21 March 2019

The spectre of non-conformism still haunts France

By François Le Goff

“For non-contemporaries, it is difficult to comprehend the anger of this generation towards a deceptive world that revolted them,” wrote Pierre Andreu in 1956. Pierre Andreu and his fellow intellectuals Robert Aron, Emmanuel Mounier and Philippe Lamour were leading figures of the non-conformist movement of the 1930s: a group of journalists, essayists and philosophers who were in their mid-twenties at the time of the Great Depression and all shared the same aversion to the ruling political class, which they saw as morally corrupt by capitalism.

Through a series of avant-garde literary journals that flourished between 1930 and 1934 – Esprit, Ordre Nouveau and La Revue du siècle to name a few – they challenged capitalism’s materialistic logic and vision of individuals as “homo economicus”, and aimed to radically change political thought.

Pierre Andreu’s words could equally have been written today to describe the mood among the supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National or even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Like the non-conformists of the 1930s, they are anti-capitalists and anti-establishment. What differentiates them from the former – at least on paper – is that today’s young protesters tend to belong to clearly identifiable political parties on the far right or far left.

The non-conformists rejected the right-left divide. They were initially Marxists, Socialists, Catholics and Monarchists close to Claude Maurras’s Action Française who did not recognise themselves in what they called the ‘failed revolutions’ of the time – fascism, communism and Hitler’s national-socialism – because these were totalitarian systems. Robert Aron, Emmanuel Mounier and others put aside their ideologies in order to build a “common front” against the established order.

Protecting human dignity in the face of the severe socio-economic difficulties brought about by the Great Depression was at the centre of their concerns. And their philosophy was radical and uncompromising, which led some critics to accuse them of simply pursing a negative and destructive agenda. In his journal Esprit, Mounier replied that, on the contrary, “saying no with force” demonstrated a constructive approach “in periods of history when everyone accepted one’s fate”.

This defiant attitude is very much alive today and has taken a new form with the gilets jaunes movement. It quickly grew from mere fuel protests last November into a significant force combining a popular core and various elements of far right and far left groups, blowing the lid off decades of discontent among significant parts of the French population. The gilets jaunes succeeded where opposition parties and trade unions had failed so far: to take control of the political agenda.

The French government is now preparing to announce a set of measures following the grand debate it launched weeks ago in an attempt to calm the gilets jaunes. But little is known yet as to what might come out of this unprecedented consultation exercise. If the response falls short of expectations, a large anti-establishment movement will likely gain a strong foothold in the country, with severe disruptive effects for society.

Inspired by the success of the gilets jaunes, a rapprochement between at least parts of La France Insoumise and the Rassemblement National could be conceivable. The walls between these two parties have already been porous for some time, and the non-conformists of the 1930s have shown that ideologies can be ignored in order to fight a common enemy.

The non-conformists, however, were intellectuals, not politicians, and their work was short-lived. The last issue of Order Nouveau, for instance, came out in 1938. It is therefore difficult to foresee what type of society would have emerged had their philosophy prevailed at the time, although it has been established that the Vichy regime and its ‘Révolution Nationale’ took inspiration from some of their fundamental ideas (celebrating the real over the abstract, etc.). That is far from a glorious legacy and it shows that radical ideas rarely lead to a good outcome when applied to the real world.

Defying the established order and “saying no with force” – to quote Meunier – is an essential part of democracy but there has to be a time limit, otherwise these protests are about nothing more than destruction – the same criticism levelled at the non-conformists in the past. The anger must eventually make room for political solutions.

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François Le Goff is a journalist and General Secretary of the Club of Three, a Franco-German-British leadership initiative. The views and opinions expressed in this article are personal.