France Must Choose Between Liberalism and the Republic

Léonard Cotte/Paris, France

In a tweet at the end of 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron declared 2018 the year of “national cohesion.” Macron’s tweet now seems ironic in light of the fact that 2018 was the year of the Gilets Jaunes protests, which exposed longstanding fissures within France to the whole world. But Macron’s tweet—and his administration—reveal far more than this. Though a key member in the liberal world order, France has always had a unique political culture and goals distinct from its partners in the U.S., Britain, or Germany. France owes this uniqueness to a contested political history, fought over three centuries, from which the political tradition of republicanism emerged victorious and in turn placed demands upon the government of France.

Writing in The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu regards love of one’s country as a requirement for a republican form of government. Monarchy does not require it. Observations like these form the basis for the republican imperative to promote love of one’s own political community, or promote national cohesion. On account of national unity’s place in the French republican mythos and its role in the great battles between monarchy, republic, and empire, French presidents typically pursue national cohesion based on these centuries of precedent.

On the foreign policy front, Macron himself regularly speaks in the language of cosmopolitan liberal universalism, about the obsolescence of nations and the perils of nationalism. But on the domestic front, Macron speaks very differently. In continuity with centuries of French republicanism, he makes national cohesion his persistent theme.

Assessing the coherence of this double act provides more than a short-term assessment of Macron’s presidency. Macron’s performance is not the double act’s first showing on the stage of French history. It has long predated him and will outlast him. Understanding the challenge that this double act presents is the key to understanding the persistent characteristics of modern France’s political life, as well as its role in the American-led liberal world order.

If the gap between the objectives of French domestic policy and French foreign policy grows too great, it raises an existential question for the regime governing France: whether the foreign policy it pursues benefits the nation. The question is existential because the answer determines whether the regime survives. Foreign policy is the regime’s Achilles heel.

France In The Liberal World Order

Whatever the extent of France’s now much-discussed internal fissures, they do not damage its stable position within Europe. No longer threatened by other European powers, France’s secure geopolitical situation allows it to pursue a position of rank in Europe and around the world. This geopolitical confidence entails that France’s political class, who widely agree on the European project, also agree that the European project must pursue closer political integration with the goal of increasing Europe’s global political power.

As Franco-American historian Stanley Hoffmann wrote in the 1970s, the French vision of European integration developed in a very different direction from the German vision. The French federalists desired to challenge Soviet and American power by creating a new European power—a third force between the Anglo-American and the Soviet blocs. For understandable historical reasons, Germans balked at an agenda that would unabashedly advance a vision of a united Europe as a great global power. It is uncomfortably reminiscent of the dreams of Prussian militarism that were supposed to have ended in 1945.

Hoffman detailed his thoughts in a work called Decline or Renewal? France Since the 1930s. Whereas Germany’s continuity with the past was “wrecked and repudiated,” France “looked back to the days when Europe might again be an actor, not a stake: the anomaly was the present, not the past.” As a country “resigned” to accept that it could never be a great power, Germany might have unreservedly endorsed European integration. But it did not. In the context of the Cold War, when its principal security concern was Soviet invasion, it could accept integration in economic and social fields, yet it rejected any kind of political integration that weakened NATO and the American security guarantee. Dependence on America was German lifeblood. So, the German vision of integration had to reject the French vision of European integration, since the latter aspired to sever American dependency and ultimately challenge the United States politically.

These two visions of European integration competed throughout the Cold War, but its conclusion gave the French vision greater political initiative. The Maastricht Treaty pushed economic and political integration forward in a dramatic fashion—though not quite as much as the French federalists wanted, as the Treaty did not integrate defense.

While it has been a talking point of the last decade that Germany has been the principal beneficiary of Maastricht and the Eurozone, giving Chancellor Merkel unprecedented power and willingness to call the shots for the rest of the EU, this is not entirely correct. It is true that the Germans have been adept at managing the euro and the EU’s economic relations to their advantage. But German historical memory still makes it loath to offer an ambitious integrationist vision of Europe as a great political power. From the French perspective, the Germans persistently lack a true long-term vision of European political integration.

