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The New Face of Europe

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Paris continues to be rocked by protests and urban violence directed at French police and allegations that they are deliberately targeting minority groups and poor neighborhoods. Most protests have been peaceful, but there have also been violent incidents with hooded and masked provocateurs burning cars – now a French tradition – and hurling paving stones and Molotov cocktails at police, who have responded vigorously with tear gas and baton charges to clear streets. There has been considerable vandalism and property damage as well. There have been demonstrations and clashes with riot police since February 2nd when a young black man, identified only as Theo, was stopped by police during an identity check targeting drug dealers. What followed was fully captured on CCTV video: four officers surrounded Theo, who was insulted, spat upon and quickly hurled to the ground. Once on the ground, he was pepper-sprayed, beaten and sodomized with police batons, then hauled off to the police precinct. The victim’s injuries required surgery and he remains hospitalized, while the four officers involved have been suspended pending a criminal investigation.

Nevertheless, the Parisian banlieue remain a powder keg. Official neglect, impoverishment, police discrimination and brutality, hopeless: this is the daily experience of many residents of places like Bobigny, Aulnay-sous-Bois and Argenteuil. Residents of these districts are not mollified by the official response to the incident; they remember the 2005 acquittal of officers involved in the death of two youths from Aulnay-sous-Bois during a chase and fear a similar degree of impunity. Another acquittal – however unlikely it appears – could set this kindling ablaze.

This drama is playing out in the context of a moribund French economy, nine years of financial crisis and uncertainty, an immigration crisis, repeated terrorist attacks that have shocked France and the world, a continual state of emergency and the most ineffectual president since René Coty[1]. The British vote to leave Europe and the election of Donald Trump further emphasize that all of the old political certainties have gone out the window: new ideas are coming to the fore and being tested, whether the defenders of the status quo wish it or not. At the vanguard of this change is Marine Le Pen, whose National Front has grown from a laughable fringe group in 1972[2] to the front-runner in this year’s election. The party has capitalized on the same forces that drove Brexit and Trump: economic malaise, voter discontent with distant and unresponsive elites, fear or terrorism, anti-immigrant sentiment, a fear of losing the globalization game, and a perception by people of the loss of control over their lives and futures. Mrs. Le Pen offers a solution to that: a referendum on the Euro, NATO membership and the death penalty; taking back control of France’s borders to prevent waves of immigrants from entering and competing for French jobs in a race to the bottom; protection for French industries; anti-globalization; defense of French culture against Islamization.

Marine Le Pen espoused “France First” long before Donald Trump stole the phrase and made it his own, something he is wont to do. She is the most recognizable of the new faces of Europe, but she is by no means alone: the far right already governs in two EU states and is mounting increasingly viable challenges in countries across the European Union. Even Germany, whose history makes the alt right almost anathema, is increasingly flittering with its own variant of the populist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant wave surging over the continent.

Arrayed against Mrs. Le Pen are a dysfunctional cast of characters drawn directly from the French political caste. The incumbent President, François Hollande, has been so incompetent that his own party won’t let him near a ballot box. The Socialist Party instead chose Benoit Hamon, a junior Minister for Economy, Finance and External Trade under the current government. Mr. Hamon defeated Manuel Valls, who as Interior Minister and later Prime Minister under Hollande was felt to be too exposed by his bosses’ deep unpopularity. Mr. Hamon was junior enough to escape this taint, but also junior enough that he remains a relative unknown among French voters; and his vision of the French economy has been described by some commentators as “utopian”. The Socialist candidate is also challenged on the left by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Communist minister under Lionel Jospin and founder of the Left Front when he felt the Socialists were too moderate in their policies.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the flamboyant Nicolas Sarkozy was delivered a shock defeat for the Republican nomination by hard right opponent François Fillon. Mr. Fillon was Prime Minister under Mr. Sarkozy’s government from 2007 to 2012 and is a conservative catholic who has held a variety of elected and ministerial posts in his 25-year political career. While initially polling strongly, particularly with conservatives who could be prospective Le Pen supporters, Mr. Fillon was undone by the revelation that he had paid over 900,000 euros over eight years to his wife for fake employment. His defense was that “everyone does this” – which is precisely what infuriates so many voters about the Establishment, in France and everywhere else. Now under formal investigation, two thirds of French voters have expressed their desire that Mr. Fillon drop out of the race, though he stubbornly resists.

