Three weeks ago, French philosopher Michel Onfray announced the creation of Front Populaire, a political magazine whose objective, in the words of its founder, is to “bring together anti-EU sovereignists from the left, the right, the centre, nowhere and everywhere.” This simple mission statement is more controversial than it may appear. In France, “sovereignism” is a word that has acquired a slew of negative connotations. Since it refers to an aspiration to preserve and defend the independence of nation-states, the term should not frighten anyone but the most ardent cosmopolitans. And yet, its proponents often find themselves portrayed as demagogues, as populists, as pseudo-charismatic leaders who channel the infernal passions of the unintellectual populace.
Onfray is no exception. Since Front Populaire’s inception, major French newspapers such as Le Monde have accused the philosopher of “flirting with the alt-right,” “galvanizing identitarianism,” and “flattering reactionaries’ darkest instincts.” Journalist Jean-Luc Mano went as far as to call Onfray a “rouge-brun,” a derogatory term traditionally used to describe the dreadful combination of fascist and Communist ideals. Interestingly, Mano’s remarks were written before the publication of Front Populaire’s first issue, which means that without deigning to read a single article, Le Monde’s journalists knew a priori that an anti-EU publication could not be anything but the calamitous enterprise of myopic chauvinists.
Yet Onfray is far from an obdurate arch-conservative. In more than a hundred books, the philosopher has successively satirized the Catholic Church, praised the virtue of hedonism, defended Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s anarchist politics, and even written an enthusiastic treatise on libertine sexuality. An avid admirer of Albert Camus, Onfray is a self-described left-winger and “libertarian socialist.” He does not, let’s say, fit the profile of an alt-right cult-leader.
In fact, far from posing a threat to France’s political order, Front Populaire represents the culmination of a strange alliance that started with the birth of the fifth French Republic. In the aftermath of World War II, Charles de Gaulle united conservative and Communist members of the Résistance to form a government that would uphold national sovereignty, limit foreign interference, and celebrate French culture after four years of German occupation. A similar coalition resurrected itself in 1992 with the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, the treaty many view as having marked the beginning of European federalism. Then, a surreal partnership between convinced socialists such as Jean-Pierre Chevènement and conservative leaders such as Philippe Séguin emerged. Despite their colossal ideological differences, the two men shared the stage to fight against what they perceived to be the end of France as a nation-state.
But the most important date in the history of this peculiar alliance is May 29, 2005. On that day, and against all odds, the French people voted against the ratification of the Treaty of Rome, which extended the powers that Maastricht had already delegated to transnational European institutions. For the first time, the cause of national sovereignty had united a majority of voters, ranging from disillusioned Communists to committed nationalists. Naturally, the French government did not respect the popular vote; two years later, a repackaged version of the Treaty of Rome was signed by the French president without any form of public consultation. This betrayal of democratic norms has ever since fuelled the determination of anti-EU parties; but never have sovereignist political forces been able to unite beyond occasional referenda.
The reason for this is a simple one: Apart from their rejection of the EU, French conservatives have had very little in common with socialists, Communists, and even reactionaries. At least, until now. Onfray claims that the common enemy that is the EU is sufficient to launch a real political movement. American observers may find this development familiar. When future president Ronald Reagan and Republican fusionists built an anti-Soviet coalition in the 1960s, they brought together a panoply of libertarians and traditionalists who did not share much philosophically. What did unite them, however, was a threat so immense as to dwarf their differences. Naturally, Onfray by no means implies that the EU is somehow analogous to the U.S.S.R. But he does argue that the circumstances may be similar enough for a new kind of fusionism to arise.
The present response to the coronavirus provides an excellent case-study for Onfray’s analysis. Ostensibly, a global epidemic seems like the ideal time for international partnerships and organizations to exercise power and influence. But this is simply not what has happened. Since the WHO has no enforcement mechanism, its advisory guidelines have been virtually ignored. Meanwhile, EU member-states that rely on imports for basic necessities and elementary medical supplies have found themselves powerless after the German government, which controls a large proportion of the region’s medical equipment, announced that production would first meet the needs of the German public before starting to support others.
The consequence: That France joined the ranks of the helpless. As Norimitsu Onishi and Constant Méheut have observed in the New York Times, “international outsourcing has left [France] scrambling for masks, tests and even pain pills.” Thus, the paradox: Precisely when France needed the EU to enforce transnational solidarity and defend free trade, the institution fell silent and European governance appeared analogous to an orchestra whose performances are immaculate in rehearsal, but horrendous on opening night.
For Onfray, national sovereignty is not a political project so much as it is a prerequisite for all politics. France has not suffered during COVID-19 because of the choices that were made by its government. France has suffered from COVID-19 because its government simply could not make any real choices, because its authority has been gradually usurped. This dire state of affairs, Onfray believes, augurs the founding of his long-awaited anti-EU coalition. As he puts it in Front Populaire’s inaugural issue, “sovereignists need not agree on political solutions so long as they agree that we should be the ones to decide what these solutions ought to be.”
Onfray applies this simple formula to every aspect of policy-making. Economically, he argues, France needs to relocate its production of necessities, medical supplies, and technology. Internationally, France should distance itself from NATO and regain the independence it enjoyed under the iron hand of de Gaulle. Politically, France ought to liberate itself from the anti-democratic grip of the EU and make a more extensive use of referenda. For the French philosopher, these three principles are enough, and he may not be the only one to think as much. Given that Front Populaire has raised an unprecedented one million euros from small donor contributions in less than two weeks, Onfray’s burgeoning movement has evidently proven attractive to many who think that anti-EU fusionism represents the future of French politics.
The impact of Onfray’s initiative could extend well beyond France’s borders. All across Europe, anti-EU parties have historically struggled to come to power despite the popularity of their ideas. The cause of this failure is twofold.
First, while anti-EU political forces have not yet showcased an ability to build alliances bridging ideological divides, Europhiles have always managed to form coalitions when needed — be it before or after elections. In Germany, for example, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been allied with the liberal Social Democrats (SPD) for several years, and this asymmetry has prevented isolated anti-EU parties from even attempting to get a parliamentary majority.
Second, a lot of anti-EU parties are led by controversial figures. In France, for instance, a 2018 poll showed that while a third of French voters agree with Marine Le Pen’s ideas, only 15 percent stand ready to cast a ballot for her or her party. Like other nationalist parties, Le Pen’s “Front National” suffers from its more than problematic history. Le Pen’s father, who created the party, helped one of the perpetrators of a terrorist attack against Charles de Gaulle run away in 1963. He was also repeatedly condemned by Parisian courts for inciting racial hatred and calling the Holocaust “an insignificant detail in the history of World War II.” With this kind of troubled past, traditional anti-EU parties lack the necessary legitimacy and respect to convince large portions of the electorate.
In theory, Onfray’s initiative addresses both these issues. Not only does it bring sovereignists together, but it also distances concerns for national independence from the toxic image of extremists. Unlike Le Pen and others, Onfray and his allies — who range from former socialist minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement to economist Idriss Aberkane — benefit from their intellectual repute and untroubled past. If more coalitions of this kind emerge, anti-EU fusionism might well reshape European politics — possibly forever.