The Return of the Bonapartes

The Return of the Bonapartes

France’s National Front (FN) has provided shock after shock in recent months. First came a runaway success in March’s municipal elections, where the far-right party came in second. Then came the European Union elections in late May, when the FN took 25 percent of the vote — beating out the center-left and center-right parties that have dominated the Republic since after World War II. And since last week, a family spectacle pitting the party’s unreconstructed founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, against his reformist daughter Marine has mesmerized the country. If the daughter wins this struggle, it may well mark the climax of a story begun 125 years ago.  

It was then, in 1889, that a retired French general, Georges Boulanger, seemed on the cusp of seizing power in France. That he failed to do so did not turn him into a historical footnote. On the contrary, the dashing officer represents the beginning of a movement, Bonapartism, that has ebbed and flowed through French politics ever since. As it name suggests, Bonapartism calls for an authoritarian leader who channels the will of the nation, controls the levers of a powerful state, and whose legitimacy flows directly from the people (through referenda or plebiscites) rather than the mechanisms of liberal democracy.

Fin-de-siècle France could hardly wait for the start of a new century. The country (and much of the world) was mired in an economic depression, its traditional industries and shops fissuring under the pressures of global competition and mass production. Their lot increasingly precarious, workers grew increasingly hostile to immigrants who seemed to threaten their jobs. (Up to half a million foreigners — two-thirds of them Italians and Belgians — were entering the country annually around that time.) The era’s technological triumphs, symbolized by Gustave Eiffel’s 1,000-foot-high iron tower for the 1889 World Exposition, was cause not just for enthusiasm, but anxiety: The great economic and scientific churn improved many lives, but upended many others. "Nearly all centuries end badly," the illustrator and writer Albert Robida wrote in 1889, "and ours appears to follow the common law" as it expires "in an ingestion of iron and steel and chemical products."

Mainstream political parties, rather than defending an endangered Republic, instead inflamed her condition. A long series of tawdry scams, including the selling of Legion d’Honneur ribbons from the presidential palace, climaxed with the Panama Canal Scandal of 1889, in which the company of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the celebrated builder of the Suez Canal, began to hemorrhage money and bribed hundreds of parliamentary deputies to facilitate government infusions. When the company went bust in 1889, so too did the savings of countless small investors — along with their trust in France’s political class.

Replacing President Jules Grévy, whose official residence, the Élysée, had become a souvenir stand, in 1887 was Sadi Carnot, whose most important quality, one observer noted, was his "perfect insignificance." A growing number of French, in search of a leader, turned to Boulanger, whose bravery against the Germans during the Franco-Prussian War and sympathy for striking French workers won him support across social classes. Though they hailed from the left as well as the right, were rural and urban, blue- and white-collar workers, his followers shared several important traits: distrust for political parties, disenchantment with the great changes technology and commerce had wrought, defiance of a powerful Germany, and the desire for an assertive and resurgent France.

This vast swell of popular discontent swept Boulanger triumphantly through several provincial by-elections, climaxing with a resounding victory over the government’s candidate for a parliamentary seat for Paris in early 1889. Boulanger’s moment disappeared, however, as quickly as it had appeared. Unwilling to take power by force, as many of his supporters had hoped, the general fled France when the government floated the rumor of his imminent arrest for treason. Though Boulanger eventually committed suicide, his brief political career revealed the power of Bonapartism, the movement whose subsequent iterations have roiled French politics periodically ever since.

So much, yet so little, has changed between late 19th- and early 21st-century France. Against a bleak background of rising unemployment and declining industries, deepening frustration over monetary constraints imposed by Berlin, and popular fears over "uncontrolled" immigration, the mainstream parties appear not just impotent, but impertinent. The Socialists, scarcely recovered from sexual assault allegations involving former International Monetary Fund head and would-be president Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), were splattered soon after taking power by the financial scandal involving their budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, who had brazenly violated the tax laws his office enforced. As for the conservative opposition party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), their leader, Jean-François Copé, has just resigned amid revelations that his party illegally funneled millions of euros into the 2012 presidential campaign of his mentor Nicolas Sarkozy, who himself is juggling several court cases involving campaign finance shenanigans. 

