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How to Write About the Right: An Exchange

In response to:

Two Roads for the New French Right from the December 20, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

As The Washington Post’s correspondent in Paris, I have interviewed a number of the characters Mark Lilla cites in his essay “Two Roads for the New French Right” [NYR, December 20, 2018]. Lilla’s account fails to confront the white supremacy at the heart of a movement he ultimately describes as a “coherent worldview.” Although he is correct that there are important evolutions underway on the French and European right, he overlooks an implacable bigotry that remains the essence of the project. Any responsible discussion of the movement’s new developments must begin and end there.

“Something new is happening on the European right, and it involves more than xenophobic outbursts,” Lilla writes. But in many cases, xenophobia is far from peripheral. The hatred of migrants and foreigners is the essence of the pitch that the contemporary European right has made to voters. How else do we explain the tendency of right-wing parties across the continent to focus on a so-called “invasion” of migrants, even as their numbers continue to fall? Arrivals are down to their lowest levels since 2015, when Europe experienced a historic influx of migrants and refugees that triggered a political crisis with no apparent end in sight. The leaders of far-right and, now, mainstream conservative parties across the continent are focusing squarely on immigration and the alleged threat to national identity it poses. In many cases, the rhetorical line between “right” and “far right” is increasingly difficult to delineate.

This is exactly the climate that has enabled the rise of Marion Maréchal—formerly Marion Maréchal-Le Pen—the twenty-nine-year-old scion of France’s, and probably Europe’s, best-known far-right dynasty. A darling of Steve Bannon, Maréchal addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington this past February. Lilla quotes Maréchal’s remarks in that speech extensively, as ostensible evidence of a new intellectual movement among a younger generation of European conservatives. But he selectively omits other lines from that same speech, which clearly situate Maréchal in a right wing terrified by the prospect of a white majority apparently under siege. “After forty years of massive immigration, Islamic lobbies and political correctness,” she said at CPAC, “France is in the process of passing from the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church to the little niece of Islam, and the terrorism is only the tip of the iceberg.” Given that Lilla quoted so much else of what she said, readers of The New York Review deserve to read the extreme words from a woman Lilla presents as both “calm and collected” and “intellectually inclined.” Her speech was also fundamentally dishonest: according to most available estimates, Muslims count for no more than 10 percent of the total French population.

I have interviewed Maréchal twice for the Post: once in Paris in April 2017, and then again in September 2018, when I saw her at the Institute of Social, Economic, and Political Sciences (ISSEP), the new educational enterprise she founded in Lyon. What bothers me most about Lilla’s account is that he appears willing to accept uncritically and at face value the image that Maréchal and her associates attempt to project, which is that they are intellectuals and thus entitled to legitimacy. But if we must discuss her ideas, there is one animating concept that seems to fuel her entire project: le grand remplacement, the notion that Europe’s white majority is in the process of being replaced by Middle Easterners, North Africans, and sub-Saharan Africans. It’s a concept largely derived from the polemicist Renaud Camus, but it is by no means confined to France’s, or Europe’s, political extremes. In any case, few have defended it as doggedly as Maréchal. As she said in 2015: “There is in fact today a substitution of certain parts of the territory of so-called native French by a newly immigrated population.” To that end, in Lyon, when she described to me the project of ISSEP, she kept using the word enracinement—“rootedness.” A rather suggestive choice for a business school’s mission statement, no?

I would also point out that a number of the widely discussed evolutions on the French and European far right today—especially the attempted inroads with the gay community, the Jewish community, and women—also belong to this same narrative. Right-wing leaders have largely based their appeals to these groups by stoking fears of a Muslim other that is somehow a threat to the local “civilization.” To take just one example, consider what Maréchal told me in 2017: “Today we have a phenomenon of radicalization where sharia is being applied in immigrant neighborhoods,” she said. “Women’s rights are losing ground in those neighborhoods.” However much we discuss the degree to which right-wing figures like Maréchal are evolving on these issues—and I am still unsure how much of that narrative to believe—we have to acknowledge that the hatred of the other is prior to that evolution, and in fact is often the reason behind it.

Lilla describes Maréchal’s ideas as the sign of a new politics that somehow blends traditional conservative social values with an attention to ecology and a hostility to market economics. I agree that what we’re seeing does present a new blend of ideas that once would have had nothing to do with each other. But this new blend is still an ideology of exclusion, and there are important historical antecedents to consider in that regard.

