Updated: Nov 9
Our first Torch article of Michaelmas Term has been composed by the amazing Daniel Ciesla. “A tale of two Tories” discusses Bonapartism, Gaullism, and Daniel’s own ideal conservatism in the land of our dearest enemy.
What, really, is conservatism? This is the dreaded question, which we are all faced with every so often. Having moved to the UK only three years ago, and being French and Polish, I particularly struggle to answer this question in a way that encompasses all three countries. Between them, not only are the policies of conservative parties different, but so are their underlying principles. In France, the most notable of these are republicanism, secularism, and the greater role of the state.
Can these policies, principles and parties truly be called conservative? Any attempt to answer this question quickly is made difficult by the fact that the word “conservative” rarely occurs in French political discourse. In common parlance, “conservatif” is physicist’s way of describing a certain property of an energy system, a “conservateur” is the curator of a museum, or, alternatively, a substance added into your food to prevent it from rotting. Instead, the most commonly used term is “de droite”, meaning “of the right” or “right-wing”, though even this term was once considered inappropriate in the phenomenon known as “sinistrisme”. For convenience, I will use the terms interchangeably throughout.
Contrary to popular belief, Louis XVI was not the last King of France, nor did the Revolution forge the present French Republic. Although it briefly succeeded in sending all conservative opposition into silence, exile, or the head-basket of la Guillotine, the Restoration soon reversed nearly all changes made since 1791. With two further revolutions and another empire, the next century of French history would revolve around the clash and compromise between these two competing views of France.
It was in 1871 that the monarchy truly fell. After the abdication of Emperor Napoleon III, the crown was initially offered to Louis XVI’s grandnephew. However, the man who could have become Henri V declined, for the sole reason that he refused to use the Tricolore flag instead of the old Fleur-de-Lys of the Ancien Régime. In response, President Adolphe Thiers decided to simply establish a “temporary republic” and eventually offer the crown to his successor. By the time of the Comte de Chambord’s death in 1883, however, monarchists held less than a quarter of seats in parliament. France had now not had a King for 35 years, or a stable one for 109 years. The great chain of tradition that forms the basis of a monarchy’s legitimacy had been eroded into a mere memory of its former self and would never be restored. In the words of the Pope at the time, Pius IX: “And all that, all that for a napkin!”
It was the next Pope, Leo XIII (anecdotally, the oldest man ever filmed), that truly made republicanism conservative. Following the Boulanger Crisis in 1892, concerned by the secularisation of public education and the eviction of several religious congregations, he published a papal encyclical encouraging French Catholics to “rally” to the Republic and defend the church from within. Although ralliement calmed anticlericalism for a decade, there was no officially monarchist party short of the nationalists at the next election.
Unlike in the UK, where the Conservative Party remained rather stable over the years, the decline of the monarchist parties in France led to a rightward shift of other parties to fill the void. Soon, the formerly monarchist Progressive Republicans were joined in the French right wing by the formerly liberal Opportunist Republicans (called opportunist because of this shift). At the turn of the century, however, this political balance would be shattered by the Dreyfus Affair, which divided the French right wing along new lines into the Dreyfusard Democratic Alliance and the Anti-Dreyfusard Republican Federation.
The public shock from the events helped propel the highly anticlerical government of Émile Combes into power. Laws passed over the next three years, often supported by the Alliance, led to the repeal of the 1801 concordat, further expulsions of friars and the closure of over 10,000 congregational private schools. Relations with the church would improve during and after the Great War, in which over 9000 religious people returned from exile to fight for their country. Embassies between the Republic and Holy See were reopened, and subsequent attempts to reinitiate evictions were defeated, producing a balanced compromise on religion in society.
The pendulum would swing to the reactionary side in World War Two, when the collaborator Phillipe Petain attempted to legitimise his Vichy Regime through the aggressive promotion of social conservatism, including frequent expressions of support of, and attempts at closer relations with, the Church. In fact, he finally re-married his wife of 20 years in a religious ceremony. However unconvincing this charade may have been, the 1949 and 1958 constitutions of France established laïcité as a fundamental principle of the Republic.
