BIEN-PENSANT EUROPE & THE RISE OF POPULIST RIGHT
"Since becoming leader of France's Front National in January, Marine Le Pen has started to shift her party away from the far right. She has not only dropped the overt racism and Islamophobia of her father but also adopted hard-left economic policies. "Left and right don't mean anything anymore – both left and right are for the EU, the euro, free trade and immigration," she said when opposing me in a recent dinner debate on the future of Europe in Paris. "For 30 years, left and right have been the same; the real fracture is now between those who support globalisation and nationalists...."
She presents her party as a nationalist force – in British terms, the United Kingdom Independence Party rather than the British National Party. In its hostility to the EU and to immigration, the Front National has much in common with Austria’s Freedom Party, the Danish Peoples’ Party, the True Finns, the Sweden Democrats and Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. Populist, illiberal parties are flourishing in the most sophisticated, liberal societies of Northern Europe.
Although Le Pen is changing her party's brand, she is no Gianfranco Fini: he led his party away from neo-fascism towards the pro-European centre of Italian politics. Le Pen's European policies remain extreme: she urges France to leave not only the euro but also the EU. Her economic platform is one of national economic autarky: she wants to protect France from globalisation by erecting high tariff barriers. Her economic platform is in fact quite close to that of Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the veteran anti-European and former Socialist minister. Earlier this month she appealed to Chevènement to work with her – but he rebuffed her advances.
Le Pen's line on the euro and the EU may be extreme, but given the mess that Europe is in, her views may not cost her votes among those who want to kick the Paris and Brussels elites for their (apparent) complacency, smugness and incompetence. She wants France to leave the euro so that it can devalue and become more competitive. While China and the US benefit from being able to devalue, she said, the eurozone suffers from low economic growth. "To save the euro we are asking the Greeks to make huge sacrifices through austerity, and soon we will ask the same of people elsewhere, even in France. The euro will lead to war."
When I responded that devaluation would destroy the French people's purchasing power, she said that only 'BCBGs' (short for bon chic bon genre, that is to say the fashionable middle class) would complain about devaluation; they buy the foreign goods and holidays that would cost more, whereas most poor people buy things made in France (a point that is highly debatable).
She complained about sovereignty draining away to Brussels and said that we live in a Union Soviétique Européenne. The EU represents the interests of big financial groups, she said, and encourages immigration in order to put downward pressure on salaries. She said that her country needs a French agricultural policy, rather than a Common Agricultural Policy, since the CAP was giving too much aid to Central Europeans....
When I said that rather than trying to compete directly with China, France should go up market and produce goods and services that the Chinese cannot, she argued that they could now beat France in any industry – as they were doing by building high-speed trains. I responded by praising the prowess of France’s world-beating companies in areas such as luxury goods, agribusiness, energy and aerospace – so she joked that the best proponents of Sarkozyism came from Britain.
The obvious critique of her line on the EU is that France, on its own, is rather small compared to China and other emerging powers, and that it therefore needs the EU to amplify its voice in the world. But she had no truck with that argument, saying that France on its own had a big voice. "I am a gaullienne, and the general would be horrified to see the EU today…I want an association of sovereign nation-states; that would allow us to influence Russia and the wider world." And when I suggested that the EU had the merit of constraining German power, she said Germany already dominated the EU. "When Germany has a constitutional problem, we change the EU treaty; but if France has a problem, we have to change our constitution...."
I think Le Pen is right when she says that the main political divide in Europe is between nationalists and globalisers. But the solutions that she offers to complex problems are far too simple. Her language resonates with the common man: she is on the side of the little people against foreigners, international bureaucrats and big capitalists. And her economic nationalism goes down particularly well in France, a country that is probably more hostile to globalisation than any other European country".
Charles Grant, "Marine Le Pen and the Rise of the Populist Right," Centre for European Reform 20 July 2011, in www.cer.org.uk.
