Not only was the division between Left and Right less emphatic than it at first appeared, but the internal conflicts on each side could prove intense.
The rivalry among Bourbon royalists (Legitimists), Bonapartists, and Orléanists, the three main divisions on the Right, was the defining feature of conservative politics for much of the modern age: in southern France under the Second Empire, royalists preferred to vote for republican candidates rather than support the representative of an imperial dynasty they loathed.
Nearer our time, few hatreds have proved as enduring as that between the conservative patriots who joined the Résistance and the supporters of the Vichy regime - to say nothing of the chasm that separated Gaullists and the colonialist advocates of Algérie Française.
Likewise on the Left: after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the bitter rift between socialists and communists often overshadowed the struggle against their common capitalist enemy: it was, after all, the socialist Guy Mollet who first said that communists were not on the Left or the Right, but in the East.
These examples already point to a very Gallic paradox: the concepts of the Left and Right have served as much to create a loose sense of fellow feeling among disparate and often antagonistic political forces as to forge a common doctrine or elaborate a shared ideal of the future. At the same time, the use and continuing appeal of this kind of language highlights more generic features of the French style of thinking - the occasionally strident and hyperbolic quality of its rhetoric; the tendency to legitimize arguments by appealing to fictionalized pasts; the willingness to attribute complex symbolic meanings to the most mundane of social practices; the capacity to generate eccentric conceptual combinations; the resort to essentialist arguments, notably about what constitutes the “true” France; and the construction of visions of the good life around the idealization (and demonization) of particular social groups.