Those moments of the past decade when Germany’s economic predominance thrust Merkel into positions of political leadership were deeply awkward from her own country’s perspective. Merkel’s handling of the Eurozone crisis makes it clear that she had no long-term political direction; her intention was to preserve the status quo for as long as possible. Nor is it likely that the Germans would have tolerated any grand agenda from her. When she broke the status quo on immigration policy and pointed in the direction of open borders, the AFD ascended in protest and ultimately threatened her center-right coalition. In 2017, it became the largest opposition party in the Bundestag.

With the weakness of the Hollande Presidency over, France has the initiative. Macron’s recent barnstorming “for a European renewal” represents the typical position of the French federalist. He reminds his audience that “Europe is not a second rate power,” and encourages political integration to ward off decline into such. Political integration is necessary to ensure European “strategic interests” are advanced in the face of economic challenges from China and America, and cyberattacks from Russia.

It is unlikely that any other French president would act very differently, bar Marine Le Pen. In a world where Macron had not run in 2017 and victory went to the center-right, it is hard to believe that Alain Juppé or François Fillon would be acting much differently. Even the most Euroskeptic “populist” candidate of the center-right, Nicholas Sarkozy—he of the ligne Buisson strategy to appeal to the Euroskeptic voters of the Front National—endorsed the Lisbon Treaty and implemented Brussels’s austerity orders on France. Unless the president of the French Republic wants to risk a complete rupture with the political and cultural elite, the political pressures in favor of European integration are too great. In the short and medium term, then, France will support and intensify the post-1989-cum-Maastricht Treaty system of liberal internationalism.

But as the decades following the Maastricht Treaty show, this promulgation comes at a cost. The French vision of European integration is ascendant, and its goal is to make Europe into a great political power to counter other great political powers. To do so, its objective is not to weaken the conflicts in the international state system, but transfer them to new entities. France has been leading a project that relinquishes its particular state powers in that system and transfers them to a new European super-state. France’s political class has bet heavily that this transfer will not require the relinquishment of French power—but since Maastricht, that question is hotly disputed the farther one travels from that same class.

Yet rather than revisit these populist responses to the claims, it is more important here to demonstrate that this foreign policy consensus is at odds with the domestic policy consensus within the political class itself. On the one hand, France’s political consensus pushes in favor of a foreign policy that aims to downgrade the idea of the nation and weaken the state. On the other hand, the political consensus around French republicanism demands the pursuit of internal national unity. It handles the threat of fragmentation through the centralization of the French state, and expects the state to promulgate a republicanism that strengthens national cohesion. Thus, it increases the powers of the state and elevates the importance of the nation.

The next step, then, is to understand the role of republicanism in representing France’s domestic policy consensus.

Domestic Policy At The Service Of The Nation

The specter of national cohesion haunts France’s most pressing political controversies.

Consider that long before the Gilets Jaunes protests, national cohesion had already become an urgent question because of the growing threat of home-grown jihadism. This threat raises deeper issues than the frequency of terrorist attacks on French soil, because it invokes a constellation of problems that French republicanism was traditionally expected to offer the tools to solve.

The first is the longstanding problem of immigration, which is downstream of policy changes in the late 1970s and 1980s. Relaxing the restrictive policies of the post-war period, successive French governments permitted an increase in immigration from Muslim countries. Yet it would be a mistake to view this debate wholly as a question of whether immigration should be tightened or loosened. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Third Republic had made France into one of the leading immigrant nations in the Western world, with far more welcoming policies than other European countries. In the 1920s, it was more open than the United States.

Yet the response to immigration and the demands placed upon them were very different. In the United States, hyphenated Americans hearkening back to their early 20th century ancestry are common (the phenomena of ‘Italian-American’). In France, they do not exist. The reason is that the republic was remarkably successful at integrating this population. It placed a demand on immigrants to assimilate themselves to the nation.

The real problem behind the change in immigration policy of the 1970s and 80s is that during the same period, French governments quietly dropped the assimilationist demand. Yet the republican tradition has pushed back. In the following years, the displacement of the assimilationist expectations has made communautarisme a pejorative anti-republican term in French politics: it indicates an ideological assent to minority cultures that refuse to accommodate to French values, despite living in France for decades. It has turned the banlieues of the major cities, notably Paris, into a political problem for every French president. Macron specifically addressed them with a range of policy proposals in May 2018. These were designed to encourage those within the community to integrate economically with the mainstream of the French economic activity, through sponsored private and state internships.

