How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Charles de Gaulle famously asked how one can govern a country with 246 kinds of fromage. Historians could just as easily ask how one can understand a country with even more kinds of lieux de mémoire. A term coined by the historian Pierre Nora, a memory site is a shape-shifter. It points to those ideas or individuals, movements or monuments, literary works or legal texts which take on and take off different meanings over the centuries. In their three-volume work Les Lieux de mémoire, Nora and his colleagues applied the concept to a dazzling array of such sites, ranging from Verdun to Versailles, the Tour de France to the Tour Eiffel, the civil code to the paintings at Lascaux.
In this Baedeker guide for semioticians, one of the most intriguing sites is la gauche et la droite. The twinned concepts of the left and right were forged in the crucible of the French Revolution. At first, they were spatial markers, based on the two sides of the assembly hall where opponents and supporters of the monarchy sat in 1789. The terms slowly morphed during the nineteenth century, however, identifying supporters of the republic and supporters of the empire. By century’s end, as both camps came to terms with the republic, there was yet another transformation, with a conservative right and socialist left now squaring off against one another.
This particular dynamic, which held fast for the twentieth century, was enriched by another French tradition: that of the engagé intellectual. Ever since the Dreyfus Affair, as the late historian Tony Judt observed, French intellectuals considered it their duty “to choose sides, to align themselves with one or other side in the great national conflicts.” For the French, an unengaged intellectual is a literal and historical oxymoron. As René Descartes—yet another entry in Nora’s work—might have said, “I think, therefore I act.”
Just as the intellectuals rose with the traditional right and left, today they are falling with them. By the end of the twentieth century, the heroic halo hovering over intellectuals was dulled and dented. Some dings were self-inflicted, most spectacularly after World War II, when many left-wing intellectuals followed the lead of the French Communist Party. The rise of social media, and the accompanying decline of print media, further fragmented the audience and diluted the authority of intellectuals. Most important, many intellectuals, blinded by ideals, failed to see the wisdom of Raymond Aron’s warning that “ours is never a struggle between good and evil, but between the preferable and the detestable.”
The conservative and socialist parties, for their part, have been battered by the new media as well, but still more by their own impotence in the face of a deepening economic and social malaise. Neither left nor right has managed to assuage this discontent, whether the traditional parties have governed singly or in “cohabitation,” with the president coming from one camp and parliament from the other.
Next week’s elections in France for the European Parliament make manifest the apparently irresistible slide into irrelevance of both the conservatives and socialists. The two leading parties are President Emmanuel Macron’s technocratic La République en Marche (LRM) and Marine Le Pen’s extreme-right-wing Rassemblement National (RN). Both parties are of recent vintage: Macron created the LRM just two years ago, after his victory in the presidential election, while just last year Le Pen rechristened her father’s Front National the RN. In the early weeks of the campaign, these two parties, though they could not pull away from each other, had dramatically outrun the traditional parties. The conservative Les Républicains were wheezing at ten percent, while the Socialists barely showed a pulse at five percent.
As a result, the traditional parties opted for shock therapy: they decided to place the fate of their parties in the hands of intellectuals. In January, the head of Les Républicains, Laurent Wauquiez, announced that François-Xavier Bellamy, a professor of philosophy, would lead his party’s list the following spring. Several weeks later, the Socialist leader Olivier Faure joined forces with Place Publique, a newly formed political party, and promoted its leader, the intellectual Raphaël Glucksmann, to lead their combined parliamentary list.
Overnight, the entwined fates of France’s two most venerable parties had been placed in the hands of utterly untested newcomers who had made their mark in public life not as politicos but as intellos. The right and the left, one of France’s most venerable lieux de mémoire, suddenly had new occupants.
In the case of the Socialists, the turn to an intellectual for leadership is not unprecedented. Before assuming his historic role as the Socialist tribune who mobilized the French left on behalf of Dreyfus, Jean Jaurès was a professor of philosophy. Following Jaurès’ assassination in 1914, Léon Blum became the party’s leader. Like Jaurès, Blum graduated from the prestigious École Normale Supèrieure—the training ground for French intellectuals—and was an influential writer before he became the unlikely savior of a Socialist Party left in tatters following the schism with the Communists in 1920.
