In France’s vote, pocket issues eclipse nationalism vs. globalism
The 2017 French presidential election was a turning point for Western politics, fought not along traditional lines of left and right, but over national identity, immigration and international institutions such as the common currency. of Europe, the euro. It pits “patriots” against “globalists,” as National Front candidate Marine Le Pen put it, or “closed” against “open,” in the words of centrist Emmanuel Macron.
The globalists won that round, with Mr Macron beating Ms Le Pen by 32 percentage points. The rematch is on Sunday, and the result looks much closer, with polls putting Mr Macron’s lead between high and double digits.
But a funny thing happened on the way to revenge: the lines between nationalists and globalists became more blurred as Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Macron, responding to signals from the political market, shifted their positions. .
In 2017, Ms Le Pen wanted France to leave both the European Union and the euro. This probably contributed to his defeat: despite all the flaws of the euro, voters do not want their pensions and savings to be redenominated in a depreciating currency. Britain’s chaotic and economically corrosive departure from the EU has tainted the appeal of anyone who mimics Brexit. Thus, in 2018, the Frexit was removed from the platform of Mrs. Le Pen’s party, now called National Rally.
Meanwhile, Mr Macron, worried about losing support from conservative parties, veered right on French identity and immigration. He criticized progressive social ideas imported from the United States, defended French colonial history, and appointed interior minister an uncompromising defender of conservative social values and French secularism. Mr Macron unveiled a comprehensive plan to counter “Islamist separatism” – the tendency of part of France’s Muslim minority to isolate themselves from secular society.
The result is that going into this election, the nationalists are less nationalist and the globalists less globalist. The same patterns can be seen across Europe as right-wing populists drop talk of leaving the EU or the euro, and centrist parties take a harder line on immigration. Additionally, Ms Le Pen found herself on the defensive about her past admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and condemned his invasion of Ukraine.
With the approach of the first round of the elections on April 10, immigration was an important factor for only 25% of French voters and Ukraine for only 15%, according to the BVA polling institute. In their place, traditional economic issues have taken on importance: 45% cite purchasing power, and the share is even higher among supporters of left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came third in the first round and whose supporters are courted. by Mr Macron and Mrs Le Pen.
In theory, the economic stakes should play the assets of Mr. Macron. Unemployment is at 7.4%, the lowest since 2008. Since Mr Macron took office, economic output has increased more in France than in Germany, Italy or Britain. Disposable income has grown more under Mr Macron than under his two predecessors, a study has found.
Guessing the source of this performance is difficult. Like most governments, France has spent heavily to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on workers and businesses, and has increased debt sharply. Still, part of the credit probably goes to Mr. Macron’s efforts to liberalize labor markets, simplify taxes and wage negotiations, and make training programs more efficient. Youth unemployment is at its lowest in nearly 40 years, and the number of apprentices nearly doubled from 2019 to 2021, according to BNP Paribas. “In terms of past performance, the French economy is certainly better, so Macron can take credit for that,” said Jean Pisani-Ferry, an economist at Sciences Po and adviser to Mr Macron in 2017.
Economic performance, however, has been overshadowed by rising inflation to its highest level since the 1980s, which Ms Le Pen deftly exploited with promises of value-added tax cuts.
And yet, even if Ms Le Pen emerges victorious on Sunday thanks to pocket troubles including inflation, she is likely to see such an outcome as an affirmation of her lifelong attack on globalisation. “The debate today in all European democracies is between two visions of the world: the globalist vision of Emmanuel Macron… and [my] national vision that defends the nation as a space of protection,” she said at a rally last week.
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Mrs Le Pen may no longer threaten to leave the EU, but much of her program would put France on a collision course with the principles of the bloc. She promises to reduce French contributions to the bloc, subordinate EU laws to those of France (subject to a referendum) and prioritize French workers and companies in hiring and contracts. , which goes against the principles on which the block is based. France would become like Poland and Hungary who “remain within the club but do not respect the rules”, Mr Pisani-Ferry said.
Write to Greg Ip at [email protected]
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Appeared in the print edition of April 21, 2022 under the title “Inflation eclipses populism in the French vote”.