Wednesday, February 6, 2019

A Real Conservative

Here's an interesting bit from a Times article on French conservative Éric Zemmour, one of those children of immigrants who has become fanatically anti-immigrant himself. People often say (the Times even says at one point) that Zemmour is a Bonapartist who longs for the days of Napoleon's victories, but apparently he really longs for an earlier period:
One student asked Zemmour about his belief that France’s defeat in the Seven Year’s War, between 1756 and 1763, was the beginning of the nation’s decline. “It seems like a long time ago,” the student said, “but for you, the history of France has been a succession of failed attempts to compensate for this defeat. Is there still any meaning in asserting the existence of a grand French destiny?”

Zemmour was ready with a response, observing that France’s colonial conquests were an attempt to compensate for that defeat. Today, he went on, French elites have decided, ignobly, that a new kind of French power can be obtained only by entwining the country within the European Union. For him, the process of writing his most recent book, he explained earlier that evening, recalled “the legend about the person who is dying and sees each major stage of his life pass before his eyes: Now we are reliving the main crises we experienced during a thousand years of history.”
So for Zemmour, conservatism seems to be about longing for the days when France was the most powerful nation in the world and floundering around for some way to bring that feeling back.


G. Verloren said...

So for Zemmour, conservatism seems to be about longing for the days when France was the most powerful nation in the world and floundering around for some way to bring that feeling back.

Can it actually be said that France was the most powerful nation in the world in 1756? By which metrics? Military power? Economic power? Diplomatic "soft" power?

France wasn't poor at the time, but can it really be said they were the most wealthy country? They had a powerful army, but was it the most powerful? They were diplomatically influential, but were they the most influential? I don't see it.

The very choice of time frame casts doubts upon the claim. The Seven Years War was precipitated largely by fear of the growing powers of other countries. The Austrians were afraid of an ascendant Prussia, and the French were afraid of an ascendant Britain, so much so that they put aside a centuries long rivalry to join forces.

The outcome of the war also works against the claim. You had the combined might of a half dozen major powers - France, Austria, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and the Mughal Empire - pitted against only Britain, Prussia, a few minor German principalities, and (very briefly and very late in the war) Portugal, and yet they lost.

France was certainly not the world leader in naval power, nor were they up to speed technologically, especially in terms of manufacturing - Britain outpaced them badly in both cases. Their colonial holdings at the time were mostly frontier forts in the interior of America, providing little more than fur, while British colonial holdings featured developed coastal cities that were not only centers of production, but also secure ports and shipyards.

Et cetera, et cetera.

I could perhaps see an argument for France being the most powerful country in continental Western Europe, at the time. Almost all of their direct neighbors were weaker than them, certainly.

But the most powerful country in the world? No, that seems a stretch.

John said...

@G - yes the French were not global hegemons in 1756, as the war showed. But maybe they were able to believe that they were, to believe that there were no real limits to their power, and that is probably the thing an emotional conservative like Zemmour really wants.

G. Verloren said...


But who cares what they were able to believe? What matters is the truth.

Why are we entertaining the overblown emotions of delusional people? Why are their ignorant opinions given the time of day, much less given serious weight in determining the fate of entire countries? Why are "emotional conservatives" tolerated in the least, instead of simply laughed out of serious public discourse?

Hysterical thinking was perhaps understandable in France in 1756, during an age of absolute monarchy, divine right, feudal law, and all the other antiquated hallmarks of the Ancien Régime. But in 2019? Why are we still giving serious consideration to the fever dreams of ignorant blowhards who whip themselves into emotional frenzies and refuse to listen to facts and reason when determining how we govern ourselves?

David said...


Actually my impression is that hysterical thinking about international politics--obsessing loudly and at length over the place of one's country in the scale of power, the moral necessity of getting back lost provinces and restoring the nation's glory, etc., etc.--are more characteristic of the modern age than the 18th century. It was the 19th and 20th centuries that gave us Greater Serbia, "think of it always, speak of it never" (a French slogan about Alsace and Lorraine), and so forth.

The characteristic stamp of the Ancien Regime political style was a sort of ironical blandness, of whom Talleyrand and Metternich are the best-remembered exemplars. They were, of course, holdovers. Arguably, it was the French Revolution itself that introduced the modern type of hysteria about politics.