The second problem is the growing anxiety among France’s political class that the French state has failed to nurture republican values in its schools. Compounded with collapsing literacy rates, it reveals a vast educational failure. One of the strongest criticisms in recent years is François-Xavier Bellamy’s 2014 Les Déshérités ou l’urgence de transmettre, which takes the state to task for walking away from the principles of education the Republic once promoted. Bellamy, a teacher, philosopher and a now recently elected MEP with Les Républicains, is the most eloquent spokesman for the concerns of the right’s political elite. Yet while the right’s political elite is the most invested in the conversation around education reform, their concerns have reached a wider audience. Dramatic proposals for fixing national education were on the top of Macron’s own political agenda. He campaigned on banning mobile phones in school; his Minister of National Education, Jean-Michael Blanquer (who himself has a history of proximity to the right), implemented this in 2018.

The reason that dramatic proposals for fixing national education can gain support beyond the political right is that the cause of national education is deeply tied up with the origins of French republicanism. As a policy, national education follows closely upon the development of the principles of 1789. The first promulgation of the national education system came with republicanism’s triumph in 1792, with King Louis XVI’s trial underway. From the start, the goal was to create a second revolution in the heads and hearts, making the French into a new people with the same uniform ideas. National education would be the new catechism. It would replace the old, religious program of building up Christendom. Drawing republican moderates and Jacobins together, national education rapidly became the policy of the new French republican state.

The First Republic and Second Republics were too short-lived to implement this program fully, so it fell to the Third Republic. It should be remembered that the traditional mystique of the Third Republic, one which is still dear to the French left, is that it brought Enlightenment progress to a reactionary French populace. The means to do so was primarily a battle to weaken the influence of the Catholic Church. The battle lines were drawn over education. Laicité was the name of the operation that hoped above all else to advance the divisions of national education into the old fortresses of Catholic education. Thus, it was the Third Republic that tightened the screws on religious schools and institutions, closing them and seizing their property. Such was the republican determination to prevent the Catholic Church from shaping the heads and hearts of the French people in non-republican ways.

The third problem is whether the republic should consider other kinds of internal nation-building activities. As we have seen, a key objective of national education was as a form of nation-building. To that end, the republican toolbox has more to offer than a unified school system. Macron is well aware of this. To strengthen national cohesion, Macron has drawn from seemingly obsolete programs. One under-reported policy proposal in the 2017 French election was Macron’s wish to reintroduce military conscription or national service, which Jacques Chirac had ended in 1997.

The formal introduction of regular conscription in France dates to 1798, which specified that every Frenchman has an obligation to defend the fatherland. This was abolished with the Restoration, but reappeared at the start of the Third Republic. Because the republicans saw such a tight relationship between being a citizen and being a soldier—in the words of Léon Gambetta, “All the world must understand that when a citizen is born in France, he is born a soldier”—they vigorously encouraged conscription and steadily removed exemptions from it. Equality demanded that every citizen recognize he had the same duties.

By 1905, seminarians and clergy (secular and religious) were required to serve in combat units. With or without the threat of invasion, French republicans regarded military conscription as another facet of national education. It provided the means to foster national unity and teach the values of the republic. For young men, soldiering was another facet of the republican school; it was only after they completed military service that they were true citizens. It is telling that under the Third Republic, soldiers were not allowed to vote.

In the summer of 2018, despite considerable opposition from within his own political party, Macron settled on a one-month period of mandatory military service. This compromise satisfies no one, but Macron believes this small improvement from the status quo helps the cause of national unity. He does not bury, but rather uncovers the traditional resources of French republicanism, even in their most coercive forms. On the home front, the man so admired by The Economist is less liberal than that man so disliked by it, former president Jacques Chirac.

Macron has offered the French elite an interpretation of the problems of the past decades as failures to turn to the traditional republican toolbox: namely, failing to draw upon the tools of assimilationist expectations, national education, and national service, which have a certain amount of purchase about France’s political class. Macron draws on these tools. Despite his liberalism abroad, his domestic policy proposals are not dissimilar to a typical government of the Third Republic.

The next step is to understand how the toolbox of traditional French republicanism came to form the political consensus, such that even the most liberal members of its political class still respect and draw from it. This republican consensus is rooted in a deeper historical memory. Republicanism claims to have formed the French nation and to be the only political tradition that solved the foreign policy predicaments of ancien régime France.