Then there is Emmanuel Macron, who today stands the best chance of defeating Mrs. Le Pen. Mr. Macron is not exactly a career politician – he left the civil services to work as an investment banker at Rothschild & Cie where he made a mint of money – then returned to politics. He was a Socialist until 2009, then evolved into an independent, and now has formed a new political party called En Marche! and which could be described as a classically liberal (i.e. free market) social democratic party. Mr. Macron has stated that he wishes to straddle the left-right divide in France, apparently unaware that recent candidates who have attempted to bridge this yawning chasm have typically fallen into the gulf. He is nevertheless charismatic and popular with voters desperate for an alternative to the traditional parties yet not the National Front. Mr. Macron’s popularity suffered recently from controversial remarks he made regarding France’s colonial past in Algeria (a “crime against humanity”) and his defense of gay marriage opponents (they had been “stigmatized and humiliated” under Hollande)[3].

All of this makes me deeply uneasy: just like Donald Trump proved the perfect foil to Hillary Clinton, I foresee a similar situation favoring Mrs. Le Pen.

Voter intention polls say that the race remains wide open, though Mrs. Le Pen is almost certain to win a seat at the second round. Mr. Macron remains her most likely contender, but there is the possibility that Messrs. Hamon and Melenchon could stitch up their differences and unite the French left. That would be an awful scenario – I believe Mrs. Le Pen would easily defeat a hard left candidate after the debacle of the current Socialist government. That leaves the challenge from Mr. Macron. Here it is more difficult to determine the eventual victor, but I believe Mrs. Le Pen retains the advantage:

  • She has the most loyal base in French politics;
  • Her party is going from strength to strength, while En Marche! has no track record;
  • Her ideology is ascendant in Europe and the United States, whereas centrist and leftist ideologies have been on the defensive, if not openly in the retreat, for years.

Pundits continue to regard a National Front victory as an extreme long-shot. They argue that the French political system is specifically designed to prevent the victory of extremist parties by forcing a run-off election two weeks after the first round if no candidate wins an absolute majority. They are confident that even if Le Pen wins the first round, voters will rally around whomever her opponent is in order to prevent her victory. Disturbingly, I’ve heard that discourse before: from Democrats and media commentators who were sure that no one in their right mind would vote for Donald Trump and that even Republicans would swallow their distaste at Mrs. Clinton to prevent such an obvious radical from winning the election. There are a number of good reasons why this hopeful prophecy might prove disastrously false again.

  1. Polls consistently underestimate support for alt-right candidates.

French polls have Mrs. Le Pen losing by 20-point margins against both Macron and Fillon, her most likely opponents. But these “hypothetical polls” have become increasingly unreliable. The key reason is that many people respond with what they think the pollsters wish to hear; if a candidate is painted as a radical and a racist, many people will not wish to say they support them, even if they do. So how many conservatives say they would support Macron, but when they get to the polling station find that they simply can’t bring themselves to vote for the former socialist? How many leftists say they will support Fillon, but find that on Election Day they just can’t bring themselves to vote for either right-wing candidate and will go have steak frites instead?

This phenomenon was clearly demonstrated in the American election, with far higher support than expected for Donald Trump among women, unionists and Hispanics, and far lower turnout rates for Hillary Clinton in her key demographic segments. But before we dismiss this as an Americanism, or a peculiarity of a one-round voting system, we can observe the same phenomenon in the recent Austrian Presidential election, which also uses a run-off system. In this election, the right-wing candidate Norbert Hofer consistently trailed his opponents in first round and second round voting intentions by 10 to 15 points, yet he handily won the first round by 14 points and lost the second round by only 60 basis points: thirty thousand votes out of 4.5 million cast.

  1. When given the chance, voters are increasingly willing to give the Establishment a kick in the pants.

In fact, they increasingly look forward to it. The French electoral system, like all run-off electoral systems, is designed to prevent a radical party from winning the elections. In the first round, you vote for who you want; in the second round, you vote against whom you fear. This promotes political stability, but also fosters political stalemate, described as the société bloquée by renowned French sociologist Michael Crozier. And like a pressure cooker with a blocked valve, blocked societies have a tendency to blow up. Like in Aulnay-sous-Bois. The system works fine so long as the majority of the people believe that the system is still working for them; but when that believe evaporates, as it did in the US, and as it has increasingly in Europe, then people vote for whichever anti-system party offers them hope for change even if they don’t agree with the entire program of that party.

