The Psychology of French Politics


IN French political life certain qualities seem to be permanent, such as the individualism originally inherited from the Gauls, which is now innate in our character.

Instead of organized parties on the English model, we have political groups that are as uncertain and changeable as clouds, and with no real discipline. The individualism of France is negative in comparison with the constructive individualism of the Anglo-Saxon Protestants; in fact, the two schools of thought are so definitely opposed that one needs entirely different sets of words to express the two ideas. Our political combinations are unstable, but their tendencies are remarkably fixed, for even after fifty years we often find the same political tenets adhered to in some districts. They still, although the party labels may have changed, represent the solid foundation of our political history.

Another thing that we are apt to overlook is that we are satisfied with our own mode of life; so contented, in fact, that we cannot picture any other. The social structure built on this foundation is possibly the most solid basis of the nation, for the daily routine of the French people is ingrained in their very being —the wine at every meal, the black coffee after lunch, the little garden tended so lovingly, and the modest café where they chat and play cards with their friends. Watch a mason in the South lunching under the trees at noon, or a French gendarme lingering over his coffee, and you will agree that there is something in our atmosphere which you can neither replace nor carry away with you. Danton spoke truly when he said that we could not take our native soil away on the soles of our shoes. France means to us a way of living on which we are all so entirely agreed that scores of things are taken for granted, no matter to what political party we belong. In this sense one might say that the most progressive are really the most conservative.

Our discussions on practical matters are thus anything but sensational, and although they may be ably, even brilliantly presented, they interest only the specialist, so the game as a political game is hardly worth the candle. In France a policy of interests rarely pays, for, as Albert Thibaudet remarks, ‘our political life is autonomous, and it is not a supplement to economics. ... If a party puts “Interests” on its banner, absolutely nothing doing!’

On the other hand we get quite worked up when we discuss persons and personalities, and the position of the individual in the community — especially if theory enters in! Even such a simple matter as our own personal theory on the point entails endless debates and floods of eloquence. Principles and ideals are the heart and soul of our politics, but their eventual application often remains a matter of quasi indifference. That subtle connoisseur, Robert de Jouvenel, rightly observes, ‘Our legislators are far less interested in the contents of the bills before them than in the resolution closing the debate.’ This explains the carefully prepared speeches to establish the exclusive claim to some great man long since dead and gone, or to some glorious national heroes over whom, anywhere else, there would be no dispute whatever. If we are not quite sure what group Vercingetorix would now back, at least we do know that the Church claims Joan of Arc as belonging politically to her, and so the posters in the windows on her saint’s day give us an exact map of clericalism and anti-clericalism in Paris.

The municipal disputes over the names of streets are even more amusing. Such excitement when it comes to voting for the title to be posted up on the walls, whether it is to be Boulevard du Maréchal Foch, Place Anatole France, or Rue Ferrer! The animated discussions which arise in this respect really amount to opposing various conceptions of life, politics, and man to each other, and they disclose within those militants full of ‘sound and fury’ a fine imaginative power. In the end they go off peaceably to a café, and probably nothing is changed.

Party divisions — political tendencies, if you prefer the term — are based on opposing conceptions of life, and the instinctive personal reaction of like or dislike felt toward a certain social order. During the past century we have had two main lines of cleavage: first, the French Revolution and whether or not we accept it and its consequences, in which case the contest is for or against the ancien régime; secondly, the intrusion of capitalistic production into the social system born of the eighteenth century, in which case liberty and individualism, the moving forces of yesterday, defend themselves against collectivism, the invading force of to-day. The Revolution was still the outstanding issue up to 1848, but later, and especially at the end of the nineteenth century, the question of capitalistic domination became entangled with it, without, however, supplanting it. Thus we must consider the parties according to whether they are based on the Revolution or upon the industrial problems that are steadily increasing in importance.