These two claims are related. For the republicans, centuries of ancien régime precedent exposed a vulnerability with which every regime governing France must contend. Not just domestic policy, but also foreign policy must achieve the goal of national cohesion. Up to Louis XIV, this had been the goal of French foreign policy. But the ancien régime was seen as having decayed under the later Bourbon Kings, because its foreign policy ceased to pursue national cohesion. Instead, the regime embraced the cosmopolitan interests of its aristocratic class. This aristocracy pursued a foreign policy that acted against the nation, until the nation rose up to overthrow it.

How The Republic Created A Nation

From the final days of the monarchy to the tumult following the revolution, the idea of the French nation became central to revolutionary struggle and ultimately came to underlay the new republican order. The existential question is whether or not the foreign policy of the Bourbons pursued benefited the nation, or a faction outside the nation. Let us call this the problem of le parti de l’étranger.

Contrary to a popular myth, the 18th century monarchy and aristocracy were not opposed to modernization, but obsessed with it. They participated in discussions across Europe for political and financial reform. This cosmopolitan spirit transformed French foreign policy relations to the other European powers. Traditional French foreign policy, notably under Cardinal Richelieu, honed the grand strategy of the “balance of power.”

The mark of Richelieu was to detach France from the influence of other countries, with the aim of opposing the strongest power in Europe. In the 18th century, however, Louis XV, under the influence of his mistress Madame de Pompadour, reversed traditional French policy. Although victorious in the Austrian War of Succession (1740-48) against the stronger Austrians, France, in a bid for rapprochement with the Habsburgs, did not keep the Austrian Netherlands. This provoked a popular outcry in France, as it seemed like the regime was fighting not for France, but for the benefit of the Habsburgs. France deepened this alliance with the Habsburgs in the subsequent Seven Years’ War (1756-63). Yet it was a complete calamity for France and shipwrecked Madame de Pompadour’s foreign policy. It was after one severe defeat that she reportedly predicted the ancien régime’s demise: Après nous, le déluge.

Paradoxically, France’s defeat in the war sparked the rise of popular patriotism. Later republican accounts would portray this period as the era when the French nation began to differentiate itself against the monarchy. As the 19th century arch-republican historian Jules Michelet wrote, “it was as if France cried out to Europe: it was not me that was beaten!” From the juridical courts (parlements down to the plebeian classes, opponents of the monarchy phrased their complaints in terms of who was the authentic representative of the French: the House of Bourbon or themselves, speaking in some sense on behalf of the people. Moreover, they played on the notion the court of Versailles did not serve the French people, but a party outside of France, à l’étranger.

In the 1770s and 1780s, the conduct of Marie Antoinette intensified this suspicion. Marie Antoinette, who had grown up in a Habsburg court that was discarding traditional ceremony and protocol, publicly mocked the elaborate ceremonies of the French monarchy. This insult against the customs of the French alarmed her brother, who contended that following this path would eventually undermine her own legitimacy. To her critics, Marie Antoinette embodied the problems of French decadence since 1740s: an excessive infatuation with the cosmopolitan Habsburg aristocracy that translated into subservience, even conspiracy, with foreign powers against the welfare of the French nation.

Thus, when the déluge came in 1789, the revolutionaries’ pursuit of representative self-government very rapidly moved past the argument that the monarch could represent the whole French nation. Instead, the more radical position gained ascendance, claiming that the Third Estate was now the true representation of the people; “not an order, it is the nation itself.” By extension, the First and Second Estate, beholden to other interests or powers, did not represent the French people or nation.

Louis XVI created a propaganda victory for the republicans when he attempted to flee France for Austria in 1791. The rupture was complete. Aristocratic émigrés were now depicted by the revolutionaries as the parti de l’étranger working against the French nation, ready to participate in the invasion of France for the sake of restoring the ancien régime. This situation of intensifying civil and foreign war played to the advantage of the Jacobins, who were willing to pay any price to achieve power. The parti de l’étranger would have no place inside France. Nor could they be assured of a place outside France, as the brilliant generals that the Revolution produced extended the boundaries of French influence further and further afield. But ultimately, under Napoleon’s Empire, the cost for France became too high to sustain. Eventually, France suffered the ignominy of foreign invasion and occupation in 1814, then repeated in 1815. Napoleon’s ultimate failure put France into a position worse than she had been since 1792.

