At first glance, today's sudden resignation of Philippe Seguin, the leader of the main French opposition party, the Gaullists, is yet another illustration of the disarray within the French Right, which has been in meltdown for two years.
But it might also be the first step toward the formation of a mainstream, credible anti-European force in French conservative politics. In the past, there has been plenty of euroskepticism in France but its forces have always been dissipated into a myriad of different political factions. If they were consolidated, questions would arise about the country's commitment to the
and the euro.
Yet personal rivalries often deform natural political alliances in France and the evolution of a strong antifederalist grouping will not happen overnight, as a brief look at recent developments within the French Right illustrate.
Seguin, a choleric chain-smoker from France's colonies in North Africa, took over the leadership of the Gaullist party after its massive defeat in 1997. After two years in power, the Gaullist-led government was routed when one of the biggest parliamentary majorities in French history was turned into a rump.
Seguin's first act as leader was to create the Alliance, an umbrella under which to unite his mildly nationalist Gaullist party with centrist and pro-European liberal parties.
The European issue was one among many which ensured that the Alliance was to prove a flightless bird. No clear political line emerged from this flimsy and artificial political construction.
Other events further weakened the right-wing opposition. In February 1997, regional elections resulted in a customarily handsome score for the hard-right
. The mainstream Right, under Seguin, was fighting a battle on two fronts against both the
government and the National Front -- and losing.
To make matters worse,
President Jacques Chirac
himself, the man who founded the Gaullist party in 1976 and who remains its spiritual godfather, started to desert the Gaullist cause. Shortly after his election in May 1995, he announced that he was breaking all his electoral promises and that his government would continue to pursue the monetarily restrictive pro-European policies of former Socialist President
Chirac's conservative supporters regarded this
as an act of betrayal. The new Gaullist leader, Seguin, therefore emerged as a rival, a potential obstacle to Chirac's re-election in 2002. Naturally, Chirac himself started to try to destabilize Seguin by favoring other center-right politicians. The result was today's outburst of Seguin's famous anger.
The immediate effect will be to accelerate the disintegration of the Gaullist party. Seguin's departure will remove any pretense that the party continues to have a genuinely conservative message. He made himself famous in 1992 as the main leader of the "No" campaign in the referendum on the
on European Union. Even though he has since moderated his anti-European message, his name remains linked with it in people's minds. He may be calculating now that he has just enough time left to start adopting a euroskeptic message again in 2002.
The disintegration of the Gaullists had begun before Seguin resigned. At the start of this year, one of the Gaullist movement's most senior veterans, the former Corsican Interior Minister and avuncular tough-guy
, announced that he was setting up his own party for the elections to the
on June 13. He thereby formally broke with the party he helped Chirac found.
Only last week, Pasqua announced he was teaming up with France's most consistent anti-European campaigner,
Philippe de Villiers
. Until today's resignation, the Pasqua-Villiers breakaway group risked appearing as a mere splinter group of eccentric die-hards. But now, with the established Gaullist party itself in collapse, it is possible that broad support may start to coalesce around them, as disaffected voters abandon a sinking ship.
Three other factors also make the emergence of a significant and unified euroskeptic force likely.
First, Pasqua and Villiers may mop up some votes from left-wing euroskeptics. Their mentor,
, is in the government and he will not field candidates against the government's pro-European line.
Second, the hard-right National Front is also simultaneously collapsing. Its traditional Caesar, the formidably demagogic
Jean-Marie Le Pen
, was stabbed in the back earlier this year by his lean and hungry deputy,
. Confused National Front voters may therefore turn to Pasqua and Villiers instead.
Finally, the war against Yugoslavia has aroused the anti-Americanism, which is never far below the surface (and usually above it), in French politics. The blatant show of American force in the Balkans, and Chirac's unconditional support of it, has elicited criticism from Pasqua, Villiers and their friends. Such opposition to the war is likely to find support among an electorate frustrated at France's continuing marginalization on the world stage.
John Laughland is a commentator on European political and economic affairs. He has written for several British national dailies and published two books,
The Death of Politics: France Under Mitterand
and, most recently,
The Tainted Source: The Undemocratic Origins of the European Idea