Even to-day, a hundred and forty years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the French Revolution has not yet been accepted by everybody. Do we, or do we not, agree with the spirit of 1789? That is the point. It is not a question of the republic versus royalty; the issue lies much deeper. ‘You are rallied around the republic,’ said Léon Bourgeois to certain Orléanistes on the morrow of the Boulangist imbroglio. ‘That means nothing. Do you accept the Revolution?’ The line of demarcation is not where we expect it to be, for except among the masses the number of devotees to the Revolution is surprisingly small.

Underlying the spirit of 1789 is the conviction that sovereignty is vested in the people; that is to say, we are ruled from below, not from above. This presupposes equality of citizenship, at least in theory; but it does not mean Communism, for we wish to keep our personal independence, nor yet real equality, for we are too practical for that. In the last analysis it is the confirmation, jealous and unyielding, of the theory of the dignity of the individual, a theory in which one still feels the passionate eloquence of Rousseau.

We find the same idea to-day when Alain makes his villager say, ‘The rich may use the highroad for their automobiles as much as they like, but don’t let them try to tell me that they are any better than I am! ... If we must have inequality, I should like to hear some good loud shouting for equality at the same time.’ Thus it is the working classes — that is, universal suffrage — that must inspire the politics of the nation. Yet if we admit this hackneyed phrase we get ourselves involved, for we implicitly deny either government by the social authorities (I mean the traditional ruling classes) or the right of the Church to intervene in the affairs of the State. Resisting the claims of the adversaries of the Revolution thus amounts to assigning limits to the domain of the Revolution.

The social authorities to whom our theorists refer are certainly not recognized as such by the masses. Although they may not admit it openly, they would consider that they are entitled to govern the country politically as well as socially by divine right of wealth and birth. In the old days we were ruled by the king, the nobility, and the bishops; to-day it would be by the great landed proprietors, and captains of industry, the high officials of the State, organized capital, and the salons.

When M. Thibaudet describes the rivalry between the well-off student and the poor scholar — Barrès as opposed to Lagneau or Burdeau — it is a case of the classes versus the masses. The former, however, do not understand the spirit of 1789. Wealth and birth have always been candidates for the government of mankind, and if occasionally they admit that their power has only been delegated to them they must not be taken too seriously, for at heart they believe that they rule by divine right. Some instinct out of the distant past always prompts them to bring the lower classes under their tutelage. ‘I doubt if a salon exists,’ says Alain, ‘where the hostess accepts the sovereignty of the people without question.’ This is an actual fact.

In the case of the Church the quarrel is more complex, since doctrine is involved — a serious matter in a country where the political leaders are doctrinaires. Theoretically the Church cannot recognize the complete independence of the State, but in actual practice she will admit the dc facto independence of any temporal power provided it is admitted that it comes from above and not from below — or, in other words, is divinely inspired.

In the face of such circumstances the Church leans toward authoritative government, and as the sovereignty of the people and the religious independence of the State are abominable in her eyes it is not easy to foresee any reconciliation with the laity who are still faithful to the Revolution. In France the Church is traditionally linked with the ruling classes against the practice of the Left, although she is undoubtedly extending her influence far beyond the aristocratic classes. Among her followers are to be found more workingmen than gentlemen, for she gives wonderful personal protection to the families of the humblest citizens, and she often even goes the length of embarrassing the Radicals by her daring. And yet no politician of the Left will ever believe that the Church could work sincerely for the republic.

At this point the anti-clerical party traces a boundary of such importance that it dominates our political life. To be anti-clerical, of course, it is not necessary to be anti-religious. In France, where strained relations perpetually exist between the Church and the State, nearly everyone is nominally Roman Catholic, and therefore some practical method must be found according to which politics and religion can be carried on independently.

As a matter of fact, the French mind is trained to throw out the clutch with marvelous ease when religion and politics are to be kept in their respective spheres. The existence of the Church alongside the republic would be impossible except in this atmosphere of intellectual liberty mingled with skepticism and subtlety, with a highly developed civilization behind it.