“The long 18th century” was a graveyard of French foreign policy failures, with the state’s foreign policy, from the Bourbon court to the Napoleonic court, ultimately weakening France. Yet in spite of these geopolitical reverses, the revolutionaries entrenched the concept and rhetoric of the French nation. As time went on, this sense of republican nationhood became ingrained within French culture and society at large. Successive French regimes—including those opposed to the existing republican order from right or left—all had to take on the mantle of representative for the French nation.

How Foreign Policy Fractured The Nation

The geopolitical failures of the Revolution and First Empire permitted the Bourbon Restoration. But neither it, nor the more liberal July Monarchy, could take up the mantle of representing the nation. Nor could they solidify a different ground for legitimacy. A popular revolution from the left toppled the July Monarchy in 1848, beginning the Second Republic. The one small step from Republic to Empire repeated itself again when Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I, established the Second Empire.

But like the First Empire, the Second Empire ended with the occupation of France. Blundering into a war with Prussia in 1870 out of geopolitical imprudence, Napoleon III was routed. Clumsy foreign policy had brought an end to France’s imperial regimes. The nascent Third Republic aimed to tread more carefully, orienting foreign policy toward national cohesion. It scrupulously avoided conflict with Germany. Acquiescing to the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, it directed its foreign policy elsewhere. Instead, the Third Republic looked to foster national cohesion and strengthen its global commercial position by building up an overseas empire. However, this endeavor met with mixed results, as it revived the old charge of the parti de l’étranger. Ultimately, it was this orientation à l’étranger that destroyed the Third Republic.

Under the influence of Marxism, the left criticized the Empire as serving only the interests of the bourgeois class to the detriment of the classes populaires, the working and lower classes. The right focused on the blow to the nation through the “lost sisters” of Alsace-Lorraine, and mocked the Republic for having tried to recuperate this loss through colonies. Both the left and the right agreed that the people of France were at the behest of a republican regime that acted more to satisfy cosmopolitan and commercial interests than the welfare of the French nation. On the domestic front, increasingly radical republican governments further suppressed religious liberties and sought to purify the civil service, even extending that process into social life. Left-leaning republicans like Charles Péguy were dismayed that governments were instrumentalizing the Dreyfus affair to these ends. It tarnished the mystique of the republic, damaged national cohesion, and gave space for eloquently expressed critics of the republic of the left and right.

Only the Union sacrée of 1914, where the factions agreed to rally to the defense of France against the foreign invader, tempered hostility to the republic. What is telling in this period is that the argument that the Third Republic and the war were in service to a parti de l’étranger virtually vanished. The only major exception was the far-left’s opposition to the war as hostile to the interests of the international working class.

At the zenith of its victory in 1918, the Third Republic could present itself in continuity with the non-republican past of the French nation. It seemed as if it had at last discovered a foreign policy that strengthened the French nation and benefited the world. Even the notoriously anti-clerical Georges Clemenceau spoke in terms of national continuity with the non-republican, Christian past: “Yesterday the soldier of God, today the soldier of humanity: France will always be the soldier of the ideal.”

But did the Third Republic truly represent the triumphant fulfillment of national cohesion? Charles Maurras wrote in 1921 that the war had hardly vindicated the republican regime. If France had won, it was not because of republican principles, but because she acquiesced to Joffre’s emergency military dictatorship in 1914 and then the civil dictatorship of Clemenceau in 1917-18. Moreover, the dogmatic commitment to self-determination in foreign policy had assented to the creation of numerous small countries in Eastern Europe. This destroyed the balance of power in Europe, and strengthened Germany. What France needed instead was a foreign policy in the manner of Richelieu: one oriented toward national independence. In the absence of that, the stage was set for another conflict, with the French nation enfeebled by its political class and her regime.

Maurras was always a controversial polemicist, but in this assessment he was, at least according to a much later speech by President Georges Pompidou, a prophet. Following 1918, a diplomatic decadence was slowly paralyzing France. The human cost of the Great War was the catalyst for a wave of pessimism among the political elite. Because France no longer had the resources or manpower to play the role of a great power, the argument went, it should categorically avoid continental war.

The League of Nations, forged from France’s victory in 1918, seemed to increasingly forget that its origins were predicated upon military strength and success. Hence, France participated in a series of solemn but meaningless gestures, including the abolition of war in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. This spirit changed the way her political class related to other countries in Europe. Economic and political cooperation, or collaboration, became the prevailing maxim.

