Today the French are voting in a presidential election. If no candidate receives a majority of the votes today, there will be a runoff election on April 24 with the top two vote getters on the ballot.
Emmanuel Macron is running for his second term of five years. He is a political centrist. Five years ago, he won easily in a runoff against the far right Marine Le Pen. Until recently, it was assumed that Macron in this election would repeat that easy victory over Le Pen.
But in recent months, polls have suggested that the race is tightening and that Le Pen could win, which would be a shocking far right turn for France. Elisabeth Zerofsky has written a good essay for the New York Times on what this could mean for the French far right. Zerofsky highlights the role of Marion Marechal (Marine Le Pen's niece) in pushing the far right towards a French Catholic nationalism that roots French national identity in Catholicism, which can sound like a move towards French Catholic theocracy in the tradition of Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) and Charles Maurras (1868-1952). (I have put a picture of Marechal up at the top to show you one reason for her popular appeal.)
This is what I have called a "metaphysical conservatism," which says that human social order must be grounded in a divinely ordained political order. But while Marechal and some others in the French far right talk in ways that suggest this, I think this is not the case because they are actually liberal conservatives who reject the illiberal conservatism of Catholic theocracy. If I am right about this, then a victory for a far-right candidate in this election would not be a radical right turn for French politics.
I first began to think about the French far right four years ago when I was interviewed by Benjamin Demeslay, a journalist writing for the French right-wing magazine L'Incorrect. I wrote a post about that. The magazine is edited by Jacques de Guillebon, a Catholic conservative who is good friends with Marechal and who has brought her into a circle of far-right Catholic conservatives.
Here is Demeslay's first question for me:
"You defend a 'Darwinian conservatism' against 'metaphysical conservatism.' These expressions are enough to surprise the French reader. The French conservative tradition remains strongly impregnated by Catholicism, a certain counter-revolutionary and anti-liberal tropism (from Joseph de Maistre to Charles Maurras), even a mistrust of 'the Technique' (the essays of the Christian Jacques Ellul or the last Heidegger). English conservatism, heir to Edmund Burke, is now attracting renewed interest, with the translation of the philosopher Roger Scruton. There is nothing comparable to your conservatism in France. How would you define it?"
I explained my "Darwinian conservatism" as a liberal conservatism that is a fusion of classical liberalism and traditionalist conservatism, which is opposed to the illiberal conservatism of people like Maistre and Maurras. I also argued that Demeslay was mistaken in identifying the sort of French conservatism manifested in L'Incorrect with the "anti-liberal tropism" of Maistre and Maurras. (In a previous post, I have elaborated on what I mean by distinguishing Darwinian conservatism and metaphysical conservatism.)
In reaction against the French Revolution, Maistre initiated a Counter-Enlightenment tradition of thought based on a theocratic authoritarianism--the idea that all government comes from some unquestioned coercive authority that is divinely infallible and that all such authority is derived from the Pope as God's representative on Earth. He proposed a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy to the throne of France, ruling under the supreme authority of the Pope in both temporal and spiritual matters. Atheists, Jews, and heretical Christians (such as the Protestants) should be suppressed. He claimed that the rationalist rejection of Catholic Christianity and theocratic monarchy was responsible for the disorder that followed the French Revolution of 1789.
Carrying on the tradition of Maistre's thinking, Maurras became the organizer and primary philosopher for Action francaise, a French far-right Catholic royalist organization, advocating the restoration of the House of Bourbon and of Roman Catholicism as the state religion of France. Oddly, Maurras was himself an agnostic, although it was claimed that he had a death-bed conversion and received the last rites at his death in 1952. Even though he was an agnostic, he argued that Catholicism was necessary for the social order and national identity of France. This purely utilitarian view of Catholicism as politically useful for legitimizing monarchic authority alienated some conservative Catholics. In 1926, Pope Pius XI condemned Action francaise. Later, some of Maurras's writings were put on the Catholic Church's list of prohibited books.
If you look at the writing in L'Incorrect over the past four years, you will see many references to Maistre and Maurras; and you might assume, therefore, that these French far-right conservative writers have embraced the Catholic theocratic authoritarianism of Maistre and Maurras. But if you look carefully at this writing, you will see that these gestures toward Maistre and Maurras are vague, and there's no explicit affirmation of Catholic theocracy.
In recent weeks, Guillebon's editorials for L'Incorrect have expressed a frustration that the far-right candidates for the presidency--Le Pen and Eric Zemmour--and French conservatives generally do not understand the "metaphysics of power"--the idea that political power depends on supernatural authority (see the editorials for March 8 and April 6). The French far right should find their foundation in France's "Christian virtues." But since they lack a Maurras, they "obviously lack metaphysics." Guillebon looks to "the depths of the right" to reveal "a right of the soul," but he cannot find it, because the right has no "organic Maurrasism."