For example, Lilla seems particularly intrigued by the environmental consciousness of the leaders of this new far right. He is of course correct that any substantive environmentalism is certainly lacking on the American right these days, but ecology was also a fundamental component of French intellectual history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For the reactionary French writers of that era, such as Maurice Barrès, ecology was primarily a means of defense, as it appears in his novel Les Déracinés (1897): it is a return to the land, almost always invoked as the territoire, but most importantly it is a reaction against modernity and the forces seen to inspire it. For many right-wing French writers in the nineteenth century, those forces were the Jews. Today’s far-right extremists do not deviate from that history when they blame migrants for France’s social ills. After reading Lilla’s piece, I replayed the recording of my most recent conversation with Maréchal, and the words she chose are the same as those invoked by previous advocates of organicist conservatism. “We are in a territoire,” she said at one point. “We have an ecology to respect.”

“Marion is not her grandfather,” Lilla writes, referring to the founder of the Front National and notorious Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen. But what evidence does he have for that claim? When I met her for the first time, I asked Maréchal about her grandfather. This was her response: “I am the political heir of Jean-Marie Le Pen. At the Front National, we are all his heirs. He was a visionary.” Although she has nominally condemned anti-Semitism, she ultimately had this to say about his infamous 1988 remark, repeated many times since, about the Nazi gas chambers being a mere “detail” in the history of the Second World War: “I do not think he meant to harm anyone by saying that,” she told me.

I agree with Lilla that we should absolutely be paying attention to what is happening in these circles, but we must also be more honest about what, exactly, we are witnessing.

James McAuley
Paris Correspondent
The Washington Post
Paris, France

To the Editors:

Mark Lilla’s calm and moderate piece on the new French right tracks what has been developing in France over the last two years, especially regarding Marion Maréchal. But he might have gone even further. It is clear that during this period there has, as he says, emerged a coordinated and sympathetic affinity between seemingly disparate nations, but less as a new right Popular Front, as he suggests, than as a new Fascist International. One could include in this International not only many governments in Central and Eastern Europe, but also those of Italy, the Philippines, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, India, soon Brazil, and even Israel (under its current and seemingly permanent regime, but culturally impregnable in terms of the stranglehold the religious right holds). There is also potential for fascist governments in France, Argentina, and Chile, and possibly in Australia and Japan—with the US and Russia as the two poles of gravity. Building such an International is not only Steve Bannon’s serious project but also apparently that of the Trump administration: as Richard Grennell, the US ambassador to Germany, recently said, his job was less to fulfill traditional diplomatic obligations than to support and coordinate the Alternative für Deutschland with fraternal movements across Europe.

Lilla’s mention of Charles Maurras was essential. He cast a postwar spell over more people than anyone wants to talk about, and his burial was never complete. But one might also think of the section in The Great Gatsby where Tom Buchanan rants about the colored empires and the end of white hegemony (“If we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged”), which Nick doesn’t take seriously: “Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas.” In America such ideas will never be stale, and that goes double for Europe.

Greil Marcus
Oakland, California

Mark Lilla replies:

Writing about the political right has never been harder. Different kinds of right-wing ideologies and political formations are proliferating and shaking liberal governments around the world, as Greil Marcus points out. This makes it difficult to keep track of all the developments, distinguish them, and establish the connections between them. At the same time, liberal and left forces that want to resist these developments are increasingly hostile to learning anything that does not conform to their settled ideas about the right. A misplaced wokeness works like Ambien, dulling our curiosity and willingness to engage, and thrusting us into an intellectual twilight where the only thing we see is the familiar specter of white supremacy.

James McAuley has written excellent pieces on the French right and Marion Maréchal, so perhaps it is a déformation professionelle that leads him to read my own article inside out. It was not an article primarily about Marion; had it been, I would have discussed most of the things McAuley mentions. Neither was my ambition to offer an overview of the French right and reach a general conclusion about it. Rather I was concerned with new elements on that right, two of which drew my attention. One is newly active Catholic social conservatives who fall between the establishment Républicains party and the far-right Rassemblement National (né Front National), both of which are generally secular. The other is a group of young Catholic intellectuals who have rather coherently linked their social conservatism to a severe critique of contemporary globalized capitalism. Having written a book on reactionary intellectuals, I am quite aware of antecedents to that link running back to the nineteenth century, not only on the right. But ever since mainstream right-wing parties embraced neoliberalism in the late twentieth century, there has been no serious critique of capitalism on the right in any major Western country. These young French writers remind us that it is still possible. That Marion has picked up some of their ideas, or at least the rhetoric, shows that they might have consequences—though not necessarily those they intend.

