Commentary Magazine


France's New Right

In the summer of 1979 a veritable storm broke out in the French media on an unlikely subject: a serious revival of the French Right. Scores of articles were written, most of them denouncing what was described as an attempt by a new group of writers and thinkers to give intellectual respectability to “fascist” ideas, including the use of genetic engineering in social policy. In one of the more striking side effects of the affair, the director of a committee of intellectuals for liberal democracy brought a libel suit against two leftist newspapers, the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur and the Socialist daily Le Matin, because of allegations that the committee belonged to this “New Right.” Whatever it was, the “New Right” was upsetting a great many people.

Compared to the 60′s and early 70′s, there has been a remarkable degree of open-mindedness in French intellectual life recently, especially since the “New Philosophers” demolished the reigning orthodoxies of pop-Marxism.1 For the most part, as with the “New Philosophers” themselves, the search for fresh ideas has amounted to a discussion among men and women who come from the various families of the Left. Until quite recently, for example, Jean-François Revel always insisted on describing himself as a man of the Left, and J.-J. Rosa, for another example, the leader of the “new economists” who are skillfully advancing arguments for a relatively free market, is originally from the moderate Left. The brilliant constellation of liberal thinkers around Raymond Aron’s new review, Commentaire, often speak a language which, while it may not owe much to the traditions of the French Left, is somehow more accessible (and infuriating) to it than to the Right.

There was, to be sure, a time when the French Right was very influential, not least among intellectuals. From the Dreyfus Affair to the “révolution nationale” of Marshal Pétain, no discussion of ideas and politics in France would be complete if it omitted the Action française of Charles Maurras and Maurice Pujo and other extreme Right formations. Though the 30′s were mainly red, the 20′s had been white. But after World War II and the anti-collaborationist purges, the Right disappeared as a serious intellectual presence in French culture. While various centrists and nationalists—since 1958, Gaullists and Giscardiens—held political power, right-wing thinkers sank into reactionary sects characterized by irrelevant and often repulsive ideas.

The events of May 1968 and their aftermath—the student riots and the large-scale industrial strikes followed a month later by the great Gaullist electoral triumph—led inevitably to a number of reassessments and new developments on both the Left and the Right. In fact, the wake of May 1968 witnessed the complete degeneration of the French Left. On the one hand were the gauchistes, bordering on terrorism and overtly supporting such movements as the PLO; on the other hand were the neo-Stalinists of the Union de la Gauche, aptly symbolized by the Socialist party logo, the flower inside the clenched fist. It was then that the “New Philosophers”—disgusted by this spectacle, shamed by Solzhenitsyn and other Russian dissident writers, encouraged by their teachers’ critique of power as an inherently bad thing—began to come to grips with the Left’s totalitarian heritage, and in the ensuing years have attempted with greater or lesser success to forge a genuinely liberal alternative.

Yet these years also saw the emergence of a young intellectual Right. Most people in France were unaware of it, but a number of young writers and political thinkers were busy creating reviews and clubs in which to thrash out the intellectual premises of a conservative movement that might challenge the Left’s control of the cultural life of France. As if to underline the pedigree they were claiming for themselves—all the way back to Periclean Athens and beyond—their basic study center was deliberately named GRECE (Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilization européenne). Closely associated with it is a publishing firm, Copernic, created in 1977, whose list cannot fail to strike one at first as somewhat bizarre, containing as it does such titles as The Adventures of Lydéric, by Alexandre Dumas; The Secret of Atlantis, by Jurgen Sparuth; Sunlight on Stonehenge, by G. S. Hawkins; as well as Inequality, by H. J. Eysenck and Judaism and Christianity, by Ernest Renan.

