Politics & Policy

French Lessons

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

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.)

The French center-right will be passive spectators at this Götterdämmerung for some time. Nicolas Sarkozy was a failure as president, leading his party down a series of ideological alleyways. He began as a pro-American market reformer; he ended as a global salesman for market interference, proclaiming that “the state is back.” In his failure, he was a domineering leader, and such figures rarely leave strong lieutenants in their wake. At present, his party, the UMP, is both leaderless and directionless. While it settles on a new leader and a new philosophy, it is likely to take the cautious course of objecting to whatever Hollande does, but doing so within the established doctrines of France’s Euro-establishment.

As I argued on the morrow of Sarkozy’s defeat, such a situation — a French Socialist government heading for economic trouble, an overly cautious and conventional opposition, a looming crisis over the euro — is tailor-made for Marine Le Pen. She performed unexpectedly well in yesterday’s election, getting 42 percent of the vote in a district in northern France, while her party scored 14 percent nationally. Because of the vagaries of the French electoral system, the National Front is expected to win only three seats in the National Assembly — and she may not be one of them. Other parties must hope so. Almost the best result for the National Front would be for its leader to be its sole parliamentary representative. She could then hardly fail to look like Marianne defending France’s interests and honor against a cross-party establishment wedded to European illusions and global interests. Even without that theatrical addition, Le Pen and her party cannot fail to benefit from the developing Franco-European crisis.  

That would be a thoroughly bad thing. Le Pen is no conservative. She is a shrewd and gifted leader of a radical nationalist and populist party drawing on anti-market strains of both left and right for a policy of “étatisme in one nation.” A National Front government, if one were really conceivable, would aggravate almost all the bad tendencies in the French political tradition. Economically, it would unite domestic over-regulation with high levels of protectionism. Socially, it would maintain or increase the already-generous social benefits and intrusive labor-market interventions that keep unemployment high and the economy stagnant. In foreign policy, it is at least questionable how far it would go in reversing the commitment to the European Union that has been the basis of France’s attempt to remain a world power since the mid-Fifties. And, to put it no more strongly, such a government would have to be watched closely to ensure that its policy of being tough on immigration did not morph gradually into one of being tough on immigrants.

What can be said in Le Pen’s favor is very simple: She is a warning to mainstream conservative parties everywhere not to neglect patriotic and traditionalist voters on a wide range of issues — but especially on protecting their national identity, their patriotic values, and their democratic sovereignty. Conservative leaders who ignore this lesson will end up looking like unemployed corporate lawyers in a bad year for the economy. Such leaders and such parties win only by default when their opponents self-destruct. Marine Le Pen seems unlikely to be so obliging. Even François Hollande, like Mitterrand before him, may prove adept at abandoning socialist principle if it looks like being personally inconvenient. We can only hope.

— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.

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