All of this strikes me as not only worthy of note, but important given the growing influence of the right just about everywhere. That is not to say that it is benign. As the title of my article stated clearly, there are two paths before these young intellectuals. One is to start developing “a renewed, more classical organic conservatism” inflected by Catholic social teaching that could have a moderating effect by counterbalancing the far right and offering an alternative to it. The other is to contribute to building an aggressive Christian nationalist ideology that one writer I quoted called “revolutionary, identitarian, and reactionary,” in concert with other similar forces in Europe responsible for the “xenophobic populist outbursts” I also mentioned. McAuley is quite right to point out Marion’s caginess in speaking in these two registers. And like him I would probably bet on the nationalist strain dominating in the end. Which would force these young writers to choose: that’s the drama.

In any case, this is what I was trying to get at in the article. But a reader of McAuley’s letter who had not seen the piece might come to a different conclusion: that it was intended to whitewash Marion (or her grandfather, or right-wing forces everywhere; it’s unclear which) and ignore the real animating forces on the right, which are “white supremacy,” “hatred of the other,” “bigotry,” and “an ideology of exclusion,” all whipped up by the phantom of immigration. In other words, never mind all the things that seem new, forget the writings about family and sexuality, forget all the talk about organic community, forget the lashing out against neoliberalism and tech giants, forget Pope Francis (an inspiration for some). It all comes down to hatred: “Any responsible discussion of the movement’s new developments must begin and end there.”

That sentiment is so common on the left, and not only in France, and so fruitless for confronting the contemporary right, in all its manifestations, that I’m moved to respond, though this was not my original subject. The forces McAuley lists are real enough in our societies. But it is foolish to deny or minimize social realities that xenophobes exaggerate and exploit, in the vain hope of cutting off their oxygen. Equally foolish is an unwillingness to take up fundamental political questions that the xenophobes give bad answers to, and to try giving better ones—questions like Ernst Renan’s “What is a nation?” These avoidance instincts must be resisted. If there is anything we’ve learned in recent decades, it is that closing our eyes or establishing taboos on what can and can’t be discussed, or how, always backfire. The left needs to present people with a fuller reality than the right presents, not an equally restricted one.

For example, illegal immigration in France has indeed dropped since 2015—but the levels before then were already fueling anger and frustration, since neither the French state nor the EU had been able to master them. And unless one believes in open borders, citizens are perfectly right to expect that whatever level of legal immigration has been democratically decided will be enforced. If not, the democratic system itself will look illegitimate. Uncontrolled immigration, along with economic globalization, are the major factors behind the growing distrust plaguing liberal democracies. It is not just bigotry.

But of course, as McAuley knows quite well, the term “immigration” is really a euphemism in France for the Muslim population as a whole, which is largely made up of citizens and legal residents just living their lives. It obviously serves the xenophobes’ interests to use the term to undermine their legitimacy. This is the real danger. But it does not help to deny that there are pressing problems of Muslim integration into European societies, or to pretend that this is simply because of that xenophobia. There are challenges in neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and prisons. And those challenges contribute to demographic worries, which a demagogue like Renaud Camus exploits with his dystopian “great replacement.” Though the Muslim population has grown to only 10 percent so far, over a quarter of all children born in France have at least one parent born outside Europe, most from Muslim countries. So the Muslim population will continue to grow. What this will mean for French republicanism, the secular ideology that undergirds the state and the educational system, is unclear. But labeling any discussion of such matters racist will only sell more copies of Renaud Camus’s books.

For those concerned about the antiliberal forces gaining strength in world politics, the most important thing is to maintain one’s sangfroid. Before we judge we must be sure of what exactly we are judging. We need to take ideas seriously, make distinctions, and never presume that the present is just the past in disguise. Greil Marcus falls into that last trap, I’m afraid, by shifting from discussing the affinities among countries to imagining a Fascist International with poles in the US and Russia. Whatever we are facing, it is not twentieth-century fascism. Hell keeps on disgorging new demons to beset us. And as seasoned exorcists know, each must be called by its proper name before it can be cast out.