At the official launching of the Socialist/Place Publique ticket in April, Glucksmann inevitably invoked the names of both Jaurès and Blum. Although not himself a card-carrying Socialist, Glucksmann declared that he was “proud to ally himself with the party of Jaurès and Blum in the battle for Europe and the environment.” The Socialists and Place Publique, he insisted, would disprove the widespread belief that “the left is dead and relegated to history books.” Perhaps his disappointingly small audience, little more than 500 Socialist militants and a handful of Place Publique members, remembered that Blum’s circumstances a century earlier were equally daunting.
The 39-year-old Glucksmann has the right genes for his new role. His father, the late André Glucksmann, was the leading light, together with Bernard Henri-Lévy, of les nouveaux philosophes. Though not as charismatic as the “old philosophers” like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the new philosophers were telegenic, holding forth not in cafés but in television studios. Though often lambasted for their superficiality, these new philosophers nevertheless forced the left to confront its stubborn attraction for totalitarian states like Soviet Russia or Red China.
The younger Glucksmann’s résumé as a public intellectual has included work as a film documentarian—he was a co-director of the 2004 Tuez-les tous! (Kill All of Them!), a film on the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda—and as a political adviser, from 2008 to 2013, to then President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia. Upon his return to France, Glucksmann published two well-received essays, Génération gueule du bois (Hangover Generation) in 2015, and just last year, Les Enfants du vide (The Children of the Void.)
Just as the father challenged the totalitarian temptation for some on the left, the son has taken on the neoliberal temptation for others on the left. In Les Enfants du vide Glucksmann explores the decay of the institutions and ideals that once bound French society, and the frustration and fear of those who cannot find their feet in the churn of globalization and immigration. He recounts a conversation he had with a retired steelworker, perplexed that his two sons had voted for Le Pen. For most of his life, the worker explained, he was poor, but he had “the union, the factory, and the party.” These institutions had collapsed. For this reason, the worker shrugged: although his sons are better off than he ever was, he said, “They are alone and have nothing.”
For Glucksmann, the disintegration of the social, political, and professional structures that formed the lives and informed the values of previous generations has left today’s youth isolated. While their parents lived in a world “saturated with meaning and myths, whether they issued from the left or right,” the experience of the children has been just the opposite, Glucksmann writes: “We were born into a world where the problem is not too much ideology, but its antithesis: emptiness.” The task is no longer to break the chains that hold us, he concludes, but instead to “reweave the bonds that keep us together.”
That the bonds should have been destroyed in the first place was not inevitable, in Glucksmann’s view. Rather, the strong winds of neoliberalism razed the structures that once undergirded French political and social life. Macron is trying to ride, not resist, those winds, Glucksmann insists. Though the president presents himself as disruptive force—the title of his own campaign book, after all, is Révolution—he actually encourages a kind of fatalism. According to Glucksmann, Macron has told the French that they have no choice but to “accept the market as it is.” As a result, Glucksmann concludes, Macron’s policies do not challenge the “structures of domination” but, instead, “comfort them.”
Glucksmann, by contrast, believes that intervening in the market is a moral and political imperative, given the state of both the environment and the French worker. The PS-PP’s party program, which weighs in at a record 118 propositions, reflects this analysis. While Glucksmann agrees that national deficits should not exceed three percent of GDP—the European Union’s red line—he nevertheless places existential concerns ahead of financial ones. Hence his “ecological exception,” which allows member states to implement green policies that push their budgetary deficits past the three percent limit. He proposes creating an environmental budget for the EU and taxing banks and financial industries to underwrite it. His program seeks to reverse the slow transformation of Europe from a crossroads into a fortress: Glucksmann is hostile to the so-called Dublin Regulation, which gives the state where an immigrant first enters Europe the right to decide on his or her status. The rule, Glucksmann argues, is “neither humanely nor technically tenable.” In its place, he proposes establishing a European Office of Asylum to centralize the task of processing migrants.