It was this spirit, not a spirit of fascism or a desire to emulate fascism in France (René Rémond and Raymond Aron both persuasively argue that France never had a fascist political tradition), which led to deference to Germany at Munich in 1938, then again in 1940 with Vichy. Vichy should be understood as the culmination of that entire period, since the same political class that lent its support to the republic in the 1930s lent its support to Vichy in 1940. It is telling that the Vichy regime was established with the comprehensive, cross-party support of the Third Republic’s legislative assembly. The political class of the Third Republic, when asked to choose, preferred dependence to independence.

What compromised Vichy from the start was the reassertion of the parti de l’étranger. The political class shared a disposition for deferential dependency to other countries; this disposition gave enthusiasts for a foreign policy based on closer ties with Berlin, such as Pierre Laval, the upper hand. Considering himself a great realist, Laval thought that the days of French self-sufficiency were over. Only a foreign policy linked to Germany could benefit France. Laval cunningly used the pacifism of the journalistic and political classes to this end, finding ready emissaries among them for his project.

His zeal for collaboration spooked the conservative circles around Pétain, who aspired for more distance from Germany to rebuild France. Seen as beholden to Berlin, Pétain dismissed Laval in December 1940. But he was back in 1942 as the head of government. History remembers him as the leader of the parti de l’étranger ruling despotically over France. Embodied in Laval, Vichy’s foreign policy had abandoned service to the nation. But even he sought to style himself as a French patriot, and took steps such as working with Pétain to stall against German demands that Vichy break its official neutrality near the end of the war.

The Third Republic had survived the longest of any of France’s post-revolutionary regimes. It had succeeded in pushing the project of national cohesion further than any of the regimes that preceded it. Yet it ultimately disgraced itself. Its disgrace, like that of the Bourbons and the First and Second Empires, had its roots in foreign policy failures.

De Gaulle’s Correction: Foreign Policy At The Service Of The Nation

The starkest contrast to the Third Republic’s drift toward the parti de l’étranger and its culmination in Vichy lies in the thought and action of General de Gaulle. The only member of the 1940 government to translate his disagreement with the armistice into resistance, de Gaulle used the war to build up the institutions that would be required to overcome the disgrace of 1940. De Gaulle did not reject the French tradition of republicanism, but contended that that tradition needed a radical overhaul, notably in the realm of foreign policy. To do so required considering non-republican, even anti-republican, sources.

De Gaulle agreed with Maurras that the foreign policy of the Third Republic had failed to act toward the benefit of the nation. This led him to conclude that national independence was the sine qua non of French politics. Contrary to the mistaken assessment of the political class, Germany’s threat to national independence made foreign policy the most critical issue of the late 1930s. Contrary to the political class’s push for surrender following the fall of metropolitan France, de Gaulle contended that the priority was to fight on to restore national independence. The Gaulliste priority on national independence concluded that Vichy, controlled by Germany, was illegitimate. While Maurras ceased to be Maurrassian when he lent his support to Vichy, de Gaulle followed the example of Maurras’s thought rather than the example of Maurras’s person: he was more Maurrassian than Maurras.

The birth of the Free French was made possible by de Gaulle’s resolution, but one should not exaggerate its influence in its early days. Its position was weak precisely because it exposed itself to the accusation being, itself, the parti de l’étranger. Vichy of 1940-41 could still plausibly claim to represent France because it controlled half of Metropolitan France directly and had diplomatic support from other governments, including the United States; de Gaulle had to claim to represent France from London. This gave something of an émigré aura to the Free French. It risked evoking old memories of the aristocratic parti de l’étranger plotting against France alongside foreign governments, above all alongside perfidious Albion.

De Gaulle worked hard to dispel this aura, while his opponents worked hard to strengthen it. To make his case, de Gaulle had to downplay his reliance on the Allies and emphasize that Vichy was subservient to a foreign power from the start. His sensitivity to the parti de l’étranger accusation was clear throughout the war, when his public broadcasts would sometimes speak critically of his hosts and cause headaches for Churchill’s War Cabinet. So great was de Gaulle’s sensitivity to this accusation that a comprehensive riposte appears in his War Memoirs, written over a decade after the war finished. There, de Gaulle stresses Pétain’s photographed handshake with Hitler on October 24th 1940 as a symbol of collaboration, even if Pétain had taken the occasion to insist on French neutrality.

