Politics & Policy

The French Election: A Temporary Triumph for the Status Quo

Emmanuel Macron speaks at a campaign rally in Marseille, April 1, 2017. (Reuters photo: Philippe Laurenson)
Emmanuel Macron’s likely victory over Marine Le Pen will not resolve France’s crisis.

‘Huge Earthquake in France. Not Much Damaged.’ That would make a perfectly accurate headline for reports on the first round of France’s presidential election yesterday. On paper it was a dramatic overthrow of the status quo. Candidates of the traditional conservative and socialist parties that have dominated French politics since the Second World War (and, arguably, under different names for far longer) were eliminated from the race — along with a charismatic old-Left warhorse supported by the Communists. Two “outsiders” were sent into the final round on May the 7th. “Centrist” Emmanuel Macron led “far Right” candidate Marine Le Pen by a margin of 24 percent over 22 percent. On the morning after, Macron is universally seen as France’s next president. He represents youth, hope, the future, change. Things will never be the same again, etc., etc.

Except that Macron was a leading minister in the government of France’s unpopular current president, the socialist party’s François Hollande, who seemingly withheld his support from the centrist turncoat only because he was advised it would damage him. Both defeated candidates of the old parties, now supposedly reeling from defeat, have joined together to urge their supporters to back Macron in the next round, as have European Union leaders, heads of government, and almost all other establishment worthies. And it is highly misleading to describe the two surviving candidates as either centrist or far-right. These descriptions belong to a dying political spectrum, born in the French revolution, going from the right (representing church, business, tradition, the bourgeoisie) to the left (representing secularism, labor unions, radical bohemianism, and “workers and intellectuals”). That opposition of beliefs and interests has less and less relevance to the real divisions and ruptures in modern French (and European) life. And the seeming break-up of the traditional party system is in reality a surprisingly smooth transition to a new system in which most of the former leading figures emerge from behind smoke and mirrors wearing different colors and spouting new rhetoric or “values.”

Think of this new system as a jigsaw puzzle that has yet to be fully assembled. Here are just some of the individual pieces lying on the carpet. How do they fit together?

1. France’s socialist party — currently holding the presidency and a significant slice of the National Assembly — won less than 7 percent of the national vote. That’s almost a European trend; orthodox Left parties get a sharply declining share of the national vote in Spain, Britain, Central Europe, Holland, Poland, Hungary, etc., etc. as insurgent parties of left and right emerge to better represent popular discontents. In almost all cases this decline is caused by a split between “workers and intellectuals” in which middle-class intellectuals, generally in the public sector, take over the party, and blue-collar workers leave it for new parties that offer various blends of nationalism and welfare together with opposition to economic globalization (or in establishment-speak, “populism”).

2. Center-right parties such as the Republicans in France (the heirs of the Gaullists keep changing their name) are also threatened by the rise of “populism.” But the threat is less immediate, and the character of the “populist” challenge to conservatism is different. It comes from those social conservatives who feel that their morality, religious traditions, and family structures are under siege from the moral and sexual radicalism of courts and state bureaucracies that promote such causes as removing a right of conscientious objection to performing abortions, restricting parental rights in education and welfare, prohibiting expressions of religious faith, and much else. The largest public protests ever seen in France took place in opposition to Hollande’s legalization of same-sex marriage.

3. Both sorts of “populism” make common cause on such matters as defending borders and national identities, opposing mass migration, resistance to loss of national sovereignty, skepticism about the transfer of powers from national governments to international bodies, and sometimes Euro-skepticism, which in France means support for leaving both the euro and the EU.

4. When center-left and center-right parties have been threatened in recent years by the rise of populism, they have responded to it not by making concessions to win back their voters but by forgetting their differences on taxes and spending and joining together to form a stronger resistance to it. So-called “Grand Coalitions” of left and right now govern not only Germany (where they were an invention of the 1960s) but also Sweden, Holland, and the European Parliament itself. France’s election shows an oddly similar pattern: Macron represents a “centrism of all the parties” against the challenge of Le Pen’s populism. It sets the entire French establishment and all the traditional parties against the National Front. Other things being equal, that would suggest that Le Pen represents the kind of tiny fringe that extremist parties obtain in the U.S. and the U.K. But she won a fifth of the vote in a crowded field, and she will almost certainly win more than a third in two weeks’ time. She’s the champion of large sections of the French people. But what separates her from the other side? What do the two sides stand for? And who votes for them?