The following impressions written by an Alsatian friend of mine are interesting in this connection: —

‘The French are not sufficiently mystic to be ruled by the Catholic Church. I sometimes think that the French Catholic has unconsciously come to an understanding with his church in order to quiet his conscience, to absolve himself in advance, as it were. He is thus completely at ease in his private life, perfectly poised and self-possessed, and without the slightest fear of the terrible impending deity who broods over the Germans.’

I know of no more representative type of Frenchman than the anticlerical member of Parliament whose wife is a regular churchgoer and whose daughters are at the convent. Jaurès was a case in point, as was once duly noted by a heckler at a political meeting. ‘My friend,’ answered Jaurès with good humor, ‘no doubt your wife obeys you. Unfortunately I am less privileged!’ Everyone laughed, for they all understood and many were probably in the same boat. As a matter of fact, if the anti-clerical Frenchman happens to have a pretty wife, he thinks it is just as well to let the priest keep an eye on her. This is the secret of our family life, but, as in the Orient, common sense forbids our discussing it.


In the nineteenth century the various social classes, using the term without legal significance, were clearly grouped according to their political tendencies, for or against the spirit of 1789.

In this connection let us first consider the peasant and the village craftsman, whose attitude—except where they came under the influence of the Church — may be summed up as an instinctive resistance to the priest and the château. Sometimes to-day the nobleman and the priest may not be on the best of terms, but in the most rural districts the political balance of their claim to domination and the resistance to it still holds good.

Like the peasant and the artisan, the factory worker — a later social type — was originally imbued with the revolutionary spirit, to an even more passionate degree. Class war came from other countries later on, but we had a working-class movement of our own, which has not lost its significance even to-day. I can remember a time, not so very far back, when many workmen were simply Republicans.

We next come to the small civil servant of ordinary birth and education, thoroughly under the thumb of an administration related to those in authority, but eager to emancipate himself under the banner of the republic which he felt belonged to him. At the time of Gambetta, the schoolmaster and the postman were the village enthusiasts for the cause. The middle and the lower classes, who were always losing their more brilliant members as they passed on to better things, were all the more resentful of the snobbishness of the rich, and therefore loyal to an order working for equality. It was in these various groups that the budding republic found its most spontaneous and faithful supporters on the morrow of May 16, 1877.

On the other hand there are certain classes whose ideals are incompatible with the New Order: the Church, for the reasons given; the nobility, which naturally clings to its traditions of hierarchy, and successfully enough, too, in some districts; and the bourgeoisie, promoted in its turn to a position of social authority. Each has its own satellites: the Catholics, devoted to the priest; the poor, assisted by the Church and the rich; the small farmers, fearing the great landowner; the tradesman of the village and small town, frightened by the thought of a boycott; and finally employees, domestic servants, and laborers, kept in a state of dependence. Wherever society is bound by hierarchy or organization, it tends to free itself from the spirit of 1789 in order to revert to other ideals. It is hard to realize how far tradition, sometimes in modern guise, still exerts its influence. The people, with their naïve idealism, always hope to win in the end, but the wise know that they are dreaming of a Utopia.

The line dividing these two groups stands out as clearly as the contours on a map. The people of the lower classes naturally mingle only with one another, and the rich and powerful also keep to themselves. Both feel they are on the defensive, and so they are. In every French community we find the schoolmaster and his followers eager to emancipate the people, while behind the priest, the nobleman, and the rich bourgeois are lined up the Conservatives, who consider that, as the masses are incapable of governing either themselves or anyone else, they must keep them under their tutelage. The two temperaments are so definitely opposed that it is difficult to judge them fairly, for everything depends on the point of view.

‘Those who are familiar with the provinces,’says M. François Mauriac, ‘know that contemporary France was born of the mortal sin of envy. The peasant shuts his eyes and casts his vote for the Left, certain that he can make no mistake if he votes against those who wash and go to Mass. He loathes any distinction in dress, occupation, or ideas.'

