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“A certain idea of France”: Charles de Gaulle, pictured in 1963 (photo: Gnotype)

The British general election had an astonishing outcome in the eyes of the French public. Not because the Tories won, not because UKIP lost, not because the SNP broke through, but because unsuccessful British political leaders tend to do something utterly surprising when they lose: they resign. I come from a country where unsuccessful political leaders, when they lose, say they are going to quit politics for ever, earn millions touring the world attending conferences, and return to politics as though nothing had happened — France, of course. Nicolas Sarkozy, our former and now would-be president did exactly that when he announced his comeback last September and won the presidency of his former party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), in December. He did even better when he decided, with one of those magic tricks that only he can pull off, to wipe the slate clean and change the name of his party. In May, after a majority of docile members accepted the new branding, the UMP became Les Républicains.

And branding it is because one struggles to see any deep meaning in this facelift. It is a way to leave the party’s failure in 2012 behind, to highlight Sarkozy’s comeback and to annoy the Left by appropriating one of its core concepts, the Republic. Plus, in playing the music of rassemblement, Sarkozy is cannily silencing his opponents within the party, who were forced to appear under his banner like loyal cheerleaders.

Still, much ado for a dubious result, because Sarkozy is still Sarkozy, even if his party has a new name. It is a particularly bizarre move for a party on the Right, supposedly conservative, hence willing to uphold the past, beginning with its own. Can you imagine the British Conservative party, which dates back to 1830, changing its name for no other reason than a tactical manoeuvre, and a childish one at that? The Tory party, like any other great party, has experienced great failures and internal battles throughout its history, beginning with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, which almost destroyed it. The party recovered, remaining loyal to its legacy while adapting to new challenges. But the French Right seems to be obsessed with superficial change, unable to keep the same name for more than a few years. The Gaullist party has had no fewer than 12 names since 1945. Each time there was some supposedly new purpose, hiding personal rivalries and electoral calculation; each time there was the illusion of a renewal, with the same people involved. As we say in French, on prend les mêmes et on recommence.

This is no coincidence. There may be in this fickleness something more meaningful, this truly unconservative attitude being a symptom of a more fundamental fact of French politics: that there is no such thing as French conservatism as a political and intellectual tradition.

The international press, when discussing the French Right, talks about “conservatives”. It has no choice: the only way to make what happens abroad understandable is to use concepts that your own readers will understand. But the striking fact is that no French person described as conservative abroad will use the term to describe himself at home. No leader on the Right will ever claim to be so, either with a small or capital “c”. I remember Jean-François Copé, a former president of the UMP, saying in 2013: “I will never let people say that the Right is conservative.” He may have been stating his suspicion of any kind of status quo, but he was also expressing something deeper. In France the name “conservative” doesn’t belong to the common political vocabulary; worse, it is understood as an insult: the conservateur is our political taboo. It is an intellectual one as well: when I interviewed a French intellectual on the subject, one of those you immediately think is the epitome of conservatism, he told me he was not a conservative because his Christian belief made him too much of a revolutionary in the current climate. He was playing with words to avoid reality. Last August, the thinker Marcel Gauchet was caught in the middle of a media storm because it was deemed impossible by some that he, a supposed conservative, was to introduce an academic conference about “rebellion in history” — the funniest thing being that Gauchet is not a conservative at all, merely an intelligent scholar.

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