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Reflections on the Evolution in France

Summary:
Yesterday Emmanuel Macron was re-elected president of France solidly defeating Marine LePen by about 16%. This is a relief. I think a striking aspect of the election was the absence of Gaullist or Socialist candidate in the runoff. Instead there is a centrist vs a far rightist. This pattern is not confined to France and also not universal. One important point is that LePen made the runoff by defeating leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon by 1.5% in the first round. The runoff could have been a centrist vs a leftist, and most commentary would have been totally different. To me the key news is the collapse of the old center left and old center right (now replaced by the new center center). I think this shows widespread anger with the establishment, which

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Yesterday Emmanuel Macron was re-elected president of France solidly defeating Marine LePen by about 16%. This is a relief. I think a striking aspect of the election was the absence of Gaullist or Socialist candidate in the runoff. Instead there is a centrist vs a far rightist. This pattern is not confined to France and also not universal.

One important point is that LePen made the runoff by defeating leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon by 1.5% in the first round. The runoff could have been a centrist vs a leftist, and most commentary would have been totally different. To me the key news is the collapse of the old center left and old center right (now replaced by the new center center). I think this shows widespread anger with the establishment, which still managed a plurality in the first round and a majority in the second round.

Macron would object that he is not at all part of the old establishment but is rather a bold innovator. This too is typical (I am thinking of Matteo Renzi in Italy). He isn’t just centrist, he is radically centrist, breaking with his former party the Socialists and also insisting that he is fighting inequality. He feels the need to propose reforms, which are IIRC all extremely unpopular. I think this is more important for his self image than for his electoral success. He was re-elected (first re-elected French President since 2002) because people were afraid of the althernative. His support is small c conservative even as he insists he is young untraditional and bold (to the point of addopting Zelenskian sartorial style working unshaven in a hoodie). I don’t know many French people, but I can say two things about the few I know. They all detest Macron and they all just voted for him.

I have a guess as to what the old centerl left and center right parties did to earn their spots on the ash heap of history (it is my usual guess). One key requirement for being part of the respectably establishment is to support European Unification and therefore to get along with European Union Institutions (definitely including the European Commission). This is dogma. The new radical parties are all hostile to Brussels and, in particular, the European Comission.

Before going on, I think I should list the old declining to dead parties and the new populist parties — the declining parties are all moderate and the new parties are all radical in some way (even the one which doesn’t seem to have decided which way).

Decling to dead parties include various Socialist parties: The French Socialist Party whose candidate didn’t come close to making the second round (but is mayor of Paris), the Spanish PSOE, Greek PASOK, Hungarian Socialists (ex communist), Italian Socialists, Italian Communists & Italian Social Democrats.

Italy lead the way, the old parties collapsed in 1989. They managed this with an impressive combination of instability (many governments (cabinets in American)) and stagnation (always recycling the same people) and really impressive corruption. But the new system which consisted of pseudo populist billionaire Silvio Berlusconi against the remainders of all the old parties has also collapsed (partly he is old and finally convicted of a crime). The old parties have amalgamated into the Partito Democratico which makes the Democratic Party look united, disciplined, and exciting. I think that (in a major historical reversal) France is following the Italian path. I place Marcron as the French Matteo Renzi (who was detested by all the Italians I know who also all voted for him). Renzi was dumb enough to try to reform the constitution leading to a referendum which was perceived as voting for or against Renzi. Of course he lost (Macron would lose any vote on for or against Macron). Stick to changing clothing standard Emmanuel, don’t do anything which is put to a yes or no vote. Renzi may have been Italy’s last chance and I was delighted when he fell. Now there is the ultra boring left of center but small c conservative Partito Democratico, and two raging populist parties. The racist xenophobic Lega (formerly Lega Nord, formally formally Lega Lombarda, always us against them but with expanding us). A bit weakened by the photo of it’s absolute leader Matteo Salvini on Red Square wearing a Putin T-Shirt. Then there is the largest party in parliament the cyber-party Movimento 5 Stelle. They were founded by a standup comic (take that Ukraine) and blogger (remember when blogs were cutting edge and important). The party is officially controlled by a web site (where people become members and vote on line) which was inherited by the son of the guy who set it up as personal property. They are very radical. They hate the European Commission, the Stability and Growth Pact, and the Euro. The like universal basic income (and actually did broaden access to unemployment insurance) and don’t like fast trains (totaly NIMBY left). I sort of know why they are angry, but don’t know what they propose. I don’t feel bad, I don’t think they know either. In a way they are the purest 21st century party — populist, loud, angry, against the elite, against the technicians (who don’t know any technique) who want to be technocrats.

On another border, the PSOE has failed. It is a very very moderate European Europhile party (which managed almost Italian levels of corruption when it was so solidly in power that it seemed invincible). There is a new far left party (Podemos) and a new techno-centrist party (cuidademos of something). The surviving big old party is the Popular Party — originally the Popular Front founded by a Fascist (I mean minister in Francisco Franco’s cabinet). It seems to me that it long since went the Jean-Marie to Marine LePen transition and kept going (I fear that the French far right will be respectable soon). In Spain, PASOK tried to be a responsible debtor and vanished (I’m old enough to remember when they were radical and lead by an anti-US US citizen and sometimes Berkeley Economics Professor). They have the New Democrats who are not at all new and not all democrats, Syriza (left populist) and a bit of Golden Dawn (small but pretty solidly NAZI).

I think there are two clear patterns. One is a Putin lead nationalist international. It is obvious that they aren’t nationalists. They are racist. Clearly one big issue is immigration and xenophobia (also on this side of the Atlantic).

Another issue is anger at the out of touch elite which is neither democratic nor actually technically competent. A transatlantic difference is that I agree with the raging populists about the European elite. It is not a mythical bunch of satanic cannibals. It is a bunch of Eurocrats in Brussels who undeniably exist. The obsession of the responsible moderates is reducing deficits. Their one policy is austerity, basically the Stability and Growth Pact. This is currently suspended for the duration of Covid 19.

I think it rather important that it not be reactivated after Covid 19.

Of course this is no big deal. Europe has never gotten into trouble because of devotion of centrists to painful and totally invalid economic orthodoxy.

Robert Waldmann
Robert J. Waldmann is a Professor of Economics at Univeristy of Rome “Tor Vergata” and received his PhD in Economics from Harvard University. Robert runs his personal blog and is an active contributor to Angrybear.

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