5. Now is the time to turn to two recent and important articles by Charlie Cooke in National Review and by Chris Caldwell in City Journal. Brutally over-simplifying and then combining these two theses, what’s just happened is that the party system has caught up with the changing demography of France and its electoral system. Think of the electorate as divided — as Caesar divided Gaul in fact — into three parts: the France that has prospered from globalization; the France that has arrived through globalization; and the France that has been left behind by globalization. Republican and socialist parties have both had support from prosperous France — broadly speaking, the public sector voting for the socialists, the private for the Republicans — with both celebrating the advance of modern globalist, multicultural, and Europeanist ideas. The Left has had the lion’s share of support from the France that has arrived in recent years — Hollande’s last victory five years ago was celebrated by crowds waving Palestinian flags. And the France that has been left behind has increasingly thrown its weight behind the National Front. In strictly numerical terms that meant the National Front was becoming a serious challenger for power against two weakening entities. But since the France being left behind was more or less excluded from public debate, the terms of that debate were heavily slanted against Le Pen. As Caldwell notes mordantly, politicians in the major parties suddenly began talking not about free and unfree societies but about “open” versus “closed” ones and issuing warnings about “xenophobia” and “nationalism” to voters who rarely strayed from their own districts. A centrist agenda of global governance, “more Europe,” open borders, multiculturalism, free trade, and the pre-eminence of international law became the common ground of soi-disant modernizers across the spectrum. And what had been the standard beliefs of ordinary Frenchmen only yesterday — the superiority of French culture, laïcité, and France’s specific republican ideal of citizenship — gradually became shameful prejudices not to be admitted in polite society even if politicians occasionally exploited them for votes. Charlie Cooke describes how the ordinary French people he encountered were nervously suspicious of talking politics candidly and easily to him. There were too many trap-doors in a political conversation, especially if you were an FN voter.

What had been the standard beliefs of ordinary Frenchmen only yesterday gradually became shameful prejudices not to be admitted in polite society.

6. What prevented the establishment parties from riding these new verities to an easy electoral victory was that these parties and the results they delivered were unpopular. Unions halted any liberalizing measures; the over-valued euro exchange rate meant that the costs of the resulting inefficiency were much higher. Together with the growing crisis over terrorism, this ensured that Hollande and his government were increasingly despised. In most previous elections the center-right party would have come into power and pursued a slightly modified version of the same progressive agenda à la Sarkozy. But the relentless rise of the National Front meant that there was now a serious alternative to this revolving-door me-tooism. And François Fillon, the center-right’s unexpected candidate, could see that he needed something much more radical both to revive France economically and to win back the social conservatives his party had abandoned. His combination of Thatcherite economics and social conservatism, however, was only slightly less distasteful to the broader French establishment — which is still both statist and progressive — than Le Pen’s populism.

Two things then happened: First, Fillon was destroyed by judicial leaks and attacks unprecedented against a presidential candidate; second, the Left progressives abandoned the socialist candidate — a decent fellow doomed by Hollande’s record — and adopted their former colleague, Macron, as a new centrist contender. He is now a certainty for the presidency despite being the heir of Hollande and the champion of the unpopular establishment. As Charlie Cooke predicted, the French, moving right, will elect a left-wing president. Or as the French immortally say: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The game is not over. Macron can’t be defeated in this round, but he will probably suffer some loss of reputation at the hands of Marine Le Pen in debate. His major problem is that despite the media chatter about reforms, he is the candidate of the status quo. That commits him to the Europeanist and progressive policies that have made Hollande unpopular. Worse, Macron is a more candid champion of such policies than any of their original architects. He has gone so far as to charge that French colonialism was a crime against humanity, to deny that there is any such thing as French culture, and to call for open borders. Unless he changes both politically and rhetorically, he will encourage the drift of native-born Frenchmen to the National Front. And he will do so in the face of two dangerous trends: the continuing turmoil produced by Islamist terrorism in France, and the silent destruction of jobs, ever higher up the occupational ladder, by domestic automation aggravated by globalist competition. France is in a serious crisis about itself that will get far worse in the next presidential term. If Macron faced any opponent other than Ms. Le Pen who, somewhat unfairly, cannot shake off her family’s past, he would be defeated. Before long a less tarnished political entrepreneur on the right will realize the fact, steal some of Le Pen’s policies, and add his own to fashion a winning costume.

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

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