It is true, and yet we cannot fail to admit that there is a certain grandeur in this appreciation of personal dignity, a sentiment born of the Revolution. As the explosive power of this ferment is still anything but exhausted, timid foreigners, not unrightly, believe that France is a dangerous country, for nothing is harder to swallow than the doctrine that every human being has the right to think freely, to form his own opinions, and to lead his own life. This theory is feared alike by AngloSaxon Protestants and by the Roman Catholic Church, and everywhere the great majority implicitly condemn it. Our poor little village enthusiast seems to be fighting in the front trenches for humanism!

This is the key to French politics, which would be incomprehensible if we lost sight of the fact that the counterrevolutionary party keeps constantly rebuilding itself as its spirit crystallizes into new forms. Although it has long been threatened on the Left by the Marxians and Communists, — whom it detests, — our Democracy must still defend itself against the ancien régime, although that is now out of date, as its own followers are the first to admit. It is difficult to explain these things in a country like the United States, where political reaction does not exist, or even in England, where tradition is not only accepted but almost childishly revered by the man in the street.


These political creeds have left an indelible impression on the country. First there is the tendency to a constant outbidding in our political programme, which seems to be the degenerate outcome of the popular belief that to-morrow will be better than to-day, and therefore we must progress at all costs — in other words, go to the Left. In this sense democracy is a living movement, and therefore programmes are less important than relative positions, so no one ever has any luck who tries to fight someone more advanced than himself. Even if he happens to be a Socialist, he is sure to be called a reactionary, while the pure flame of democracy will invariably aid the Moderate fighting a Royalist. This is the essence of the great game of politics, as it is played not only in Narbonne or Toulon, but even in our most northern provinces. In purely business discussions such an attitude is perfectly absurd, but if we admit that our politics are based on sentiment this mystic attract ion to the Left, as of the pilgrims to Mecca or the mad Captain Hatteras of Jules Verne to the north, falls naturally in line with the general direction of democracy.

No party label can resist this attraction, for at all costs one must be — or seem to be — the most progressive. On the first ballot many a Southerner votes on principle for the candidate most to the Left, a method which, by carrying the system to its logical conclusion, also reaches the climax of absurdity. Describing a southern constituency in his deep and witty book, Le Monarque, Pierre Mille sums up the situation in a single sentence: ‘They had a Socialist committee which was Republican, and a Republican committee which was Royalist.’ In this game the great trick is to spot them right, for the Radical-Socialists come to be only pale-pink Moderates, Marseilles can offer us ‘patriotic Socialists’ who swear by the Action Française, and the Var is already preparing us Governmental-Communists.

I once saw a poster in a station in a little town in the Western States which read in enormous letters, ‘See us increase!’ This perfect expression of the boosting spirit would, if transposed into politics, delight the Mediterranean, where ‘progress’ knows no respite. I remember hearing of a man in the Department of Hérault who, on meeting the local member who had been put up as a Radical-Socialist six months earlier, asked to what party he then belonged.

‘Radical-Socialist, the same as you elected me.’

‘You don’t say so,’ was the priceless reply. ‘Then you are making no progress! ’

In this the South is simply a caricature of the rest of the country, yet, if we run for a seat, might we not safely follow the advice of Duo Caroli and exclaim, ‘Don’t lag behind. Don’t mark time. We must get on. Let us show them that the Department of X is determined to progress!’

Of course, although there is a great deal of talk about all this, there may not be the slightest intention of putting any of it into practice. ‘We may as well discuss reforms,’ says the wise old ‘Monarch’ of Pierre Mille, ‘but it might be dangerous to carry them out.’ It makes one think of the opera chorus which sings interminably, ‘March, march,’ without ever moving a step. How representative the prudent Southerner was who remarked, ‘To the Left, to the Left — but not further!'

Meanwhile our politics are so bound down by this logomachy that it has perverted the very idea of government so far as the parties of the Left are concerned. They feel instinctively that discipline is arbitrary, that order must be reactionary, and that authority means tyranny. To them liberty is purely a negative claim, and when they are in power they literally cannot tell what is sound from what is unsound. Indeed, for that matter, most Frenchmen can’t anyway. In private life we love method and order, so we lay down good rules because we know how to follow them. In public life, however, the progressive Republican feels he must overlook disorder, for if he tried to set it right he would risk being called reactionary. In his opinion to govern is to be reactionary nine times out of ten — especially if he is not a member of the government. At any rate a hundred voters in the Radical-Socialist group are ready, waiting, to prove it. Thus we are paying for an arbitrary rule in the past which has too long outlived its time.

