What French Conservatism can teach the Anglo-Saxon Right

Left and Right are difficult terms to get to grips with, but much can be learned from the different ways they have been interpreted

Where Left and Right all began
Philippe Labrecque
On 17 August 2012 08:00

Our concept of the political Left and Right comes from the aftermath of the French Revolution, as the Députés (MPs) of the Constituent Assembly gathered to discuss the Right of Veto of King Louis XVI on September 11, 1789, after the fall of the regime.

The opponents of the Revolution, the Royalists, in favour of maintaining the King’s veto rights, sat to the right of the President of the Assembly and those in favour of the revolutionary values and against the King’s veto rights sat to the left. In doing so they created the political cleavage that would define most if not all Western democracies that were to follow, if only in their political language of the revolutionary Left versus the conservative Right.

Of course what we now call the Left and the Right has little to do with the French Revolutionaries and Counter-Revolutionaries of the 18th century, but the French political system, especially the French Right and its form of conservatism, may be able to teach something to the Right in the Anglo-Saxon world.

The concepts of the Left and the Right and more importantly the differences between them, are always subject to the national context in which the said political philosophical associations are mentioned.

The United States and the United Kingdom may share some historical roots, but have very different ideas of what constitutes the Left and the Right. The Democratic Party would be a centrist party, if not a centre-right party in the U.K., yet it is branded "Liberal" in the U.S., while the Labour Party would, by some, be branded a Communist party in the United States.

Where you stand on the political spectrum depends on how a particular national context shapes that political spectrum.

Nonetheless, the Right in the United States, the United Kingdom and even in Canada are much more similar to one another than they are to the Right in France. It is that difference that is worth exploring.

The French Right, or at least parts of it, represents a certain conservatism anchored in the French Republican ideal of a strong nation built upon a binding and even assimilating social contract.

That same Right sees today’s France as an heir of its history, one that should be defended and cherished as the very basis of the idea of nation, opposing it to the French Left which tries to emancipate man from any historical roots to establish him in a globalized environment where the nation itself is a meaningless, if not a retarded concept.

The Right’s main party – the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) – has, at least since former President Nicolas Sarkozy, adopted the American view of what the Right should be: a mere liberal economic alternative to the Left’s state-controlled economic policy.

The best critics of the UMP actually come from the Right itself, a faction labelled les Réactionnaires (as in those who react) by its detractors on the Left. But this group of conservative thinkers, including Éric Zemmour, Alain Finkielkraut, Philippe Muray, Marcel Gauchet and Régis Debray to name only a few, brought back a depth to conservatism which has been almost solely rooted in liberal economic theories since the 1980s.

The Réacs have built a structured and well-articulated critique of the Communist roots of progressivism since the 1960s as well as its anti-Western sentiments that guide its approach to politics.

Moreover, the same group of thinkers take on the issues of modern nihilism, mass migration, the disappearance of the notion of "The People” as a unified entity, the effects of the West’s bad conscience and the degradation of education as a mere tool to produce economically efficient people and forgetting education as a tool of building a rational citizen turned towards the future while anchored in a precise historical current.

In other words, the Réacs oppose the Left on the ground of social values and aim to shape the future of society by fighting the Left’s reengineering of society into their utopian vision. The Réacs take a holistic approach to what should constitute conservatism in this post-modern world instead of simply taking an economic approach as we see too often in the Anglo-Saxon world.

180 years after Alexis de Tocqueville’s passage in America, the Republican Party in the United States has gone down a dangerous path with its association with Christian fundamentalists and economic Libertarians resulting in a form of conservatism that barely deserves to be called in such a way.

Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, may be correctly labelled fiscal conservatives, but they cannot offer any profound vision of society beyond cutting taxes, deregulation and small government.

Ronald Reagan, the god-like figure of American neoconservatives, is revered for his hard stance against Communism and wrongly praised as the President who took down the "Evil Empire" by increasing defence spending. In reality, the Soviet Union was already falling apart from within due to its economic and ideological deficiencies.

What President Reagan should be remembered for is bringing Christian evangelists to the very core of the Republican Party and the blind adoption of classically liberal economic theories.

Canada, a country of the Commonwealth with a strong conservative tradition, now has what is basically a copy of the Reagan-Bush neoconservative ideology in its own Conservative Party. The only hint of British conservative heritage left in Canada may be that the Queen of England is still the Head of State.

Across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom has a rich history of conservative politicians and thinkers going back, at least, to Edmund Burk’s criticism of the French Revolution, Benjamin Disraeli’s ‘One Nation’ Conservative Party in the second half of the 19th century and Conservative Party leader, Prime Minister and historic war-time figure, Winston Churchill.

But like the United States, conservatism in the U.K. has been reduced since the 1980s to Thatcherism and its liberal free-market economic policy that inspired Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan. Perhaps Thatcher inherited more from the political philosophy of her conservative predecessors than Reagan did from his predecessors within the Republican Party such as Abraham Lincoln.

But fundamentally, today’s conservative political philosophy in the Anglo-Saxon world seems sold to the idea of the free market with an enormous philosophical black hole in the place of what should be a holistic vision of the future of society that could challenge the Left’s multiculturalism (at least in the U.K. and Canada) and borderless vision of the world.

In other words, Anglo-Saxon conservatism is too often only about economics.

Cameron’s support for order and individual responsibility during the riots last year, openly criticising the policy of multiculturalism and making what some label an attempt to adopt Disraeli’s "One Nation" vision is a good start to rebuilding conservatism.

It will need more, however, if conservatism is to truly oppose the Left and progressivism. It will need to offer an alternative concept of a society rooted in tradition, history, identity, liberties and duties.

What the French Réacs and other French conservative thinkers such as philosopher and historian Raymond Aron have taught us is that conservatism and its values can and should be our philosophical answer to the woes, ills and nihilism of post-modernism.

A return of conservatism triumphing over neoconservatism and the Left’s progressivism will mean no less than a return of grand politics – the type that build states, nations, peoples while stepping away from the mere management of public affairs that governments seem increasingly limited to in this day and age.

Philippe Labrecque is a freelance journalist and commentator

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