According to its spokesmen, GRECE members do not engage in any overt political activity, because they believe the cultural climate in France has to change before an attempt to gain political influence can be successful. Yet GRECE also maintains that its ideas must have public consequences if they are to signify anything, and to this end a public-policy organization was founded in 1974, the Club de l’Horloge, made up, in the main, of young graduates of France’s top administration school, the ENA. The precise relations between this club and GRECE are not clear, although according to Le Monde the club’s president, Yvan Blot, has participated in GRECE activities and once addressed a colloquium under its auspices in these terms, without ironic intent: “To found a new aristocracy, we need slaves.” (Blot denies the charge.)

In 1979, Le Figaro, which had been purchased a couple of years earlier by the press baron Robert Hersant, added a weekend magazine, sold with the Saturday edition of the paper. Louis Pauwels was made editor of this magazine, and he opened its pages to members of the “New Right,” thus lifting them rather abruptly out of their little reviews. In particular, Pauwels chose as his assistant Jean-Claude Valla, the former editor of GRECE’s bimonthly, Eléments pour la civilization européenne, and gave the regular feature column on the world of ideas to its chief editorialist, Alain de Benoist. De Benoist is the most prolific writer of the “New Right” and is acknowledged by his colleagues as one of their “maîtres à penser.”

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The prominence given to the “New Right” by Figaro-Magazine seems to have provoked the press furor last summer. No one has assayed a scientific estimate of the real influence of the “New Right,” but there have been typically French guesses regarding who is behind the phenomenon. For example, the Communists and Le Nouvel Observateur are inclined to blame the party of Giscard d’Estaing—which would be a very serious charge, if it could be sustained. And as noted already, Le Nouvel Observateur has tried to make GRECE and the liberals two aspects of the same phenomenon. But if the “New Right” is going to play a role in the current ferment in the French intellectual world, it is worth knowing something of its ideas, which are more important than unsubstantiated charges about its backers or its alleged sinister intentions. And for its ideas one must turn to Alain de Benoist, born in 1943 and gifted with a clear writing style.

Concerning the traditional Right—to begin with—de Benoist is unambiguous:

The old Right in France has always been reactionary. The reactionary spirit is perhaps the thing I hate most in the world. . . . [To be reactionary means] trying to bring back a past period or condition. [To be conservative, on the other hand, means] basing oneself on the best of all the past, in order to reach a new situation. In my view, all true conservatism is revolutionary.

Jean-Claude Valla, Pauwels’s assistant at Figaro-Magazine, puts it more violently:

Among the theocratic networks of the nationalist far Right, the Charles Maurras loyalists, the xenophobes in Basque berets, the ones who miss Marshal Pétain, and the Waffen-SS groupies, there is no room for an intellectual world. Missing are the fresh air and the lucidity that are needed for an analysis which would be directly relevant to present reality.

These statements are clear enough, and serve to demarcate the “New Right” from the old (although it should be remembered that virtually every right-wing group that has ever existed in modern France began its career with a violent denunciation of every other group for assorted sins and failures). At any rate, Alain de Benoist takes very seriously the need for fresh air. A man of wide-ranging curiosity and an avid reader, he exposes his reactions to books and ideas carefully, at times pedantically. He is convinced that the Right must concentrate on culture, not politics. This is a notion derived, he acknowledges, in large part from his reading of Antonio Gramsci, founder of the Italian Communist party:

From Gramsci’s point of view, in a developed society, the “passage to socialism” occurs neither by putsch nor by a direct confrontation, but by the transformation of general ideas, which is to say a slow reshaping of consciousness. And the stake of this war of positions is the culture, that is the source of values and ideas.

In a country like France, “the seizure of political power is not possible until after the seizure of cultural power.” This is the exact opposite of Charles Maurras’s axiom, “Politics first.”

The first maneuver in this war of positions has been a concerted assault upon the idea of equality. Western culture, the “New Right” believes, is dominated by the idea of equality, indeed has been for some two thousand years. The ideal of equality, according to de Benoist, has led inexorably to the pursuit of egalitarianism, the doctrine of equality of results which has replaced the old doctrine of equality of opportunity (he maintains he believes in the latter). The perverse and socially debilitating effects of the pursuit of equality cannot be tolerated much longer, and it is of the essence to create values that will replace it.

