France will have a new president by the beginning of next week, following a dignified ceremony at the Elysée Palace in central Paris, as retiring President François Hollande formally hands over the office (and the house) to his ex-Minister of the Economy, Emmanuel Macron. The Republican Guard will be there in resplendent outfits and the band will play the Marseillaise and the whole thing will be quite moving and brief, and there will be other ceremonies and parades and what-all elsewhere the rest of the day. The French stage these high state occasions very well, reflecting traditions passed down, filtered, rehearsed, refined, over centuries of monarchial and republican governance.
Many thought “En Marche!” was a sad excuse for a new political party. When asked by compatriots what it meant, I shrugged, suggested: Haul ass? Poor joke, I now consider. To be sure, if the new boys pedal in place for the next five years — the time of a presidential term — the jokes will be much worse, and deserved. For the present, however, there is indeed something to this name.
The first post-war party of the republican center-right was the MRP, Mouvement Républicain Populaire, People’s Republican Movement. Its themes were fidelity to a Catholic church imbued with a social conscience and a devotion to democratic principles and it was recruited largely from the non-communist Résistance. For this reason, it could by rights claim to be the party of General de Gaulle when he was named premier by the re-established parliament. But tensions quickly arose between the MRP bias for parliamentary supremacy and his own preference for a strong executive. Thus came about the RPF, Rassemblement du Peuple Français, the Union of the French People, the first properly Gaullist party.
Conservative parties in the post-war years took names reflecting their base or bases. For example, the Centre National des Indépendants et Paysans of Antoine Pinay was for economic liberalism. François Mitterrand, who as leader of the Socialist Party became president many years later, was a member of a right-wing party called improbably the Union démocratique et socialiste de la Résistance, and later led a coalition called the Rassemblement des gauches républicaines, (Union of Republican lefts) which was more right than left in the political landscape of the 1950s.
A party called the Union of the Republican rights was scarcely conceivable because so many of the right-wing parties had compromised themselves during the Occupation, playing footsie with the Germans and supporting to the end the defeatist and collaborationist regime of Captain Renault, excuse me Marshal Pétain. Observe that this is an interesting slip because, of course, Capt. Renault at the conclusion of Casablanca goes off with Rick to join the Gaullist forces that are assembling in the African empire. Many traditional conservatives, Pinay for example, at first supported the old marshal, then found hope in the young general.
Pinay became minister of Finance when de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, with his party ne-named the UNR, Union pour la Nouvelle République, which means what it says. The new constitution featured a strong presidency and a social conscience, represented by the formal inclusion in the party of a faction called the gaullistes de gauche, formally the Union Démocratique du Travail, Democratic Labor Union.
The Gaullists dominated the French political center-right in the 1960s, renaming themselves the UDR, Union des Democrates pour la République, but in the 70s, the young Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who had served as finance minister after Pinay, struck out on his own, founding the Union pour la Democratie Française. He had been the leader of small club-like factions such as the Républicains Independants, and was at once more liberal in economics than most Gaullists and also better disposed than they toward the European Economic Community, predecessor of the European Union.
There were still Gaullists after de Gaulle left power in 1969, but the party existed as a legacy more than a coherent political force. The mercurial mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, joined forces with Giscard, supporting him for president against one of the old “barons,” then turned against him and, in an effort to market nostalgia, seized control of the party he had jilted and renamed it RPR, Rassemblement pour la Republique, Republican Union.
Chirac, people said, took as his line whatever he had last heard from an advisor. He was a redoubtable campaigner, always on the offensive, and whatever he thought he knew about the virtues of “Reaganism,” he was like all liberal-conservative French political leaders a man of “the market when it works, the state when it does not,” to repeat the old German Social Democratic Party axiom.
This was the broad consensus on what we call the “right” in France, and it shows why Emmanuel Macron is so detested on the left. Since the Gaullists and their successors and fellow-travelers occupied a large space of the “social center,” both to its right and left, the left had to up the “revolutionary” ante, and this always consisted of asking for more statism. By certain by no means eccentric counts there are five and a half million public servants in France, well over 20 percent of the workforce, which (I hazard the guess) is a record among advanced democratic nations. Another million are para-statals in that their jobs, though not in public service, exist only due to state subsidies. It gets worse, but it depresses me to go into it.
This sorry note, in fact, is a good point at which to interrupt this program to briefly bring you a word from our sponsor — TAS. A recent article on the French election, widely circulated by its author here and in France, was unfairly misunderstood as a series of cheap shots at France and an attack on the “real” conservative candidate, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen.
TAS always has taken the view that France is incalculably important to the United States and to Western Civilization, and that its success is critical to our own. Criticism of any kind should properly be concentrated on matters — of politics, culture, or anything else — that really matter, and the idea that criticism, however ironic or even sarcastic, represents gratuitous scoffing of France’s situation is to misread us sorely.
The misreading is vexing when, coming from self-described conservatives, it reveals mainly a shallow understanding of France’s history, institutions, and what might be called its existential mood. American conservatives bandy about words like “nationalism” and “sovereignty” without knowing what they represent in the French context. The projection of our own anxieties and vocabulary on foreign countries ends up working against us, both in botched foreign policies and in the projection of confused premises on our own public issues. This dysfunction is sad enough when applied to distant regions like Mali or Afghanistan, it is shameful when it shows up in relation to a country we ought to know well.
When an American conservative writes, for example, that Macron does not have a nationalist bone in his party because he supports the European project, or because the presence of Muslims or dark-skinned people in France — as citizens or migrants — does not frighten him, or because he favors a sharp shift away from the way the political establishment works (and keeps power), he is merely telling us he has never been to France, and certainly not recently.
De Gaulle, the austere professional soldier from a royalist and Catholic family, who did not want a telephone in his office and who had a would-be assassin put before a firing squad not because of the attack on him but because the bullets nearly hit his wife, was a modernizer, not a reactionary. The idea of supporting a party of cranks and haters against a classical liberal is not only to admit ignorance but to insult the millions of French voters whom the decades of hyper-statist policies have demoralized and betrayed and who must be won back from the dead-end to which the National Front would lead them.
That is a job for the French themselves, but we can at least give them the hand of friendship by trying to be accurate about the way they are today.
En Marche, then, or as they already have rebatized themselves, La République en marche: Republican Mobilization is perhaps the most contextually correct translation. It is, obviously, too early to say if Emmanuel Macron, at 39 the youngest president of the Fifth Republic, can lead — not least by encouraging self-reliance against dependency — a country certainly not lacking in resources and will. Macron will aim for a broad reform consensus. He will name an interim government following his inauguration next week and then go to the country and ask for a majority at parliamentary elections scheduled for the beginning of June. We cannot predict whether he is bound for success or failure, but what happens will matter to us, our freedoms, our future.