The program, according to Glucksmann, is a “project of rupture” that will spark the Socialists’ “renaissance,” making the party once again the haven for those he calls “the orphans of the left.”
At its heart, he insists, “is the marriage between the quest for social justice and environmental imperatives.” But the marriage might already be on the rocks. The fledgling Place Publique has already ruptured over the alliance with the Socialists. One of its founders, the radical economist Thomas Porcher, quit on the grounds that the Socialists’ economic policies have been largely indistinguishable from those Macron now pursues. And for all the talk of “environmental imperatives,” the PS-PP has failed to seduce the leader of the Green Party, Yannick Jadot, into joining its coalition. In rejecting Glucksmann’s marriage proposal, Jadot dismissed his environmental proposals as little more than “fairy dust” sprinkled on an otherwise unexceptional political program.
Glucksmann’s public appearances have been equally unexceptional. No one expected him to rival the titanic Jaurès, who mesmerized vast crowds for hours on end, but he has fallen short even of the wispy Blum, whose speeches conveyed the moral ideals of the left. Instead, Glucksmann’s rumpled clothing style—black jeans, open-necked shirts—and unshaven visage match his rumpled speaking style. Last month, after a disastrous appearance in a debate among the two dozen or so leaders of the European parliamentary lists, he blurted to his advisers, “I am not made for this!” An increasingly desperate Faure has tried to turn this weakness into a virtue by praising Glucksmann’s inability “to speak Socialist.” Mais oui: “But I prefer that person to someone who goes unheard.”
The rub is that Glucksmann not only sounds different but is also going unheard. Through the first three weeks of May, polls consistently reveal a PS-PP alliance so moribund as to require either extreme intervention or extreme unction. Polling between 4.5 and five percent, the PS-PP risks falling shy of the five percent threshold necessary to send deputies to Brussels. Such a failure would be not only a historic first for the party but quite likely its historic end. As a result, Faure persuaded the party’s ténors, or leading figures, to join Glucksmann at his rallies this past week. This proved an awkward request. In his documentary on the Rwandan genocide, Glucksmann claimed that then President François Mitterrand was complicit with the massacring Hutus. As a result, the socialist old guard, from Mitterrand’s former culture minister Jack Lang to Hollande’s former prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve, published an open letter slamming Glucksmann for what, in their eyes, was a libelous claim. Politics often makes for strange bedfellows, but rarely bedfellows on the verge of strangling one another.
If anyone should understand Glucksmann’s predicament, it’s François-Xavier Bellamy, the philosopher tasked with reviving the traditional French right. Bellamy’s camp, too, is beset with division and battling irrelevance. Just as the hard-left La France Insoumise (Defiant France), led by the former Socialist minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has become home for disaffected Socialists, Le Pen’s revamped RN is seen by many on the right as a respectable alternative to the conservative party.
Herein lies the difficulty for Wauquiez and Bellamy. Party moderates have repeatedly criticized Wauquiez, the leader since 2017, both for his positions on social issues, including his initial opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage, and for his tendency to up the ante on Le Pen’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. In the wake of an Islamist terrorist attack last year in southwestern France, Wauquiez called for imprisoning the approximately 3,000 individuals found on the French intelligence surveillance list known as Fiche S. His proposal ignited criticism not just from the left and center but also within his own party. Even former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s former chief of the national police, Frédéric Péchenard, asserted that the idea “doesn’t make much sense.”
But for a certain kind of conservative, Wauquiez’s identity politics do make sense. Indeed, his worldview at times overlaps with that of the influential reactionary theorist Charles Maurras. The iconic leader of the anti-Semitic and anti-Dreyfusard movement Action Française, Maurras despised the republic and sought the return of political power to throne and altar. The fortunes of Action Française declined when the pope excommunicated the movement after World War I, and the group largely disappeared after World War II, when a French court found Maurras guilty of treason. Yet the past several years have seen the movement’s revival, galvanized by enormous demonstrations against the Socialist government’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015.
