The origins of French fractures


The 2022 presidential elections have fueled analyzes of a deeply divided, even fractured France – along political, social and cultural lines.

Journalists, sociologists, politicians are concerned about this situation and, like the President of the Senate Gérard Larcher, call for “restitching a fractured France” as the legislative elections are already looming.

These antagonisms are however not new in a French political life traditionally organized according to a bipolar schema.

Why are they so worried today?

The weight of the French Revolution

Born during the French Revolution, the right-left divide was initially based on political factors. In the Great West, the fight between the Republican Blues and the Royalist Whites has left its mark for more than a year. century.

Memories of the battles of the Revolution have fed the imagination of political elites, whether republican or counter-revolutionary, and the memory of the entire population. Throughout the XNUMXthe century, everywhere in France, parties and politicians clashed over the form of the regime, sometimes with arms in hand. And when the Republic finally took root, a century after the Revolution, it was still political questions that fed apparently irreconcilable political divisions.

At the end of the 1890s, the Dreyfus affair fractured opinion between Dreyfusards, attached to public freedoms and the rule of law, and anti-Dreyfusards, loyal to the Army and to authority. This fault line even crosses families: the drawing by cartoonist Caran d'Ache, published in Le Figaro on February 14, 1898, shows the devastating effect of the Dreyfus affair on a family meal degenerating into general fistfight, because “they talked about it”.

Cartoon published in the columns of Le Figaro, February 14, 1898
Caricature by Caran d'Ache (Emmanuel Poiré, 1858-1909), published in the columns of Figaro, February 14, 1898. The drawing depicts the division of society during the Dreyfus Affair. " Above all ! let's not talk about the Dreyfus Affair! "They talked about it."
Wikicommons, CC BY

When the Dreyfus Affair faded, the religious question took over and fed not only the cleavage between the anticlerical left and a right attached to religious freedoms, but also the confrontation between two Frances: the secularism was first a fight. And if the Great War was the occasion of a lasting appeasement of religious passions, it did not put an end to the sometimes bloody confrontations which punctuate political life in France as in other European countries.

forehead against forehead

In the 1930s, the right-left divide feeds the fight between two "fronts", this term borrowed from the war being evocative. On the one hand, the Popular Front unites the entire left (including the Communists) to bring workers and peasants bread, peace, freedom, against the fascist threat represented by the extreme right-wing leagues which, on February 6 1934, demonstrated violently against the Parliamentary Republic. On the other hand, the Freedom Front brings together all the right, including the most extremist movements, to fight against the threat that the Communists and, for some, the Jews and the Freemasons would pose to the Nation. During the Second World War, the fight between collaborators and resistance fighters tragically prolongs this merciless struggle between two Frances.

It was at the time of the Popular Front that the right-left divide made explicit reference to a sociological reality – which persisted, in a sometimes fantasized form, until the end of the XNUMXth century.e century. The right would bring together the socially conservative circles, that is to say the property owners, the independent middle classes, part of the peasants. The left would bring together the working classes (workers and peasants) as well as the intellectual bourgeoisie.

In all the speeches he gave during his long journey to the Élysée during the 1970s, François Mitterrand developed this political vision. He expressed it again in his inauguration speech, the May 21, 1981. "On this day when I take possession of the highest office", he affirms, "I am thinking of those millions and millions of women and men, the ferment of our people, who, for two centuries, in the peace and war, by work and by blood, have shaped the history of France, without having access to it other than through brief and glorious fractures in our society. It is in their name that I speak whereas […] the democratically expressed political majority of the French people has just identified itself with its social majority”.

Investiture ceremony of François Mitterrand in 1981 (INA archive).

The sustained exercise of power by the left has not, however, put an end to the fractures of society. These are fueling growing public and voter dissatisfaction with a political class deemed incapable of resolving the economic difficulties and resulting social tensions.

Effects of liberal globalization

From the 1980s, the emergence of the National Front, the erosion of government parties, the increase in abstention and what was not yet called "dégagisme" are all facets of a political crisis sustainable and multifaceted: since 1974 and until 2022, no President of the Republic has been able to be re-elected, except in a situation of cohabitation.

When in 1995, he ran for the presidency of the Republic for the third time, Jacques Chirac deliberately exploited the dissatisfaction that prevailed in popular circles. Drawing inspiration from a note by sociologist Emmnanuel Todd, who is rather marked on the left, he leads a campaign on the " social fracture ", which he defines in his program book "France for all" “France suffers from a deeper evil than politicians, economic leaders, fashionable intellectuals and celebrities of the media system imagine. The people have lost confidence. His disarray prompts him to resign. It risks inciting him to anger”. He then notes “the seriousness of the social fracture which threatens – I am weighing my words – national unity”. Integrating a populist vision into a republican discourse, Chirac notes the growing gap between “the people” and the elites.

This new social antagonism is no longer superimposed on the right-left divide. Besides, isn't it a right-wing candidate, Jacques Chirac, who intends to defend the people against the elites? And, whatever their political color, the successive governors appear as the "presidents of the rich" - this is the term used against Nicolas Sarkozy like D'Emmanuel Macron – and crystallize against them a growing popular anger.

Fragmented to the point of being compared to a archipelago by some analysts, the French society of the XXIe century is crossed by an essential fracture, that which opposes winners and losers of liberal globalization. The main government parties (PS and UMP then LR), heirs of another era – that of the glorious thirty – did not take into account this new antagonism, which was expressed above all on the European question. The two referenda on Europe, in 1992 (on the Maastricht Treaty) and in 2005 (on the European Constitutional Treaty), expressed this opposition which crosses both the left and the right.

Tripartition of the political field

Emmanuel Macron's first election, in 2017, redefines the French political landscape according to a divide that has structured French opinion and society for nearly twenty years.

The new president brings together "France which is doing well", to use the analysis developed then by the socialist candidate Benoît Hamon. And if he takes as his main adversary the "nationalists" gathered around Marine Le Pen, he is in fact opposed to the protest aspirations, sometimes contradictory, which cross this France which feels isolated, forgotten, even stigmatized.

The first round of the 2022 presidential election not only expresses the opposition of three politically and ideologically opposed poles, it draws the geography of a fractured France. Rarely has a ballot shown such a geographical rooting of the electorates: Marine Le Pen obtains her best results in the countryside and medium-sized towns, Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the suburbs and towns with a working-class tradition, Emmanuel Macron in the large metropolises and residential suburbs.

The right-left divide, which cut France in two for almost two centuries, has given way to geographical and social fragmentation which has not yet produced all its effects on the organization of the political field.

Mattias Bernard, Historian, Clermont Auvergne University (UCA)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Alexandros Michailidis

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