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The Impossible French Conservatism by Hélène de Lauzun

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The Impossible French Conservatism

Opening session of the General Assembly, 5 May 1789 (1839), a 400 x 715 cm oil on canvas by Auguste Couder (1789–1873), located in the Museum of the History of France.

The beginning of the campaign for the presidential election in France raises the question of conservatism and its place in the political spectrum. The term is difficult to use in France. Some see it as positive, others don’t. The essayist Éric Zemmour claims the term on the grounds “beautiful things are in essence the ones we choose to conserve,” but Marine Le Pen tries to avoid using the term. Strictly speaking, conservatism is a term that doesn’t belong to the French political landscape. Although it plays a major role in England, there are deep-seated impediments that inhibit the French ‘right-wing’ political class from appropriating the term. Indeed, this is not a simple quarrel of words. We must dig into the meanders of French history over the past two centuries to understand this affliction from which the French Right suffers. 

The birth of the terms “Right” and “Left” on 11 September 1789, during the deliberations by the French National Assembly on the right of veto to be granted to the king, must remind us of their relativity. On the right side of the hemicycle, those who defended the absolute right of veto for the king; on the left the deputies who defended a simple suspensive veto. A few months later, the division was ratified: the partisans of the monarchy versus the defenders of the Revolution. 

Vae Victis, death to the defeated: the Right finds its birth in the original trauma of the French Revolution. It is on the side of those who lost, of a history that will never be written again. The French Revolution was also a period of intense persecution of the Catholic religion, and a painful synthesis took place in people’s minds: a fallen monarchy united to the martyred faith. The right-wing remained affixed to this double cause to defend. 

For the Right, the French nineteenth century conveys the history of a slow acclimatization to the system and values born during the Revolution. The Restoration of Louis XVIII and Charles X were awkward attempts to get back to the legitimate monarchy, soon discredited by the soulless regime embodied by King Louis-Philippe. The Second Empire was a brilliant period of exceptional vitality and inventiveness for France, but that too collapsed in the clash of arms at Sedan in 1870. Then, there was something of a clever “conservative” balance in the Second Empire. However, the defeat against Prussia sounded the death knell of the last intelligent attempt at a synthesis between monarchy and revolution. With a fallen empire and an untraceable royalty, the French Right has been several times orphaned, and continues to undergo the assaults of a Republic which remains—though nobody in France really wants it—and which intends to take its revenge. 

The republican battle is long, hard, and determined. In 1870 it was a question of winning over hearts that were still restive and of proving an ability to govern when previous republican experiences had ended in bloodshed and anarchy. For the Republicans of this great era, that of Ferry and Gambetta, the enemy was soon no longer really the monarchy, with no prospect of a credible incarnation, but rather Catholicism. 

Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, Archbishop of Algiers (1888), a 239×164 cm oil on canvas by Léon Bonnat (1833-1922).

In this context, the episode of the Ralliement in 1890 took place. It was advocated by Pope Leo XIII in order to reconcile the Catholics of France with their political regime and to break the process of assimilation which made the Republic the daughter of the Revolution and of persecutions, which prevented any sincere adhesion of the believers to the republican system. The kick-off was given on 12 November 1890 by Cardinal Lavigerie, Archbishop of Algiers, who raised his glass in front of an audience of French officers in a toast that became famous. This toast of Algiers, as it is known, was ordered by Leo XIII, who was preparing to publish an encyclical in French, Au milieu des sollicitudes. It appeared in February 1892, with a subtitle that could not be more explicit: “The Church and the State in France.” It formally called for support of the Republic, asking believers to accept, at last, the republican system, to work for the “pacification of the fatherland.” Shortly afterwards, in May, the Pope, in a letter to the French cardinals, was even more explicit: “Accept the Republic.”

Why such a risky choice on the part of Leo XIII? Obviously, it is not a question of an unexpected and suspicious conversion to revolutionary and republican ideals on the part of the Pope. It is rather a question of a strategy: the Republic, which is now well established, cannot be left in the hands of the former revolutionaries and of the extreme Left. It is important that good men invest in it, and influence the laws to be voted upon, notably by advocating a social discourse. But unfortunately Leo XIII deluded himself into thinking that there would be enough “good republican” Catholics to defeat the system from within.

