Exclusive: Popular resistance to neoliberal economic policies gets its next test in Sunday’s election in France with two populists from the Right and Left challenging two mainstream candidates, explains Andrew Spannaus.
By Andrew Spannaus
French voters will head to the polls this Sunday to elect a new president, in the next test for the electoral revolt that has swept across Europe and the United States over the past year. Marine Le Pen of the Front National, the right-wing nationalist party seeking to exploit the wave of popular protest that has buoyed outsider candidates throughout the West, aims to place first or second in order to participate in a run-off in two weeks to determine the next leader of France.
European political élites are hoping that the populist revolt will fall short, allowing a more moderate candidate such as the centrist Emmanuel Macron to win. This could change the narrative of the anti-establishment sentiment that has raised questions about the very survival of the supranational institutions of the European Union (E.U.), under attack due to economic policies that have led to declining living standards for much of the population.
After the victory of Brexit in June of 2016, and the success of outsider candidates in the U.S. presidential elections, the European political class began 2017 wondering if the wave of discontent would produce upset victories in the elections scheduled in key countries such as the Netherlands, France and Germany, with Italy also preparing to hold a general election by early 2018 at the latest.
In the Netherlands, the right-wing, anti-immigrant Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders was thought to have the potential to be the top vote-getter overall, despite the expectation that the other major political forces would then refuse to enter into a coalition with Wilders, preventing him from forming a government. Just as he has for his entire political career, Wilders focused his 2017 campaign on a demagogic call to de-Islamize Holland, claiming it was time to take the country back from both immigrants and the E.U. bureaucracy, presented as a threat to the Dutch national identity.
On economics Wilders made at attempt to intersect the discontent of the middle and working classes, calling for the Netherlands to leave the European Union and promising lower healthcare costs, a lower retirement age, and better social assistance for the elderly. This, despite professing to be a follower of the free-market policies of Margaret Thatcher.
In the March 15 election the Freedom Party did poorly, winning only 13 percent of the vote, far behind the Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy of incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte, that came in first with over 21 percent. Wilders was hurt significantly by Rutte’s ability to exploit a diplomatic row with Turkish President Erdogan to show that he, too, was willing to be tough on Islam, thus stealing the protest candidate’s thunder. Voters appeared to discount his attempt to act as an economic populist, preferring to follow the pleas from the establishment to reject the more extreme candidate and favor stability.
The French Test
Next up is France, this weekend, where Marine Le Pen has attempted to soften the image of the Front National, associated with chauvinist positions since her father Jean-Marie founded the party in 1972. Marine has continued the calls to defend France’s national identity, but has also taken her criticism of the European Union to a higher level, with a detailed critique of the economic globalization policies that have hurt the middle class and created hardship and uncertainty for various segments of the population.
France has a tradition of nationalism and skepticism towards supranational institutions. Indeed when called to vote on a proposed European Constitution in 2005, the French rejected it decisively (as did the Dutch that same year, by an even larger margin). This didn’t stop European élites from moving forward with their plan for integration, but it’s no surprise that the population is quick to criticize E.U. institutions for the negative effects of “deregulated globalization,” as Le Pen calls it.
The Front National claims to be the alternative to the moneyed interests on the Right and the Left that have created a system that has “paralyzed the economy” and caused “mass unemployment”. The F.N. has also been smart enough to present a specific proposal attacking the free-market precepts the E.U. institutions defend. The idea is to leave the Euro, but not to return to a floating exchange rate system with competitive devaluations and speculative attacks on currencies; they propose to go back to a stable exchange-rate regime similar to that of the Bretton Woods system in effect in the decades after World War II.
In Europe this was called the European Monetary System (EMS), with international accounts settled using the European Currency Unit (ECU) starting in 1979. In the late 1990s, the E.U. institutions transformed this into the single currency, which meant turning power over to a single central bank and demanding control over the macroeconomic policy of all of the participating countries.
The F.N. has also called for eliminating the independence of the French Central Bank, returning to national banking, with the goal of guaranteeing investments for the real economy rather than suffering under the policies of austerity. Not surprisingly, many economists claim these measures would never work, as they fear that such a change would open the floodgates to a wholesale revision of the dominant neoliberal policies in effect today.
Le Pen is set to do significantly better than Wilders did in the Netherlands, although her prospects seem to have dimmed a bit in recent weeks. There is no guarantee she will make it to the run-off, and even if she does, most observers are convinced that in that case the French would rally around her opponent to defeat her. Of course, some skepticism regarding such predictions is definitely in order, considering recent precedents. Le Pen has done a better job of tying her message to the economic discontent of the population, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough to “normalize” her with the French population.
A Left Alternative
Another option disgruntled French voters are considering is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Socialist who has founded his own party called “Unsubmissive France,” whose appeal has grown rapidly in these elections. Mélenchon’s role is similar to that of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. primaries, as his populist, anti-globalization message is not that far from the rhetoric of Marine Le Pen, but without the xenophobia. Mélenchon is heavily critical of both NATO and the E.U. – although he does not call for leaving the Euro immediately – and he supports a significant expansion of social spending and state intervention in the economy.
Mélenchon isn’t truly an outsider, given that he has been in the French political system for decades, even serving as Education Minister from 2000 to 2002, but the jump in his support reflects the openness to candidates who challenge the system. He has almost doubled his popularity compared to his last run for president in 2012, when he took in 11 percent of the votes. The most recent polls show him at 19 percent, not far from Macron and Le Pen, both at 22-23 percent, and essentially tied with the conservative Francois Fillon.
Thus out of the top four candidates, two are considered extreme, raising the specter of a run-off between anti-establishment figures that would upend the political situation in France, and send shockwaves throughout Europe as a whole. This has led current President Francois Hollande to intervene recently against the risk of populism, blaming the insurgent candidates of promoting “simplifications and falsifications.”
If Le Pen or Mélenchon are in fact eliminated in the first round, or lose in a run-off, the pro-E.U. political class around Europe appears ready to celebrate the defeat of populism and the survival of the plan to move forward with European integration. Notwithstanding the black eye represented by the U.K.’s confirmation of the Brexit, it would appear that the anti-Euro, anti-immigrant attitudes that many feared would dominate this election season, are taking a back seat to more moderate and traditional political views.
Declaring victory over the populists could be a big mistake, however. It’s one thing to rejoice over the failure of anti-foreigner sentiment as a driver of electoral politics; it’s another entirely to believe that just because more extreme political movements are failing in this election season, Europe can also avoid the calls for changes in E.U. economic policy.
An attempt to close ranks, to continue to resist against legitimate popular protests against austerity, declines in living standards and widespread unemployment and job instability, would mean ignoring the deep-seated problems brought to the fore by the revolt of voters across the Western world.
The only way to truly win the battle against undesirable elements of European nationalism and populism, is to address the real issues raised by an economic policy that has weakened the middle class and caused most of the population to lose trust in the political and financial élites. In the absence of an effective response to this problem, the protest is not only certain to return in the future, but may well be stronger and more unpredictable when it does.
Andrew Spannaus is a freelance journalist and strategic analyst based in Milan, Italy. He is the founder of Transatlantico.info, that provides news, analysis and consulting to Italian institutions and businesses. His book on the U.S. elections Perchè vince Trump (Why Trump is Winning) was published in June 2016.