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The Lady with the Popular Front

France’s rightists have grown too big to ignore.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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But Hollande’s main focus is the European Union. He may be the most pro-EU politician in France. He was the protégé and political heir of Jacques Delors, father of the euro, the most ardent Europeanist of his generation. As his mentor’s invention has led the continent into a world of pain, Hollande has become Europe’s leading proponent of “growth.” That may sound like nonsense—who, after all, is against growth? But in the context of the bailouts, “growth” has specific meaning. Twenty-five European countries agreed to a pact in Brussels last winter to bring their budget deficits under control. In Hollande’s vocabulary, this is “austerity,” and the EU has too much of it. What they need instead is “growth,” which is Hollande’s word for government spending. Hollande’s adviser Jean-Marc Ayrault, a possible future cabinet minister, frets that the French savings rate is up to 17 percent. That is money the state needs to get its hands on in order to “invest.” 

Economists (not to mention the Economist) think Hollande is going to be a catastrophe for Europe. They are probably wrong. Not because Hollande is wiser than he lets on but because markets have likely already priced this fiscal laxity into the euro and because Hollande’s policies are not as different from Sarko’s as they look.

The European Union has managed to dismantle democracy at the national level without reconstructing it at the transnational level. It no longer does justice to the problem to say that the EU has a “democratic deficit.” It is more accurate to say that it has an “antidemocratic tradition.” We should not flatter the French by assuming that this is their biggest gripe with the EU. Their biggest gripe is that it is capitalist. When the French and the Dutch voted overwhelmingly in 2005 to stop further European integration in its tracks, it was because they detected a free-market, race-to-the-bottom, welfare-state-eroding bias in the way its institutions were set up. And they were right. 

Sarkozy and Hollande are both dyed-in-the-wool Europeans. Hollande’s entire political career rests on the building of Europe. When French voters said no in that 2005 referendum on a proposed EU constitution, it was Sarkozy who connived to adopt the essence of the constitution via bilateral treaties. The problem for both men, and for their parties, is that their European agenda is dependent on voters who dislike the whole idea of a European Union. And they can win these voters only through empty promises. Sarkozy has promised in the course of the campaign to renegotiate the Schengen treaties, which allow passport-free travel from one European country to another. No one believes he will do it. Hollande’s pledge to renegotiate the deficit pact to France’s benefit is probably another such promise. His advantage over Sarkozy is that he has not yet served the term as president that will teach the public to doubt his word. 

But the French public now has an alternative. For many years the National Front was a fringe element of French life, a holdover of the antidemocratic French right of midcentury. An American used to hearing commentators describe as “scary” such characters as Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan might assume that the French were only ever pretending to be scared by the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. But that is not true. In a nation that collaborated with the Nazis and reestablished a democratic republic after the war only with considerable difficulty, Le Pen was a man of antirepublican sentiments. There was a lot of putschist, authoritarian activity in France in the 1950s, and it was common to hear that France’s natural form of government might be “Latin,” like the regimes of Franco in Spain and Salazar in Portugal. Charles de Gaulle was able to establish the Fifth Republic in 1958 only by making certain concessions to this sentiment. Protecting that republic, meanwhile, required foiling a coup attempt. You do not need to be a neurasthenic with a finely calibrated moral sense and a degree in peace studies to figure out why Le Pen scared people. All you need to do is read The Day of the Jackal. That is why there was a so-called cordon sanitaire around Le Pen and the Front that did not exist around the rather large French Communist party. No self-respecting party could form coalitions with it. 

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