he ever got a mandate from President Trump to meet Le Pen and others. Bannon is a political consultant who needed to find clients for his firm. Le Pen may have contemplated soliciting his advice with respect to public relations and training her party’s candidates but, in the end, Bannon has a very limited knowledge of European politics and is no longer a direct channel to President Trump. Ergo, mutual interest just vanished.
Besides, one should look at other foreign influences on European politics, i.e., China, of course, and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Turkey is a new player in the field, trying to mobilize the Turkish diaspora to support Erdoğan’s new caliphate. Most interesting, however, is the fact that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are often accused of funding radical Islam, but they first and foremost try to influence mainstream parties.
How do you assess COVID-19’s impact on illiberal movements’ success? What factors will and will not play in their favor in the new context we’re living in?
At this moment, it is too early to tell, as we may face a second wave and the recession may hit much harder than expected. Prior to the pandemic, there were illiberal parties on the way to success. I have pointed to two cases: the Belgian-Flemish Vlaams Belang and the Fratelli d’Italia, both of which began to rise in popularity well before the pandemic. If the federal election was held this June, the VB would poll 29.7% of the Flemish vote (+9.7%) compared to 20% (-5.5%) for the mainstream conservative Nieuw Vlaamse Alliantie (NVA). The reason for this discrepancy has to do with ideology. In 2019, NVA leader Bart De Wever, published a book entitled Over Identiteit (On Identity). He advocates for Flemish nationalism and independence for his people, but within the framework of the Enlightenment, calling for an end to cultural relativism and a return to the Flemish “leidcultuur,” that is, assimilation for foreigners (the fewer foreigners, the better) and French-speaking citizens living in Flanders. This is not enough for diehard nationalists who feel betrayed by the NVA because of its participation in the federal government and do not believe in assimilation.
As for Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, it now polls at 17%, compared to 23% for the Lega. Fratelli is certainly on an upward trend, thanks to a sound conservative agenda with a distinct Catholic flavor and well-established international connections to intellectuals such as Yoram Hazony, Rod Dreher, Douglas Murray, Ryszard Legutko, Marion Maréchal, and Viktor Orbán.
The COVID-19 crisis, at first glance, was a perfect opportunity for illiberal parties in Western Europe to advance their agendas and gain popularity.
They quickly understood the benefit they could derive from criticizing their respective governments along with “elites” in general, in the management of the health crisis.
Their communication focused on three main areas: (i) claiming that the “managerial class” that is now at the helm of most liberal governments and parties was not able to effectively protect the people, either because it is not competent or it does not care about the common folk; (ii) criticism of globalization presented as the root cause of the pandemic; and (iii) criticism of the threats that the lockdown and other measures, such as wearing masks, imposes on the individual freedoms of citizens.
The illiberal right, and the radical right also developed the idea that the “elites” knowingly took advantage of the health crisis to hasten the imposition of an authoritarian form of government. I believe it is the most interesting side of the illiberal response: such parties as the Rassemblement national, as well as the Spanish Vox, the Italian Lega with Salvini and Fratelli d’Italia, the German Alternative für Deutschland, all tell their prospective voters that they are the sole defenders against the Orwellian society the “elites” want to impose. They say they are standing for the rights of the individual against forms of tyranny, and for free speech against the “official truth” on the pandemic. We tend to think of these parties as authoritarian if not outrightly “fascist,” but they have a point in saying that the French government, for example, has made a mistake in asking the media to relay only “checked news” about the pandemic, in order to counter what it labels as “fake news”. Promoting an “official truth” is not efficient, and less so when you have obviously failed in several aspects of fighting the virus.
The radical right in Western Europe, however, was not able to capitalize on the crisis as much as it expected. First, because the pandemic is unrelated to non-European immigration from Muslim countries and Africa: it originated in China. Anti-Chinese racism did not work, as most people quickly understood that the one to blame was not the average Chinese traveler to Europe, but the Chinese government and its old communist habits of withholding information from their own citizens and the international community. This left the radical right with the only opportunity to denounce the European Union and globalization, which is nothing new.
More convincing is that the radical right were the first to have warned the public, well before the pandemic, of the dangers of relocating potentially strategic industries such as the pharmaceutical industry in emerging countries such as China and India.
Their idea is that the pandemic was caused by globalization itself, which generates continuous flows of travel and international exchange, immigration notwithstanding. Globalization they say, allows multinationals to make financial profits in times of a health crisis, while the poorest are hit the worst by unemployment and a non-efficient medical system. Do not forget that, in Europe, there is a consensus about the necessity of the state providing health insurance for everyone, as well as a state-controlled system of care for the elderly and hospitals with the highest standards of performance. When successive governments of the social democratic left and the mainstream right fail to keep the welfare state working, the illiberal, or even radical right, are quick to say they will restore it, with the condition that it will only benefit nationals and not foreigners.