Alain describes power as essentially reactionary, always tending to become an end in itself, and unfailingly corrupting those who exercise it. Pelletan, according to him, is the only man who has never betrayed it. Such is the experience of a country in which power has been autocratic — but can we ever hope to set up an efficient government if we are to be deterred by such fears?

These political theories were quite suitable to the electorate of peasants and artisans which we inherited from the French Revolution, before the great industrial changes took place at the end of the nineteenth century. Society then was not complex, being composed chiefly of independent landowners, with a simple organization of government and production. This old foundation, on which our present system is largely built, was made up of satisfied people, tending to the Left politically, but socially conservative. Beneath a coquettish froth of disorder lies an instinctive repulsion from anarchy, for apart from personal favors we really do not want social change — hence how much leisure to indulge in political controversies! This explains the curious indifference to reform among so many of the Radicals, although they always have the word on the tip of their tongue. ‘Resistance to authority rather than practical reform is their watchword,’ admits Alain, and really it is marvelous how satisfied these progressives seem to be with the existing social order! In our democracy, so daring in theory and so temperate in practice, any kind of political outbidding is safe and easy because it is developing in a sphere where change is not desired.

But what is to happen now that a new conception of production comes to transform the face of the world and disturb the balance of our social structure?


The French Revolution recognized only the individual, and ignored the working classes, as at that time industrial life hardly existed. The problems arising from the new conception of production only began to make themselves felt from about 1880 onward; in fact, they only came properly into existence at the time of the Revolution of June 1848. It was only in the last decade of the century, when the Socialist Party began to be powerful, that social questions really competed with the political matters which had hitherto exclusively claimed our attention. Although industry is still only of secondary importance in France, its repercussions have had a distinct political influence on our various social classes.

The transformation of the workingman was less marked in France, no doubt, than in any of the other great Western nations, for our craftsman lingered on long after the Industrial Revolution. He was a fine type, imbued with professional honor, his very being bound up in his work, according to true French tradition. Behind his barricades it was he who was mainly responsible for the revolutions of the past century, which drew their inspiration, not from class hatred or revolutionary doctrine, but from a democratic ideal. He later became a Socialist, and again it was he who originated the Socialist Party and the Confédération Générale du Travail. His Socialism was always true to the ideals of the nineteenth century, and therefore he is not and never will be a true Marxian.

The factory worker of to-day, at least when transformed by mass production, is a very different type, for he no longer feels that he has a trade. Once a Frenchman has let himself become the servant of a machine he loses his pride in his work, becomes discontented and devoid of political conscience. In Paris the factory worker is the backbone of the Communist Party, a fact which proves that machinery has exerted a fatal influence. Its introduction in France marks a step backward from the political standard of earlier generations.

Wherever our government administration has been industrialized, the small civil servant has undergone a similar change, although if he happens to be isolated in a village he is still a simple and traditional enthusiast for political progress. In the latter case, I do not believe his psychology has altered, in spite of the fact that he now advocates Socialism and Communism instead of the republic, as his father did fifty years ago. But if he is attached to an industrialized administration, like the post office in Paris or one of the large cities, his case is different, for he is then inclined to stray from the old democratic ideals, which originally attracted him, into the ranks of the extreme Left. The collective demands of professional worker, class warfare, and the revolutionary spirit lay hold of him, and he naturally joins one of the parties of social discontent.

The result of the Industrial Revolution has been to turn the bourgeois to the Right. It brought him without struggle to the front ranks socially, for the nobility were soon little more than a memory. Politically he feared the workman, who also was becoming an important influence in the State. Since the days of June 1848 the bourgeois has shown himself in his true conservative colors, for he has abandoned, one after another, all the ideals he learned at the time of the Revolution. With a few rare exceptions the bourgeoisie now belongs to the party of resistance, and hardly any of its sons would wish to remake a really democratic republic, I think, if it had to be done.

