Laetitia Strauch-Bonart: Conservatism has little to do with populism

In this discussion with Laetitia Strauch-Bonart hosted by RevDem Editor Michał Matlak, they discuss French President Emmanuel Macron’s ideology; the differences between conservatives and populists; her thoughts on Brexit and Frexit, and more.

Laetitia Strauch-Bonart is an essayist and journalist, columnist and editor-in-chief at L’Express. Her areas of interest are politics, intellectual history, social issues, and cognitive sciences. She wrote three books: “Vous avez-dit conservateur?” (You said conservative?), “Les hommes sont-ils obsolètes?” (Are men obsolete?) and “De la France? Ce pays qu’on croyait connaître” (About France. The country we believed we knew).

Michał Matlak: Let’s start from the opening scene of your last book where you describe your meeting with the French president. You were part of a group of 60 intellectuals and academics invited to the Presidential Palace to discuss the state of France. And your impression was that a lot of what was said, including by the president, was actually a bit banal, and at times mediocre. Is he indeed mediocre? How would you classify Emmanuel Macron ideologically?

Laetitia Strauch-Bonart: It is a bit of a mystery for everyone, including in France. Is he banal? I wouldn’t say that at all. When I wrote in my book that there were some banalities exchanged during this meeting, I was more describing the whole atmosphere, that is the president, but all the other people as well. The whole conversation was full of cliches and not very deep. The president was speaking a lot. That’s another thing that makes him exceptional is that he can speak for a very long time. Everyone was very tired, and he spoke more than the other people. I found it a bit strange to invite thinkers to a meeting and not listen to them and speak more than them. That was a bit bizarre and totally emblematic of French politics being very centralized. You have a center, the president, and the president is calling people to come and speak to him. And all the thinkers come. I was also very critical of the fact that he mainly invited established people from universities, and not really independent thinkers, the ones selling books or the ones working in think tanks.

Who is Macron ideologically? It’s very hard to describe him because he could be a lot of different things.

At first, when he arrived five, six years ago, he was a minister in the Manuel Valls government. People thought he was a free marketeer. In France we would say a liberal. Macron was also seen as someone progressive coming from the left and wanting to give people the ability to succeed: I would say a kind of Tony Blair in a way. But during the last five years, he was supported more and more by conservatives. Right-wing people attached to his lowering of taxes, the stability of governance and the pro- enterprise policy. He lost some of the left-wing supporters who found he was too harsh. He was deemed very harsh – he is not very politically correct in the sense that he said, for example, to a man who came to him on the street saying “I need a job, I can’t find a job,” and he told him, “well, you just need to cross the street and you’ll find a job.” He’s hated for that, and he’s considered to be too arrogant.

I have said that Macron is an extreme centrist, and I am very happy because he said a few days ago about himself: “I’m an extreme centrist.” I didn’t invent this concept. I took it from a French thinker called Alain-Gérard Slama.

Slama is a liberal in the political sense. He wrote a lot of books in the eighties and nineties about the risk averse mind of democracies. What we called the Le principe de précaution the fact that we are afraid of all the possible risks and that politics is now about avoiding the risks and helping people and preventing all diseases. He was very good at seeing in advance that the experts would play a much more important role in the future. He was not necessarily talking about the pandemic. I mean, a pandemic is something extreme, so I wouldn’t say that it was wrong to work along with experts during the pandemic, but Slama, and I agree with him, was saying that politics would be less and less political and more and more technical, technocratic.

He said that the extreme center in the sense that it’s a way of seeing politics as a debate between ‘right and wrong’ and not between ‘good and less good’, as if there was a reasonable party or rational party that’s at the extreme center and all the other ones are wrong, they are irrational. That’s a little bit what Macron is, in the way that he’s keen to avoid the left-right division. He’s never said I’m on the left or I’m on the right, but he’s keen on saying “we are on the good side of the rational debate and that’s why you should vote for us.” I don’t think it’s a good way to have a political conversation.

