A long read, but entertaining, I assure you, best enjoyed with a glass of French wine and a slab of cheese with an EU stamp on it . . .
For those worrying about the French elections tomorrow, anxious whether Marine Le Pen will pull off a Brexit, or a Trump, completing the mad hat-trick, she will not. France is neither Britain nor the USA, and I mean this in a most pragmatic and utilitarian sense.
In a nutshell, Britain and the USA have always veered toward a liberal i.e. free state of affairs, at least in principle. Never mind that the USA is a Federal behemoth, or that some of its constituent states are as conservative and racist as your great grandfather, the one born in the 19th century. Never mind that the UK is still a kingdom, complete with an absolute ruler, a bunch of castles, and a Commonwealth that is headed by an institution called The Crown, which is mainly decorative, but still. (For a fascinating look at the Crown’s ornamental status in the post-War world, watch the Netflix series by the same title).
The point is that the Anglo-Americans are beset as a whole, in very simplistic terms, by an array of idées fixes that center on laissez-faire exceptionalism. Their collective psyche has a deep affinity for rationalism and pragmatism, personal agency and individualism (a paradox and contradiction in terms, this collectively understood individualism) as is the penchant for delegation, independence, isolation, and overall exceptionalism in an interconnected world, much of which is being run like an empire. Paradoxical to the bone, these phenomena, but real, and highly distinct.
When the Anglo-American approach works, it works wonders
When the Anglo-American approach works, it works wonders. It brings about the Industrial Revolution. It promotes technological and artistic innovation that withstands the ages, adding to the canon of individual agency and personal endeavor (Shakespeare’s indelible kings and princes and ladies and lovelorn youths, individuals resisting a system trying to carry them away on its mindless mass propulsion; Huck Finn’s adventures in the wilderness of nature and humanity combined). It goes to the fucking moon and back, this approach, redefining the world. It creates shows like Monty Python and James fucking Bond. It stands up to Nazism and all its thuggish minions — Fascist Italy, Anschlussed Austria, Collaborator Croatia, Slovakia and Hungary, and Vichy France, and Imperial Japan — and with the aid of an evil-but-necessary Soviet Russia, plus a host of invaluable Allies, it kicks the shit out these psychotic motherfuckers, restoring order and justice to the world.
When it misfires, however, this oversimplistic Anglo-American inclination for setting oneself apart, it creates a stinking mess. Plot entirely lost, as are all its marbles. The exceptionalist psyche sees enemies everywhere, even in normal procedures. It can’t abide by the process, the way things are run inside its union of allies and friends, and goes batshit crazy. It wants to run the show, or nothing at all. It wants to secede and draw out its own path, inclined to ditch amalgamation within a larger group for a chance at walking it alone.
As things stand, this is what is happening right now in Britain and the USA. A great divide is being dug up, driven by a misguided overreaction. Falling back on their natural instinct to stand apart, the traditionally exceptionalist nations are tearing themselves away from the main setup, ripping out the stitches, the threads, everything, filled with pride at what they’re doing, at least their leaderships are, confident that theirs is a noble stand, the way of freedom, the rallying cry for individuality, sovereignty, uniqueness, respect.
It’s a bunch of bullshit, is what it is. Legitimate grievances are being voiced, true — the rigged system, the bloated and out-of-control financial sector, the political dynasties, the debtocracy, the monstrously cold technocracy of gigantic organizations — but the populists airing them offer few to no solutions at all to the problems they’re pointing out. In fact, they’re adding to the crisis by launching their racist agendas and the numbskull economic policies that go with them.
Which brings us to France. France is a nation traditionally proud and left-leaning, and has been for decades, if not a couple of centuries. Its economic policies are not the soundest, lending themselves to inertia. You breathe, you pay tax on it. You fill out a form, you do the Bulgakov rounds to get it signed off. Only in Greece and Brazil can you find worse bureaucracy, perhaps in a few other countries, too, although the trend is changing as more and more nations are buying into the new compliance policies and their sign-a-million-forms-to-perform-one-transaction business model. But I digress. France is a bureaucrat’s heaven, and not very friendly to enterprise, and pretty left-leaning, and very proud.
It’s a socialist culture, by nature, proud of its welfare state and its strong unions, happy to engage in its lifestyle even as it moans and gripes against everything French. The people’s right to strike, the entitlements they receive from the state, all of them French cultural institutions. Not necessarily good attributes, some of them, but this is France, a socialist-welfare capitalist culture on the whole (more paradoxes, anyone?), even when its right-wingers are in charge.
An oversimplistic description again, but we’re talking broad strokes, which brings us to the next point:
France is not a traditional exceptionalist country, not in the way the UK and the USA are. Unique as it is and feels, it isn’t Brexit Britain and Trump America. Its position in the world is very different, its role in the EU crucial, central.
France wields immense power in the continent … it can’t afford to Frexit
As she stands, France wields immense power in the continent, not as much as it would like (it currently sits in Germany’s shadow as a result of the economic policies and culture of inertia we mentioned earlier) and that’s the point. France will do anything to climb back to the top. It will vie to regain some if not all of its lost influence and strength, its much-coveted prestige, and it can’t do so from the margins. It can’t afford to Frexit, or in any way sink the EU ship. It has to remain in the Union, preserving the viability of the project, and will therefore vote for candidates who will see that it does.
