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“Without his clothes,” Mark Twain remarked, “a man would be nothing at all. There is no power without clothes.” 

Nowhere is this maxim truer than the city which, insisted the Francophobic Twain, made anywhere else better: Paris. In the midst of raging wildfires and scorching heat, rampaging inflation and social fragmentation, the nation’s politicians were at one another’s throats over whether those same throats should be sporting ties.

In June’s legislative elections, the newly re-elected president, Emmanuel Macron, was denied an absolute majority in the National Assembly. This is an event without precedent in the history of the Fifth Republic. Founded in 1958, the republic was Charles de Gaulle’s solution for a nation fighting a war in French Algeria and lurching toward civil war at home. By shifting power from the Fourth Republic’s dithering parliament to a commanding presidency, de Gaulle helped to ensure more than six decades of political stability.

But the 2022 legislative elections ushered in another unprecedented and more unsettling event: an assembly dominated by parties whose republican credentials are less than sparkling. Seated on the extreme right of the Palais Bourbon, the immense building housing the National Assembly, is the Rassemblement National, or National Rally. This is the movement, formerly known as the Front national (National Front), that Marine Le Pen inherited in 2011 from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. 

While Le Pen has cleansed the party of its anti-Semitic elements, she cleaves to the notion of “sovereignism”—a code word for anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Europe policies. This position explains her repeated vow, should the RN come to power, to hold a referendum on adding a right of “national priority” to the constitution. Not surprisingly, both the referendum and proposed law—which would prevent non-French residents from obtaining employment, education, health, or social benefits in France—has been described by critics as a “constitutional coup.”

At the far left of the Palais Bourbon are the members of Nupes, or the New Ecological and Social People’s Union. An uneasy coalition including the Communist, Socialist, and Green parties, it is the work of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the founder of the group’s largest party, the radical La France Insoumise, or Unbowed France. Mélenchon scorns not only Le Pen, whom he dismisses as a fascist, but also the Fifth Republic, which he decries as authoritarian. In its place, the LFI would create a Sixth Republic, one based on the revolutionary tradition of parliamentary, rather than presidential power. 

Perhaps predictably for Paris, this tradition has sartorial consequences. At the start of the new parliament earlier this month, several members of LFI showed up in casual wear, avec sneakers and slacks, sans jackets and ties. Moreover, members from French Polynesia eschewed Western attire entirely, instead garbed in traditional garments. 

The reaction from other parties was immediate and irate. Éric Ciotti, a hard-right member of the conservative Républicains, declared he was shocked—shocked!—by this sartorial “negligence.” Ciotti made a formal demand that ties be made obligatory. A member of Macron’s centrist party, Renaissance, echoed this indignation, lambasting the leftwing members of Nupes as a “filthy and unkempt.” 

But the most withering criticism came from a movement which, not that long ago, welcomed neo-Nazis and street brawls. Marine Le Pen mocked LFI members for dressing like “zadistes”—jeans-wearing and tee-shirted protestors against urban development—and declared that her elected deputies will not show up at parliament in “flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts.” Au contraire: In a meeting with her deputies prior to the opening parliamentary session, Le Pen instructed the men to wear ties and women to don the kind of business suit she herself favors.

On Tuesday, ten leftwing female deputies added another knot to what has become known as “Cravategate.” Led by Clémentine Autain, one of LFI’s most prominent members, the ten deputies donned ties to that day’s legislative session. In her address to the chamber, Autain lambasted the misogyny in Ciotti’s demand that ties be made mandatory. “By wearing ties, we have decided to challenge Monsieur Ciotti’s profoundly reactionary proposition.” What his demand reveals, she declared, is his belief that the “National Assembly is an exclusively male domain.” 

That Autain wore a tie adorned with green motifs—underscoring her coalition’s environmental concerns—was a reminder that while clothes are skin-deep, their symbolism runs far deeper. Mélenchon made this clear when, defending his own refusal to wear a tie at the Palais Bourbon, he drew an explicit parallel between the sans-culottes (without-breeches) and the sans-cravates (without-ties). The former were the 18th century artisans who, unlike the aristocrats and bourgeois sporting breeches and silk stockings, proudly wore trousers. 

Galvanized by the ideals of liberty and equality, the sans-culottes became one of the great engines of the Revolution (and, indeed, the Terror). Obviously, the LFI will not erect a guillotine outside the Palais Bourbon. But they have erected a new ideal of a representative of the people. “What is truly indecent,” declared one LFI deputy, “are not those of us who dress simply, but instead those who parade in suits that cost more than the monthly minimum wage.” 

But the symbolism of clothing is complicated. The tie, observes the historian Frédérique Matonti, is an “accessory identified with the upper classes.” But it is also a marker of respectability long associated with the implicit rules of parliamentary decorum. By imposing the tie on her deputies, Le Pen assumes one can dress for political success. What better way to become a party comme les autres than by adopting their dress code? And, for that matter, posing as the parliament’s constructive opposition, unlike the disruptive members of Nupes? 

In The Innocents Abroad, Twain jokes that when he spoke French in France, he “never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” But when it comes to the language of clothes, we can understand as well as the French what the RN is telling us.

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College, University of Houston. His most recent book is “Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.” The views expressed are the author's own.