De Benoist insists on this point in a very wide variety of contexts. Whether he is writing on free-market economics or on opposition to Communism, he returns to fundamentals: the real enemy of Europe for two thousand years has been egalitarianism. Communism and capitalism are simply two of its possible conclusions. To oppose tyranny, one must understand the value of the two anti-egalitarian ideas: the idea of diversity among individuals and nations, and the idea of elites and of hierarchical order.

De Benoist includes the idea of diversity in his definition of the Right, properly understood:

I call rightist the attitude which consists of seeing as something good the world’s diversity, and the relative inequalities which follow from it; and of seeing as an evil the gradual homogenization of the world, advanced and put into effect by the two-thousand-year-old argument of egalitarian ideology.

Diversity and inequality go together. The particularities of each of the world’s cultures must be preserved, for they have values and merit intrinsic to themselves. As far as Europe is concerned, the “New Right” applauds regionalist tendencies and favors the study of ancient peoples such as the Celts and, further back, the “Indo-Europeans.” For if Europe does not recover its own cultural roots it will be submerged by one or the other of the superpowers:

The principal menace today . . . is the gradual disappearance of diversity from the world: the leveling of individuals, the reduction of all cultures to a “world civilization” founded on what is most common. . . . From Holiday Inn to Howard Johnson, the outlines of a uniformly gray world are emerging.

Individuals, like nations, can be leveled down. To guard against this, de Benoist extols the notion of the elite. Equality of opportunity is essential, but

. . . value is measured essentially by the responsibilities each person takes on, based on his measurable aptitudes; liberty consists of the opportunity to exercise these responsibilities; to these responsibilities, a proportional amount of rights correspond; and the result is a hierarchy. . . .

For Louis Pauwels, to belong to the “New Right” means

to admit the fact of inequalities among men, the necessity of elites, and the existence of as it were preconceived elites, from birth. . . . Do we want an egalitarian democracy that increasingly levels . . . or shall we create a true “meritocracy” based on the notion of elite, an elite that can be sought wherever it may be?

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Now, France is nothing if not an elitist society, and neither de Benoist nor Pauwels has, to my knowledge, explained in what way he considers its elite, formed in one of the world’s most rigorous educational systems, to be threatened in its structure by rampant egalitarian-ism. Nor is the republican meritocracy of France especially Christian in practice or inspiration, yet to de Benoist there is an axiomatic relationship between egalitarianism and “Judeo-Christianity,” and it is the latter which is supposed to have been subverting Europe, including France.

“Judeo-Christianity,” according to de Benoist, is an alien system imposed by force two thousand years ago upon the descendants of the Indo-European peoples. It is contrary to their genius. In its present, degenerate, secular form, which he refers to as “Freudo-Marxism,” it is particularly subversive.

In terms of ideas, Judaism is, as one might expect, at the root of what de Benoist calls “Judeo-Christianity.” In his reading, the fanatical monotheism of the deserts of Arabia [sic] gave the world intolerance, and ultimately totalitarianism. Jesus, first of the “Bolsheviks of antiquity,” is considered by de Benoist to have been a totalitarian for having said, “He who is not for me is against me.”

Although one of de Benoist’s friends has written of “exterminating Judaism metaphysically,” and another has called monotheism the worst type of slavery, de Benoist has shown more restraint on this point, preferring to commend to his readers the ideas of Nietzsche and Gibbon on Christianity. In this view, Christianity is the one thing the ancient Romans failed to anticipate and which they were not equipped to resist. In giving to each man a soul equally dear to God, Christianity sapped the empire’s elite, which had been educated on the classical notion that a soul is something a man forges. Christianity acquired its revolutionary force in part from this notion and in part from the teachings of the Jewish prophets, whose social ideal is based on class envy and is a kind of leveling communism, according to de Benoist (in expressing these ideas, he relies heavily on quotations from others).

