Stuart Reid

Diary - 31 May 2003

Turn left at the Renaissance then: Palaeoconservatism explained

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To Paris to attend a convivium on the Continuing Revolution, presided over by Dr Thomas Fleming. Dr Who? Tom Fleming is editor of the monthly magazine Chronicles, based in Rockford, Illinois, and big chief of the palaeoconservative movement – though movement may be too grand a word to describe an engagingly barmy political army that has perhaps 20,000 followers in the US and fewer than 20 here. The reactionary and pacific – but not pacifist – palaeoconservatives (palaeos) are the sworn enemies of the hawkish and progressive neoconservatives (neocons). Shortly after Jacques Chirac declared that he would not support an American war against Iraq, Fleming wrote, 'I respect and admire the French, who have been a far greater nation than we shall ever be, that is, if greatness means anything loftier than money and bombs.' There was a fearful commotion. Such talk is considered treason by neocons, some of whom believe that enthusiasm for France makes one a Nazi sympathiser.

Palaeos are losers, at least politically, which is what makes them so attractive. They do not share the popular prejudices of the American Street. They recognise the dangers of militant Islam, but do not believe that bombing Arab women and children is the answer to the problem. They are pro-life and pro-death penalty. They are anti-big business and anti-big government. There is no party line, however; no ideology. These people keep you guessing. Some palaeos admire Tariq Ali, Alex Cockburn, Robert Fisk, Gore Vidal and Joseph de Maistre, Patrick Buchanan and Taki; others detest Fisk and Ali, and are not crazy about de Maistre or Taki. All, however, are against wars of liberal imperialism, and consequently have a low opinion of Christopher Hitchens, Tony Blair, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Geoff Hoon – and most of the right-wing columnists in Great Britain and the United States. They do not subscribe to the view of the family-values press that the Sixties were uniquely decadent. They think that the Fifties – to the neocons a golden age of Eisenhower and Norman Rockwell – were also a cultural and political calamity. But palaeos take the long view. They see the big picture. The root causes of the Continuing Revolution emerged long before the 20th century; indeed long before 1789. A recent issue of Chronicles carried the cover line: TURN LEFT AT THE RENAISSANCE.

Get the idea? These are not people you'd want to introduce to your social worker, but they are good company. At dinner on the first evening I knew I was in the right place when a delightful woman to my right, reflecting on her youthful innocence, said, 'Why, I did not know what a homosexual was until I got married.' Later, as we drank and smoked in our hotel, a loony grinned and capered outside the window of the bar – no doubt seeing the joke more clearly than we did. A toast to France was proposed by one of our number. 'Vive la France!' we cried. I was among fiercely patriotic Americans, but it was left to me to add, 'And God bless America.'

Is Paris a little overrated? Greatest city in the world and all that, but the Seine end of the Boulevard St-Michel is just like Leicester Square, and how many times can you walk past Shakespeare and Company, all higgledy-piggledy and coy, without wanting to throw a copy of Ulysses through its window? If there is one thing more kitsch than the exterior of the Sacré Coeur, it is the interior of Notre Dame, where the confessionals are glass boxes in which penitents seem to be negotiating bank loans with cross-dressed ledger clerks. St Sulpice may have its Delacroix murals, but there is something irredeemably naff about the place, with its participatory liturgy and Taizé-inspired choir. A year ago, I saw a priest there pick his nose while reciting the canon and crumble the snot on to the altar cloth. This is my bogey. If Henry IV had been alive today, he might have thought Paris worth a miss. Give me Rome or New York – even London – any day.

My French is so poor that I am reluctant to try to compliment a woman in case I proposition her by mistake. If my language skills were better, I might have got myself temporary accreditation at the Cannes film festival after leaving Paris for the C