  1. To get a better indication than the polls, look at voter support for the issues and see how they align with the parties.

People don’t want to be labeled as racist or fascist by pollsters who ask them about their level of support for a candidate who is actively being called racist and fascist, but they are much more willing to describe their level of support for discrete actions or policies on topics like immigration, security, the economy, protectionism, open borders. And these topics align very well with party positions. So how do French voters feel about the key “hot button” issues that the National Front has staked a clear position on?

  • An IFOP[4] poll conducted for Le Figaro found that 99% of respondents felt that the terrorist threat to their country was “high” or “very high”, and 67% did not trust the authorities to deal with it;
  • A 2016 Pew Center poll found a deepening trend of euro-skepticism in France and across Europe, as well as voter dissatisfaction for the way the EU has handled both the economic and refugee crises. These are key messages promoted by the National Front;

  • The most recent IFOP survey of French attitudes, in January 2017, revealed some disturbing trends in social attitudes including strong sentiments of mistrust and disgust with current politics, lack of confidence in both Left and Right to govern the country, a desire for greater protection of the French economy, and a view that Islam presents a threat to the Republic. These are all positions that could potentially favor an outsider like Marine Le Pen, though the same survey shows strongly negative views of the National Front candidate.

All of these trends, as well as the sense that 2017 might very well be “the year of destiny” for the alternative right, have made the unthinkable not only thinkable, but a probability that must be calculated and taken into account. Markets are slowly beginning to do this: a Le Pen victory, with her promise of a Euro referendum, could trigger a sell-off of the single currency and everything priced in it that would make the height of the recent financial crisis look like a slow day at the exchanges. Bond prices are already beginning to diverge, though this is because of the possibility of an ECB taper and the end of helicopter money than to any fear of a Euro implosion. But wait until Le Pen passes the first round – pressure on French and Southern European bonds will shoot up dramatically, which may force Draghi into another “pronouncement”[5]…which will in turn inflame German public opinion against an “out of control” ECB just in time for their own elections in August-September.

A Marine Le Pen victory would not automatically destroy the Euro or the European Union – though it might do both. What is certain, however, is that it would fundamentally change the nature of the European project. Forget about “ever closer union”; forget about Schengen and the free movement of peoples across borders. The concept of a “Europe of Europeans” would revert back to one of “Europe of European nationalities”. Brussels would be increasingly challenged to revert substantial powers back to the sovereign nations, with Le Pen finding eager supporters among the Eastern European members, especially Poland and Hungary. The repercussions of a Le Pen victory would have a huge impact on the not yet scheduled Italian elections as well as the negotiations over the fourth Greek bailout, which needs to be completed before Athens runs out of money in June. And it would put pressure on Angela Merkel, whose popularity has been waning before her own elections this summer.

Abraham Lincoln once said: “the hen is the wisest of all the animal creation, because she never cackles until the egg is laid.” It is far too soon and much too unwise for the French to cackle over Mrs. Le Pen’s “inevitable” defeat. Her chances at winning are better than most people believe them to be and that in itself is dangerous.

Good night and good luck.


Sources and Notes

[1] René Coty (1882-1962) was the second and last President of the Fourth Republic. During his tenure, the Algerian Crisis reached its peak and his ineffectual response lost his the respect and support of the military and broad segments of the public, paving the way for de Gaulle and the Fifth (current) French Republic.

[2] The National Front was founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father. He was a much more radical Nazi and Vichy apologist whom no one took seriously. Mrs. Le Pen ousted her father from his party leadership role in 2011 and has substantially moderated the most pro-fascist and anti-Semitic elements of the ideology: though it is anyone’s guess if this is sincere or an electoral tactic.

[3] Macron is on record supporting gay marriage; it was his defense of gay marriage opponents which has been called “pandering to the right” by left-wing commentators.

[4] IFOP is the French Institute of Public Opinion.

[5] From Mario Draghi’s famous press conference of July 26, 2012 when he said: “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.”

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