The rallying was a mere strategy or a ruse, and the perverse effects of this call for appeasement were clearly not anticipated. At the time, the change of course requested by Rome was disconcerting, curious, and worrying, both among the high and low clergy and among the faithful. How can we reasonably worship that which has burned us? Some disputed the propriety of the Pope’s interference in the temporal affairs of France. Others proposed a possible contradiction between the Syllabus of Pius IX and Au milieu des sollicitudes. But what indeed was to be done if, in fact, one recognized the French Republic as legitimate—with Republican proposals condemned in chapter VI of the Syllabus concerning the emancipation of education from the Church or the supremacy of the civil power over the things of religion? At the end of the nineteenth century, the quarrels about the secularization of schools were very fresh in the minds of the French. 

At first, the pontifical request was met with skepticism and even criticism. Many committed Catholics could not bring themselves to rally. Although some did, the French political landscape was not radically transformed by the injunction. The French population remained predominantly Catholic, and it participated in the elections. It had not waited for the Pope’s call to become moderate and republican. Republicans in their different shades, from the most moderate to the most radical and anticlerical, had dominated the elections since 1876.

The effect produced by the ralliement was more subterranean, less visible in the short term, but of crucial importance to the Catholic elites and to a “right-wing” political class that had to reinvent itself. Toward this end they were not helped much by the papacy which, once the general instruction had been given, was careful not to specify the rules of the game: rally… and manage on your own for the rest. The price of this omission would prove to be very high. France found itself to be the only country that the Pope had asked to court the modern world, hated by many, the source of much evil and sin. How difficult it would be then—for many believers—not to succumb to what could be called a “Lorenzaccio effect,” in reference to the famous drama by Alfred de Musset which demonstrates the folly of approaching evil in order to destroy it, only to be seduced and corrupted by it during the encounter and losing sight of the original, noble, plot. In the long run, the Lorenzaccio effect could also be called the “Ralliement Syndrome,” in which one recognizes the dominant system and its codes, submits to it hoping to be heard, and then the opposite happens, as one submits to the rules of an order erected to destroy us. 

Why was France exempted from the otherwise coherent vision of Rome, especially when France had been identified as the source of the liberalism condemned by Pius IX, which carried with it all the evils of modernity? The attitude of the Papacy towards the political situation in other European countries was indeed radically different. Outside France, there was no request to rally. For Italy, the relations with the young Italian State were guided by the imperatives of the Roman question, making impossible any accommodation with the new regime. In the German countries, a group of Catholic deputies, the Katholischer Club, existed in the Frankfurt Parliament as early as 1848. After the Franco-Prussian war and the birth of the German Empire, Catholics gave birth to the Zentrum party, a party explicitly defending Catholic interests. Later on, the Zentrum experienced its own political developments, but always in connection with Rome. In Austria, conservatism also maintained close relations with Catholicism. The writings of the publicist Karl von Vogelsang, a thinker of Catholic social reform, inspired the social policy of Minister Taaffe, which gave Austria an advanced social legislation in the 1880s. In 1891, the Christian Social Party was born, clearly irrigated by this conservative Catholic thought. Its relations with the papacy were very good.

Why then such a French exception? In France, following the appeal of Leo XIII, the Catholic ‘Right’ had to submit to the system and recognize the Republic. It was asked to admit ideological teachings in contradiction to the faith, while being refused any possibility of a Catholic party. No French Catholic movement found favor in the eyes of the Papacy; there would never be a Catholic party in France. In 1883 after the death of the Count of Chambord, Albert de Mun wanted to create a Catholic monarchist party inspired by the German Zentrum. Leo XIII firmly opposed it, and Albert de Mun complied with the papal injunction. After the rallying, some initiatives arose that conformed to the nonsectarian spirit of the day. Albert de Mun with Jacques Piou founded the rallied movement of the Constitutional Right with mediocre political success. This movement led, in 1901, to the creation of the Action Libérale Populaire, a party of ‘rallied’ Catholics. Although they presented themselves as non-Catholic, their defense of the interests of the persecuted Catholic Church created an ambiguity that was never really overcome, and which caused it to cap membership at around 70 to 80 deputies. At the same time, other more left-wing formations emerged, claiming to be part of a Christian democracy. Marc Sangnier founded the Sillon movement in 1894. He defined it as a secular movement with a Christian inspiration and strong social connotations. It was soon condemned by Rome in 1910 for its “social modernism.” How could one achieve integration into the regime if all the political formations that tried to play the game had their wings cut?