Moreover—and somewhat oddly, if one sees the war exclusively in Churchillian terms of a unified, indissoluble “Grand Alliance,” against Nazism—de Gaulle devotes extensive space to fights within the “Grand Alliance.” De Gaulle provides extensive detail about his frequent clashes with Britain (and later the United States) over French sovereignty. The purpose of the Memoirs was not just to portray the heroism of French resistance to Nazism; in fact the “Resistance” within Metropolitan France receives comparatively little space in the three-volume arc of the Memoirs. Arguably the more important purpose was to solidify the wartime narrative for peacetime application. Against the perfidious influence of foreign powers, friend and foe, who did not have France’s interests at heart, Gaullisme portrayed itself as refusing any compromise on national independence and sought to rebuild a sovereign state. If it were to govern that state, it would do the same.

De Gaulle’s determination made possible the Liberation, which freed France on terms favorable to a restoration of national independence. But de Gaulle believed that to realize the full potential of national independence, a change of regime was required that would not repeat the mistakes of the Third Republic. The new regime—belatedly established in 1958—would have a strong executive that had enough freedom of action to address foreign policy emergencies properly.

But de Gaulle was not simply interested in constitutional changes. He wanted to transform the whole ethic of French foreign policy so that it never compromised national independence, so that foreign policy could recover the French self-respect and prestige lost during the decadence of the Third Republic and the ignominy of Vichy. In Stanley Hoffmann’s words, De Gaulle’s foreign policy principle was “never to accept bonds that cannot be removed and that might submit your nation’s fate to the decisions of others.”

De Gaulle adopted a kind of performative, almost theatrical approach to foreign policy that would create events to force other countries to reconsider aspects of international affairs they were taking for granted. “When one wants to do something,” de Gaulle said, “first one has to upset the applecart. Otherwise people will just say, ‘it can be arranged; you must not do that.’ If you give a big kick, the problem is posed and it has to be solved.” Abroad, this strategy would increase the prestige of France. But crucially for de Gaulle, this strategy would serve France at home, acting to increase the self-respect of her people, fostering national cohesion. So while de Gaulle’s domestic policies seldom commanded majority support, his foreign policy decisions did.

De Gaulle’s foreign policy performances often caused a headache for the architects of the post-war liberal international order, because he challenged some of their basic assumptions.

He never subscribed to the popular post-war view that technological transformations and economic developments were eroding the importance of the state’s old concerns, such as security or prestige. Thus, he challenged visions of the European project that premised that vision on the inevitable erosion of the state. He agreed with the French vision of the European project to the extent that there was a need to challenge the twin hegemonies of the United States and the Soviet Union.

But de Gaulle contended that the basis of a strong post-war international order had to be strong states. To that end, France needed to strengthen the traditional resources of the state, not attempt to transfer them to a supranational entity. De Gaulle held that supranational organizations would lack popular legitimacy and challenge national independence. Economic interdependence may be more important than it had been in the past, but de Gaulle did not equate it with harmony. For de Gaulle, the critical issue was that the people of France, or the people of any nation, should not submit to des députés étrangerswho enacted laws that went against the will of the people of a state. The national majority could not submit to the will of a foreign majority.

De Gaulle characterized European federalism as the contemporary version of the parti de l’étranger. As some commentators in the 1960s observed, de Gaulle’s vigor for national independence stood in stark contrast to the “great realists” touting the thesis that France’s freedom of action in foreign affairs should be deliberately weakened. It brought back bad memories from decades before. The journalist Jean Cau supported de Gaulle because he thought de Gaulle’s opponents represented the spirit of the “ex-Pétainist bourgeoisie,” frightened of the idea of national independence.

The Oscillation Of Instability

The republican historical memory contends that when France’s regime practices a foreign policy that serves the parti de l’étranger to the detriment of the nation, France falls into disarray and confusion. The ancien régime under Louis XV performed a double act that exposed that the foreign policy act was inconsistent with its domestic act. Once it was clear that the foreign policy did not serve the nation, the ancien régime was doomed. This gave rise to the republican determination to act to represent the nation. But the First and Second Empires thwarted this republican act. Their foreign policy blunders subjected the nation to the humiliation of invasion in 1814 and 1870. It fell to the Third Republic to attempt the double act again, balancing itself between a foreign policy, directed toward commercial imperial expansion and avoidance of great power conflict, and national cohesion. However, its actions also raised the specter of the parti à l’étranger. The same double act that doomed the Bourbons crippled and in turn doomed the Third Republic, permitting its transformation into the caricature of an independent state that was Vichy.

