To understand the state of the right wing in France, start by considering the name of Nicolas Sarkozy’s political party, the country’s major conservative political force. Founded a decade ago by Jacques Chirac as the Union for the Presidential Majority, it is currently known as the Union for a Popular Movement (French acronym in both cases : UMP). It descends from another party, also founded by Chirac, in 1976, called the Rally for the Republic (RPR). The RPR in turn took the place of the Union of Democrats for the Republic (UDR), which was earlier known as the Union for the Defense of the Republic (UDR), the Union of Democrats for the Fifth Republic (UDVR), and the Union for the New Republic (UNR). That party was founded at the start of the Fifth Republic, in 1958, by supporters of Charles de Gaulle, who had previously led the Rally of the French People (RPF). Everything clear ?
As this history might suggest, for the last half century the French right has suffered from something of an identity crisis. Now, especially if Sarkozy loses in this month’s presidential runoff, the right appears on the verge of imploding altogether and reassembling itself in a different form. And the worrisome result could be that a far-right grouping achieves major party status in the country for the first time since World War II.
Sarkozy himself is often referred to as a “Gaullist.” He shouldn’t be, however, and not just because the institutional threads linking him back to de Gaulle are so ragged. Ironically, while he is the first of de Gaulle’s successors not to give the party a formal facelift, he has broken far more clearly than his predecessors with de Gaulle’s legacy. He is less a Gaullist than a Sarkozist. But of what does “Sarkozysme” consist ? Therein lies the root of the current mess.
Gaullism itself was always notoriously difficult to define, and Charles de Gaulle did not make things any easier by insisting that the movement should float magisterially above mere politics and ideology. Still, at the start, it was associated with a number of distinct positions. The first was a policy of national grandeur—maintaining an independent role for France as a great power and also insisting on France’s leading position in the European community. The second involved dirigisme, meaning state direction—although not control or ownership—of the economy. A third was a dedication to national unity, symbolized by a powerful chief executive. And Gaullism also implied a degree of social conservatism, although distinct from the xenophobic, reactionary variety that had flourished before the war and come to power under Vichy.
Sarkozy’s predecessor, Chirac, sometimes chafed at various aspects of the Gaullist legacy. As leader of the opposition to Socialist President François Mitterrand, he embraced free-market positions at odds with dirigisme, and, as president himself (from 1995 to 2007), he tried to chip away at pieces of France’s often-glacial system of social regulation, albeit with little success. But, in foreign policy, he followed de Gaulle’s example, notably in leading the international opposition to America’s invasion of Iraq.
Sarkozy made a stronger break. He reintegrated France into the NATO command structure from which de Gaulle had removed it and has cooperated closely with the United States. To the extent that he has carved out an independent profile for French foreign policy, it has centered less on national glory than on human rights and humanitarian intervention, notably in Libya. In Europe, Sarkozy has tacitly accepted the position of partner to Germany—even junior partner. While he has not accomplished much more domestic reform than Chirac, he has talked loudly about the need for a “rupture” with French social and economic traditions. And he has placed “national identity” above national unity, insisting that immigrant groups assimilate to French norms and posing as the scourge of those who supposedly refuse (for instance, by wearing burqas). But, in the end, he never developed a program that brought these different initiatives into a coherent program. Sarkozysme never gelled.
The financial collapse of 2008 and the subsequent unending agony of the euro zone deserve a good deal of the blame for this failure. Sarkozy has spent much of his presidency in crisis mode—something to which his manic energy is well-suited. In domestic policy, the fiscal constraints imposed by the euro’s problems have given him very little room to maneuver. But he has also constantly undercut himself, thanks to his notorious difficulty sharing the spotlight and his coarsely confrontational personal style. It is no coincidence that his single best-known phrase, uttered to a protester in early 2008, is “Casse-toi, pauv’ con” (roughly, “Shove off, asshole”). It is not exactly de Gaulle’s “France cannot be France without grandeur.”
In the first round of voting on April 22, Sarkozy finished second—the first time a sitting president has done so in the history of the Fifth Republic. In a bid to recover, he has made a cynical attempt to win over the first-round supporters of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen (while formally opposing an actual pact with the party), despite the Front’s deep hostility toward immigrant communities and the European Union, and the fact that its founder (her father, Jean-Marie) had a well-deserved reputation for racism and anti-Semitism. Le Pen is “compatible with the Republic,” he stated soon after the initial voting. Sarkozy’s stunning acknowledgment of Le Pen’s legitimacy can only help her cause : In the days after the first round, nearly two-thirds of Sarkozy voters told pollsters they favored an electoral pact with her party in the legislative elections that will follow soon after the presidential campaign. Le Pen herself clearly wants Sarkozy to lose, declaring that she will cast a blank ballot in the second round. She has called the UMP no different from the Socialists, and, indeed, her nationalist stance offers a starker alternative to the two major parties than they do to each other. Can this alternative achieve major party status ? Having helped to dissolve the traditional French right while failing to replace it with a coherent or popular ideology of his own, it now appears possible that Nicolas Sarkozy’s principal legacy will be the rise of Marine Le Pen.
David A. Bell is Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton, and a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article appeared in the May 24, 2012 issue of the magazine.