Parallel to the tribulations of the French Catholics, an attempt to renew the framework of thought of the Right was born with the birth of Action Française—French Action,’ or AF. The movement, hatched in 1898 at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, was based on a decisive observation: the French Right was dying because of its cultural inferiority in the field of thought. It was therefore necessary to build a theoretical and practical corpus that would enable it, in the long run, to come to power. Although it had nationalist sympathies, it evolved towards royalism under the guidance of Charles Maurras, who became the main thinker of the movement. For him, the restoration of the greatness of the nation required the restoration of the monarchy. The royal idea was thus placed at the service of the nation. Maurras was aware that many Catholic and monarchist voters felt homeless in the French political landscape. The movement was born in the midst of strong religious tensions, and within a State-sanctioned anticlericalism of a rare violence. Even so, the fight for the defense of the Catholic faith seemed natural to most of the AF militants, who had been raised in the Catholic faith. Maurras, for his part, defined himself as agnostic, but saw the Church above all as one of those forces of order that were indispensable to the greatness of the French nation. The curious mixture took hold, all the more easily since no credible right-wing formation had emerged at the time. Catholic militancy experienced a real revival through the Action Française.

The leaders of Action Française parading at the national day of Joan of Arc, 8 May 1927.

At the end of WWI, the prestige of the movement grew considerably. However in 1926, the movement was crushed by the Holy See: some of Maurras’ works, in which he openly expressed his agnosticism, were put on the Index, and in December, the movement was condemned by Pius XI, as well as all of Maurras’ works, and the newspaper, Action Française. In March 1927, it was decreed that members of the Action Française would be deprived of the sacraments. For many devout Catholics, this was a terrible blow. Some left the movement, others endured the pontifical sentence and were banished from the Catholic community because they refused to renounce their commitment. The ban was lifted in 1939 by Pius XII, but the Action Française never regained its past success.

Few parties or movements have suffered such powerful disciplinary condemnation as this one. Why was this pontifical severity suspended, when so many other movements were guilty of holding a questionable utilitarian relationship with the faith and the Church? It caused a deep trauma for a whole generation of committed Catholics. Regardless of the relevance and motivation of this condemnation by the papacy, it certainly played a major role in the structuring of the French political world. 

The basic problem is that, since 1875, the committed French Catholic voter of the Right has not been offered any political prospect consistent with his faith, each time at the initiative of Rome. The path of a monarchist Catholic party has been closed; the path of progressive social Catholicism has also been condemned. The path of a royalist party defending Christian values, also condemned. What creative alternative can exist under these conditions? It seems that the Right, pushed to rally, has no other choice than to deny itself in order to better merge with institutions that defend an anthropology and a vision opposed to its own, feasibly directed towards its disappearance. 

The history of the French Right does not stop with the excommunication of Action Française. In politics, nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed. The 1930s saw the formation of a new party on the right, the Parti Social Français. Often described as the first mass party of the French Right, it attracted a conservative audience, and attracted committed Catholic personalities. But because of the outbreak of war, the party never went to the polls because no election took place during the conflict.

Thereafter, the political game was blurred by the experience of the Vichy regime. During the War things were extremely mixed. There were collaborators on all sides, and resistance fighters on all sides as well, making the political positioning of the Right more difficult than ever. Any national and conservative discourse was suspected of being Petainist during the madness of the purge. Gaullism emerged from the rubble, but without appropriating the label of right-wing, preferring the mystique of ‘national reconciliation’—a necessary aid to healing the wounds of the War. The movement dominated all post-war political life for many years, making it extremely difficult to redefine both the ideology and the tactics of the Right. In this context, the search for a possible “French conservatism” made little sense: the political forces were rather in a logic of clean slate and re-creation to overcome the trauma of the national division between resistance and collaboration. 

One certain thing emerges from this complex historic process: the challenge of French conservatism is difficult to meet today, and quite real. It is, however, an indispensable tool for warding off the curse of a country that has been torn apart and struggles to inscribe itself as great powers do, each in its own way. To do this, the French Right must break free from the prison of the rally, which has become a self-referential value—emptied of any anthropology, any strong political vision. In order to renew the thread, here are a few leads and intuitions to consider: (1) Acceptance of the term ‘conservatism,’ infused with a positive and valorizing content; (2) The reasoned recourse to history, all of history, not as a source of permanent guilt, but of confidence and pride. The French passion for heritage, for example, is one of the essential sources for finding this “happy identity“—according to the words of the journalist Stéphane Bern—that so many are trying to destroy; and (3) The (re)construction of an authentic right-wing culture, because there is no possible political victory as long as the Right systematically apes the culture of the Left.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).


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