Icons of radical right-wing populism: Maurice Barrès

In the third of CARR’s series looking at the ‘Icons of the Radical Right’, Professor Hans-Georg Betz takes a look at the life and times of French radical right novelist, journalist and politician Auguste-Maurice Barrès (19 August 1862 – 4 December 1923).

Maurice Barrès c. 1923

It is autumn 1891. A man is found dead in a cemetery on the outskirts of Brussels, a bullethole in his head. The man is identified as Georges Ernest Boulanger, a retired French general and former Minister of War. He had committed suicide at the tomb of his mistress who, a few weeks earlier, succumbed to an inflammation of the lungs.  Boulanger’s death marked the definitive end of one of the most important political “episodes” of late nineteenth-century France – what has come to be known as the “Boulanger Affair”, and “Boulangism” – which for a brief time rocked the very foundations of the Third Republic.  This was a period in French nineteenth-century history marked by prolonged hardship, caused by a severe economic depression affecting virtually all producing classes.  The resulting austerity provoked growing anger and exasperation with the political regime, deemed incompetent and primarily catering to the rich, which increasingly turned into open contempt for the parliamentary republic.  As so often in French history, the result was a yearning for a strong man who would deliver “the people” from the corrupt elite.  For a few years, Boulanger seemed to be that “man of providence.”  A professional soldier with an impeccable reputation, he became the rallying point for a diverse movement; one spanning the whole ideological spectrum, from social revolutionaries (i.e., the Blanquists) on the far left to arch-conservative monarchists on the far right, united in their desire to bring down the extant regime.

Boulanger’s suicide put an end to these aspirations, but not to the ideas informing the Boulangist movement and boulangisme in general.  The Boulangists did manage to elect a considerable number of representatives in the elections of 1889, many of them on the left. Most prominent among them was Maurice Barrès, a celebrated romancier whose trilogy of novels, Le culte du moi [The Cult of the Self, 1888-1891], exerted a powerful influence upon the younger generation in fin-de-siècle France.   It showed them, as Robert O. Paxton has put it, “how to liberate themselves from stultifying convention by asserting the primacy of individual selfhood.”

This might sound like a plea for individualism. The opposite was the case. In reality, it was directed against both conformism and individualism. In their stead, Barrès advanced the notion that self-realization could only come from the recognition of the bonds that linked the individuals with the past and the soil to which it was bound – Barrès’s famous notion of la terre et les morts [the soil and the dead].  It was upon these two concepts that Barrès grounded the notion that would become the pivot of his world view – and his obsession – enracinement [rootedness] and particularly its opposite, déracinement [rootlessness].  This uprooting is the topic of perhaps Barrès’s most influential book, Les déracinés (1897), which tells the story of a groups of young men from Lorraine (Barrès’s homeland) who move to Paris and, lured by cosmopolitan ideas, become alienated from their native land and its culture, ending in personal disaster.

It is this ideational pair of opposites – enracinement vs déracinement — which underpins and informs Barrès’s writings, his political engagement in the 1890s, and his role as an eminent public intellectual, prolific polemicist, pamphleteer and political agitator from the beginning of the twentieth century until his death in 1923.  It is the point of departure for both his left-wing populist politics as a Boulangist deputy and his nativist turn following defeat in the elections of 1893, which established Barrès as the founder of French “ethnic populism”, whose influence extends far beyond his lifetime.

As a Boulangist deputy, he stood for a radical revision of France’s political institutions – above all the abolition of parliamentarism and its replacement with a system of direct democracy and a strong executive, which was intended to bring government closer to the people.  As a leading left-wing populist during his first stint as a deputy (1889-1893), Barrès stands on the side of the “little people” against les gros  [fat cats] and the corrupt political elite. Representing the city of Nancy as a “revisionist socialist” rejecting all notion of internationalism, he promoted himself as the defender of France’s industrial workers against foreign competition, and was a staunch proponent of social reforms benefiting the working class. In parliament, the relatively small group of left-wing Boulangists generally voted with the Socialists and left-wing Radicals.   Barrès sat on the far left of the hemicycle, entertained friendly relations with the socialists Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum, who held him in great esteem as an eminent writer and intellectual, despite major ideological disagreements.

