Right and left values

In need of a partisan embodiment, the right-left divide nonetheless remains at the heart of the representations of French women and men. Based on major surveys and polls, a book looks back at the constitutive values ​​of the left and the right in France.

“Does the left-right divide still exist?”, “Does it still make sense?”, “Is it still relevant?”, “Is it outdated?”, “Is it dead?” These catchy phrases have punctuated the columns, platforms and debates on the set of many commentators and experts on political life since May 2017 in an attempt to understand a French partisan landscape undergoing profound change, where citizens are subject to electoral infidelities, and where political actors tend to abandon their labels in an attempt to build an identity for themselves outside of the left-right opposition. Faced with so much uncertainty, the work of Janine Mossuz-Lavau, emeritus research director in political science (CEVIPOF, CNRS), invites us to reconsider the phenomenon with hindsight. Through an analysis in the form of a historical fresco that focuses on the economic, social and cultural values ​​that the French attach to the two political camps, the researcher conversely highlights the permanence of major trends over the last few decades. If there is indeed a problem of embodiment in attractive and unifying parties, “the left” and “the right” always refer to coherent and opposing ideals in the minds of citizens.

Decline as seen through history

The crisis of the left-right referent has been omnipresent in recent years, giving the impression of having reached its peak in 2017. The two parties inheriting the left and the governing right failed to pass the first round of the presidential election. On the contrary, a candidate claiming to be progressive and pragmatic “left and right” and a candidate claiming to be heir to the “neither left nor right, French!” characteristic of the anti-system far right qualified. Moreover, in a climate where voters are increasingly turning away from the ballot boxes, three-quarters of French people of voting age say they have no confidence in either the left or the right to govern, and maintain that the notions of left and right no longer have any meaning.

However, Janine Mossuz-Lavau invites us to put these symptoms into perspective. First, using a historical perspective, she recalls that the relevance of the left-right opposition has already been called into question. She thus cites, from half a century to half a century, the questions of experts fueled by the successive changes of regimes in the middle of the XIXe century, during the reconstruction of the interwar period, in the wake of the RPF Gaullist at the turn of the 1950s and since the end of the 1980s through the prism of new issues that shake up the usual lines of conflict. According to her, the advent of the “Macronian myth” and the electoral strategy that brought him to power revive these same questions among commentators. The historical perspective from the citizens’ side also allows us to see that the signs are not new on that side either. Paying tribute to the pioneering work carried out by and with her colleagues, Mossuz-Lavau recounts how from the first major surveys in the 1980s it already seemed complicated for respondents to account for the identities and programs of the parties using the notions of left and right, an observation that she links to the distrust of political leaders and parties, which was also already present.

Nevertheless, using the history of surveys, the author recalls that the diagnosed obsolescence of the left-right divide concerns partisan life much more than the values ​​of the French. Indeed, in parallel with judgments on the state of the parties and electoral competition, the same surveys note a great stability in the capacity of an individual to self-define as left or right (by positioning themselves on a numerical scale that represents a continuum of positions) as well as very clear correlations between ideological self-affiliation and opinions on economic policy, morals or relationships with others. This is the paradox of the left-right divide: if it lacks partisan incarnation, it nevertheless lies at the heart of mental representations and value systems, and no less today than yesterday.

To give substance to the permanence of left and right ideals, Janine Mossuz-Lavau then sets about immersing the reader in her archives of interviews conducted throughout her career, i.e. six field interviews between 1969 and 2019 with ten years between each. Through successive series of in-depth interviews, the researcher examines several decades of French political life to question the values ​​that the French people interviewed openly attach to the left and the right. The temporal perspective allows us to overlook the effects of context (due to the restructuring of the party system, alternations in government, or the salient issues of the moment), to highlight the presence of major trends.

