The recent wave of terrorist attacks in France has inflamed the controversy which surrounds the nation’s relationship with immigration.
President Macron has launched a campaign against Jihadism, insisting that a new emphasis on the Republic’s Liberal values will restore national security and unity. Many see such a move as doomed to failure however, a return to the very root of the country’s ills.
By observing the events unfolding in contemporary France, some insight can be gained into what the future might hold for Ireland, especially with regards to the effects immigration may have on the Nation, and the means through which right wing political movements can succeed in hostile environments. France’s experience of large-scale immigration antedates that of Ireland’s by several decades. The burgeoning Irish right wing will therefore benefit from being aware of the accomplishments and failures of its Continental counterpart in relation to the issue.
France experienced European and colonial immigration during the 19th and early 20th centuries, however large-scale population movement into the country would begin in the aftermath of the Second World War, mainly coming from North Africa. As the sixties progressed, and the last French possessions in Africa were being granted independence, immigration from former colonies increased dramatically.
Government policy relating to the issue was rather “short sighted”, seeing the phenomenon as a means of addressing labour shortages, and as beneficial to the economy. It was assumed that the ideals of Republican France, combined with a rigorous cultural assimilation policy, could integrate these new citizens into the country.
As the decades progressed though, it soon became clear that such a belief was misguided. Immigrants became associated with poverty-stricken “banlieue” ghettos, while racial tensions grew across the country. The nation’s character began to change, as the percentage of citizens who were not ethnically French grew exponentially. Immigration soon became a topic of great controversy. Radicalism eventually spread throughout the country’s large Muslim population, creating a “Fifth Column” within France, one which has been a continual source of crisis.
Ireland must learn from the failures of French immigration policy. The belief that large amounts of people can be seamlessly inserted into established nations has been proven false in France. No amount of government-run language and culture classes can achieve such a goal. Nations develop through a long period of shared historical experience, alongside common culture and blood. Attempts to experiment upon, or artificially alter nations will always end in catastrophe.
As it became clear that immigration was harmful to social cohesion and was going to affect a major change in demographics, some resistance appeared on both sides of the ideological divide. Various political parties began using immigration control as an election promise (even Marchais’ Communist Party). It was in such an environment that the modern Right Wing in France emerged. In order to understand the present state of the French Right, and the reasons why it has been relatively successful (in comparison to other Western European movements) one must examine the nation’s history.
The French Right has historically ranked among the most prominent in Western Europe. After all, the term “right wing” originates in the country, having been used to describe the side of the National Assembly where the royalists sat. Since the Revolution, the country has been afflicted by severe ideological division, which has facilitated the existence of advanced, highly developed political movements.
The Action Française movement is particularly worth studying. Under the leadership of Charles Maurras, the movement succeeded in reinvigorating the French Right in the early 20th century. Action Française attracted many of France’s leading intellectuals (including the novelist Georges Bernanos), developing an advanced organisational structure which mobilised all sections of society.
The movement’s extensive journalistic and cultural activities were crucial to its success. It’s combination of monarchism and nationalism, alongside its eagerness to portray the movement as a defender of French Civilisation, appealed to many within the country. Action Française would master the art of “formation”, political education of its members through lectures and classes (These educational activities remain a central feature of political life in Continental Europe, and would be worth replicating in Ireland).
Maurras’s criticism of democracy and the parliamentary system appealed to many Frenchmen, disillusioned by the dysfunctional governments of the Third Republic. His willingness to attack the Freemasonic influence over French politics and society further increased his popularity. Recognising that a people’s political beliefs derive from cultural influences, Maurras sought to reshape French cultural life, which he believed had experienced decline and corruption. Patriotism, Traditionalism and Nationalism were spread through affiliated artists, writers and journalists. Action Francaise would eventually lose momentum however, as its support for the Vichy Regime was seen as treasonous by many.
The advent of Vichy would lead to the French Right being discredited in the eyes of much of the population. Even if Pétain’s “Work, Family and Fatherland” ideology was somewhat popular in the country, collaboration with the eternal enemy was seen as unforgivable by many Frenchmen. The Right in post-war France became dominated by Charles De Gaulle, and the centre-right Gaullist ideology which he would give his name to.
However, as the era of De Gaulle came to a close, and the immigration issue led to a rise in nationalism, a new Right Wing would emerge. In 1972, The inaugural meeting of the Front National was held in the “Salle des Horticulteurs”, Paris. Having cast off the stigma of association with Vichy, it was believed that the French right wing could once more assert itself in politics, capitalising on the decline of Gaullism.
The party’s leader Jean Marie Le Pen, sought to build up a respectable party organisation which would attract support from mainstream French society. Particular effort was put into recruiting university students, a trend which the FN has continued to this day.
The party saw little success for the first decade of its existence, and was subjected to a “demonisation” campaign by the French media. Le Pen nonetheless persisted, ever conscious of the need to prevent the party from developing the image of thugs or neo-Nazis, something which had been instrumental in destroying British right-wing movements.
The Party’s first major electoral success would eventually occur in 1983, when it secured 11% of the vote in the European elections. FN’s intelligent publicity campaigns, featuring the famous slogan “Avant qu’il ne soit trop tard” (Before it’s too late), emphasised the danger the French Nation faced from immigration. The Party’s tactic of targeting influential sections of society for recruitment (eg. France’s elite Third level institutions, the Grand Écoles) would prove crucial to their growth and success. Le Pen’s career would culminate in 2002, when he reached the second round of the Presidential Election, losing to Jacques Chirac.
As the FN’s popularity began to decline, Marine Le Pen assumed leadership in 2011. Marine would purge the party of elements that were deemed extremist, a cause of great bitterness to many members. Under new leadership, the FN pursued an official policy of “de-demonisation”. While this campaign was necessary in some respects, especially in relation to repairing the damage done by careless remarks made by her Father, which the media interpreted as antisemitic, it eventually resulted in the party dispensing with much of its core ideology.
FN abandoned conservatism on social issues, and began to frame the immigration issue as a threat to France’s liberal values. This rebranding, combined with electoral dissatisfaction with the established parties in France, saw the Party recover its losses.
Front National, now renamed Rassemblement National, has become a Liberal Party, one which champions secularism and social progressivism. Under Marine, the Party has essentially abandoned any ethnic conception of “Frenchness”. While this transition has improved election results to a degree, it appears unwise in the long term.
Rassemblement National’s share of the National Assembly remains small, and a Le Pen presidency still seems unlikely. Instead of conceding so much during rebranding, Marine should have consolidated the Party’s existing support. A resolute, “far right” party would have caused the other parties to engage in “dog whistling” on the immigration issue. Instead, the moderate FN caused the nation’s political discourse to shift, meaning that traditional nationalism declined significantly.
The Irish Right should be vigilant against this temptation, against conceding too much to the mainstream. A right-wing movement should of course appear respectable, and remain conscious of public image. However it should not renege on its core principles.
Nonetheless, Rassemblement National does provide a good example in other respects. The Party is no longer a “Single-Issue” movement, and concentrates on promoting economic, healthcare and educational policies which are popular among the electorate.
Another movement of interest are the Legitimists, counter-revolutionaries who seek a Bourbon Restoration. Legitimism has endured due to a strong intellectual backing, having cultivated support among academics, alongside appealing to traditional Catholics.
To conclude, the example of France should be studied carefully by the emerging Nationalist Right in Ireland. Although the political landscapes of the two countries are quite different, the means through which the French Right managed to gain influence, alongside its failure to significantly alter the immigration situation, are both worth consideration.