These disagreements become glaringly obvious in the run-up to the 1893 parliamentary elections.  Seeking re-election Barrés played the nativist card by advancing an ideational amalgam that brought together socialism and nationalism. Barrès’s main concern was to reconcile the working class with the national community, as a first step towards national rejuvenation (an anxiety triggered by the trauma of France’ defeat in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war).  Barrrès’s nativist found finds its expression in a number of newspaper articles, collected in a pamphlet with the telling title, “Contre les étrangers – Étude pour la protection des ouvriers français.” The title is program — a program fleshed out and enriched in the years to come, laying the foundation for a “ethnic populist” doctrine that informed Barrès’s political engageé for the rest of his life.

Barrès explained the rationale behind his position in early 1903 in a short comment piece in La Patrie – originally a Bonapartist paper converted into a leading “organ of national defense” – edited by the ancient communard and left-wing Boulangist-turned-nationalist, Émile Massard.  There, Barrès addresses the question of what differentiates nationalism from socialism.  The socialists (who he refers to as collectivists), he charged, dealt in utopian dreams and “unverifiable fictions” about “abundance and universal peace”, yet without offering anything concrete that might alleviate the suffering of ordinary working people. Nationalists like him, by contrast, made it their goal “to guarantee the economic security” for each and every French citizen rather than “every person populating the universe.”  In order to effect national rebirth and counteract the country’s population decline, the socialists proposed opening the nation’s borders.  Against that agenda, the nationalists had a simple, straightforward answer:  Look for “French elements” in the “depths of the nation”; that is, ordinary Frenchmen from the provinces.  It is on them that France needs to bank rather than further immigration, which he characterized as “foreign infiltration.”  Otherwise, as Barrès warned as early as 1893, the French are threatened with extinction [“C’est notre disparition”].

Barrès formulated his response to the social challenge in his electoral programme for the parliamentary election of 1898 [Le programme de Nancy] – which again ended in defeat, despite his wholesale attempt at nativist mobilization. The programme conjured images of the foreigner as an all-encompassing threat, making ready to destroy French society:  “At the top of society as well as in the most remote provinces (…) in the world of commerce, industry, agriculture and the job sites where he competes with French workers, the foreigner, like a parasite, poisons us.”  There is only one remedy, namely “to protect each and every native against this invasion [envahissement] and to resist cosmopolitan socialism which is bound to compromise the defense of the fatherland.”  His remedy: a combination of socialism, nationalism and particularly protectionism, both against foreign products and foreign labor.  This is an anti-capitalist programme, targeting in particular finance capitalism.  As Barrès put it, international financial capitalism “eliminates the country’s worker and replaces him with foreign workers,” stifles “protectionist measures favoring agriculture and industry, organizes monopolies, speculates on products of basic necessity (…) and, finally, ruins the real producers of riches: our farmers, merchants, and workers.”

International financial capitalism:  this is a hardly concealed code word for “international Jewry,” reflecting what Jean-Pierre Blanchard – once a close fellow traveler of Jean-Marie Le Pen — refers to as “social antisemitism” – an antisemitism not based on religion or race, but on “stateless finance and nomad big money.”  Maurice Barrès, the great historian Eugen Weber has maintained , was “only a moderate antisemite.” Others were far worse, particularly on the extreme left of the political spectrum.

