The reports have been running on both sides of the Atlantic: conservatives are mobilising in France and this may be the start of a French Tea Party Movement. But before American conservatives start to cheer and look for soul-mates across the water, they need to see just who is putting out these reports.
In America, it is the left-wing legacy media such as the Washington Post. By making the link, the Post wants to denigrate the Tea Party Movement by tying it to the anti-libertarian European hard-right.
In Britain, it is again the left-wing media such as Prospect Magazine making the claim. Prospect’s editor has derided the French conservative movement (what he calls ‘zombie Catholicism’) as a ‘French Tea Party.’
In France, it is the establishment socialists, the ‘intellos‘ – the intellectuals – who claim the emergence of a Tea Party Movement. They want to denigrate French conservatives by linking them with what in France are seen as intolerant American yokels.
Talk of a French Tea Party took off in February, when the left-wing politician Manuel Valls, then the interior minister in President Francois Hollande’s socialist government and now the prime minister, gave an interview to a French Sunday newspaper.
The interview was headlined “Valls emphasises the emergence of a ‘Tea Party à la française.'”
Though Valls did more than emphasise it. He denounced it.
Valls was speaking after the spectacular ‘Day of Anger’ organised in February by conservative organisations such as Printemps français (French Spring) and Manif Pour Tous (Protest for All).
The day saw many tens of thousands – perhaps many hundreds of thousands, the numbers are disputed — of protesters pour onto the streets of Paris and Lyons.
The demonstrators raged against new laws allowing gay marriage and gay adoption and IVF (‘No unnatural families!’), and against the socialist government of President Hollande.
Hollande condemned the demonstrators. He said the conservative movement was ‘repressive and regressive.’
Then Valls tore into the protestors at length in his interview.
He said French society ‘was being tormented by the dark forces of division.’ He claimed the conservatives were ‘anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic.’ He said they were anti the republic. He said the climate they create is ‘comparable with that of 1930.’
Valls summed it up the resurgent conservative movement this way: ‘We are witnessing the creation’ – remember, he is calling them anti-Semitic, racist and anti-gay, the forces of darkness – ‘of a Tea Party to the French.’
No wonder the American left-wing media repeat Valls’ claims of the French right being like the Tea Party Movement.
The fact is that, although most of the French right-wing is far from being anti-Semitic, racist or homophobic, they are not like American conservatives.
It would be surprising if they were. The roots of American conservatism lie in the American revolution–in the historic well-armed demand for liberty or death and an end to monarchy.
However, the roots of French conservatism lie in resistance to the French revolution and, among many conservatives, a yearning for king and Catholicism.
Indeed, one of the principles for which Prime Minister Valls has fought, and which enrages many conservatives, is that French must now ‘breathe new life into secularism.’
Secularism is one of the fundamentals of republican, which is to say French revolutionary, philosophy. The revolution was violently anti-religion and anti-clerical.
The socialists and even the centre-right maintain this principle: for the purposes of the French state and all its institutions, in particular schools and universities, no sign of religious faith is allowed to intrude.
Meanwhile the American revolution may have been dominated by Unitarians flying Anglican colours, but their interest in hampering Christianity stopped at the First Amendment, which prevented the Federal Congress from establishing a religion.
The revolutionary leaders were content after independence to protect the right of the individual States to establish a religion. Indeed, established religion continued in some of the United States into the first half of the 19th century.
During the same period, this would not have been tolerated in France. Resistance to this militant anti-religious fervour of the revolution resulted most notably in the 1790s in the massacre in the Vendée, a region north of the Loire.
Forces commanded by the revolutionary government in Paris sent an army to slaughter tens of thousands of men, women and children who resisted the revolutionary demands to abandon their church and king and instead fought to maintain their Catholic and conservative way of life.
Secularism then, as now, is fundamental to the French left-wing.
All of which leaves what could be called the upper classes in France — the aristocracy, the gentry, the high bourgeoisie and the land-owning observant Catholics — resisting the principles of their own country’s revolution.
Meanwhile in America, what passes in the mainstream media as the upper classes (the media not knowing the difference between a rich man and a gentleman) have not been conservative for a hundred years. It is no coincident that the collaborationist wing of the Republic Party used to be known as the Rockefeller Republicans.
If you doubt the conservatism of the French upper classes, next summer ask a French aristocrat what he will be doing to mark his country’s National Day, July 14, known in English-speaking countries as Bastille Day. It is likely he will reply with either a cold stare, or a single word: ‘Rien.’ Nothing.
Such people see the secular socialism of President Hollande’s government as representing not so much an abandonment of religion, as an abandonment of the historic culture of France which existed for a thousand years before the revolution. These French conservatives, in dark days, can be found on their knees at a Latin Mass – and horrified if their son should marry a Protestant girl.
But there is another French right-wing, too. It is represented by the National Front of Marine Le Pen, which has just humiliated Hollande’s socialists in the local elections.
National Front supporters are traditionally blue-collar – though that is changing, as the articulate and modern 40-year-old Madame Le Pen reaches out to the middle classes –and strongest in the rust-belt crescent of Eastern France. And, yes, some of them do act like thugs.
This is one reason Nigel Farage and the anti-EU UK Independence Party have refused any kind of alliance with the National Front in the European Parliament elections at the end of May.
These National Front supporters may be right-wingers by European standards, but they do not want the free markets or small government. They want the old-style protection of trade barriers to keep French industry safe from competition by China, American and other industrial rivals.
For that reason they want France out of the European Union and its so-called Single Market.
The National Front supporters want the government to stop the waves of immigrants which they say are taking their jobs. They may want state-subsidised housing, schools and universities, health care and transport, but they also want the socialist government to stop taking so much tax out of their wage packets to subsidise the Muslims and other new-comers who have flooded into French cities.
Individual liberty and freedom from government is not at the core of the thinking of either kind of French conservative.
They are admirable in many ways, but what the French conservatives are showing is adherence to social tradition and Catholic culture. What the Tea Party supporters are showing is adherence to liberties inherited from English Common Law and non-conformist Protestant Christianity.
Not the same thing at all.