In order to understand whether France is a nation ‘split between right-wing impulses and left-wing ideals’ (Yves Mény), it is important to first understand what that truly means. What does it mean when we talk about impulses and ideals? Oxford Dictionaries defines an impulse as “a sudden strong and unreflective urge or desire to act”11, and defines an ideal as “a standard or principle to be aimed at.”11 Essentially, it involves identifying if there is a conflict between how the French instinctively act, and how they aspire to act. By looking at the role of the left-wing and the right-wing, as well as the role of Napoleon the first in French history, and the actions of the French during colonial France, it should demonstrate that France is, in fact, a split nation, with conflicting ideals and impulses.
What are the right and left wings? What are their ideals? The terms, whilst heavily used today, did, in fact, derive from the French Revolution in 1789-99, where the different party politics stood to the left or the right of the president3. The division between the French right and left wing is best described as republican versus monarchist. The republican ideals were summed up simply by the French Revolutionaries, “Liberté, egalité, fraternité”5. These are words that have featured heavily in French history, in left-wing politics, since the French Revolution, having now been adopted as the national motto of France, and whilst there have been other slogans featuring words like “unité”, “justice” or “force”, they almost always featured ‘liberté’ and ‘egalité’7. ‘Freedom’ and ‘Equality’ seem to be the cornerstones of the ideals that guide the left-wing, alongside the idea of popular sovereignty. In direct contrast to the monarchist right-wing, republicans believe that governments should take their authority from the popular vote and consent of the people, as opposed to a divine-right, such as that of the king3. The right-wing tended towards the monarchical beliefs, they desired a hierarchical system, guided by one authority, that typically enforced a class system with aristocracy presiding over the lower classes. The right-wing traditionally endorsed the feudal system, where the nobility, which consisted of approximately 2% of the population, possessed around 30% of the land and considerably more of the wealth3. The right-wing wanted to follow tradition and order, whereas the left wanted an upheaval which would result in the removal of inherent hierarchy.
After the liberal revolution there is an episode of French history that highlights the conflict between the impulses and ideologies of the French; the Napoleonic empire. Was the election of Napoleon impulsive? The French were desperate to have an end to all the fighting of the previous decades. The country sought peace, and Napoleon offered a liberal governance that could provide them with that peace so when Napoleon took sole power of the country, he was not particularly opposed4. Napoleon proposed liberal changes and liberal laws that could bring about massive changes for the country; the Napoleonic code, for example, enabled several civil liberties, protected the interests of the rising middle classes, as well as supporting the societal aims of the revolution. It guaranteed equality for all in front of the law, disregarded privileges of birth-right, allowed freedom of religion1, which had been disallowed by the directory, created greater occupational freedoms and created laws in order to strengthen the place of family in society. He helped enforce liberal governance in other European countries, such as Italy and improved Frances education system6. Napoleon followed through with some of the major left-wing ideals of the revolution. Why therefore do many consider « que Napoléon relevait de la catégorie du « despotisme éclairé » » 12? Whilst Napoleon appeared to be putting forth the ideals of the left-wing, his governance wasn’t entirely as liberal as it appeared. For one, for all the civil code preached equality, Napoleonic laws treated women and children as second class citizens and possessions1. Furthermore, as mentioned, one of the key aspects of left-wing republicanism is the idea of popular sovereignty. The governing authority should be chosen by the people. Arguably, Napoleon was an elected leader of the people. In 1804 there was a plebiscite, a national referendum, which allowed his election. The election itself, however, was rigged, and, as all the names and addresses of voters were recorded, all criticisms of the Napoleonic regime were suppressed by the police. Alongside this suppression was the limitation of the press. In 15 years, between 1799, when Napoleon was made consul, and 1814 the number of newspapers were reduced from over 60 different papers to only 4.6 Do these acts appear to align with the liberal ideals of liberty and equality? Not only do these not coincide with the ideals of the left-wing, they actively contradict them by infringing on freedoms and removing equalities. The Napoleonic code did cause the cessation of serfdom and the feudal system, and thus brought about the end of the liberal revolution, but in their hurry to end the conflict and fear of the final few years of the revolution; the terror, the directory8, etc., and gain a new, liberal, society, the French allowed a regression of liberal practices. With the promise of a fresh start and a liberal governance, the French unreflectively put aside their ideals; they desired a democratic society but allowed an authoritarian one, they aspired to liberty but received oppression, through propaganda, restriction of press, and use of extreme force to quell opposition, without complaint.
Another prime moment of French history where we can see the conflict between the left wing ideology and the actions of the French is between the 1830s and the 1960s: the second French Colonial Empire. The French, under the guidance of Napoleon III, set out to colonise as many countries as they could, largely those in North West Africa. The colonisation of North Africa was intended to help France economically, as well as spread the influence of the liberal regime in France; specifically, through the policy of assimilation. Assimilation allowed the members of the colonised countries to become citizens of France, providing they accepted French culture and customs. Theoretically this provided the colonials with all of the rights of French citizens. The colonialism was very much a republican mission to “civilise the “primitive” people”2, and share the democratic ideals of France. In spite of the noble, left-wing, attitude towards colonialism, it seems, in hindsight, to be rather less honourable. The French purported to desire equality and liberty, but apparently those ideals didn’t extend beyond the native Frenchmen. The policy of assimilation seems more like a way to justify colonisation to the left-wing, than actual enforcement of the ideals. Realistically the purpose of colonisation was to expand the French army during times of war, with nearly 500000 colonials serving during World War 19- fighting to protect a country that was not their own, to have access to more resources and therefore to create greater trade links. The colonials were treated as less than equal; subjects rather than citizens – despite the policy of assimilation. Is that equality? The whole principle of colonisation seems to be counterintuitive to the ideals of the left-wing. Taking over a country and forcing them to align their culture with French culture, forcing the colonial people to fight for France, an entire system of force10. Force contradicts the idea of liberty does it not? The reality of the second French colonial empire is that colonisation created greater income for the higher classes, and created a larger schism between the classes, causing greater societal divisions. This diversion from the liberal ideals appears to have come from the government, where it has misled its people into the believe that colonisation is for the betterment of the republic; by sharing the left-wing ideals internationally. It is another example of how the French have unreflectively allowed their ideals to become secondary to the promise of a liberal governance, which, in fact, delivers a right-wing reality.
Looking at the episodes of French history where the French have acted in a way that doesn’t adequately reflect the left-wing ideals of the people, it does seem that, historically, the French allow right-wing behaviour. That said, it seems important to note that in these instances there appears to be a level of deception between what the public believe to be happening and what is actually occurring. The right-wing ‘impulses’ come from a largely governmental level; the people of France seem to have believed that they are furthering the left-wing agenda when in fact they are doing the opposite. Perhaps it is not that France is a ‘nation with right-wing impulses’, but rather that the French governing bodies continue to mislead its people. The people continue to fight for their ideals, but they fail to see that the ideals put upon them by the government do not realistically align with the ideals of the left-wing.