Bernard-Henri Lévy, perhaps the most prominent of the “New Philosophers,” gave de Benoist an opportunity to carry this argument further. In his most recent book, Le Testament de Dieu, Lévy advances the thesis that only monotheism can serve as a foundation from which to resist totalitarian barbarism. Deeply provoked, the “New Rightist” answered, in an essay titled “Monotheism and Totalitarianism,” that the reverse is true: “Monotheism justified morally the destruction of the ‘other.’. . . It has been demonstrated not once but one hundred times that the modern totalitarianisms represent secular political transpositions of religious monotheism.” De Benoist and Lévy did at least agree that the question indeed remains one of choosing between polytheism and monotheism, Athens or Jerusalem.

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At this point one is tempted to remark that Latin Quarter intellectuals get the debates they deserve. But in his criticism of the spiritual descendants of monotheism, de Benoist makes it clear that, at least from the point of view of the “New Right,” the debate has wide implications, for these descendants include Communist Russians, democratic Americans, liberals, capitalists. Like the traditional Right before him, de Benoist dislikes liberalism in particular, holding that it takes a crudely economic view of man and has no other serious reference point. “Liberalism and Marxism were born as the two opposite poles of the same system of economic values.”

De Benoist believes this is demonstrated by the similarities between the United States and Russia. But whereas on the latter de Benoist has very little to say, toward the former he expresses a degree of hatred which is surprising and unseemly in this normally polite, if frigid, writer. While his colleagues write of an “American economic imperialism” that threatens the cultural identities of the peoples of Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America, or of “that insidious and efficient and therefore infinitely redoubtable form of totalitarianism that is called bourgeois society,” de Benoist, in an essay in which he admits to a weakness for the patriotic North Vietnamese Communists who were fighting for their homeland, denounces the nation he views as a new and monstrous Carthage:

What have the newcomers [in English] of the American nation in common, aside from the Bible, the Constitution, a taste for the dollar, and the love of standing [in English]? There is a Vietnamese, a Cambodian nation. There cannot be an American nation.

De Benoist finds in America nothing but “vulgarity, egalitarianism, and the commercial spirit.” While the two superpowers are equally dangerous for Europe, it is the American threat he has studied the more closely: “From George Washington to Gerald Ford, America has never varied.” The pursuit of happiness has thwarted all desire for cultural diversity among Americans, and makes them “kill” all other cultures, which will be replaced by the “dead forms of a civilization without a soul.”

The violent hatred of the “New Right” for the United States may be an inheritance from the old Right, with its chauvinism and its envy of the young power that twice in this century saved France from the Huns. Since World War II, the Right has had cause to feel affronted by American policy in Europe: the Suez fiasco in 1956, President Kennedy’s support of Algerian independence, more recently American irresolution on international financial and energy issues. But de Benoist’s dislike of the U.S. has a deep philosophical basis as well. He despises liberalism in all its forms, and he includes capitalism as one of those forms. Leaning on the work of a young Sorbonne philosopher, Claude Polin, he argues that “totalitarianism is the result of the egalitarian spirit and, particularly, of its necessary corollary, the economic spirit.” This is why, to him, liberal democracy is no bulwark against totalitarianism.

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With this, one may end a cursory summary of Alain de Benoist’s ideas. There have been only the vaguest of hints from the “New Right” regarding the kind of self-confident Europe that is to rise out of the debris of “Judeo-Christianity.” But one may question how much de Benoist and his friends are truly engaged in building a new culture, when one realizes to what an extent they come out of certain known traditions in France. In fact, it is interesting that despite all the attention the “New Right” has received in the press, little has been said about how very French de Benoist and his friends really are. Much of the press reaction in France has concerned itself with speculation on the personal backgrounds and alleged sinister connections and motivations of the “New Rightists,” and this has tended to obscure their intellectual position. Yet as Raymond Aron has pointed out, “If one finds their ideas detestable, one must discuss them, not simply accuse them of racism or anti-Semitism.”

