It was France that gave the world the concepts of the left and right in politics. Now it is France that is leading the way in the destruction of this divide and its replacement by a new politics, one in which the two dominant camps are nationalists and internationalists.
The left-right cleavage has its origins in the French revolution of 1789 — when supporters of the royal veto stood on the right of the National Assembly and opponents stood to the left. Over the following two centuries, left and right became the central philosophical divide in western politics.
But in the first round of the French presidential election on April 10, the traditional centre-right and centre-left parties collapsed. Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist Party candidate, got just 1.8 per cent and Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for the centre-right republicans 4.8 per cent. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left candidate, got 22 per cent of the vote, but was still eliminated.
The final round of the election on April 24 will be contested between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, candidates who both insist that the days of left-right politics are over.
Although Le Pen is usually labelled as a far-right candidate, she rejects this, insisting that: “There is no more left and right. The real cleavage is between the patriots and the globalists.” Macron has also long argued that he is “neither right nor left”. As he told his biographer, Sophie Pedder: “The new political split is between those who are afraid of globalisation and those who see globalisation as an opportunity.”
Le Pen uses “globalist” as a term of abuse. At a press conference in Paris last week, I heard her mock Macron for “speaking globish”. In a speech in Avignon the following day, she accused globalists of treating the French as rootless consumers rather than as citizens, attached to their culture and language.
This kind of rhetoric is now a trademark of the nationalist right around the world. Influential political theorists in Vladimir Putin’s Russia — such as Aleksandr Dugin and Konstantin Malofeev — have frequently denounced “globalism” as a plot against the Russian nation and culture.
Le Pen’s current pitch is also strongly reminiscent of Donald Trump, who as US president informed the UN that “The future does not belong to the globalists. The future belongs to the patriots.”
A politics structured around a distinction between “globalists” and “patriots” disrupts traditional left-right dividing lines. Macron has adopted positions that would traditionally be regarded as leftwing on some social issues, such as gay rights, but his efforts to deregulate the economy and cut taxes would appeal to Reaganite conservatives. Le Pen, by contrast, takes hard-right positions on issues such as immigration and left-sounding positions on economics.
The clearest dividing line between the two candidates is not left-right but nationalist-internationalist. Macron is a passionate advocate of deeper European integration. Le Pen wants to unravel the current EU and turn it into a Europe of nation-states.
A similar disruption of traditional right-left categories has occurred in the US and Britain. Before Trump, the Republicans were the party of free-trade, globalisation and a hawkish foreign policy — causes associated with the right. But his America-first nationalism diverted the Republicans towards protectionism and isolationism, leaving the Biden wing of the Democrats as the guardians of traditional internationalist positions on foreign policy and trade.
Brexit also restructured British politics around a nationalist-internationalist axis. This shift was obscured by the Brexiters adoption of “Global Britain” as a slogan. But the reality of Global Britain is tighter border controls and a reduction in international trade.
Many Brexiters were attracted to the Global Britain slogan not because they are internationalists, but because it was an assertion of national greatness. The argument was that Britain is too globally significant to be restricted by membership of the EU.
Le Pen has a similar vision for France. In her big foreign policy speech in Paris last week, she insisted that France is one of the world’s great powers with a global reach and destiny. As with the Brexiters, her vision of a global France is actually a form of chest-thumping nationalism.
One of the main dangers of the spread of this kind of politics around the world is that it increases the chances of international conflict. The “globalists” that Le Pen and Trump love to deride are not, in general, people without roots or patriotism. But they are more likely to believe in the need for international co-operation to promote peace and prosperity and to manage global problems.
Nationalists may theoretically accept the need for international co-operation on issues such as climate change or trade. In practice, they are temperamentally inclined to see international agreements as a betrayal of the nation or the product of some sort of globalist conspiracy.
The politics of Le Pen, Trump or Putin — suspicious of foreigners and obsessed by the restoration of national greatness — can all too often lead to conflict. As a Balkan analyst once joked to me: “The trouble with our region is that there are too many great countries: greater Serbia, greater Albania, greater Croatia. But the results have been not so great.” The rise of nationalist politics around the world risks repeating that dismal pattern on a global scale.