Politics & Policy

France’s Tragedy

Campaign posters of Le Pen and Macron in Paris (Reuters photo: Gonzalo Fuentes)

Once again, the French will avoid reform.

As had been predicted in the polls, the second round of this year’s presidential election will pit the self-professed “centrist,” Emmanuel Macron, against the nationalist “populist,” Marine Le Pen. The newly minted Republican party, which had at one point seemed a shoo-in but whose candidate succumbed to scandal, will be nowhere to be seen. Neither will the once-vivacious parti socialiste, the now-terminal parti communiste, or even the Greens. Instead, French voters will be asked to choose between Macron, a partyless cipher whose main political achievement hitherto has been to serve under the most unpopular president in modern French history, and Le Pen, the savvy daughter of the fascist gadfly, Jean-Marie. Neither choice is a suitable one.

Seduced perhaps by the frivolous comparisons to Donald Trump — and impressed by her willingness to talk about crime, immigration, and the European Union — some American conservatives have assumed that Le Pen must be a fellow spirit. This is incorrect. Au contraire: Le Pen is a statist of the most destructive kind. Economically, she sounds exactly as you would expect a politician to sound if her party had recently absorbed a few hundred thousand former-communist voters: She is against entitlement reform in a nation that is creaking under the weight of its unfulfillable promises; she hopes to expand, not limit, welfare payments; she favors reducing the retirement age, despite an obvious aging crisis; she opposes the privatization of failing public industries; and she wishes to leave untouched the country’s destructive 35-hour work week. Whatever anger she is channeling, France’s sclerotic growth would be worse, not better, under her agenda. In comparison, Donald Trump looks like F. A. Hayek.

Le Pen is no friend to religious liberty, having adopted wholesale the French concept of laïcité that drives the faithful from the public square, and her current view on abortion is that it should not only be “unquestioned” but should be “fully reimbursed” by the state. On the matter of foreign affairs, there is no more elegant way to describe her than as an “anti-American.” Le Pen is hostile toward NATO and accommodating toward Vladimir Putin, with whom, the French press reports, she has arranged a diabolical quid pro quo that traded her silence after the Russian annexation of Crimea for a series of Kremlin-backed loans to her party. Predictably, she has cast free trade as a neo-liberal plot to undermine French manufacturers that, in reality, have not been competitive for decades. Sadly, even her admirable willingness to engage with French unease on immigration is tainted by extremism. There is a sensible road to be trodden between distaste for all restrictionism and flat-out xenophobia. With her promise to end all immigration into France, Marine Le Pen has not found that road.

A Macron presidency threatens to exacerbate the resentments and the cultural unease that have pushed so many in France into Le Pen’s arms.

Alas, neither has Emmanuel Macron, who, while clearly preferable to Le Pen, represents a missed opportunity in his own right. Economically, Macron has made a few cursory nods toward retrenchment — he hopes to cut the bureaucracy and lower corporate taxes, and has pledged to reduce France’s deficit — but he remains a socialist at heart. Under a Macron presidency, the welfare state will be expanded rather than limited; the 35-hour work week will at best be tinkered with; and, give or a take a few details, the status quo he helped President Hollande put in place will be left well alone.

Worse still, a Macron presidency threatens to exacerbate the resentments and the cultural unease that have pushed so many in France into Le Pen’s arms. Macron seems to have no understanding of why immigration is a source of tension, and, given his tendency to make claims such as that “there is no such thing as French culture,” he will be the perfect foil for the malcontents if the economy continues to stutter and the Islamist attacks continue to mount.

Like much of the rest of the world, Europe at present is deep in the throes of an anti-globalist moment. That France seems destined to meet that moment with a devout Europhile who was once a Rothschild banker is less than ideal. That, despite it all, he is the best option on offer, is nothing short of a tragedy.

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The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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