This introductory article reflects on the new momentum that political radicalism has taken on in France. The ebb and flow of radical aspiration featured regularly in French politics under the Fourth and early Fifth Republics, before the failure of the "Socialist experiment" in the early 1980s brought about a paradigm shift. In the wake of this failure and with the "end of ideology" supposedly in sight, political leaders and parties tempered their appeals to radical solutions and conspired, not least through recurrent power-sharing, to vacate mainstream political discourse of much of its former radicalism. Since the presidential election of 2007, however, there has been a marked return to promises of radical change as the common currency of political discourse across the full left-right spectrum in France. This article introduces a special issue of French Politics, Culture & Society that brings together scholars from France, Britain, and Canada to discuss some of the meanings, expressions, and prospects of political radicalism in France today.
Perspectives on a Protean Concept
“French studies” were much easier to do thirty years ago when French Politics, Culture & Society was founded. France then seemed, and largely was, synonymous with Paris, which appeared knowable. It also seemed possible to scan French intellectual and cultural life across disciplines, in part because the Parisian French media loudly announced where the action was. French politics also looked distinctive internationally and French leaders projected themselves around the planet. It was understandable that FPCS would have holistic goals and attempt to cover as much of what was happening as possible while eagerly embracing inter-disciplinarity. Since then there have been massive changes, however. France's intellectual, cultural, social, and political biographies have been decentralized, Europeanized, globalized, and internationalized. French academic disciplines, like those in other countries, have been subdivided, often in difficult-to-follow ways. France itself, in the 1980s a formerly colonial great power that still spoke stridently in world affairs, is now a medium-sized member of the EU under very great economic and social strains. It is vastly harder to do holistic “French studies” now. All the more reason to try!
Trump, Le Pen, and the New Normal
Donald Trump’s surprise victory and the National Front’s steady electoral gains are not the simple product of globalization and its discontents, nor are they a direct continuation of earlier populist movements in the US and France. Rather, both rest in significant degree on transformative political projects undertaken in recent decades to recast partisan politics in each country. Newt Gingrich adopted a radical strategy in order to break Democratic dominance in Congress, destroying norms of parliamentary conduct, pushing the Republican Party to the right, and roiling the party’s base. Bruno Mégret sought to position the National Front— through a dédiabolisation of its public image, an increase in its institutional capacity, attention to local politics, and opportunistic alliances—in such a way as to allow it to supplant the traditional conservative parties. These strategies changed the political landscape in the US and France. The results are likely to be durable.
It is argued that the concept of “French studies” originally embodied in this journal was born of a unique constellation of social, cultural, and political forces characteristic of the middle years of the Cold War. The unity of the field defined by that moment was subsequently challenged by tensions inherent in the shift to a more transnational comparative perspective. A return to a ”reflective equilibrium” between the local and the global anchored in an emphasis on language and culture is advocated.
Looking back at extreme-right politics in France in the 1940s and 1950s provides new perspectives on contemporary populism. Stanley Hoffmann’s analyses of support for the Vichy regime and for the Poujade movement emphasized how populist politics flourished in times when major segments of the population felt thwarted in efforts to have their interests and views represented in government. Attempts to explain populism by the economic or cultural characteristics of individuals are insufficient. As Hoffmann suggested, it is the political failure of parties and interest groups to channel the grievances and demands of the “losers” of globalization into policy arenas that fuels the rise of populism today.
With FPCS embarking on its fourth decade of publishing work on the study of France and the francophone world, the journal invited scholars in several disciplines to write short essays on where they thought the field of French Studies should head in the future. This essay introduces the resulting dossier on “French Studies and Its Futures.” It situates the project in the current context in which the field is thriving intellectually but struggling with menacing institutional pressures. It goes on to describe the particular formulation of French Studies that the journal came to represent in its early years in the 1980s, how it evolved since, and what that experience suggests about how scholars can respond creatively to the challenges and opportunities the future may hold for the field.
With this issue, French Politics, Culture & Society celebrates its thirty-fifth year of publication and honors its co-founder, Stanley Hoffmann, who died two years ago at the age of eighty-six.
The 2007 presidential elections have been the most important in France since 1981 because they provoked ruptures in the way the state and the French political system function. These ruptures, which this essay explores, include: the structural advantage the Right now has over the Left in national elections; the extension of the president's power and role in the regime; the transformation of the French political parties system into bipartism; and, finally, evolution inside the two major French parties due not only to the personality, ideas and choices of their respective candidates but also to the growing role of the president in the regime and its effects.
In Charles Cogan’s article, “The Iraq Crisis and France: Heaven-Sent Opportunity or Problem from Hell?”, French Politics, Culture & Society 22, 3 (Fall 2004), it was stated on page 126 that on 21 December 2002 the French Chief of Staff visited the Pentagon.