In her 2018 book Le Vieux monde est de retour (The Old World Is Back), the journalist Pascale Tournier examines the resurrection of this particular French right—one that, not long ago, seemed as dead and buried as the kings of France. This revitalized right holds that the forces of globalization, immigration, liberalism, and secularism threaten France’s unique identity. Many of the movement’s young militants place the Catholic Church at the center of France’s ancient and embattled identity. Young Catholic conservatives are turning to the church, Tournier writes, at the very moment that churches are emptying.
While Wauquiez has repeatedly insisted on France’s Christian roots, Tournier identifies Bellamy as one of the most influential figures promoting this renewed old world. For this reason, his sudden ascension unsettled the party’s moderate wing. Valérie Pécresse, a leading moderate voice, declared earlier this year that Les Républicains harbors two rights: “There is the right of decibels and the right of credibility. One is more conservative and nationalist, the other more progressive and European.” Wauquiez’s decision to nominate Bellamy to lead the European parliamentary list did little to bridge this divide. Confessing her dismay, Pécresse allowed that while some of Bellamy’s ideas are “intéressantes”—in this case, French for “peculiar”—his “personal convictions do not represent those of the French right.”
A philosophy teacher at a private Catholic lycée in Paris, Bellamy, who at 32 looks scarcely older than his students, first caught the public’s attention with his 2014 essay Les Déshérités. Should it ever be translated into English, it might be titled The Closing of the French Mind. In the essay, Bellamy lambastes the public schools for their failure to transmit culture to their students. Rather than finding the sources of French culture, students are encouraged to find themselves. Alarmed by the inability of French youth to read an entire novel, Bellamy worries less about the “shock of cultures”—the usual trope of conservatives—than he does about the “shock of the uncultured.”
Last year, Bellamy released a new book called Demeure. The word means a house or residence, but also something more: a place of permanence or stability. Like Glucksmann, Bellamy worries that the structures that ensure continuity are being uprooted in an era of mounting movement and change. Turning to the ancient Greeks to frame this tension between movement and stability, Bellamy identifies Plato as the great partisan of permanence, while Heraclitus is the fan of flux. While Bellamy recognizes that it takes both to make the world tango, he urges his readers to rally to the camp of stability in its hour of need. “When everything changes,” he warns, “everything disappears.”
A degree in semiotics is not required to see that demeure is the antithesis of en marche, the name not just of the ruling political party but also of its leader’s personal predilection. Upon becoming president in 2017, Macron announced his aspiration to make France a “startup nation.” This ideal strikes Bellamy as hyper-Heraclitean—an embrace of “perpetual change and continuous transformation.” And he opposes it. As a matter of philosophical conjecture, it is fine and good to assert that one cannot step in the same river twice. But as a matter of social and moral necessity, it is catastrophic to assert that one cannot step in the same nation twice.
Again like Glucksmann, Bellamy is a savage critic of liberalism and a stout defender of the European Union. But the two men start from different philosophical places and arrive at different political conclusions. Whereas Glucksmann sees the revolutionary values of 1789 as an antidote to the anomie and atomization of modern life, Bellamy considers them the disease for which it pretends to be the cure. Whereas Glucksmann’s Europe is one of open borders and greater unity among member states, Bellamy’s is one of reinforced borders and greater sovereignty for member states. Bellamy supports the Républicain line that immigrants must apply for asylum in the EU while waiting outside of it, and that the EU’s Coast Guard, Frontex, must return undocumented immigrants to their places of departure.
At a recent joint press conference, Bellamy and Wauquiez announced that their duty was to “save Europe.” But this Europe is one made from Judeo-Christian values, with a dollop of ancient Greek thought. It is, in short, a Europe that excludes more than it includes. Though steeped in ancient Greek philosophy and committed to the transmission of Western culture, Bellamy oddly makes no mention of the Islamic contribution to Western thought, beginning with the transmission of Aristotle’s works from medieval Muslim scholars to European scholastics. Though much concerned about the fate of Christians in North Africa and the Middle East, he evinces far less interest in the fate of their Muslim compatriots. In a recent interview, he suggested that immigrants risk everything to reach Europe not in despair for their lives but in order to seek their fortunes: “The drama now playing out on the Mediterranean is largely due to the image of an El Dorado we have given of our countries.”