On the left, the egalitarian compass

Based on these interviews, Janine Mossuz-Lavau presents us, in a mirror, what the left and then the right are the name of. The theme of equality for the left inevitably appears among the respondents, whatever the decade, even if the vocabulary or connotations vary. This aspiration constitutes the common thread, judging that the collective must help to erase individual disparities. Thus, while the Trente Glorieuses are coming to an end, it is the aspiration for equality of living conditions that best sums up the expectations. The Marxist and anti-capitalist vocabulary is prevalent, highlighting class antagonisms. The researcher then notes inflections that gradually set in. Following François Mitterrand’s first seven-year term, disillusionment is felt regarding the room for maneuver in power and “equality of conditions” gradually turns into a fight “against inequalities” and a search for “equality of opportunity”. At the turn of the 2000s and up until today, it is rather the expression “social justice” that is put forward, denouncing at the same time the excesses of king money and the lure of gain. “Anti-capitalism” is also transformed into “anti-liberalism”. Failing to be able to profoundly change society, the left must become the primary supporter of the welfare state and public services. These developments that go beyond semantics are illustrative according to the author of a tendency towards resignation among a part of the individuals of the left who have reformulated their expectations to make their cardinal value coincide with their experience of the limits of power.

On the right, the hierarchical imperative

In contrast to the left, the natural nature of inequalities and the need for hierarchy and authority in society are inevitably mentioned as the foundation of the right-wing ideal. Reflecting a more pessimistic anthropology of the human being, the respondents associate with the right a need for rules to regulate behavior in society and pyramidal structures to encourage work and the desire for upward social mobility. This vision thus underlies both support for Gaullism in the late 1960s and the criticism of the public policies of “welfare” implemented by the left in power, or the fear of increasing laxity with generational renewal. Mossuz-Lavau thus notes in his interviews from the 1980s the theme of “replacement” experienced as the fear that the social structure will collapse with the questioning of hierarchies according to social status, gender or ethnic origin. A fear that is found in the form of nostalgia among her respondents from the 1990s, who want to defend traditions and heritage. Nevertheless, yielding ground to cultural liberalism, the defense of natural inequalities and authority seems to refocus at the turn of the 2000s on the control of migratory flows on the one hand and the flexibility of the labor market on the other. If social benefits continue to be described as “welfare”, the author notes a relative evolution of this assessment. A part of the “right-wing people” now sees in the existence of a minimal safety net a means of ensuring relative social peace.

Supply and demand, a problem of adequacy

If this synthesis work does not reveal all the richness of the interviews and their reanalysis – because the verbatims are necessarily absent from the text – the approach by historical sequences proposed by Janine Mossuz-Lavau has the merit of providing a convincing and immediate cross-sectional vision. Certainly, whether we are in 1969, 1983 or 2019, the ideological hearts of the left and the right are stable and naturally exposed by the respondents: equality against hierarchy, emancipation against order. Despite the few inflections noted over the decades, which concern the “demarxization of the left” and the “dechristianization of the right”, the author concludes that “it is better to stop treating the right-left divide with contempt. Under a more hushed exterior, it is very present, irrigating the lives of the vast majority of French men and women. If it seems to bend at times, it is far from surrendering” (p. 154). And to recall that, today as yesterday, the feeling of loss of meaning of the left-right divide in the public space does not arise from a crisis of ideals, but from a disconnection between demand and supply: the ideological families are well distinguished, but poorly embodied by the existing political parties in terms of program and ambition.

This accessible work, which emphasizes the constant values ​​that underlie political orientations in the French population, provides multiple elements to deconstruct the idea of ​​a contemporary crisis of the left-right referent and the values ​​associated with it. Moreover, apart from the current debate that is treated, it is also more broadly a text which, through its historical panorama of French political life and the numerous references to the analyses that have marked the discipline, constitutes a very attractive gateway for all those who want to familiarize themselves with political sociology and the study of opinion.

However, it should be noted that the reader may be left wanting more on two aspects of the demonstration. On the one hand, the reduced interview system over the period 2018-2019 somewhat weakens the scope of the work, because it is these most recent interviews that make it possible to bridge the gap between the conclusions already defended in the past and those reaffirmed in 2020. On the other hand, the conscious choice not to deal with the center, the far right or even political ecology certainly makes for a more readable argument, but also prevents us from fully measuring the anchoring of the left-right continuum in the representations of the French. Indeed, how do they position these ideological families in relation to the left and the right? Are they generally integrated into the dual opposition or are they situated on another level? Since quantitative surveys tend to highlight the multi-dimensionality of political space, would we have a convergent conclusion from a qualitative analysis?