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Arthur Goldhammer on The Populist Backlash in France

23rd December 2013

 Photo by Ernest Morales (Flickr)

Arthur Goldhammer is the current chair of the Seminar for Visiting Scholars at Harvard University's Center for European Studies. Holding a Phd in mathematics from MIT, he has worked as a translator since 1977, having translated more than one hundred and twenty books from French and most recently winning the FAF Translation prize in 2011 for his translation of Tocqueville's Ancien Régime and the Revolution. He serves on the editorial board for French Politics, Culture, and Society, and is currently working on a book about democracy in America since Tocqueville. His regular blogging about French politics can be found at

What the French like to call “la classe politique” is in trouble. Exactly what is la classe politique? The term refers not just to professional politicians and elected officials but to a much larger group of people whose opinions, attitudes, and prejudices define the boundaries of what is considered “respectable” and “reasonable” public policy. This group includes journalists, academics, trade-union leaders, bankers, leading industrialists, top civil servants, and prominent media personalities.

A veteran of 1960s-era protest in the United States might be tempted to translate la classe politique as “the Establishment.” It is one of the ironies of history that the consensus politics that prevailed in the US in the 1950s established itself in France after the end of the Cold War, while the US now finds itself riven by insuperable ideological cleavages of the sort that once plagued France. The term “consensus politics” should not be allowed to mislead, however. Within a broad consensus about the rules of the political game, lively divisions remain. But those who wish to remain inside la classe politique do not challenge the rules of the game, and those rules impose limits on both what kinds of policies can be proposed and what sort of rhetoric can be used to justify them.

In the last five years, however, the French Establishment has fallen on hard times. Nicolas Sarkozy’s approval rating had dipped to an unprecedentedly low level before he was ousted in the 2012 election after just one term in office. His successor, François Hollande, has in turn seen his approval rating plummet even more rapidly than Sarkozy’s, dropping below his predecessor’s lowest score within 18 months of his election. Bitter disappointment with two successive presidencies, one of the center-right and the other of the center-left, has left many in France wondering either mainstream party has a solution for the multiple crises that have gripped the country. The incentive for ambitious politicians to challenge those limits has therefore increased. Thus the rise of populist parties of both the left and the right comes as no surprise.

The populist temptation in France is potent and permanent owing to the unique combination of a presidential regime, highly centralized institutional structure, and tightly integrated political and business elite whose members are trained in a small number of highly selective educational institutions. Confidence in the very constitutional structure of the regime therefore tends to wax and wane with confidence in the presidency, and with confidence in two successive presidencies at a low ebb, doubts about the nature of the regime and its fundamental commitments—to a more integrated Europe, relatively free international flows of goods, capital, and labor, and a generous welfare state extending at least some of its benefits to immigrants as well as citizens—have festered. Into this breach have stepped two skillful populists, Marine Le Pen on the far right of the political spectrum and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left.

Rivalry between them is, as one might expect, intense. To date, Mme Le Pen has incontestably been the more successful of the two, and I will therefore concentrate on her Front National in the remainder of this essay. The reasons for her relative success tell us something about the perceived failures of la classe politique. She has mounted her attack on the status quo along three main axes: values, identity, and economic nationalism. The three axes intersect at a single point, however: national sovereignty.

The reason for this is clear. Since 2009, the European crisis has left most national governments of EU member states looking weak. Germany is of course the major exception to this rule, but the German exception only compounds the problem for other member state governments and most notably for France. This is because the preferred German solution to the problems of the European economy and polity as presently constituted is to impose rigid rules in place of democratic discretion. The Germans have internalized to an unprecedented degree an argument pioneered by neoliberal economists, which holds that governments granted too much fiscal discretion will always prefer to feather their own nests—to buy votes, in other words—with excessive spending. Having imposed on itself a constitutional balanced-budget rule, the German response to the recent crisis has been to bind its partners by the same type of rule with which Germany bound itself, notwithstanding differences between the German economy and the economies of other member states. Sarkozy, under pressure from bond ratings agencies and international speculators, felt he had no choice but to accede to Chancellor Merkel’s demands on this point. The capitulation of the formerly truculent Sarkozy, who in the early years of his presidency had forcefully criticized both the German government and the European Central Bank for passivity in the face of high unemployment and slow growth, shook the confidence of many in France, where voters had already rejected European constitutional treaty reform in a 2005 referendum.