In Barrès’s view, antisemitism served above all as a crude ideational tool to mobilize ordinary voters for the socialist cause — the cause of the “dispossessed,” which he considered indispensable for “national reconciliation.”  As he wrote in early 1890, the “masses always need a rallying cry, some cry of passion (cri de passion) capable of rendering abstract ideas concrete.” Its target, however, was not primarily Jews but capital.  When the leading left-wing Boulangist Francis Laur embarked on an aggressive antisemitic campaign for a by-election in 1890 to regain his seat in Neuilly (his election in 1889 had been invalidated by the Chamber of deputies), Barrès noted that he did nothing but “particularize the general movement against the omnipotence of capital.”  To illustrate his point, Barrès gave the example of a “young intelligent man, no money, no girlfriend,” who, after work in the Bois de Boulogne, “comes across the fast cars of young Jewish bankers.” In response, he might shout “Down with the Jews”, but what he really means is “Down with social inequality.” What did he care about the 80,000 Jews living in France?  The real target of his rage is “that formidable organization of capital” that subjugates him.  In reality, “the Jew is nothing but an adjective that stands for profiteers, money grubbers, speculators – all those abusing the omnipotence of money.”  In this hatred against Jews, his popular rage against blatant social injustice coupled with a deep sense of powerlessness found its concrete expression.

Barrès’s writings from the 1890s synthesized a range of nascent ideas and doctrines – socialism, nationalism, nativism, protectionism and populism – which were blended into an innovative ideational – perhaps even ideological – mixture that today would be considered typical of radical right-wing populism. This was an ideational amalgam that combines national social solidarity [La France aux Français] with an “organic” blood-and-soil conception of the nation. This was a populism which chastises the omnipotence of money while laying claim to social justice; which clamors for genuine (i.e., direct) democracy while seeking to exclude, on allegedly “cultural” grounds, those deemed alien to the nation.

Taken to its ultimate logic, Barrès’s central notion of rootedness precludes assimilation; for those who lack rootedness cannot but hold on to their distinctiveness, forming communities separate from the rest of society and, ipso facto, unassimilable with the national community.  This was one of the charges Barrès made against France’s Jewish community in his Nancy electoral programme. Barrès was also one of the first to conceptualize what Ernesto Laclau has defined as the establishment “of an internal antagonistic frontier”, indispensable to populism.  For Barrès, this frontier was reflected the fundamental antagonism between defenders of la patrie and proponents of a new cosmopolitan vision of internationalism – an antagonism that would fully erupt during the Dreyfus Affair, where Barrès once again would play a leading role. It is an antagonism that pitted defenders of the national interest (a central issue during the Dreyfus Affair) and advocates of “the own people first” against the proponents of a universal(ist) conception of humanity, conceived as “le peuple des tous les hommes” – as the pacifist writer Romain Rolland would put it in the aftermath of the First World War – united in their suffering.

Barrès passed away in late 1923. Yet his influence did not stop here, even if his works have been largely forgotten in France and elsewhere. The most obvious example is the Front National (under Jean-Marie Le Pen), which traces its roots to the upheavals of the 1890s. It is often asserted that populism is nothing but a loose conglomerate of disparate ideas, gravitating around a handful of core concepts, such as “the people” and “the elite.” Yet Barrès’s literary-political oeuvre gainsays this assertion. It constitutes the rudimentary contours of a populist cum nativist ideology, persuasive enough not only to mobilize for political action but also to provide a basis for concrete policies (both positive and negative).

Contemporary radical right-wing populist parties in Western Europe have absorbed (largely via the Front National) the former (e.g., Salvini’s prima gli italiani), but have largely fallen short of the latter.  Even in government, the radical populist right has done nothing to alleviate genuine issues and concerns of their main constituency – ordinary working people, worried about job security in the face of rapid technological progress; the future of their children given rapid climate change; welfare state retrenchment resulting from the inability and/or unwillingness of governments to tax the rich, and ever-growing import competition from developing countries. Unlike with Barrès and like-minded Boulangists in the fin-de-siècle France, there is today not a sliver of genuine commitment by his contemporary heirs to advancing the cause of social justice in the face of ever growing inequality and ever more glaring excesses of wealth.

Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Adjunct Professor of Political Science, University of Zurich. His profile can be found here:

© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).