While secularism may have strong roots in French history, it is primarily tied to the underlying philosophy of universalisme républicain. According to this school of thought, the state, a political and civic construct, should view its citizens only as unique individuals. Laïcité is viewed as the application of this principle of the indivisibility of the nation to the religious sphere, guaranteeing the right of each person to exercise their own beliefs without devolving into confessionalism or communautarisme.
Lastly, French conservatism is profoundly influenced by the “certaine idée de la France” of Charles de Gaulle. Amidst parliamentary deadlock surrounding the Algerian War in 1958, the hero of Free France was called to help write a new constitution. The most significant change was the creation of an elected presidency with sweeping powers, such as the selection of the prime minister. Although the constitution was approved by 82.6% of voters, de Gaulle once had to clarify at a press conference: “Who honestly believes that, at the age of 67, I would start a career as a dictator?”. His dedication to democracy was, however, proved by his firm support for Republican Universalism and his willingness to resign in 1968 when he lost a referendum on further constitutional reforms.
De Gaulle’s foreign policy was in many ways shaped by his personal experience in exile during the war, where he often felt he was treated as a lesser partner by Roosevelt and Churchill. While he always remained firmly aligned with the US and UK, he deeply believed that France must be able to pursue its own autonomous foreign policy as a great power. In accordance with this politique de grandeur, he left the NATO Integrated Military Command (though not NATO), championed the development of France’s fully independent nuclear deterrent, and pursued closer relations with Germany. The economy functioned under the system of dirigisme, France’s post-war consensus equivalent, where the free market was combined with indicative government guidance, or public ownership in key industries.
Although de Gaulle had initially hoped to be a non-partisan president, uniting the country above party politics as an esprit de la nation, political realities inevitably led to his association with the right. In the half century after his death, Gaullism not only formed many parts of the French political consensus, but also became a major guiding tradition of a series of centrist and right-wing parties. Naturally, adaptations were made with changing: European Integration was championed by Giscard-D’Estaing, while Chirac introduced greater economic liberalism and Sarkozy fully reintegrated France into NATO. Today, it remains to be seen how Macron’s presidency will impact the evolution of this political tradition.
Returning to the questions, modern French conservatism may share its intellectual foundations of universalisme républicain with some of the less extreme movements in the French Revolution, but it would be a mistake to claim that it is not conservative simply because it does not fit the standards of 18th century conservatism. If such standards are to be followed, then we should all advocate for a return to corn laws or even Jacobitism. Indeed, conservatism is not the opposition to all change, or worse, the desire to undo all change, but the protection of careful, gradual, and stable change, as advocated by Edmund Burke. Although the Enlightenment values of “Liberté, Egalite, Fraternité, ou la Mort” may have first been implemented violently in the Revolution, this brief prophecy only led the way for a more lasting transformation over the next two centuries, this time without the “ou la Mort”. These values are no longer unconservative, but rather, they have become the foundations of the ordre publique that we should seek to maintain.
In my view, conservatism should essentially be founded on three pillars: Reason, Tradition and Pragmatism. In other words: If an idea should work, has worked, and will probably work, then it is a good one. Following the form of the previous discussion of change: Reason determines the ideal direction of change, while Tradition and Pragmatism reconcile it with present realities from the past and future.
While Reason may be considered to be universal, I have shown throughout this article that the prevailing traditions in France have been forever altered since the convention of the États généraux, and are, as they already were, quite different from those in Britain. The context in which principles and policies must be considered is also different, both in ways that I can and cannot explain. As a result of this, we should not at all be surprised when French conservatism differs from our counterpart.
I would like to end this article with a final, more personal, and more open-ended question. How should we, as conservatives, adapt our conservatism when moving to a different country, or when belonging to multiple? I believe that our idealistic views, those of Reason, should remain the same wherever we are, though we must always be open to different ones. In a foreign country, we should acknowledge local Traditions, until they may in time become ours if we so choose. Pragmatism is naturally adaptive, and so has no need to be altered. Our conservatism may always remain slightly different from that of our peers, but there is no reason why it should be incompatible.