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The conservative case against Marine Le Pen
Observing the French presidential election with foreboding, I thought of parallels with a favourite author of mine: Edmund Burke, the famous theorist of conservatism. Writing Reflections on the Revolution in France just after the start of the revolution, Burke cursed progressive Englishmen for their support for the revolutionaries. According to Burke, the French Revolution disrupted delicate institutional balances, encouraging disorder. Burke was vindicated, the revolution descending into terror and continental war. Admittedly, today’s situation is distinct. Even if Marine Le Pen wins the presidency, France and Europe will probably not descend into the chaos of the 1790s; most think that a Le Pen presidency would resemble the Trump presidency, this eroding liberal democracy, but not destroying extant institutions.
Nevertheless, the prospect of a Le Pen presidency should inspire apprehension. Of all those who should worry, conservatives should rank highly, a Le Pen presidency destabilizing the institutions which conservatives purport to hold dear. But paradoxically, many conservatives will support Le Pen in the second round, echoing conservative support for other radical right-wingers, such as Donald Trump. I am not a conservative, identifying as a Burkean social democrat who sees neoliberalism as a form of disorder, yet share the conservative concern with disorder. This week, I will argue that a Le Pen presidency would be inimical to domestic and international order, reflecting upon the curious tendency of conservatives to support such agendas.
Domestic order was a chief preoccupation of Reflections; according to Burke, deteriorating order would be the ruin of France and Europe. Today, Le Pen is a threat to domestic order. Coming from the radical right tradition, Le Pen sees liberal democracy as something to overcome, perceiving the state as being dominated by elites. Resultingly, a Le Pen presidency would probably attack public administration, regarding existing elites as impediments to its programme; politicians such as Trump and Orbán have undertaken these measures. It is difficult to reconcile such attacks with conservatism, the dangers of disrupting institutions being a consistent preoccupation of conservatives. As we saw with Trump, such assaults inspire rancour, the rise of the US far left being bound up with Trump. Similarly, we may worry about Le Pen’s threat to ethnic minorities. Notwithstanding differences with the open fascism of her father, Le Pen would attack the rights of ethnic minorities, proposing a ban of headscarves in public. If one is worried about order, it is difficult to conceive of a more provocative measure; discontent among Muslims would increase exponentially, threatening security.
Burke was also concerned with international implications of the revolution, a revolutionary France endangering European peace. Similarly, we may worry about the implications of a Le Pen presidency. During the Ukraine crisis, a Le Pen presidency would place NATO under serious strain. Le Pen has long been a sharp critic of the alliance, advocating leaving NATO in earlier campaigns. She is a longstanding Putin sympathizer, regularly defending the dictator’s excursions and lauding Russia as a model for France. Though Le Pen has been quiet about the Russia invasion of Ukraine, the unpopularity of the invasion meaning that she has concentrated on the cost-of-living crisis, she has been sympathetic to Putin’s aims and opposed certain Western sanctions against Russia.
Admittedly, one can overstate the dangers of a Le Pen presidency; Trump has been anti-NATO, yet the US continued to lead the alliance during the Trump presidency. And France has a chequered relationship with NATO, De Gaulle removing France from the alliance’s military structure. Notwithstanding these caveats, a Le Pen presidency would threaten NATO, French contributions and leadership being crucial to the alliance. Even if Le Pen did not formally change French policy, lukewarm commitment might have unmeasurably bad effects; the Trump presidency likely had such impact. In any case, the issue of NATO has greatly increased in salience, European security now depending upon the integrity of the alliance. If NATO does not hold firm, Putin might make further inroads into Europe, the risk of nuclear war looming large. Given these possibilities, we may wonder how conservatives could gamble on Le Pen.
This raises the question of why conservatives have embraced radical right positions. As scholarship on right populism tells us, economic explanations are problematic, cultural explanations often being more important; much work shows that radical right positions reflect cultural rejections of the modern world. Notwithstanding this, one suspects that the dwindling appeal of conservatism is associated with economic decline. Across the West, rates of growth have slowed and real wages have stagnated. Relatedly, Western power is diminishing, associated with the rise of China. If the performance of Western institutions is declining, there will be less interest in preserving these institutions, voters becoming more prepared to turn the wheel. Many French conservatives will do this next week, supporting Le Pen. Admittedly, there are conservative apologies for such a choice; many conservatives regard the past as better than the present, encouraging attempts to restore that past, even if it involves institutional ruptures. But this brings us back to Burkean objections to institutional fissures, raising the question of whether Burke would regard such positions as conservative; I suspect that he would not.
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