Le Pen is a different beast, pun intended. The daughter of a maniac fascist, Vichy-affiliated, she belongs to the far right. She has dumbed down her party’s hardliner policies to legitimize its political status, but she is still on the fringes, engaging in hateful rhetoric, promoting policies that have no place in an informed society. Some of her positions are extremely socialist, nationalist socialist — an ominous term, if one bears in mind that this is where the term ‘Nazi’ comes from –nati-sozi — nationalist socialist — very ominous, to be sure.
But Le Pen represents a break from business as usual, which is why she is so popular lately. The aggrieved and disillusioned elements of France back her, along with the racists and hatemongers and other thugs — an unfortunate combination — giving her a strong base.
The problem for Le Pen is that she also represents a break from the natural psyche of modern-day France, accessing instincts that are not synonymous with modern French history. She wants to recede from Europe to issue a new era of French greatness, and she cites the French Revolution to rally the troops, but she forgets that the French revolution didn’t recede from anything. It exploded into Europe, exporting its republican agenda to every European nation it could get its hands on, a far cry from Le Pen’s introverted aggression.
Le Pen also wishes to sever economic ties with France’s neighbors and allies in the name of an exceptionalist agenda, forgetting that not even the mighty Charles de Gaul was able to keep France out of an integrative and interconnected Europe / West.
Like it or not, France is defined by its geographical location. It’s screwed smack into the middle of the continent, a little to the left to be exact (to the west, to be more exact) and is by inclination an interactive part of Europe. A cog. It will not and cannot secede from the continent, or from the status quo. It cannot tear itself from it; on the contrary, its best interests lie in doubling down on the European vision.
In other words, France, not particularly known for its individualist policies and delegation culture, will vote for a bigger state, a European France, a continuation of the EU experiment. It will seek greatness within the continent, its mission one of renewed leadership within the EU, Europe, and the West in general.
None of the above options are provided by Le Pen.
So the French voters will not grant Le Pen a victory.
Had Macron not come through to the second round, French voters would still not elect Le Pen
The majority of voters will instead vote for Emmanuel Macron, the socialist-centrist protege of the current president, Francois Hollande. Macron promises to pursue the EU path, overhauling the system blah blah. We’ve heard it all before, but the general direction matters this time round, be it the mark of true change or the same old empty promises. The point is the general direction. French voters will opt for stability and continuity. They will back the guy with the hand on the EU cake.
Had Macron not come through to the second round, French voters would still not elect Le Pen. They would have instead voted for Francois Fillon, the right-wing candidate, had Fillon made it to the second round. The point of this Sunday’s vote is not socialism per se, or conservatism (though, as we already mentioned, both sides of the mainstream political divide in France are pretty left of the general mark). The point is integration and interconnectedness, power within Europe. Influence over Europe. Clout in the West, especially now that the major players are faltering. It’s an opportunity to fill in the gap. The French see themselves as one of the centers of the continent, if not THE center, so they’re not going to excuse themselves from their key position. They’re not going to say goodbye to the setups already in place, like the Anglo-Americans did. They’re going to double down on the situation and elect the guy who will work within the system, looking to strengthen their overall position in it.
In other words, it’s not about voting mainstream, or being in favor of the establishment, far from it. Voters in France are disillusioned with business as usual. They’re angry, fed up, and they’re not all Le Pen supporters, these angry and disenfranchised people. They’re not all xenophobes and thugs. They’re everyday individuals with few prospects and no place in a fast-changing, ever-expanding (and at the same time shrinking) world. Still, they won’t vote for Le Pen, not in their majority, just as they’re not going to vote for socialism or capitalism. It’s all about going with their natural inclination, the instinct that defines modern and postmodern Frenchness, for lack of a better term, and that is: stay put, make things happen here, now, within the system we know, among the allies we have, within the geography that defines us. Lead Europe like we, the French, know we are capable of, magnifique, and do it from within, as part of the EU, because we are the EU. We are the center. Us and those droll Germans.
Something like that.
And so, dear friends, even if Le Pen looms unnaturally and worryingly strong on the election’s horizon, making you extremely nervous, and rightly so, she will not win. She will come close, changing the political landscape — she already has — but the victory will go to Macron and the EU center he represents, its EU politics and setup, and France will double down on the european union paradigm, looking to take advantage now that the Anglo-Americans have decided to pack their bags and take the road to hell knows where.
France will double down on the european union paradigm
It’s a big mess, this economic and cultural crisis, the Brexits and Trump-tricks that came out of it, a cock-up, and everyone’s been hurt somehow, or will be, soon, if things persist. But no one’s idling around. The key players are watching, assessing their moves. They’re reading the board, positioning themselves in this new new world order, and the French know their best chance now is to work from within, and their instincts will guide them there.
The fact that the EU itself is malfunctioning to a colossal extent, unlikely to survive many more years of this mess-of-a-union, at least not without extensive fiscal and political reform, is another matter altogether, which Macron, and, of course, Germany, come the german September elections onward, will have to address at its fundamental core, pushing for those reforms like they mean it, sooner rather than later.
If they don’t, if Macron proves to be just another reform-progress-blah-blah guy, and if the Germans fall short, too, kicking the can down the road as has been the case in Europe for the past eight to ten years, ever since the sovereign debt crisis began, not even the French love for European centrism will be enough to keep the continent, and the West in general, together.
From your refreshingly sober and ebullient Spin Doctor,
Eyes open, mind sharp.