Gaullisme was an attempt to reset republicanism. It purported to solve the problem of the double act by reforming foreign policy directly. In the postwar context, it sought to redirect the liberal international order to the service of the French nation, so that foreign policy fostered national cohesion. Gaullisme was prepared to go far in this end, so that “creating events” upset some of the cherished apple carts of the liberal order: to take a few, France vetoing the UK’s entry into the European Common market; France stopping the process of European integration when the process itself became the policy; and France leaving NATO’s integrated military command structure. Later French Presidents had neither de Gaulle’s penache, nor his desire to confront the assumptions of the postwar international order so directly, nor his confidence in national independence in the face of economic dependence. Yet neither has any French President dared to abandon the republican tradition that elevates national cohesion as the goal of domestic politics.

To be sure, there have been exhortations to abandon that goal entirely—mostly, and unusually given the origins of republicanism, from the contemporary left. Jean-Claude Michéa, a socialist gadfly to the contemporary left, observed in his 2013 book Les mystères de la gauche (The Mysteries of the Left) the curiosity of left-wing editorials that had completely abandoned the language of French national cohesion or solidarity. The foreign policy goal of promoting the Schengen Zone and the right to work throughout the European Union had not become something to benefit France, but something by which it was easier for the French to leave France. One such 2012 editorial (“Youth of France, your salvation is elsewhere: Get Out!”) encourages French youth to leave France for the sake of increasing the size of their salary. This exhortation contains a lesson of contempt for France and its people, on account of France’s “gerontocracy” (i.e. her aged people), youth should leave and foreigners should stay away.

Moreover, since this exhortation elevates individual careerism above all else, Michéa pulls no punches as to what this implies:

If all those who in former times chose to join the resistance against the Nazi invader (not the most reasonable assignment to take in terms of career or income) were to let themselves be seduced by this “progressivist” eulogy of liberal careerism, Europe would, even today probably, be vegetating under the yoke of Hitler.

Because most of the political class still balks at the idea of abandoning republicanism, they act to preserve it. This implicit conservatism gives a certain initiative to the explicit conservative wing of the political class, who want a more assertive republicanism in the manner of de Gaulle. De Gaulle becomes everyone’s champion. To succeed, neo-Gaullisme would have to complement the domestic policy objective of national cohesion with a foreign policy that seeks to foster national cohesion. Such a foreign policy requires the audacity to challenge the prevailing assumptions of the international order, and would have to include imitating and developing the Gaullist skepticism toward European federalization. But fear of upsetting the apple cart hinders any such strategy. Foreign policy directed to the end of enhancing national prestige, and therefore fostering national cohesion, is not a strategy the political class wishes to consider.

Hence France’s double act is the best it can do in light of its reluctance to consider more radical resets. It wavers between support for the liberal international order abroad and fostering national cohesion at home. This means in the French case, participation in the liberal world ‘order’ is something of a misnomer.

France’s political class is well aware that an exclusive focus on liberal internationalism shelves the republican toolbox that fosters national cohesion. Likewise, the past decades have taught the political class that discarding the republican toolbox invites internal disorder. The fate of the Bourbons and the Third Republic teach even more somber lessons. To pursue the objectives of the cosmopolitan liberal internationalism above all else is to invite strife at home. To pursue these objectives to the point where the specter of parti de l’étranger returns, where it appears the regime serves an interest other than the French people, is to call the very legitimacy of the regime into question.

Just as Sartre taught the waiter not to act the role of the waiter too enthusiastically, lest he be guilty of bad faith, these lessons teach the political class not to play the foreign policy act of cosmopolitan liberal internationalism with too much enthusiasm. At the same time, the domestic republican act should also not be played too enthusiastically. The political class holds back from redirecting its foreign policy entirely to the service of the nation, because it does not wish to antagonize or upset the agenda of liberal internationalism.

The government of France, filled with students of Sartre’s ‘bad faith,’ is taught to temper its enthusiasm for either act. It plays one act until a backlash occurs, then tempers that act in favor of the other. Aware of its limits, aware of its fragility, France is caught in an oscillation of instability.

Nathan Pinkoski is a Lecturer in Politics at Princeton University. He received his MPhil and DPhil in politics from the University of Oxford.