Marine Le Pen is seen by many people as conservative. The President partially as well. Is there any chance for them to meet on the conservative side of the spectrum?

I could start by saying: what is populism and what are some of the ingredients of populism and why isn’t it conservative in the traditional sense? First of all, in populism, you have a very strong distinction between the people and the elite, and it’s very simplistic.

Conservatism deals with complexity and with reality, so conservatives wouldn’t say, “the people are here, the elite is there, and the elite is bad and the people are good.” It has nothing to do with conservatism.

Conservatism is very elitist in the good sense. Conservatives like tradition. I couldn’t imagine a conservative saying we don’t like elite at all, we don’t want any elite, or all the elite is bad. I would add that a lot of these people who say the elite is very bad are themselves part of the elite, and it has more to do with a battle within the elite.

Secondly, complexity is part of the conservative point of view. Society is an organism, and an organism is complicated because you have a lot of interactions between different parts of society, and you cannot plan it. You cannot decide from the top what society should look like. You would never be able to say I have the solution to all your problems and vote for me. That’s a populist stance that they tend to tell. We know the problem. We know the solution. We are the best to implement it, so vote for us.

Another point is the relationship to democracy. For conservatives, democracy is something decentralized. Conservatives have a lot of respect for authority, but at the same time, they understand that government has to be accountable.

For conservatives, the energy of the politics comes from the bottom. It’s bottom up, not top down. Among the populists you see a lot of people who seem to think that power is good, power from the top is good, because the legitimacy is within this power. It isn’t conservative because in this case you cannot really it make power accountable, because the populist would tell you, well, because I have been chosen, I can do anything I want. My policy is better. I don’t want to be accountable. You see that sometimes with Marine Le Pen for example during the debate with Emmanuel Macron. The debate before the second round, she was reminded of things she voted for or against in the European Parliament and every time she was saying “I don’t see the point” or saying “I don’t think it’s relevant,” but it is relevant to see what she voted for or against. For all these reasons, I don’t see the conservatives and populists being able to work together. What I’m saying is theoretical, though.

That being said, there is a theme that is common to both, which is the question of the nation. It is true that today populists have decided to take on that very complicated subject. On the side of conservatives, the nation has always been very important, it’s true, but I don’t think the populists are the only ones able to defend the nation. There are different ways of defending it.

I’m not a Macron supporter, but I recognize he didn’t destroy France. France is still an important nation. The key task for conservatives who don’t want to be populist but don’t want to be totally liberal and aren’t progressives is to find a realistic way of talking about the nation.

Open, but not completely open to everything. And I think the British conservatives do that well because they are able to promote a free exchange of goods and still be a nation and talk about the nation positively.

I think it’s possible to do it. But you have to show the way you will talk about it. Take for example, immigration. You can say that you want to control immigration and not be a populist, but the way you talk about it is very important. You won’t say things like Eric Zemmour said, for example, he was thinking about a law so that people can’t name their children with a foreign name. I don’t think it would be lawful at all, but anyway, it’s a way a conservative couldn’t talk, because if someone integrates into a country, they still have cultural roots. There is no contradiction at all. So, it’s a difficult project because today conservatives are what I call liberal conservatives. They are between the populists and the Macronists.

In many other countries, the other thing that connects both populists and conservatives is the question of religion, sometimes also the position on same-sex marriages or abortion.

That’s an excellent point. I completely forgot to talk about religion, maybe because Christianity in France is not politicized. We don’t have any space for religion in political debate because of our history of secularization, laïcité, which is more a fight against religious involvement with the state, but I completely agree with you. And that’s why also there is something within Emmanuel Macron’s political stance and among progressives, there is something that doesn’t fit with liberal conservatism because progressives tend to despise religion, at least in France. And they say religion is something obscure and it’s similar to counter-enlightenment and it has nothing to do with what morality should be. I think it’s wrong because even if you are not religious, you can recognize everything that religion brings to society. And that’s, to me, something completely lacking among the progressives.

