Two Countries Separated by One Small Step

Names and terminology may differ, but the ideas that have defined French and American politics for the last two centuries are curiously similar. Whatever we choose to call them, the left and the right remain the bedrock of our democracies.
© Antoine Moreau-Dusault/France-Amérique

September 11, 1789, has not gone down in history. This is unfortunate, because this was when the representatives of the French nation came together as a Constituent Assembly at Versailles, divided into two sides – right and left – for the first time in history. Spontaneously, the members in favor of an absolute monarchy took their seats on the right. On the left sat those who favored a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic, which was still a premature concept in France (the First Republic was not voted until three years later).

This involuntary distribution must have resonated with a collective psychology, as the same division has prevailed without interruption since the 18th century across all nations, starting with the United States. Party names may change, but party leanings do not. The French right has remained right-wing, generally conservative, although with verbal nuances that adapt to the context of the time and changes in society. Meanwhile, the left has remained left-wing, with an unwavering partiality for progress – or its own vision of progress. The same is true in the United States; vocabulary and society have changed, but the Republican Party remains right-wing and the Democratic Party left-wing.

Behind this persistence, this similarity between our two countries, the substance of what right and left mean is constantly changing. However, with the exception of the American Civil War, it can be said that the right and the left in both France and the United States are moving forward at the same pace and under distinct labels. Let’s start with the right. If we try to free ourselves from the ideologies that clutter up all political discourse, we can reduce the right to a single, essential notion: identity. Seen from the right, a nation is united or must become so. It is united by civilization, culture, religion, adherence to the same value system, and even, in the case of the United States, by ethnic origins. Of course, this is pure mythology, as the “true French person” is no easier to define than the “true American.” Yet in both cases, this search for an authentic identity seems to be the foundation of what we call the right.

Similarly, we can try to define the core of what we classify as the left in France and the U.S. This side of the political chessboard is more open to diversity, both cultural and social, and left-wing policies encourage this melting pot through immigration and education. This penchant – or distaste – for diversity also informs the foreign policies of our two countries. Both French and American leftists are more concerned about the fate of foreign nations, and of their minorities in particular. The left is also traditionally more attentive to equality of opportunity and not just equal rights. In both countries, this leads the left to pursue so-called “social” policies – demands for justice that the right finds discriminatory.

Some may object that this is an oversimplification of the history and political life of our two nations. But if we look back over all the attitudes and policies adopted, just like in 1789, they tend to fall neatly into one category or the other. The similarities between the respective ideologies are stronger than the differences, which are naturally influenced by history. Others may also object that the right-left dichotomy leaves no room for the center. But while political leaders in France and the United States have always tried to carve out a space in the center, or impose themselves as a “ third way,” none has ever succeeded. The center inevitably falls to the right or to the left, or else it disappears. This has always been the case for third-party candidates in the U.S.A. and centrist parties in France.

Let’s now jump from the year 1789 to the present. Does Donald Trump, for example, fit into our right-left divide? He does, of course, as he is continuing the right-wing tradition of worshipping national identity – preferably one that is male and White. He finds an almost perfect counterpart in Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party. I am referring to values here, not behaviors; I am not judging or condemning, merely observing. Similarly, the American left and the French left practice the same cult of diversity. Both are more mindful of the plight of the less fortunate, be they citizens, immigrants, or oppressed minorities around the world.

Naturally, everyone on the right and the left will deny this dichotomy, and each side will be tempted to label the other as populist. But these labels have no meaning; they are rhetorical devices designed to disqualify the opponent. On the other hand, if we accept my simplified right-left analysis, I believe that it gives us a better view of reality. It may be an imperfect prism, but an imperfect prism is better than none at all. In any case, it is the one I offer for 2024, a year that promises its fair share of elections and political twists and turns – both in France and the United States.

Editorial published in the February 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.