The perfect storm of DSK’s rape charges and Sarkozy’s bling-bling activities paved the way to the Élysée for the mild-mannered François Hollande. Having given the presidency to Hollande with his promise that he was "normal," the French now find that normal, at least if it means "perfect insignificance," is not good enough. A recently released Le Figaro poll reveals that just 3 percent of respondents wish to see Hollande run again. Clearly, he is not the "real leader" that, according to a Le Monde poll, 87 percent of respondents seeks for France.

It is thus not a surprise that more than a third of those same respondents now support the National Front, even if it feels shocking. The party’s recent successes have revived an old debate over the nature of the FN. Since assuming the party’s leadership, Marine Le Pen has portrayed the FN as the nation’s last bulwark against supranational institutions, like the EU, and free market forces that have overwhelmed its frontiers. According to Le Pen, the barbarians at the gates are not just finance capitalists and Brussels-based bureaucrats, but the legal and illegal immigrants from East Europe and North Africa who threaten her certain idea of France. Hence her vow to withdraw France from the eurozone, close the country’s borders, and revitalize a strong state that would protect endangered industries.

Behind this program the FN’s many critics glimpse a fascist, even neo-Nazi movement. To be sure, a number of the party’s founding members in the late 1970s hailed from this fringe of the French ideological spectrum, their presence comforted by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s many anti-Semitic provocations and forays into historical revisionism. The party’s or
igins have not been forgotten. In late May, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble declared the FN a "fascist party." Le Pen’s recent efforts to criminalize the use of this label have fizzled. Her case against Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left-wing firebrand who savors the term, was tossed out of a French court earlier this year.

Academics like the historian Zeev Sternhell have also insisted that there is a variety of fascism specific to France. The cult of the leader, embrace of violence, distrust of reason, and emphasis on the nation rather than the individual — these same beliefs, carried by similar social forces, mark not just the Boulangist phenomenon, but also anti-parliamentary movements like Action Française at the turn of the 20th century, the Vichy regime during World War II, and the National Front today. There is, as well, the crucial issue of anti-Semitism. While not a necessary element to fascism — Italy’s Mussolini, the inventor of fascism, adopted anti-Semitism only under pressure from Nazi Germany — Sternhell and his camp insist upon its centrality to fascism à la française.

Other historians, however, fault Sternhell for confusing ideal categories with historical particularities. The political scientist Jean-Yves Camus, among others, places the FN in the same tradition as Boulanger’s movement. Rather than fascist, he says, the FN is "plebiscitary": a movement calling for direct democracy, an authoritarian presidency, and a "sovereign" nation free of supranational institutions like the EU. While neo-Nazi ideologues helped launch the FN in 1978, they were long ago purged from the party, a feat that the younger Le Pen has touted, replaced by a new generation of leaders, like Florian Philippot, who hail from the same elite schools that shaped Hollande and Copé.

Moreover, Le Pen’s impatience with the recent anti-Semitic and racist provocations of her father, the party’s octogenarian founder, and her desire to change the party’s name — and thus mark a rupture with its past — are well known.

Though the debate among specialists can slide into scholasticism, the stakes are serious. Joël Gombin, a polling expert, believes the FN, unlike its earlier iterations, has reached "bedrock" status in French political life and that Le Pen’s presidential ambitions are realistic. For this reason, semantics have political consequences. By labeling the FN as "fascist" or "neo-Nazi," opponents only alienate the party’s growing base that is appalled by such a description. Moreover, the fascist label blinkers the FN’s opponents to the changing political landscape, undermining their ability to map an effective response. One of the FN’s most determined opponents, the historian Pierre-André Taguieff, makes this case in a recently published manifesto. Both the French left and right, he argues, have benefitted enormously by demonizing the FN. By forming "republican fronts" against the "fascist threat," neither socialists nor conservatives have ever had to make positive cases for their own parties. And now, it may be too late.

In the end, Marine Le Pen’s party is not fascist — and this is exactly why it is so dangerous. The FN’s emphasis on national and social values — which, of course, makes no place for most immigrants — appeals to those French voters who, as in 1889, were shocked by a cascade of political scandals and living under the shadow of a resurgent Germany. The aims of the FN differ little from those of its Bonapartist ancestors. As a result, for those who wish to defend the Republic and the values of 1789, getting names right, rather than name-calling, is the necessary first step.