Although, Macron is also known, though maybe not widely, that he tried to put in the beginning of his term to attract some of the Catholics, like to his speech in the Collège des Bernardins, for example.

You’re completely right. It’s so complicated with him because he does this and then he does that and you cannot reconcile everything. So I think it was good that he spoke to religious personalities in France, but there is no follow up. Nothing came from that, so I have no idea if this is a strategic thing for him, like doing everything with everyone, or maybe if he likes time to everything you would like to do. It’s a mystery.

That’s why I talk about a mystery Macron.

You mentioned this top-down element in populist discourse and how they understand power, but that’s maybe a part of a broader theme that you mention in your book about the crisis of representation in France and the need for a sphere in between the state and citizens.

What could this “in-between” be more precisely? This concerns not only France. We see that representative democracy is in crisis in many places, including the European Union, but also the other European states. There is this problem of representation in parliamentary democracy. Turnout is lower and lower in many countries.

Representation is very important and it’s under attack. I think sometimes it’s very unfair because in our time where we spend a lot of time judging everything, especially on the internet. I’m not on social networks for that reason, but the social network is a place where you spend your time judging everything and you think you are very able to judge and to express your opinion all the time. And then probably you think, well, I could express my political opinion much more often, and it’s easy. I’m not heard enough and it’s not fair. And that’s a danger because

we forget that representation is not made to just circulate a message. It’s made so that we choose people who have some judgment and not an opinion. And this is not my distinction. It comes from Edmund Burke who made a very famous speech on that in Bristol. It’s a superb speech where he explains what a representative is for. He says a representative doesn’t have to just convey your opinion. He has to exercise his or her judgment.

There is a kind of democratic fatigue at the moment. In France we have a system which is completely disconnected from the times and what people are today. So for those who don’t know the French system, we have a president and he’s elected every five years. But the president is not accountable on his policy before a parliament. He’s only accountable before the voters every five years. The body that’s accountable is the government. The government is in practice chosen by the president. It’s not official, but he accepts the government that the prime minister chooses, but it’s obviously made by the president, and the government is made through elections every five years.

If you take France’s history, we had something called the Third Republic. It was very long. It was at the end of the 19th century until WWII. Then we had a president who did nothing, and we had the equivalent of a prime minister with the majoritarian system. We could also have more proportionality in the way deputies are chosen. That’s one way representative democracy could change in France.

The second problem is, as I said earlier, that people want to express themselves very often. I think it’s time to have more something of a direct democracy in our country. I compare that to Alexis de Tocqueville’s time. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s time, democracy was rising in America, and France had a parliamentary monarchy, but democracy was advancing in the minds of people. And Tocqueville said, well, I am not a democrat – and definitely not by birth because he was an aristocrat – but I think democracy is coming and we cannot do anything against it. That’s why we have to adapt to it the best we can. And I think that’s exactly the same today. I think the spirit of our times is towards something much more direct. It’s how we are. And I don’t think we can do anything against it.

I think it would be better to adapt it for the best in politics, meaning direct democracy, for example, what is called a Citizens’ initiative referendum. I think that could be very interesting because it’s very different to vote and to click. When you click, it has no real bearings on your future and your country. You are not very rational. You can say whatever you want. It’s very different when you are told this is important, that you’re deciding something for your country and your fellow citizens. And it’s the case in the countries using referendums like this people have to inform themselves, they have to read, they have to discuss. In Switzerland, for example, since the 18th century, when they adopted these kind of referendums. Only 8% of referendums were successful. That means that actually people behave in a conservative way when they have to vote a lot, because they face real decisions.

I think that it would probably help French politics to be less idealistic and utopian, talking about ideas that have been invalidated years ago, but that people keep bringing up.

Like, for example, there’s not Jean Luc Mélenchon who wants a quasi-socialization of the country. I mean, we could try things and we could maybe decide not to try things because we would be faced with something much more mature.

