Far-right ideas are gaining a renewed respectability in France

“NATIONALISM IS THE safeguarding of all those treasures that are at threat without a foreign army crossing the border, without the physical invasion of territory. It is the defence of the nation against the stranger from within.” Thus wrote Charles Maurras, a reactionary and anti-Semitic French author, in “My Political Ideas” in 1937. After the disgrace and trauma of Vichy France, which officially branded Jews the stranger within, such thinking was for most of the post-war period banished to the fringes of French intellectual life. For decades it was intellos from the political left who dominated the salons and newspaper columns of Paris.

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Today, however, France is seeing a disconcerting revival of ultranationalist thinking, and with it the rehabilitation of once-ostracised reactionary writers. Robert Laffont, a respected Paris publisher, reprinted the collected works of Maurras in 2018. This year a right-wing French publisher reissued “The Great Replacement”, which first came out in 2011; its author, Renaud Camus, is a hard-right writer currently appealing a conviction for incitement to racial hatred. As some nativists allege of America, Mr Camus argues that France is undergoing a demographic “conquest”, in this case involving the relentless replacement of the “French people” with those from its former colonies.

Assorted micro-movements and individuals on the extreme and ultra-Catholic right have long claimed to be the inheritors of reactionary fin-de-siècle thought. But these peripheral voices were dignified with neither serious scrutiny nor polite debate. Now, outlets such as Valeurs Actuelles, a right-wing magazine, and CNews, a French 24-hour news channel likened to Fox News, discuss little else. Mr Camus has turned from recluse to television-studio guest. Eric Zemmour, a pundit and polemicist, doubles as a populist radical hoping to stand in next April’s presidential election. His latest bestseller, “France Has Not Had Its Final Word”, is a lament for “the death of France as we know it”. Dressed in an intellectual veneer, the book identifies at every turn a threat to “the French people, their customs, their history, their state, their civility, their civilisation”.

Two sinister underlying obsessions link this contemporary discourse to the earlier reactionary and nationalist French essayists. The first is a belief in an immutable “eternal France”. Maurras, who was a leading figure in Action Française, a political movement that was founded in 1899 to defend “true France”, termed this le pays réel (the real country): a land of church spires, ancestral soil and family tradition. It was to be distinguished, in his view, from le pays légal (the legal country), or the artificial structures of the anticlerical republican administration.

Old enemies and new

Identity in this sense is not a fluid multiple construct, but rather is fixed and rooted in the earth. “The land gives us discipline, and we are the extension of the ancestors,” declared Maurice Barrès, another influential nationalist writer who was close to Maurras, in 1899. The iconography of Vichy France later embraced this blood-and-soil identity, celebrating rural life, church, family and work on the land. Indeed, Mr Zemmour entitles a chapter of his latest book “The Land and the Dead”, after a speech of that name by Barrès. In it, Mr Zemmour declares that the three members of a French family who were murdered in a terrorist attack at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, and who were buried in Israel, did not belong to France.

The second obsession is paranoia about decline, and the failure of elites to protect French identity. For Maurras, the chief menace to it was that enemy within: Jews, Protestants, Freemasons and foreigners. For Barrès, the enemy was principally without: Germany, and its military might. For Mr Camus and Mr Zemmour, it is above all Islam. Echoing the “great replacement theory”, Mr Zemmour claims that, in today’s France, “an Islamic civilisation is replacing a people from a Christian, Greco-Roman civilisation”. “Veiled women”, Mr Camus recently told a TV interviewer, “are the flags of conquest, of colonisation”.

Today’s reactionaries tap into a deep undercurrent of fear and paranoia in France, but also of anti-Semitism. An unapologetic anti-Semite, Maurras defended the French army’s accusations against Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French captain wrongly convicted by the French army of high treason in 1894. That was a time, among the Catholic and military French elite, of intense anxiety about spies and traitors, and of conspiracy theories about Jewish financiers. In “Jewish France”, a virulent anti-Semitic tract published in 1886, Edouard Drumont had warned of the threat of a “Jewish conquest” of France, led by a “hateful, gold-hungry” people bent on bringing about the “painful agony of a generous nation”.

Himself of Jewish and Algerian descent, Mr Zemmour occupies an ambiguous place in this tradition. By hinting today that Dreyfus may not have been innocent, or defending Vichy for “protecting” French Jews—because it deported foreign ones first—Mr Zemmour is confecting not a serious historical assessment but a studied provocation. As well as distorting history, this is a way of “signalling his link to a pillar of French society, which is the army, and to a particular set of right-wing values”, suggests Jean Garrigues, a historian at the University of Orléans.

That such views are given a legitimate airing is new, and disquieting. Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the hard-right party that his daughter, Marine Le Pen, rebranded and now leads, appalled the salons of Paris and was treated accordingly. Mr Zemmour, who is well-read and flatters the French regard for the cultivé, is handled with respect. Aspiring presidential candidates are invited by debate moderators, with scarcely a blush, to offer their perspective on the “great replacement theory”.

Moreover, France lacks the counterbalancing intellectual voices of the past. “At the time of Maurras, Émile Zola and republicans fought back. But the intellectual left and radical left in France have been swept away,” says Sudhir Hazareesingh, a political scientist at Oxford University and author of “How the French Think”. Today, no French thinker has the towering stature of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Michel Foucault or others in turtlenecks and trench coats on the left bank whose influence lingered well beyond their lifetimes.

No left-wing political leader has a commanding influence, either. In this void, toxic theories are resuscitated, and used to frame discussion, without robust or persuasive rebuke. As elsewhere, reason and rationality seem, like contempt, to be fragile tools against the potent narrative force of populist reactionaries. The decline of the public intellectual on the French left removes one more line of defence.

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