The presidential election is over, and the result has been exactly what was expected : the “socialist”candidate won over the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, even if by a relatively small margin. All elections, however, have their share of surprises, and this one was no exception, since the far-right leader Marine Le Pen scored nearly 18%, better than her father in 2002 when he shocked the world by reaching the second round. This is by no way an isolated phenomenon. The very same Sunday Hollande was elected, the Greeks sent to their parliament 21 activists from the Golden Dawn, a fringe far-right party, complete with a svatiska-like symbol and roman salutes. Add to that Hungary, whose constitution the right wing government has recently changed in a decidedly authoritarian direction and the 17% scored in the Netherlands by Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom, and it becomes obvious Europe has a far right problem.
Marine Le Pen’s National Front is no newcomer in French politics. It was founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen to unify the then marginal French far right. The Far right has a long history in France and was at time a significant force. The nationalist leagues nearly seized power in 1934 when a corruption scandal, the Stavisky case, degenerated into riots. They had, of course, their moment in the sun when Hitler’s panzers crashed through the Bulge and allowed them to rule a rump French State from Vichy. The collapse of Nazi Germany dealt them a crushing blow, however, as their leaders were killed in action, shot for treason or forced to run for the Spanish border.
The Algerian war and the confused impotence of the late Fourth Republic gave the far right a new lease of life. It proved short-lived, however, as Charles de Gaulle, who had belonged to the monarchist Action Française but had later joined the moderate right, seized power through a quasi-coup and abandoned Algeria. The far right attempted to topple him during the failed Alger coup of 1971 and, for a time, waged a vicious, but ultimately doomed low intensity terrorist campaign.
When Le Pen made his 1972 bid, the far right had been reduced to a rag-tag collection of fringe groups and intellectuals. While he managed, progressively and with much difficulty, to rally the far right around himself, Le Pen electoral results were dismal. In the 1974 presidential election he won a mere 0,8% of the national vote and failed to gather enough support to stand in the 1981 election.
The breakthrough happened in the 1983 municipal elections, and most importantly in the Dreux by election, in October of the same year, when the National Front won 17% of the vote and forced the moderate right to make a deal with it to stave off defeat. This put the National Front under the spotlights and paved the way for later successes, the most important of which was, of course, the much publicized, 2002 presidential election.
Democratic parties reacted by establishing a kind of cordon sanitaire around the National Front. Most of the time it worked. The moderate right, then dominated by staunchly gaullist Jacques Chirac, did not yield to the temptation and the 1983 deal was never repeated. It has to be said, however, that Le Pen himself did not want to take part to a coalition government. He was fully aware that his party thrived in radical opposition to the establishment and every time an alliance with a mainstream party became remotely possible, he spurted something utterly unfashionable about Jews, the Holocaust or the German army. This proved quite efficient.
Unfortunately, his daughter is more interested in ruling than he was, and knows that her only chance to get into power is by having the moderate right so soundly defeated that a part of it look to her for support, hardly an implausible scenario. The leaders of right are very much aware of the risk and have promised to expel anybody who would dare to strike a deal with the National Front. This may not be enough, however.
The problem is the National Front, like most of its Western European counterparts, is not really fascist. It is xenophobic and authoritarian, and would make France a very unpleasant place if allowed to reach power. Should this happen I am of the opinion that it ought to be overthrown by any mean necessary. Even though the most lunatic ones have been marginalized or even expelled when Marine Le Pen was given the leadership of the party, a significant part of its core membership is fascist, or heavily influenced by fascism. There is also a sizable number of catholic traditionalists and of unreconstructed pieds-noirs and even a few eccentrics, who will talk to you about their Indo-European heritage before walking away toward the nearest forest.
The ideology of the National Front, however, is closer to Cesarism – aka, the man on the white horse – than to bona fide fascism. For instance, Marine Le Pen, even though her policies would undoubtedly be highly oppressive and unpleasant, does not plan to change the constitution in any major way. It is partly due to the fact that this constitution, even though it has accumulated some checks and balances over time, has been drafted by another man on the white horse after what amounted to a military coup, but not only. Cesarism is perfectly compatible with a constitutional regime, as generations of Latin-American strongmen have shown.
Cesarism, in France at least, happens when the political system is faced with what seems to be an unsolvable contradiction. Napoleon the First had to reconciliate an unstable regime born from a radical revolution and a people longing for internal stability. His nephew had to manage the contradiction between a liberal republic and a deeply conservative population; Lastly, De Gaulle, a conservative with a monarchist background, had to solve the contradiction between an impotent parliamentarian regime and the need for decisive action during the shedding of an ever more cumbersome colonial empire.
France was lucky in that its strongmen’s domestic policies have succeeded, often in sharp contrast with the disastrous results of their foreign policies. As Napoleon himself stated : “Waterloo will wipe out the memory of my forty victories; but that which nothing can wipe out is my Civil Code. That will live forever.” Cesarism can however be an abject failure, especially when the contradiction it faces is not wholly political in nature.
Thus, during the last decades of the nineteenth century, the newly established Third Republic had to contend with the consequences of the defeat of 1870. To ensure its survival in face of strong monarchist opposition, the Republic needed the lost provinces of Alsace – Lorraine back, but lacked the military force to reconquer them. It was not a political problem. Germany, once united, had a larger population and resource base than France. Besides, France’s low birth rate made sure the power gap would only increase with time. The only way out for the French Republic was to build an alliance strong enough to match German might – a strategy which ultimately won WWI, but took time.
