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The Socialists have returned to office in France after over fifteen years out of power. François Hollande, the colorless new president of the republic, ran on an anti-austerity, pro-growth platform that was long on promises and short on details. Such details as were provided by the Socialists carry more than one devil within them. For example, Hollande has said he will renegotiate the European Fiscal Treaty signed by 25 EU nations in March, under which the signatories agreed to impose strict national deficit and debt limits. Yet a renegotiation on French terms seems unlikely in the face of opposition from Germany, the economic hegemon of the continent. Even if budgetary and debt limits are eased, the result can only be a rise in yields on Spanish, Italian, and, yes, French government bonds – in short, a return to crisis mode on the fiscal front. Under such a scenario very little money will be available to pay for growth policies. The realities of the European financial crisis amount to a cul de sac for the Hollande administration.
Hollande wants to increase public spending both to create state jobs and subsidize job creation by industry. At the same time, he promises a balanced budget by 2017. Tax increases to help achieve the latter will kick in at some point yet to be specified by Monsieur le Président. The Socialists fail to recognize – or, perhaps, are deliberately ignoring – the simple fact that the old paradigms of left-wing ideology are as dead as the dodo. The world economic crisis that began with the 2007 mortgage meltdown in the U.S. has rendered both center-right and center-left policies ineffective. That no solution from either side of the post-1945 liberal dispensation is available has been masked in the U.S. by the Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing” (i.e., printing money), and in Europe by a series of bailouts provided by the stronger northern economies for the weak sisters of the south. But these forms of life support can’t continue indefinitely. Throwing vast amounts of paper money at problems eventually leads to runaway inflation and the danger of economic and social breakdown. At some point, the troubled economies of the developed world will have to sink or swim on their own. The serious problems facing these economies – structural unemployment, out-of-control entitlement spending, absurd tax policies – are threatening, , eventually, to drown them.
That electorates in the developed world suspect as much is indicated by the rapid swings from one side of the ideological spectrum to the other that have characterized this century, as voters desperately seek a remedy for both national and household economic pain. Thus Obama’s triumph in 2008 was succeeded by the Tea Party wave of 2010; thus Labor in Britain was turned out by the Tories, whose hold on power is already slipping; thus the French turn to Socialism ten years after the Socialist candidate failed even to make the final round of presidential voting.
Faced with the obvious failure of economic policy in the West since 2007, the French have been reduced to grasping at straws.
The difficulties outlined above make it all but certain that Socialism will fail to resolve France’s problems. And this brings us to the real meaning of the French election. François Hollande will likely prove to be a minor episode in French history, a last turning toward the old and familiar. Welling up from the depths of the economic and social crisis is a new force, or rather a new model of an old actor in French politics: the National Front.
Le Front National, founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, is the spiritual descendant of Action Française and the Pétainistes in the Vichy government of 1940-44. Led in 2012 by Le Pen’s charismatic daughter Marine, it placed third in April’s first round election for president (behind Hollande and the incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy), winning 18% of the vote. This was its best showing ever, though barely exceeding the elder Le Pen’s percentage of the vote in the 2002 presidential runoff.
Like other far right movements in Europe, the National Front appeals to working class and petit-bourgeois voters who feel marginalized by globalization, immigration, and diktats issued from Brussels and Berlin. But it has gained new supporters of late, taking voters from both the center-right and the Socialists. Perhaps most telling is the polling data released in April that showed Ms. Le Pen to be the most popular politician among French voters aged 18-24. A lot has changed since 2002, when hundreds of thousands of young people turned out to protest Jean-Marie Le Pen’s second place finish in that year’s initial round of presidential balloting.
When times are bad and mainstream parties fail (as they are failing across the developed world), people turn to extremes. Communism was forever discredited in 1989, but neo-fascism has not been discredited. The horrors of 1939-45 are so identified with the personality of Adolf Hitler that less extreme forms of the ideology he represented remain in play for a sizeable (and growing) minority of Europeans. The historian John Lukacs has pointed out that nationalistic, right-wing populism can move masses of people who are indifferent or hostile to internationalism in its various forms. Hollande’s promise to renegotiate the Fiscal Treaty is, in part, a gesture towards nationalist sentiment. But the Left can never go far enough in this regard, lest it become the very force that it opposes. A national socialism such as existed in Italy, Germany, and other parts of Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s has by no means been consigned to the dustbin of history. It remains a vital force for millions of people, as events in France and elsewhere have shown. If the conventional socialism of François Hollande fails, as it almost certainly will, Marine Le Pen will be waiting in the wings.