On May 6 and 7, the French will decide between a populist presidential candidate and her liberal (in the classical, European sense) adversary. As has often been the case in the past, this French debate may announce a new era. It appears that this confrontation between liberalism and populism is taking the place of the left/right cleavage and that a new dividing line is replacing the old.
The populist candidate describes herself in this way: she is the candidate of the “people” against the “elites.” It is also significant that, on the eve of the first round on April 23, framing the election in advance of her competitors on the traditional left and right, she presented the second round as a confrontation between “fierce globalization” and the French people. Setting aside the rhetorical excess, this proposition is not completely false. But it does need to be decoded. It is undeniable that Marine Le Pen places herself in a tradition that exalts the true nation, where the individual does not exist for himself but only as rooted in a collective identity. This organic vision of society goes back to the dawn of time; it has been used to justify the expulsion of Protestants (of which Marine Le Pen approves) and now the desire to expel the Arabs and blacks unless they are blended into “the people.” The most radical version of this ideology was the Vichy regime, for which Madam Le Pen has shown her sympathy. This populist French tradition is obviously anti-American and anti-capitalist, which distinguishes Madame Le Pen from Donald Trump. Still, she cites Trump as an example for his authoritarianism and isolationism.
To these populist roots must be added a new layer, proper to our times, that explains the emergence of what might be called neo-populism: to the traditional clientele of populism it adds those who have been missed out on the advantages of globalization. The electoral map is clear: prosperous cities vote against Le Pen (she got 5% of the vote in Paris), while she finds support in regions that are losing population, in rural areas, and in the projects and other underprivileged areas on the outskirts of cities. Just as Donald Trump welcomed the support of the uneducated, neo-populism reveals another France, one that is disoriented by the evolution of the economy and of lifestyles. This France is resentful of what the populists call the “system” or the “elites”: absurd terms, since the system is democracy, and the elites are the majority that has embraced our age. To be completely persuaded that the populism/liberalism divide does not match the left/right categories, it suffices to note that the leaders of the extreme left, themselves anti-establishment, call for abstention, which is in fact a vote for Le Pen.
The opposition people/elite or nation/globalization corresponds to the philosophic opposition between the populists’ closed society and the open society represented by the candidate Emmanuel Macron. By designating himself as a social liberal, Macron goes beyond the left/right distinction — which is attractive to a majority of voters. In fact the left/right distinction no longer matches the French people’s experience: the governing parties (as they are called), which have alternated since 1945, are really in agreement on the task of managing a certain regime, one in which the market is more or less regulated by the State and there is a broad public solidarity. From one election to the next, the cursor is moved slightly towards the social on the left or towards the market-liberal on the right. But right and left both support democratic norms, a centralized State, a market economy, reasonable immigration, Europe and free trade, which have made the fortune of French businesses. This implicit consensus between left and right has contributed to collective prosperity but, as we seem to be discovering, a third of the population has been abandoned — the Le Pen voters.
The traditional left and right may thus be held partially responsible for neo-populism. In their shared French reticence for a more free economy, their common love for the State, their excessive taste for regulation, they have slowed innovation in areas reserved to the State such as social insurance and education. The disadvantaged are hostages of these bureaucracies. The left and the right are also guilty of having consolidated the welfare state without renovating it, making clients of the underprivileged. As president, Emmanuel Macron will not maintain an open society unless he frees the market, in particular the labor market, and renews solidarity in a way that removes obstacles faced by the poor. The traditional left and right bear some responsibility for the rise of neo-populism, but Madame Le Pen for her part has nothing realistic to propose, only a national revolution, which means concretely only the repression of immigrants. The choice of May 7 is therefore simple: an open or a closed society, along with the open society’s representatives’ duty to do a better job of managing their legacy.
This election bears a final paradox: no one is concerned that Marine Le Pen is a woman, whereas twenty years ago a woman president would have been unthinkable. Madame Le Pen benefits from the open society she denounces.