Aron himself has found nothing in the writings of the “New Right” that is explicitly anti-Semitic, though he adds sardonically that is is important to pay attention to “what can be read between the lines.” To Aron, the essential point about the “New Right” is that it is anti-egalitarian in a manner that ties it to anti-democratic strains in French conservatism. The well-known historian Annie Kriegel (who writes for the daily Figaro as well as for Commentaire and the Jewish monthly, L’Arche), has similarly stressed that it is in the name of liberalism that the “New Right” ought to be opposed.

Younger Jewish intellectuals, notably Shmuel Trigano and Bernard-Henri Lévy, have been less cautious—or more alarmed—in their responses to the “New Right.” They see in the use of terminology like “Judeo-Christianity” and “Freudo-Marxism” little more than ways of conforming to French laws regarding racial slander. Guy Hocquenghem, writing in the leftist Libération, admitted that the “New Rightists” do not sound like standard right wingers, but concluded nevertheless that he was dealing with racists. De Benoist has defended himself, arguing that his ideas are not “raciophobe” but rather “raciophile”: he wants people to develop along lines that are true to themselves, that is all. As a Frenchman, he reserves the right to criticize ideas he considers detrimental to French (or rather European) well-being and development. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung‘s Andreas Oplatka has said that this sounds like a definition of apartheid.2

Raymond Aron and Annie Kreigel are surely correct to warn against crying wolf before the beast is clearly visible. They do not deny there are serious questions to be raised regarding the degree to which racist sentiments may be lurking behind arguments concerning the biological differences among individuals and peoples, or the repetitive contrasting of “Indo-Europeans” with “Judeo-Christians,” but a social scientist does have a right to ask whether biology might contribute usefully to his work, and the “New Rightists” insist that for all their interest in genetics and ethology, they know that what makes man human is culture, not heredity.

And yet their line of argument has precedents in the traditional Right that may be more important than their “new” rhetoric. Since the Church excommunicated the Action française in the 20′s, there has been an anti-Christian Right in France. This Right has usually been anti-Semitic as well as anti-Christian, and it has sought pagan sources of spirituality. When one takes into account the fact that in contemporary France it causes no great scandal to say nasty things about the Catholic Church, it becomes easier to agree with Catherine Chalier, the author of a perceptive essay on de Benoist and Bernard-Henri Lévy published in Les Nouveaux Cahiers (a Jewish quarterly), that behind the code words the Jews are indeed the targets. After all, what is the “New Right” assault on the “alien” infiltration of Europe but the old Right’s dream of a “pure” Europe, now being pressed back into service?

The idea that this old Europe, to be rendered pure again for Europeans, should be for itself alone sounds, indeed, very much like an updated version of Charles Maurras’s formula, “la France seule.” Despite de Benoist’s recent discovery of geopolitics, he is advocating, in effect, a European neutralism (based on a French-German alliance), a neutralism that is consistent with his adversary feelings toward France’s republican democracy. If he does not express himself with the virulence of Maurras, who maintained that bullets as well as ballots might be used to bring down the Republic, it is clear that he feels liberal democracy is corrupt and not worth defending.

It seems there must always be room for the expression of an anti-democratic persuasion in France, because there is a deep anti-democratic strain in this nation that never quite completed its liberal revolution. For a long time in French intellectual life the anti-democratic strain seemed to be the exclusive property of the Left. The emergence of Alain de Benoist and his “New Right” reminds us that it is equally at home at the other end of the French political spectrum.


Footnotes

1 See my article, “France's ‘New Philosophers,’” COMMENTARY, February 1978.

2 The interest the “New Right” takes in race is closely connected to its interest in heredity. Eléments, while castigating attempts to integrate immigrant schoolchildren too rapidly, called for a new educational organization, the “Groupes d'études pour une nouvelle éducation”—or, as it happens, GENE.

About the Author

Roger Kaplan has written widely on French politics and on Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990’s.




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