French Lessons
What the parliamentary elections, and Le Pen’s success, demonstrate.

Marine Le Pen at Place de l’Opéra in Paris


John O’Sullivan

Yesterday’s French parliamentary elections have worsened the political difficulties of almost everyone in Europe except for Marine Le Pen and the National Front party she leads. This judgment must be slightly qualified because Sunday’s vote was the first of two rounds, the second to take place a fortnight from now. But the final result is unlikely to deviate greatly from yesterday’s figures, which amount to a slim victory for President François Hollande’s Socialist party and its Green allies.

In other words, despite the momentum of his presidential victory and despite his pandering to the voters since then (e.g., lowering the retirement age for workers who began work early in life), Hollande got at best the bare majority he needs to push contentious measures through the National Assembly. But his Broad Left coalition is hardly a unified one. He may also need crucial parliamentary support from the neo-communist Left party headed by Jean-Luc Melénchon. And public support for a move to the left is clearly lukewarm.  

The outcome is certainly better for the new president than a victory for the center-right, which would have forced him to work with a conservative prime minister under a system with the teasingly French name of “cohabitation.” But it presents him with two great problems. First, given his acknowledged majority, he will find it hard to escape from carrying through an economic program that simply cannot work. A combination of taxing more, spending more, and borrowing more inside an unreformed euro zone is madness. What “growth” it produces will be feverish, self-destructive, and brief. At the same time other aspects of his policy — notably supporting the European project and sticking with euro status quo — are anathema to the Left party and to many of his own supporters. Yet those are the very policies that are essential to a good working relationship with Angela Merkel and the bureaucratic oligarchs in Brussels. Almost the only question worth asking is which particular catastrophe will descend on Hollande’s head first.

Angela Merkel is hardly better off. She is now the main proponent of “austerity,” contra Hollande’s campaign for “growth” in the EU. Her policy is at least internally consistent: Austerity is the only way of keeping Greece, Spain, Italy, and others (including, ultimately, France) inside the current euro structure. “Growth” would blow it apart — unless it was paid for by indefinite financial transfers from Germany. Few Germans want that. So Merkel might in theory wait for the Hollande Express to crash into the buffers as Mitterrand’s socialism did in the early 1980s. But she too is facing elections before long. Her determination to keep Greece et al. inside the euro is increasingly seen by most Germans as a recipe for the constant bailouts (on this past weekend’s Spanish model) that she claims to oppose. She may lose ground in any future election, and if she does, she will likely lose it to leftist parties that are equally committed to the euro but tempted by “growth.” That would be a major step toward a chaotic and disorderly collapse of the euro — and perhaps of the whole European Union (though I remain a skeptic on that.)