For the last couple of years, I have been urging everyone who would listen to take seriously the fundamental cultural change that is sweeping the West and driving the rise of insurgent politics in every single country. Brexit and Trump seemed to vindicate this analysis, coming, as they did, after Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy, Syriza in Greece and the fundamental changes in Poland, Hungary, Austria, Denmark and countless other countries.
But last week I realized that I wasn’t taking my own advice seriously enough. Sitting with two friends whose political judgement I respect, they both blurted out “Of course, Marine Le Pen is going to win the French election.” I was shocked. The fact that I was shocked revealed that I, too, was hanging on to old certainties. Pretending that the unimaginable would not happen. Even after it has been happening all around us and I was busy pointing it out to everyone else.
Now it looks as though it will be down to Fillon or Juppé to attempt to stop Le Pen. And I am not hopeful. Both candidates seem to be running on a platform that is at once traditional and radical (for France). Both are promising a stop to the 35-hour week and introduce a bundle of austerity and “pro-business” measures to bring the public finances under control. Extending the pensionable age, raising VAT, reducing unemployment benefits, and cutting public sector employment and reducing business taxes are all in the mix. This is traditional ‘neo-liberal’ economics. The IMF would be proud of such a program – as would Mrs Merkel. It is doubtful at best whether such traditional approaches represent a winning hand in today’s world.
Fillon’s and Juppé’s platforms fail to capture the spirit of the times. Middle and working class voters no longer want to hear about austerity, sound public finances and lower taxes on business while they continue to carry the burden. Nobody will believe the jam tomorrow story that it will all lead to full employment and riches for all a few years down the road. They will rather look at Greece and despair.
Voters want to hear how politicians are going to direct more of the current wealth in their direction rather than corporate tax cuts and even more money being funneled towards the already rich and wealthy. Le Pen will surely give them that during her campaign. Whether she will be able to deliver it in practice is largely irrelevant.
Further, whoever is to win the second round will need the support of voters of the left. There is nothing in the Fillon or Juppé platforms that could possibly appeal to that group. In fact, they are promoting the very policies that the left despises. Le Pen will capture those voters with her promises to halt immigration and to reverse the forces of globalisation. She will play to the hilt the idea of l’exception française – something that has long appealed to the French populace.
If France falls to Le Pen, the European project will likely unravel. It might be a shock to the system that is greater than a President Trump. In a recent essay, I predicted that France would have a National Front president by around 2035. I may have been far off. The date may be 2017.