"In truth," he observes, "if we knew anything about our history, we would know that one never seeks temporal power without having taken spiritual power: without Saint Remi, no Clovis."
Remi was the Bishop of Reims who, on December 25, 496, baptized Clovis I, King of the Franks, which initiated the Christianization of the Franks and the Frankish empire. Beginning in 816, each French monarch was coronated in the Reims Cathedral and anointed with the Holy Spirit, so that the French kings ruled by divine right. Is Guillebon intimating that the French far right needs to revive this tradition of Catholic royal theocracy?
Strangely, however, neither Guillebon nor his writers ever say this explicitly. And most of what they say indicates that they endorse the liberal principle of separating church and state and reject any reestablishment of Catholicism as the state religion for France, which thereby rejects the theocratic authoritarianism of Maistre and Maurras.
For the past few days, I have been reading all of the articles in L'Incorrect that mention Maistre or Maurras. I have found a few that come close to endorsing their ideas. For example, Luc-Olivier d'Algange wrote an article (May 7, 2020) on the political thought of Juan Donoso Cortes (1809-1853), who was a Spanish Catholic counter-revolutionary whose thinking was shaped by his reading of Maistre. D'Algange groups Donoso Cortes together with Maistre and Rene Guenon as "good masters" for French Catholic conservatives.
According to d'Algange, Donoso Cortes "refutes this first and fatal modern error, which consists in thinking that religion, politics, and philosophy are separate, autonomous domains, which would belong to their respective occupations as impervious to each other as academic specialities, with their jargons, their particular and unusual ends. For Donoso Cortes, not only is religion not absent from politics or philosophy, but they are always religious." Against the corrupting materialism of modernity, Donoso Cortes should teach us that "the only possible right is divine right."
But then d'Algange never draws from this the conclusion that Donoso Cortes drew--that the only good form of government is a divine right monarchy that enforces Catholicism as the state religion and persecutes other religions, including Protestant Christianity.
Moreover, L'Incorrect also publishes articles that denigrate appeals to divine right. For example, consider the recent interview of Renauld Camus (April 7, 2022), who is famous for his "great replacement" conspiracy theory--the idea that globalist conspirators are pushing for waves of immigrants--particularly Muslims--into Europe so that in a few years native Europeans will be outnumbered by foreign immigrants, which will mean the disappearance of European civilization. (Many of the Trumpist Republicans in the United States have been promoting this same idea.)
In the interview, Guillebon asked Camus: "Is the solution to return to God?" He answered: "Personally, I do not think so, but I understand it. Even historically and philosophically, this is very conceivable. This is probably what Charles Maurras thought. Yet, it seems to me that this is a somewhat trivial conception of religion. I am no Maurrasian at all. Conceiving God as a social necessity testifies to a certain spiritual triviality. I find that quite undignified. Certainly, however, it made things a lot easier."
When the question of whether Catholicism should be made the state religion of France is raised, this is rejected. One can see that, for example, in Guillebon's interview of Pierre Manent and Remi Brague, which Guillebon calls a "dialogue of giants" (January 4 and 9, 2018). They were discussing Manent's book The Situation of France, in which he argued that Muslims should be welcomed to live in France as long as they respect the religious identity of France as a Christian nation.
Here's the first question that Guillebon asked: "Michel Houellebecq recently told Spiegel that solving the problem of Islam in France would imply that Catholicism would become a state religion. What do you think?"
Manent answered: "The idea seems to me to be fundamentally correct. Not that Catholicism is recognized as the state religion, no one is seriously thinking about that, but that the role of the Catholic religion in the history of France, but also in the social life of the country, in the consciousness of the country, is recognized in public forms. Now, for thirty years, we have agreed to endorse the big lie that there is no Muslim problem by postulating that there can be no problem posed by a religion in our country since we have found the solution to all problems of this kind: secularism. . . . We have become prisoners of a far too restrictive definition of the French regime by reducing it to secularism. We must broaden our awareness of ourselves, and in this enlargement make an adequate place for Catholicism, which plays such a great role in the history and consciousness of France. Of course, this cannot take an institutional or constitutional form, and this is where Houellebecq's proposal crosses the boundaries of political reasonableness, as he knows very well."