How do you relate to the term illiberalism? Do you think it fits better conceptually than other existing terms to describe the current evolution or is it limiting?
In order to define illiberalism, you need to first agree on what liberalism is. Liberalism is the prevalent doctrine in the West and most people think it means representative democracy, human rights, freedom of speech, a market economy, and free trade. That is, of course, part of it, as are all the provisions of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and, in fact, all the values of the Enlightenment. But liberalism is much more than that. Liberalism is a doctrine shared by all those, from the left to the right, who believe that rights must prevail over duties, that progress has been the ultimate goal in human history, and that it can (and must) go on without any limitation other than those imposed by the current state of science. Liberals also believe that any other component of society other than the individual is either oppressive or places undue limitation on the advancement of the ideal of a world without borders, whose only rule would be efficiency and profit.
Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed (2018) is a must-read for all those who want to understand criticisms of liberalism from a conservative point of view.
Illiberal democracy is, in fact, the opposite of what I have described above. It does not shun representative democracy but unequivocally rejects the belief in indefinite progress. Instead, illiberalism stresses tradition, civic virtues, and the necessary stability of social order. Deneen explains that liberalism hijacked the classical notions of freedom and democracy and has a point in doing so.
Let’s include a personal note to my analysis. My political home is the anti-totalitarian left and I am an observant Jew. How is it that I sometimes feel disillusioned with liberal democracy to the point of agreeing with Deneen on many issues? I have become wary of the term “populism,” which describes all parties that think a self-proclaimed elite of technocrats (and elected officials) have stolen the will of those they think are not socially or intellectually fit for leadership because they are either too poor, too old, or too uneducated. I do not believe in continuous progress and even feel that technical progress is sometimes alienating. I concur with Deneen in that “borderlessness” is the ultima ratio of liberalism: liberals believe that the market must expand beyond national borders; that the sovereignty of nation states must be replaced with a distant, technocratic governance whose model is the managerial method of private companies; that man must free himself from any limitation set by natural law on issues such as gender, family values, and civic virtues; and that every man must become his own master without paying any consideration to the customs set forth by the previous generations.
Liberalism pretends that freedom began with the Enlightenment and, in the case of France, with the Revolution. I stand against all that. My own belief is that whether morally right or wrong, tradition is a part of one’s inheritance and should not be seen as merely “reactionary”. While I think that citizenship can be acquired by an act of individual will, I also believe it imposes duties on the newcomer and I do not believe in multiculturalism.
Multiculturalism means that the national community comes second to one’s ethnicity and religion, eventually ending in civil strife and a cultural war between conflicting narratives, whether it be on slavery, colonialism or the genocides of the 20th century.
However, I do not endorse the bigotry and ethnocentrism of the illiberal right and I am committed to a balance of power between the executive, the judiciary, and the legislative branches. And equality, of course.
What is your next research project?
I am now working on a political biography of the late Guillaume Faye as one of the prominent thinkers of the French new right in the late 1970s-1980s. Faye later authored Ethnic Apocalypse: The Coming European Civil War, which was published with a foreword by Jared Taylor of American Renaissance. The article will be part of an edited volume dealing with thinkers of the radical right. When it is finished, however, I shall come back to the history of illiberal right conservative movements in Central and Eastern Europe.
Jean-Yves Camus is a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and the Director of the Observatory of Political Radicalism at Foundation Jean Jaures. He also sits on the Scientific Board of the Délégation interministérielle pour la lutte contre le racisme, l’antisémitisme et la lutte contre l’homophobie (DILCRAH). Prior to this, he was the research director at the European Center for Research on Racism and Anti-Semitism (CERA) in Paris. He is the author of seven books in French about the Front National and the Radical Right in France, including Les roits nationales et radicales en France (1992, with René Monzat); Le Front national, histoire et analyse (Éditions Olivier Laurens, 1996), Le Front national (Éditions Milan), and Extrémismes en France : faut-il en avoir peur ? (Éditions Milan, 2006). He has edited Les Extrémismes en Europe (La Tour d’Aigues, éditions de l’Aube, 1998). Additionally, Camus has published scholarly articles and opinion pieces on the Front National, the Radical Right, anti-Semitism, and racism in France and has contributed to many edited volumes in English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and other languages. With Nicolas Lebourg, he recently co-authored The Extremes Rights in Europe (Harvard University Press, 2017).