Opinion |

The Populist Monster Still Won More Votes Than Macron

Moderate parties need to engage with the pain, frustration and resentment of those who feel left out, in order to connect with them the same way the likes of Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon did in France

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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A man walking past campaign posters of French presidential election candidates Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, April 21, 2017.
A man walking past campaign posters of French presidential election candidates Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, April 21, 2017.Credit: JEFF PACHOUD/AFP
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

The outcome of the first round of France’s presidential election produced sighs of relief throughout most of the Free World. The nightmare scenario that would have destroyed what's left of the liberal West – in which far-right leader Marine Le Pen and extreme leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon would face each other in the second round – has been avoided.

But there is no reason to rejoice. As many commentators have pointed out, Emmanuel Macron’s victory on Sunday May 7 is far from assured. Hard-line leftists and rightists not only dislike him, their certainty that his victory is assured might stop them voting for him to block Le Pen.

There is, however, a second reason why those who cherish Western values like individual freedom, equality before the law and rational political discourse should not feel so relieved. Over 40 percent of French voters were swayed by populists whose political platforms partly border on sheer madness and who could destroy France’s economy, if not bankrupt the country altogether. Moreover, those populists would put the final nail in the coffin of a liberal order that has, by and large, held the world together for the past seven decades.

Mélenchon’s socialist Utopia

While Mélenchon’s platform features positive aspects like an emphasis on ecologically sustainable modes of production and consumption, his economic program is not feasible and would destroy an already stagnant French economy. His cure for France’s skyrocketing youth unemployment – to lower the retirement age to 60 – is sheer folly. With most pension schemes already in actuarial bankruptcy and unable to meet their obligations within slightly more than a decade, most countries are considering raising the retirement age.

Moreover, the main reason for France’s enormous unemployment among the young lies with the country’s labor laws. French legislation stifles entrepreneurship to such a degree that even established companies can barely risk hiring young people, who will be difficult to fire when business is bad. In fact, new ventures are so paralyzed by the current law that even social democrats are seeking to change them. The same holds for the 35-hour work week – a measure Mélenchon wants to preserve, even though it is one of the main reasons the French economy is stagnant.

Finally, Mélenchon wants France to leave NATO and join ALBA (aka the Bolivarian Alliance), which was founded in 2004 by Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, two tyrannical leaders who kept their countries in deep poverty in the name of lofty socialist ideals. Mélenchon, a fiery orator, is selling a nostalgic vision for a golden communist past that has never existed and would push France into a strange alliance with South American populists, on the one hand, and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the other.

Le Pen’s nativist populism

Marine Le Pen’s model of right-wing populism is quite similar to those seen in Hungary, Poland and the United States. In France, her law-and-order rhetoric and anti-immigration stance is shared by many citizens – not necessarily only from the extreme right, but also those who voted for François Fillon. Other elements of her platform, however, are nothing but rhetoric.

Le Pen’s program includes reinstituting the French franc and leaving the eurozone. And while the eurozone does has severe structural deficiencies, calculations show, time and again, that reinstating the franc would have an immediate and disastrous effect on the French economy.

The same holds true for Le Pen’s proposal to close France’s borders and reinstate border controls – a measure that would instantly hugely hike up transportation costs and further slow an already stagnant economy.

As political scientist Jan Werner Müller showed in his excellent analysis of populism, populist discourse always claims to speak in the name of a mythical entity – a unified people of common descent with a common will – and attacks the so-called alienated elites who are perceived as disconnected from the people.

Furthermore, populists claim to express the unified will of the people, which explains Le Pen’s sympathy to other nativist, populist leaders like Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump. Le Pen’s belief that there is an organic entity called “the French people” is as fictitious as Putin’s concept of “the Russian soul,” Trump’s “true Americans” or the idea of “true Jews” evoked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman or Interior Minister Arye Dery.

How can the reasonable center hold?

Analyses of the rise of populism have abounded in recent years, mostly emphasizing the instability of economic and social structures created by the technology-driven and high-speed process of globalization. But research shows that the most powerful factor fueling populist movements worldwide is the growing sense of many citizens that their way of life, their cultural identity and the extent to which they feel at home in their homeland is threatened. These sentiments are condensed in Le Pen’s slogan “On est chez nous,” which roughly means “We are in our home.”

Indeed, political and intellectual elites have not paid sufficient attention to the deep discomfort of many citizens in their countries – whether in the European Union or the United States. But the argument that those seduced by populist discourse rarely have in-depth knowledge of the true causes for their discomfort is often justified. Think about Trump’s canard that Mexican immigration is to be blamed for unemployment in the United States – a ridiculous claim given the net rate of Mexican immigration in the last five years has been negative, and that former President Barack Obama’s policies have been quite effective in lowering unemployment.

But talking down to those who feel disenfranchised, whether they are French, American or Israeli, is counterproductive: It only increases the attractiveness of populist discourse, which promises nonexistent, simple solutions to immensely complex problems.

Moderate parties (whether left or right of the center) that want to maintain a civilized and rational standard of discourse need to truly engage with the pain, frustration and resentment of those who feel left out. Only when moderate parties liberate themselves from the shackles of political correctness and address hard questions openly will they be able to regain the trust of citizens who would otherwise only feel listened to by populists.

Anyone who needs an example should look toward the issue of immigration: Leftists often believe addressing the necessity to limit immigration automatically leads to racism and xenophobia. But we have to realize that the ideal of multiculturalism has limits, and that societies need a minimal cultural common denominator to function socially and politically. Countries have the right – and duty – to inquire how many immigrants can truly be integrated into their societies and economies, and how much cultural diversity their democracy can contain.

It is legitimate to ask whether potential immigrants who do not accept the basic principles of modern liberal democracy – like gender equality – can truly be integrated into liberal democracies. Such questions need neither be fueled by racism nor Islamophobia. Only then can sustainable immigration policies be maintained that do not threaten political and social cohesion.

The time has come for liberal political and intellectual elites to venture out of their ivory tower and start addressing, directly and respectfully, the woes of those who disagree with them. Only if we show that difficult questions can be addressed rationally and with respect for human rights can we counter the lure of populism and protect the future of liberal democracy.

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