Manent goes on: "In order for Muslims to be welcomed decently and to be able to live happily in France, it is important that they know that they are not in a Muslim nation, that this nation is of Christian character, that the Jews play an eminent role, that religion does not command the State and that the State does not command religion. We have a complex operation to carry out: to persuade Muslims that we want to welcome them in reasonable numbers, that they have their place in society, and that . . . this nation as a human whole is not, does not want to be and will not be a Muslim society but will remain and wants to remain a nation of Christian brand where the Jews play an eminent role, and where the state and religion know a regime of secularism."
Remi Brague then answers Guillebon's question: "I did not know this interview with Michel Houellebecq, in which it is clear that he overstepped his thought. Speaking of Catholicism as a state religion, I think he was thinking above all, not of the state, but of civil society, of how a nation should understand itself and how it understood itself until relatively recently."
Notice how Manent seems to contradict himself--first rejecting secularism but then endorsing it. And notice how both Manent and Brague are liberal conservatives in separating civil society (as a realm of voluntary religious belief) from the state (as a secular public realm separated from religion). I have written about Brague's metaphysical conservatism--here, here, and here. But in this interview, he contradicts himself in embracing liberal conservatism.
Notice also that while Manent identifies France as a Christian nation, many of the writers for I'Incorrect identify France as a Catholic nation, so that Jews and Protestants in France would have to be considered as a foreign element along with the Muslims and other religious believers.
Can the French far right plausibly identify France as a Catholic nation? Of course, in the Ancien Regime before the French Revolution, Catholicism was the state religion, often enforced by the persecution of those who were not Catholics. But that is no longer true. Many of the writers for L'Incorrect would say that the tradition of Catholic belief still prevails in French civil society, even if the French state is officially secular. Is that really true?
For answering this question, Guillebon's interview of Yann Raison du Cleuziou is pertinent (October 29, 2019). Cleuziou has written a book about the history of "counter-revolutionary Catholics" in France explains the Manif Pour Tous (Protest for All) protests against legalized same-sex marriage in 2013. Across France, many French people turned out for mass demonstrations against the law that legalized same sex-marriage. In Paris, one demonstration drew over 100,000 protesters. This was encouraging for the French far right because it seemed to show that support for the far-right cultural agenda was much greater than most people had thought.
In defining what he means by "counter-revolutionary Catholics," Cleuziou quotes from Maistre: "The counter-revolution will not be a revolution in the opposite direction, but the opposite of the revolution." Many conservative Catholics in France have followed Maistre's lead in adhering to a traditionalist Catholicism that is the opposite of the French Revolution of 1789 and everything that the Revolution represented.
But although there seemed to be a large number of such Catholics in the Manif Pour Tous protests, Cleuziou concedes that their number as a proportion of the French population is actually very small. According to one public opinion survey in 2019, 41% of the French identify themselves as Catholics, and the representation for other religions is much smaller. But then roughly equal to the Catholic population is the 40% of the French who identify as "no religion." It seems that the French are not very religious at all. Moreover, of those who identify as Catholics, only about 2% attend mass weekly. The "counter-revolutionary Catholics" turn out to be a very small group after all.
That probably explains why the far-right candidates in today's presidential election are not promoting counter-revolutionary Catholicism, because it doesn't have a broad appeal in France today.
That probably also explains why the far-right Catholics at L'Incorrect do not generally embrace the Catholic theocratic monarchism of Maistre and Maurras.
To find that full endorsement of Catholic theocracy, one has to turn to the "integralists" in the United States--"integralism" being the term first adopted by Maurras. Edmund Waldstein has nicely summarized Catholic integralism in three sentences:
"Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man's temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power."
Some integralists have suggested that the "Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX" in 13th century France is the model for the illiberal regime that they want to see established, although it's not clear as to how serious they are about this. I have written briefly about this at the end of a previous post. I am hoping to write more about this sometime soon.
Like the French far right conservatives, the American far right conservatives (like Patrick Deneen and and Rod Dreher) show the same intellectual incoherence: both endorsing an illiberal Catholic Christian theocracy and endorsing the liberal principle of religious liberty.
They could be coherent if they consistently pointed to the medieval Catholic theocracy of Louis IX as the best regime and then argued for a counter-revolutionary overthrow of liberalism to establish a regime like that of Louis IX. King Louis of France (1226-1270 CE) was canonized in 1297 by the Catholic Church, and thus the ruling family of France, the Capetians, became joined to Heaven, thereby adding religious legitimacy to their dynastic rule. Various parts of the saintly King Louis were placed as relics, in different monasteries throughout the territory of France, thus providing religious support for the territorial unity of the kingdom. By recognizing national saints, an otherwise universalistic, transnational monotheistic religion sanctifies the territorial identity of a nation.
Why don't the far right Catholic integralists in France and the United States strive to restore such a sacramental national kingdom based on a state religion? Is it because that would be too illiberal for them?