Few Syrian or Yemeni refugees would see themselves in Bellamy’s description, and more than a few French conservatives see Bellamy’s conservatism as extreme. On a number of social issues, he swings toward the hard right of his party. When it comes to abortion, he has been forthright in his opposition: “I assume it as a personal conviction.” He insists that no one in France dreams of making abortion illegal, but this is precisely the dream of the thousands of Catholic conservatives whom Bellamy has accompanied in their annual anti-abortion protest, the March for Life.
Bellamy’s association with reactionary organizations disturbs conservatives both within and outside the party. The investigative journal Mediapart recently revealed that Bellamy has regularly appeared at events hosted by Ichtus, a Catholic organization that is an offshoot of Action Française. He has been a frequent guest of Renaissance Catholique, another Catholic movement that execrates the republic and endorses the crackpot theory of le grand remplacement, a conspiratorial conceit popularized by the writer Renaud Camus, which purports that France’s white population faces extinction at the hands of dark-skinned immigrants. The day our country is “occupied by a joyous and mixed population of Africans, Berbers, and a few Caucasians,” warns the movement’s president, Jean-Pierre Maugendre, it “will no longer be France.”
Ultimately, the real threat confronting France is not the replacement of its population but the displacement of its political parties toward the extremes.
On the left, La France Insoumise claims about ten percent of polled voters, more than double those who plan to vote for the PS-PP ticket. Its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has rarely met an authoritarian ruler he hasn’t liked. A fervent admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, Mélenchon has the back of Chávez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro. Indeed, he denounced Macron as hypocritical for calling for the dissolution of Maduro’s government in the face of popular protests while refusing to dissolve his own government in the face of the yellow vest demonstrations. Moreover, while he insists that he does not want to withdraw France from the EU, Mélenchon demands the overhaul of the founding treaties.
Laboring in Mélenchon’s shadow, Glucksmann has neither ignited the enthusiasm of voters nor united the disparate parties on the left under the PS-PP banner. Despite appearing at rallies this week with socialist icons like Christiane Taubira, the former justice minister responsible for the same-sex-marriage legislation, and Martine Aubry, the former labor minister who enacted the 35-hour work week, Glucksmann’s list still polls at an anemic five percent. At the same time, his calls for unity have been ignored by the Greens, the Communists, and disparate Socialist movements.
As for Bellamy, the polling has been neither as meteoric as he would want nor as catastrophic his moderate opponents had wished: Les Républicains are oscillating between 12 and 14 percent in the polls. A number of former critics within the party, like Nice’s blunt-spoken mayor Christian Estrosi, have now rallied to Bellamy. Even Pécresse herself has called a truce: Last month, citing Bellamy’s promise to reconcile the two wings of the party, Pécresse announced that she would vote for the Républicain ticket.
Tellingly, however, Marion Maréchal, the niece of Marine Le Pen and idol of the Catholic and identity movements, also sees Bellamy as a reconciler. With this young Catholic now leading the Républicain ticket, Maréchal remarked, she saw no reason why an electoral alliance could not be formed between the LR and RN. Predictably, the more Wauquiez and Bellamy dismiss such a possibility, the more delighted are the Le Pens, who see Bellamy’s ascension as one more sign of the “normalization” of their worldview.
For most traditional conservatives and socialists, however, resignation is the mood du jour. The rumble of a slow but seismic shift can be heard by those willing to hear. They know the corollary to the coming recomposition of political landscape is the final decomposition of their parties. Come the next edition of Les Lieux de mémoire, readers may well learn that this Sunday’s election marked the end to one idea of la gauche et la droite and its replacement by another. The left and right might be dead—but even so, long live the left and right!