Jean-Marie Le Pen styles himself as French patriot who does not fit the conventional political spectrum. He says that he is socially on the Left and economically on the Right, but in American terms he is dyslexic. After all, Le Pen opposes abortion and homosexual u201Cmarriage,u201D but is protectionist in his economics. By our standards he is socially u201CRightu201D and economically u201CLeft.u201D
Le Pen’s success in the first round of this year’s French presidential election has set a number of pundits chattering about the decline of the Left-Right spectrum. Alain de Benoist, writing in the German conservative weekly newspaper Junge Freiheit, provides one of the best analyses, drawing on data from polls taken in the months before the election:
75 per cent of Frenchmen saw hardly any differences between the political programs of Chirac and Jospin. 56 per cent had little or no interest in the presidential election. Six out of ten Frenchmen were of the opinion that the distinction between Left and Right is a thing of the past. Since 1995, the portion of Frenchmen who would place themselves as u201Cneither on the Right nor the Leftu201D has swelled from 19 to 45 per cent.
Benoist is a leader of the Nouvelle Droit — the u201CFrench New Rightu201D — an intellectual movement tangentially related to Le Pen’s political movement. Benoist’s opinion of Le Pen’s success reflects the French New Right’s belief in the obsolescence of Left and Right. Benoist elsewhere has proposed instead a new framework of politics as center vs. periphery. The Nouvelle Droit itself is not easy to characterize, but it is generally anti-American, anti-capitalist, decentralist, and communitarian.
The more prosaic Left-liberals of the International Herald Tribune (it’s a joint venture of the Washington Post and New York Times) have a similar take on the ideological significance of Le Pen. Philip Browning, an IHT correspondent in Hong Kong, writes:
The dominance of market-led, predominantly private, global capitalism is overwhelming. So the differences between candidates become blurred, and the sort of personality politics which elected Joseph Estrada in the Philippines, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Tony Blair in Britain and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy takes over.
Charismatic politicians have always had the advantage over their less personable rivals, so that’s nothing new. Still, Mr. Browning is surely right that the differences between mainstream candidates — Jospins and Chiracs, or Republicans and Democrats — have become blurred. But is u201Cthe dominance of…global capitalismu201D responsible for this?
It is, but that’s only part of the story. The collapse of Soviet Communism and discrediting of old-style socialism have indeed forced Leftist parties throughout the world to adopt new platforms and identities, at least superficially. But what about the Right? u201CConservativeu201D parties, from Chirac’s Gaullist RPR to America’s Republicans have an identity crisis of their own, one whose origin is in the long-standing tendency of these parties to u201Cconserveu201D nothing other than the welfare state.
There is much with which an American conservative must disagree in Benoist’s philosophy but he is surely correct to emphasize the differentiation between u201Ccenteru201D and u201Cperiphery.u201D The u201Ccenteru201D is the State itself, which has assimilated the conventional Left and Right into its own substance. This process was underway well before the end of the Cold War and has only accelerated since. Relative to the triumph of social democracy, which took place over the course of more than sixty years, the collapse of Communism is of only secondary ideological significance.
Between mainstream parties in the semi-civilized world today there is very little intellectual or programmatic difference but that is not because the Left-Right axis has ceased to exist. Rather the 20th century victory of the non-Communist Left has been so absolute as to reduce the stature of the real Right to almost nothing; to the status of a u201Cperiphery.u201D This makes the Right almost as negligible as the remaining Communists, who are also peripheral, but that does not mean the Right and the Communist Left now have anything in common. The peripheral Right has to fight both the peripheral, Communist Left and the vast Center-Left, which includes most nominally u201Cconservativeu201D parties.
Several of Le Pen’s positions, most notably his desire to restrict Third World immigration, do threaten the Center-Left. That’s why those positions are never discussed, but only ridiculed as xenophobic, racist, anti-Semitic and nativist. Mass immigration serves social democracy both by creating an enormous quantity of gullible voters and by culturally dividing communities: it’s a strategy to divide and conquer.
His ideas may be dangerous but Le Pen himself and his Front Nationale are electorally harmless. The same is true of analogous u201Cpopulistu201D movements elsewhere, which are never very popular. For all the talk about the alienation of the common man from the political elite, he still usually votes for them. With good reason; once the social democratic Left in all its forms has won the battle of ideas (and of reputation), the electoral outcome is only an afterthought.
Whether Le Pen is socially Right and economically Left, or economically Right and socially Left, or some kind of u201Cthird positionu201D makes no difference for his political fate. He has just enough of the genuine Right about him, in the form of his views on immigration, to be consigned by the media and political establishment to the peripheral fringe. In order for him to have a serious chance at winning the affections of the masses, he would have to accept not only the economics of social democracy, to which he may already be amenable, but also its entire worldview. He would have to become entirely a man of the Left, just as the likes of Jacques Chirac already are.
Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.