The religious evolution of the bourgeois has been no less marked. Up to

1848 he was usually a follower of Voltaire, although he felt that religion was a necessity for the masses, but after

1849 he suddenly began to regard the priest as a valuable aid to the police in keeping order. The salons eventually ceased fighting the Church, although in the smoking rooms the unbelievers still continued to rail against it. The generation that came of age at the end of the century were weary of excessive individualism, and longed for moral and social order. They rallied around Catholicism, not for the matter-of-fact reasons of their ancestors, but because they needed a constructive philosophy of life. Since the Dreyfus Case and the war, religion has become an integral part of the convictions of the bourgeoisie. Thus in the past hundred years they have gone right over to the other side of the fence.

‘Midway in his intellectual development, the writer or the politician,’ says Barres, ‘finds that he must stop chasing his predecessors in order to deal as swiftly as possible with his successors. He becomes a Moderate, as the expression goes.’ This is precisely what happened to the bourgeoisie when they were no longer irritated by the diminished ranks of the nobility. Meanwhile a Caliban, daily gaining in strength, began to push them into the background.

Where do the people stand in all this

— I refer to the People with a capital P, the mystical democracy which preceded Karl Marx and class warfare, the People of Michelet? They have changed little, for the spirit of conservatism persisted with them as the small landowners with a stake in the country became more numerous. In France it is impossible to take liberties in the name of Marx or Lenin against the property of the small people, although the masses are still faithful to the mysticism of equality and democracy. At heart they are still inclined to the Left, not only against the Church, but more urgently against the dictates of capitalism. Recently one has discerned signs of a new demagogy, rural in character, attacking the great landowners on behalf of the small. Public opinion with us is still jealously hostile to big business, and although bankers and industrial magnates may exert all the influence they wish, they must not do it openly.

Have the French people become more international as the result of their contact during the war with the armies and people of the five continents? Theoretically, perhaps they have, although they still obstinately cling to their own customs and ideals, and are largely indifferent to new conditions. Feminism, prohibition, and departments of health mean not very much to them. They stand firmly between the priest on the Right, whose leadership they refuse, and anarchy and revolution on the Left, which offend their bourgeois susceptibilities; and finally they decide that international Socialism does not suit either their habits or their routine. So they remain negative, but still sufficiently important to create a great unorganized but stable democracy.


The contradiction in French character is obvious. A Frenchman wears his heart on the Left and his pocket on the Right — and in practice every Frenchman has a pocket! His innate love of order — his own interests, to express it more crudely — counteracts the extreme political ideas which delight him. This Don Quixote is accompanied by a Sancho Panza who never leaves him for a moment. His slogan, ‘Always to the Left,’ is only used as a symbolic gesture, for his practical politics run up against barriers piled quite as high as progress stretches in front. This explains why foreigners treat us as dangerous revolutionaries when we talk, and as slow bourgeois of the old type when we do not come to the point. It also explains why we have been for a century on the offensive against autocracy in all its forms, and are now on the defensive against a new type of production which we find disturbing. We remain the republic of little people, preoccupied, according to Alain, with the ‘continuous struggle of the small against the great.’ We are always ready to protect the small and weak, the little landowners, the little employees, the little pensioners, and even the little cheats.

All the achievements of the present material epoch of super-collectivism will eventually be accomplished in France, but outside of politics. Our political structure belongs to an earlier period, and offers neither methods nor solutions for such a programme. Possibly these great achievements are essentially anti-democratic, or at least not in sympathy with the democratic spirit which refuses to sacrifice the individual to the discipline necessary for coöperation. Although in this sense France is not politically adapted to the needs of the present day, I hesitate to condemn her altogether, for it may be that a vital instinct forbids her to make an adaptation which might in the distant future imperil the individual, who is the corner stone of her civilization.