Here is the full debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen from two days ago. It's long--almost three hours--followed by commentary. The presidential election is coming up on Sunday.
As I have indicated in my two previous posts, I have been trying to understand the intellectual grounds of the French far right conservatives. On the one hand, some of the French conservatives--particularly, those writing for the journal L'Incorrect--say that they are in the French intellectual tradition of Joseph de Maistre and Charles Maurras, who embraced an illiberal counter-revolutionary Catholic theocracy as the foundation of French national identity. On the other hand, the French conservatives contradict this when they endorse the idea that the French state must always be secular, which suggests that they are actually very liberal conservatives, and thus not counter-revolutionaries at all. I see no way to resolve this incoherence in their thinking.
I was reminded of that in watching the debate. Le Pen stressed economic issues--particularly, the popular complaints about inflation and the other concerns about economic security and preserving France's welfare state.
She did speak about the importance of preserving French national identity against the threat of Islamic immigration, which is where we might see evidence of her far right illiberalism. She reaffirmed her promise that she would ban Muslim women from wearing Muslim veils in public. Macron criticized that proposal as unconstitutional and warned that it could provoke a "civil war." Notably, writing in L'Incorrect, Alexander de Galzain saw this as most important moment in the debate.
Le Pen also affirmed her proposal for having a national referendum to change the French Constitution, including an amendment to prohibit the settlement of a "number of foreigners so large that it would change the composition and identity of the French people," which is a rewording of the far right "Great Replacement" theory.
But notice that she never suggests that the "identity of the French people" should be tied to French Catholic Christianity, and thus she never challenges the secularism of French public life.
Jacques de Guillebon, editor of L'Incorrect, would say that this shows how the French conservatives do not understand the "metaphysics of power"--the idea that political power depends on supernatural authority, which in France means restoring Catholic theocracy. Thus, far from being too reactionary, the French far right is not reactionary enough.
Le Pen could show herself to be a true illiberal reactionary by embracing Putin and supporting his invasion of Ukraine, which he has justified as a reclaiming of the Russian Orthodox Christian civilization as the alternative to a decadent liberal West. She has in fact been a supporter of Putin in the past. But she has tried to reverse her position in recent weeks by declaring her support for Ukraine. Her leaning towards Putin has become her biggest weakness in the election. In the debate, Macron criticized her Russian connections, particularly in taking a loan for her party from a Russian bank linked to Putin's circle of oligarchs. She appeared vulnerable at that moment.
That illustrates how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has become a huge liability for the European far right, which has long seen Putin as their ideological ally.
Remarkably, in the last few days, in her last campaign swing before the voting, Le Pen has said the French people have a clear choice: "Macron or France?" So defining the national identity of France is easy for Le Pen: she is France!
I should say, however, that the French liberal voters don't have a good choice in this election: Macron is only a little less authoritarian than Le Pen.