In 2018, a little known controversy erupted in France over Charles Maurras (1868-1952), the lifelong leader of the Royalist movement, Action française (French action). The row was over the opportunity to include the centenary of his birth in the list of commemorations approved by the Ministry of Culture. To commemorate, however, is not to praise. Maurras was not only a political theorist but also a poet, a journalist, an essayist and a philosopher. Nevertheless, the mere idea that the name of someone who embodied the rejection of the Republic, promoted the exclusion of the Jews and welcomed the advent of the Nazi-occupied Vichy regime prompted Anti-Racist activists to mobilize and eventually, Maurras’ name was withdrawn. At the time, the controversy reminded most readers of the French press that, until 1944, Maurras was a beacon of the French Right, influencing even Conservatives who did not believe in the restoration of the King. Moreover, the episode highlighted how the power of Action française (AF) in French public life had been forgotten, with AF reaching a level of intellectual influence during the first half the twentieth century only matched by its arch-enemy, the Communist Party. The existence of a new successor organisation to AF, the Comité royaliste d’Action française (CRAF or Royalist Committee for French Action, https://www.actionfrancaise.net/craf/) has however recently begun to draw some attention in France, as it has succeeded in attracting a new generation of young militants. Many of these new adherents are attracted to the Monarchist cause and seduced by the movement’s reputation as a tough fighter on the streets.
In fact, there had been some kind of intellectual, and even academic comeback, of Maurras. In 2010, François Huguenin, published a thoroughly-researched essay on L’Action française: une histoire intellectuelle, (French action: an intellectual history, Paris, Perrin, 2010), to be followed by Olivier Dard’ biography, Charles Maurras, le maître et l’action ( Charles Maurras, the Master and his action, Armand Colin, 2013). In 2016, radical right publisher Arktos Media published “The Future of the Intelligentsia & For a French Awakening, which is one of the very few English translations of Maurras. It includes both L’avenir de l’intelligence”, wrongfully translated with a reference to “intelligentsia” and the 1943 essay “Pour un réveil français” (For a French awakening). It is still available for purchase on mainstream sites such as Amazon. In 2018, a mainstream publisher, Robert Laffont, re-issued several of Maurras’ major essays under the title : L’avenir de l’intelligence et autres textes ( The future of Intelligence and other essays), with a foreword by Jean-Christophe Buisson, a journalist with the Conservative daily, Le Figaro. The main explanation for this revival could be that, at a time when the issue of ‘souverainism’ (sovereignty through exiting the European Union) has become a topic of debate on the French Right. Today, however, there are now people who want to look beyond the slogans and read the man whose motto was “La France, la France seule” (France, and France only). Maurras appeals to those seeking deeper answers on issues such as national independence, French identity and post-Modern individualism, even if they do not pursue the quite impossible goal of bringing back the King. According to Jean-Christophe Buisson, “the criticism of the System by the Rassemblement national; the ‘souverainisme’ of Philippe de Villiers and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan ; François Fillon’s Christian Conservatism (…) are undoubtedly ideas one can find in Maurras.” Other historians, such as Johann Chapoutot, say that the real inspiration of the contemporary French Right lies in Maurice Barrès while Maurras’ influence is marginal because he is “from another era”. But Maurras had a Positivist approach to politics and society whilst Barrès had a much more romantic vision of nativism, almost similar to the Blut und Boden one of racial nationalists. Thus it can be argued that reading Maurras, albeit with the necessary caution that his writings need to be put in the context of his time, certainly gives newcomers to Nationalism some intellectual ammunition that they cannot find in the much less elaborate thought of Radical Right Populism of the Rassemblement National.
As proof that the legacy of Maurras is alive, one can simply look at the activity of CRAF for examples. Starting in 2013 with the demonstrations against same-sex marriage and further down the line with assisted reproductive technology, CRAF activists took to the streets. The movement, which claims 3,000 members, is sometimes involved in more controversial actions, such as the hanging of ‘Marianne’, the symbol of the Republic, on 29 February 2020 in Toulouse. On 14 December 2019 in Le Mans, some militants took part in a commemoration of the massacre of Counter-Revolutionaries by Republican troops in 1793. At the end of it, a group of Extreme-Right thugs, some of them from Paris, rampaged the city centre, attacking a Leftist bar. CRAF disclaimed responsibility for the attack but this and other incidents have cast a doubt on the real nature of the group. For example, is it a street movement or is it a think-tank? In the tradition of its pre-War predecessor, Action française, it is both. The movement has gained supporters among students and the youth in general, who do not shun confronting the Left physically when necessary. But those young people who attend secondary school or university, are taught the history and the theory of Maurras’ “nationalisme integral” (Integral Nationalism)whereby the nation is a racially unified outfit between indigenous peoples and the state. CRAF attend local “cercles” (or branches), gather each summer during the Camp Maxime Real del Sarte and can read books written by intellectuals belonging to the national leadership. In 2017 Stéphane Blanchonnet, the chairman of CRAF, published a 97 pages “Petit dictionnaire maurrassien” ( A Short Dictionnary of Maurras) presenting the basic concepts of their “Master”. Those CRAF activists who are more advanced in mastering political philosophy are encouraged to read Axel Tisserand’s “Actualité de Charles Maurras, introduction à une philosophie politique pour notre temps” (The Actuality of Charles Maurras today: an introduction to a political philosophy for our time), published in 2019. Moreover, those CRAF activists wishing to consult more of such materials are able to consult the quarterly magazine Le Bien commun (“The common good”), the movement’s official magazine since November 2018.
To conclude, the CRAF is an Orthodox Maurrassian movement, but this more recent incarnation of Action française has notably abandoned Antisemitism. Instead, it tries to find a way to work with the new generation of young Conservatives who reject post-1968 Liberalism, including those who remain loyal to the Republic. More than Marine Le Pen, her niece Marion Maréchal would suit most CRAF militants if she were to come back to the militant scene. For the time being, CRAF, as the newest iteration of the pre-War Action française, keeps on doing what the original one did best for half a century: providing the French Conservative Right and Radical Right militants with an ideological backbone that goes beyond a more crudely racist, anti-system populist revolt.
Dr Jean-Yves Camus is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Director of the Observatory of Radical Politics at the Foundation Jean-Jaurès. See his profile here.
© Jean-Yves Camus. 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).