When François Hollande confronted Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential election, he recognized voter discontent with the perceived loss of French economic sovereignty. Responding to voter dismay over the Sarkozy-Merkel accord, he promised to “renegotiate” the agreement. No sooner was he elected, however, than he promptly reneged on this promise, in part because he faced the same market pressures as Sarkozy but even more because he feared that an open break with Germany would threaten the future of the European Union. Unfortunately, this sharp reversal of course probably upset voters even more than Sarkozy’s capitulation, since many who voted for Hollande had done so precisely because he seemed to be proposing a different response to the crisis. Confidence that an alternative existed to Germany’s insistence on austerity as the only way out for Europe abruptly collapsed, and the chief beneficiary was Marine Le Pen.

Why should this have been the case? The Front National had long alleged that la classe politique had ceded its independence to Brussels and Frankfurt.  Mme Le Pen simultaneously dismissed both the center-right UMP and the center-left PS— mashing their initials together as “UMPS” in order to underscore her contention that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them—thus deftly erasing real differences between their respective approaches to Europe and avoiding substantive debate. What matters in populist politics is not so much substance as mood, and the mood of a significant portion of the French electorate by the fall of 2013 was one of bitter disappointment, even anger, that neither of the mainstream parties offered a plausible alternative to the German-imposed status quo.

Compounding the anxiety over loss of sovereignty were connected worries about “identity” and “values,” to use the euphemisms embraced by the mainstream parties to address issues that Mme Le Pen spoke to in the more direct and emotive language of otherness with respect to race, ethnicity, and religion. The French Republic likes to think of its public space as “universalist” because it deliberately excludes such “particularisms,” not without certain well-known hypocrisies. Mme Le Pen is adept at exposing those hypocrisies, and her skill allows her to pose rhetorically as the defender of “republican” values against parties that would prefer to exclude her from the republican consensus. The traditional republican response to otherness is inclusion: whoever is willing to assimilate, to embrace French “values,” is ostensibly welcome to be French. In a time of economic crisis, however, inclusion became problematic: minorities willing to assimilate become competitors for scarce jobs and threatened benefits. Resentment in the native population is further stirred by the charge that the state offers aid to immigrants that is not available to citizens. The claim is not entirely false: some benefits, such as state medical assistance (the so-called AME), are indeed reserved for newcomers, and Mme Le Pen has shrewdly seized on such perceived inequities to win new adherents while retaining older party members who supported her father on purely xenophobic grounds without the fig leaf of defending “republican values.”

This re-orientation of the Front National’s pitch from the rhetoric of the extreme right to that of economic nationalism and republican values has paid off. A recent poll of voter intentions in the upcoming European Parliament elections showed the FN with 24%, leading both the UMP with 21 and the PS with 19. If the FN emerges as the leading party in France in regard to European issues, la classe politique will indeed have a great deal to worry about. Both mainstream parties are divided on the question of whether to pursue the project of deeper European integration. If the anti-EU FN drives the debate on this question, other parties will have their work cut out for them if they wish to continue defending the EU without alienating increasingly large fractions of their voter base.

The UMP in particular has shown clear signs of alarm and has attempted, under its present leader Jean-François Copé, to compete directly with the Le Penists, for example by opposing the AME. This attraction to the extreme has in turn raised hackles among more centrist party leaders such as Bordeaux mayor and former prime minister Alain Juppé and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a candidate for mayor of Paris and presidential hopeful. A split in the party precipitated by the populist revolt spurred by the crisis and exploited by the FN is not out of the question. The future configuration of the French political spectrum thus depends in large degree on the virulence of the spreading populist rejection of la classe politique. The belated and maladroit response of the mainstream leadership has already ceded too much ground to Mme Le Pen, who stands to consolidate her gains in the months to come. Ominously, she has begun to forge alliances with right-wing populist groups in other countries: Geert Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands, the Austrian FPO, the Belgian Vlaams Belang, and the Sweden Democrats. Ironically, this anti-EU bloc could emerge as the most coherent force in the next European Parliament. The European Crisis will then exit the realm of elite compromise over fiscal and financial reforms and enter the less controllable arena of raucous democratic politics.


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