Analysis

Republic of Despair: The Winner in France Will Have to Understand the Reasons for the Rage

Even if Emmanuel Macron routs Marine Le Pen, the centrist can’t ignore the frustration based on collapsing industries and ailing agriculture

People burn litter as they protest in Paris, Sunday, April 23, 2017.
Emilio Morenatti/AP

If the election forecasts pan out tonight but what good are forecasts today? we’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Good will prevail, France will be saved, and liberty, equality and fraternity won’t succumb to Marine Le Pen’s flames of hatred. There will be no massive expulsion of innocent foreigners, France’s borders won’t be closed and Europe won’t disintegrate.

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Still, we mustn’t ignore the millions of French citizens who choose Le Pen over Emmanuel Macron. Like the Americans who voted for Donald Trump and the British who voted for Brexit, Le Pen voters aren’t necessarily racists. Not all of them seek to dredge up the demons of the past or set off World War III. Their votes reflect genuine frustration and despair, and it would be a mistake to view a victory of the French center as a reason to ignore their needs.

Surprisingly it’s Macron, an economics expert who emerged from the world of investment banking, who might be the president who can quell popular anger, as he has promised. Maybe he can find the right balance between global trade and protectionism and reconcile economic prosperity with social prosperity.

The statistics in the French media tell the story: Between 150 and 600 French farmers commit suicide annually in the face of competition from other European countries and the prospect of selling at a loss. And French farmers aren't alone. The past 50 years have seen the working class in developed countries wiped out in a process that continues to this day. Entire industries have collapsed, particularly in the French provinces. Le Pen has called this a forgotten France, and she might be right.

The beginning of the decade saw calls around the world, including in Israel, for politicians to work for social justice. In the years since, the demands have sounded like a utopian slogan, a fantasy that only naive people and fans of conspiracy theories about “the system” believe. The powerlessness of moderate governments amid the damage caused by capitalism is one reason for the success of extremist candidates.

There is no conspiracy, but there is inequality. A June 2016 report by Boston Consulting Group found that 1 percent of the world’s population holds 47 percent of the wealth – up from 44 percent in 2009. This year the figure is expected to pass 50 percent.

According to a January report by Oxfam, the world’s eight top billionaires hold wealth equivalent to that of the poorer one-half of the world’s population. And candidates such as Trump and Le Pen who have run against the system highlight these disparities and promise magic solutions. He promises “America first” while she speaks of France withdrawing from the European Union and starting from scratch. The advantage that a Trump or Le Pen has over a Hillary Clinton or Macron is that at least they talk about the elephant in the room.

The economic frustration that Le Pen has exploited has added a tribal dimension. She has promised to pay welfare benefits to French citizens only, for example. In many countries, including France and Israel, the right and far right have appropriated national symbols while the left has stuck with militant individualism and nice but meaningless expressions like “I'm a citizen of the world.”

Terrorist attacks in France, which over the past two years have killed more than 230 people, are a reminder that sometimes even in the center of Paris or Nice, French people are targeted simply because they're French. Unsurprisingly, a rise in nationalist sentiment has helped Le Pen, who has always portrayed herself as an ardent patriot. During crises there's an increasingly fine line between loving people like yourself and hating people who are different.

If Macron is elected, he’ll have to understand what has generated the rage and seek solutions. Meanwhile, in the United States, Britain and Israel, there's a need to examine the people’s frustration that spawns simple but dangerous ideas, pinning the blame for the world’s ills on the weak – immigrants, refugees and Muslims.

Movements on the left, which have long given up national symbols and in some cases have embraced unrestrained free markets, will have to propose a peaceful alternative to the problems that the far right has identified better than the left. Otherwise, the wave of hatred will only intensify, and who knows if in the next election there will be anything to stop it.