A significant part of the French public opinion wanted their revenge now, however, and they found their hero in the person of Georges Ernest Boulanger, a general, who, as a war minister, stood up to Bismarck during the Schnaebele incident, nearly causing a war France would certainly have lost. This made him immensely popular and got him, and a lot of his followers elected. He let the occasion pass, however, failed to make his move, and his movement collapsed. Boulanger himself had to flee to Belgium and finally committed suicide on his lover’s grave. Georges Clémenceau rightly said about him : He died as he has lived: a second lieutenant.
Had he lived as a general, however, the results would have been a unmitigated disaster, at least as far as France is concerned.
Whether Marine Le Pen will live and die as a second lieutenant remains to be seen. Her party is still a associated, despite the recent purges, with the nightmarish regimes of the thirties, and that matters a lot down here. Besides, cracking down on a significant and growing minority because it happens to have a different religion, a highly questionable idea in itself, is unlikely to make you popular in many areas.
Even if she gets elected and survive the reaction of those, such as myself, who think that her very participation to a government is a good reason to storm the prefecture and set up a committee of public salvation, she is bound to fail.
The main problem France faces is the growing impotence of politics. France, unlike America, has always relied on the State, and therefore the politicians who control it, to get things done. Yet, after the election of the socialist François Mitterand in 1981 and the great wave of reforms he initiated, the State became ever less able to do anything more than reluctantly go along a progressive but steady decline or implement purely societal reforms such as civil unions.
The result has been a general distrust of politicians, an ever lower turnout during elections and the occasional burst of enthusiasm for anybody looking like he could actually do something, for instance Sarkozy in 2007.
The problem, of course, is that this impotence is neither due to the nature of the regime – French presidents are quite powerful in practice – nor to the incompetence of the political class – the service of the State is a valued occupation in French culture, so our rulers tend to be highly experienced and educated – but to limits to complexity and lack of resource.
Like all countries, France has greatly increased its social complexity thanks to the exploitation of fossil fuels and industrialization. The huge surplus thus created has enabled it to feed what would be an insanely complex society by medieval standards. As Joseph Tainter has shown, increased complexity is our specie’s preferred way of solving problems, and at first it is quite efficient. Since it means creating corps of specialists for every possible task, however, it is costly. Besides, complexity and specialization is subject to the law of decreasing returns : at some point, increasing them becomes far more costly than it is worth and may even become counterproductive. France, whose strength traditionally lay in its efficient administration, has manifestly reached this point. The state budget has been in structural deficit for decades and massive unemployment has been a fact of life since I was born.
Increasing the already insanely high level of complexity of our society,, for instance by investing in the so called knowledge economy will only worsen the situation, as it will create new structures – public or corporate, that’s not the matter – feeding off a stagnant, or even shrinking resource pool.
Resource is the other problem. France was never the richest European country and its natural resources have been strip mined during the industrial age. We never had oil, our coal, natural gas and uranium are long gone – a part of it with Algeria, by the way. We have managed to keep and expand our wealth by being a, somewhat troublesome, part of the western imperial system, funneling a large part of the world resources our way and exploiting our own mini-network of client republics, which, of course did not keep our rather embarrassing surplus of bobos from bitching about imperialism.
This strategy is now failing. We have reached the point where global energy supply is stagnating. It will soon begin to decrease in absolute value and has probably already begun to do so if we consider the net value. The result is a fiercer competition for the remaining resources, a competition a middling European state with little projection power is unlikely to win.
Besides, it seems the people we helped win their independence at Yorktown are being replaced, as world hegemon, by those whose most magnificent monument we thoroughly ransacked in an effort to force sell them opium. The chance of them allowing us to continue with our little protection racket in Africa are minute.
And even if they were so inclined… they really need the oil, and the land, and the uranium, and…
The end result is that our capacity to bring about collective change decreases with every passing year – at least the kind of collective change the French people can accept. It is quite possible to simplify the French society, but that means accepting, even embracing, poverty, not something we as a people are likely to do.
Authoritarianism is therefore bound to fail, and become more and more authoritarian with time as, unlike democracy, failure is not something it can accept. Its normal way of dealing with it is not handing power to the other side, but finding somebody to blame. After all, if it is not the Great Leader’s fault, and it cannot be, it must be some traitor’s, and we all know what to do with traitors.
The problem is that our newly elected president is also bound to fail. Democracy is very good at mobilizing its resources in face of a clear and immediate danger – say, Nazi Germany – but quite bad at facing a long crisis without any clear solution.
There is no solution to the crisis we face, and as long as we expect politics to change things in a constructive way, we are bound to be disappointed. At some point, this disappointment is likely to lead us to vote for an extremist who will get (some) things done. (S)he won’t be fascist – fascism as an ideology is discredited – but will use the same dynamics Boulanger did, and may, by the way, come from the left; The leader of the Left Front, Jean-Luc Melenchon, is every bit as dangerous as Le Pen and a Green authoritarianism remains a distinct possibility.
It is what happened in Greece with the Golden Dawn and Alexis Tsipras’ Coalition of the Radical Left. Unless we collectively accept the reality and allow our false dreams to die, it can happen here too.