"Men live not in markets but in communities. For the past few hundred years, those communities have been grouped, voluntarily or (more often) coercively, in states. After the experiences of 1914-1945, Europeans everywhere felt an urgent need for the state: the politics and social agendas of the 1940's reflect this anxiety above everything else. With economic prosperity, social peace and international stability, however, that need slowly evaporated....Legitimacy is a function of capacity: it is in part because the disarticulated, ultra-federal state of Belgium, e.g. has sometimes appeared to not keep its citizen safe that its legitimacy has been called into question. And although the capacity of the state begins with arms it does not end there, even today. So long as it is the state---rather than a trans-state entity---which pays pensions, insures the unemployed and educates children, then that state's monopoly of a certain sort of political legitimacy will continue unchallenged. Over the course of the twentieth century the European nation-state took on considerable responsibilities for is citizen's welfare, security and well-being. In recent years its has shed its intrusive over-sight of private morality and some-but not all-of its economic initiative. The rest remains intact."
Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945(2005).
With last week's horrific events in Norway it is easy and indeed almost morally justified to dismiss out of hand the arguments and nay indeed the thinking of the likes of Mlle. Le Pen. And indeed avant the events in question, Mr. Charles Grant cogently if rather one-sidedly makes the classical bien- pensant argument against right-wing Populist politics. And to be perfectly honest, Mr. Grant does indeed score a good number of debating points vis-`a-vis Mlle. Le Pen. An exercise which au fond is hardly a difficult one. Regardless of this factum and regardless of the fact that most if not all of the Droit Populist movements and parties in Europe have an air of inveterate and inexorable stupidity and indeed chicanery, it would be mistaken I believe to simply ignore the underlying forces and motives which help to explain the resurgence, now indeed almost European-wide of the likes of Mlle. Le Pen. Simply put, the European project has in the last twenty to twenty-five years run into the ground as it relates to improvements to people's economic situation. As the Financial Times recently reminded everyone, in the past twenty to thirty years, growth in per capita income has been abysmally small if non-existent in most of Western Europe if one is looking at the middle and lower-middle classes. It is only among the truly upper-crust (people's whose per capita income is $250,000.00 and above) and to a lesser extent the poorer elements of society, that per capita income has still continued to grow at a healthy pace 1.
And as is widely noted, much of this stagnation if not necessarily due directly to so-called 'globalization' of the last twenty or more years, at the very least it seems to be affected by the same. And this correlation has not passed unnoticed among the demographic groups which provide the electoral cannon fodder for the Populist parties of the Right in Europe. Unlike say the bien- pensant, 'chattering classes', who until quite recently were impervious to the economic changes of the last twenty to twenty-five years or so, the traditional manual lower orders, as well as the lower-rung of the white collar salariat, have been feeling for quite sometime the negative effects mentioned above. In that respect, Mlle. Le Pen's gibe that it is only the 'BCBG's' which would be negatively impacted by a 'go-it-alone' economic strategy is to some degree correct. And while no one can argue that France or any other European country can alone successfully endeavor to engage in economic autarky, it is not very surprising given the trajectory of the recent past that much of the wider European public, is unconvinced if not negatively impressed by the vision of a 'wider and deeper' European Union as advocated by elites in Brussels, and the various national capitals. Indeed, one is highly amused over the fact that nowhere in Mr. Grant's essay, is there the least understanding of how much legitimacy the entire EU project has lost with the European public, due to the debacle of the Euro-crisis, first in Greece, then Ireland & Portugal with the both Spain and Italia now also coming under pressure. Given the fact that the self-same elites who are chiefly responsible for the Euro-crisis, are still in power in almost every European capital and in Brussels, the popularity of Mlle. Le Pen, et. al., is all too readily understandable. And what pray you might ask is the 'solution'? Insofar as one may view 'Populism' as a sort of political illness, one is tempted to say that ignoring the symptoms and for that matter the disease is hardly likely to result in anything positive. And in fact, I for one am quite willing to view with favor some aspects of the Populist programme: i) much, much stricter controls on non-European immigration; ii) a much greater distrust of the role that the financial services industry plays in the European economy; iii) the need for a greater emphasis on traditional values and allegiances and the need to relegate permanently in storage that policy dysfunctionality known as 'multi-culturalism'. Ideas which unfortunately our bien-pensant elites view with disfavor if not worse. All of these items, if employed with moderation and intelligence can hold the fort when confronting the 'populist tide'. Otherwise, I am afraid that horrific occurrences such as those which occurred last week may not be a one-time event.
1. Chris Gilles,"Spectre of stagnating incomes stalks globe," The Financial Times. 27 June 2011, in www.ft.com.