Can Mr. Mélenchon become the next prime minister of France as he would like?

First, the Socialist Party is almost dead in France. People who are on the left socially but also economically, that’s very important on the economic side of the debate, I don’t think they will find in Macron what they want. It’s weird because Emmanuel Macron actually has a decent social policy for France. He didn’t change anything in the social system – it’s generous. What he did was to lower taxes, especially for rich people. I see sometimes Mélenchon as a signal that you don’t like Macron’s policy, even if you don’t see changes in your daily life.

Then there’s something else, which is it’s interesting sociologically to see who votes for Mélenchon. You have different categories. You have people living in the suburbs of big cities. These people tend to be of course poorer, and some are from a foreign origin. Some are Muslims, some come from Maghreb. There is a tendency to vote the left in these areas because, well if I were mean, I would say that the left has tended to build a clientelist, meaning a lot of subsidies to this area. I think it’s totally true because I don’t think the left is telling them “you need to emancipate yourself from this area and we will help you” it’s as if they would prefer they stay in this situation and give them subsidies. But that’s my comment, just to explain why they are so successful. Another thing is that these people obviously don’t like Marine Le Pen, they don’t like Zemmour for understandable reasons, and if they want to be sure that they are still helped by the state.

There is a third reason and you see it in big cities in the first round that’s Macron was probably very high, but Mélenchon was very high too. And this is another population. These are very educated people who tend to vote the left on economic and social issues. There you would find all the people who are very attracted to, we would say in France “woke” policies and stances, and then they would like Jean-Luc Mélenchon because he’s the one who is the most like this in French politics.

And there is also something very interesting that was underlined by the French intellectual Emmanuel Todd. He wrote a lot about education in France and the fact that obviously we have more people highly educated now in France, but sometimes their revenue and their social status doesn’t fit the education status. They feel a disconnection, a kind of déclassement, because they feel that they tend to vote on the left very often. Mélenchon is a very good strategic politician. He was able to unify these very different people in the same party.

You mentioned Roger Scruton, you said that he was one of your masters, and you were also in Britain at the time of Brexit, which was supported by Scruton. What’s your take on Brexit six years now after the referendum?

And do you think that Brexit, or Frexit, would be a way to go for France?

I couldn’t make up my mind on Brexit at the time. I think a country is sovereign, so we shouldn’t criticize them from here, just telling them, “you shouldn’t do that!” They’re sovereign. It is their decision. At the time I was thinking if they want to quit, let them quit because it doesn’t work. And even if it’s a small majority of people who wants it, it’s the way democracy works. I was always in between, so I remember not having a very strong position or it is a strong position maybe because I’m just defending both.

The UK is still very much involved in NATO and it’s because of the proximity with America, of course. They chose between Europe and America in a sense. And you know, it’s a very good sign to see that when democracy needs to be defended, they are up to the task. They spend money, they give arms. That’s why I didn’t like the fact that a lot of commentators said that Boris Johnson was as populist as Trump or Marine Le Pen, because these are different kinds of populists, if you even want to call Boris Johnson a populist, which I’m not sure he is. Because he’s on the side of democracy, we tend to forget that he represents one of the oldest democracies – well it’s not democracy – it’s a monarchy, but well, oldest parliamentarian systems of the world. The tradition of liberty is so ingrained in the UK that you cannot talk as if he is another Trump or someone who’s really despises check and balances, parliament, and democratic debates.

On your question about Frexit. Well, I don’t think we have the same energy. If we had a vote – I would vote and campaign to stay in Europe – but if the result was we are leaving, I would accept that. But I don’t see this energy in France, and I don’t think that people who want to leave the EU in France understand what that means. They keep complaining about the EU, but the EU is also a protective force for us, in commerce, in law, and in geopolitics. But I don’t think it’s a possibility that Frexit would be offered as an option. Even Marine Le Pen doesn’t include it in her program, although when you read her program there are things you cannot do and still stay in the EU.

In collaboration with Hannah Vos.

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