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The death of populism?

April 30th, 2017

As the outcome of round 1 of France’s Presidential election became clear, the relief in the rest of Europe was palpable.  The French were not going to follow the perfidious British and vulgar Americans and vote in as their leader a populist promising to epater the European bourgeoisie.  Europe was safe.  Populism would remain a miserable Anglo-Saxon affair and much good would it do them.

Perhaps.  But maybe there are rather more continuities between the US and France than this rather Panglossian view is prepared to admit.  And Britain, not for the first time, seems to be following its own path.

Consider: for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic (59 years and still going) neither of the two main parties has made the run off and one of the candidates was (until yesterday) the leader of a party seen as on the disreputable fringe with fascist and anti-semitic antecedents (with some doubting how far the party has really changed on that score).  The front runner and almost certain next President is someone who has never held elected office before, who set up a movement based around his personality barely a year ago, who has managed to attract crowds of adoring supporters and who has, despite his own elitist and impeccably establishment background, managed to present himself as the candidate of “change”.

Doubtless his supporters would choke on their brioche at the suggestion that he is a Gallic version of President Trump.  His investment banker smoothness and engaging smile are a sharp contrast to Trump’s deliberately aggressive persona.  They may hide a sharp brain or nothing more than vacuous platitudes and fear masquerading as tolerance but, like Trump, he will very likely be elected because enough voters feel that the political establishment has failed, want change (quite what is not clear) but fear the sort of change offered by his opponent.  Less happily, and also like Trump, he may find it much harder than expected to get any sort of meaningful change enacted without a strong party supporting him in the legislature.  Still, platitudes, smiles and good speeches can provide good cover for a lack of effective action for quite a long time, as both Blair and Cameron showed.

And what of France’s alternative?  Whatever the reasons for her departure from the FN, Le Pen represents a strand of French politics which has always existed, is never quite able to achieve the sort of electoral success which would test its policies and show them wanting and is therefore never completely killed off.  A sort of political herpes.  But unpleasant as it is to admit it, Le Pen has rather more continuity with mainstream French politicians of the past than her detractors will allow.

Even her recent statement that it was not France which rounded up Jews during the war but the Vichy regime, as if the latter had nothing to do with France, was no different to the justification given by President Mitterand (whose activities during the pre-war and early Vichy period did him no credit) for refusing to give an official apology to French Jews for what France did to them.  “I will not apologise in the name of France,” he said in 1994.  “The Republic had nothing to do with this.  I do not believe France is responsible.”  A sentiment echoed almost word for word by Le Pen in recent days.  Still, given that President Chirac apologised on behalf of France in 1995, it is troubling – and disgraceful – that over two decades later Le Pen still uses the same sophistry used decades earlier by post-war politicians who, to be generous, needed a polite fiction to help heal a wounded nation.

It is this wordplay, a feeling that her concern for the have-nots, the losers from globalization, her worries about France’s undoubted problem with disaffected Islamic communities and the risks of terrorism are not motivated by genuine concern or by a desire to find solutions beyond the superficially easy ones of scapegoating a system or currency or community but are, rather, being used as a means to gain power which will – if the polls are right – prevent her winning.

Still, let’s not get too complacent.  If such a politician can get 40% of the vote in the country of The Declaration of the Rights of Man (as polls suggest she might), imagine what a party without such baggage, without such ante post mistrust of motives might do.  And the problems she has correctly identified will not go away, indeed will likely worsen.  Populist – but toxic – parties provide an easy excuse for mainstream parties and less uncouth politicians to ignore difficult problems until they force themselves onto the national stage, with unpredictable consequences.

And so to Britain which astonished itself by blowing a giant raspberry at pretty much everyone last June.  And yet, nearly a year later it looks as if the only winner from this act of lese-majeste will be Europe’s oldest and most successful political party led by a dull, dutiful, serious middle-aged woman with little on her CV until this point beyond a racy choice in shoes, one memorable phrase and survival at the Home Office. The party which agitated for Brexit has disintegrated, the party traditionally on the side of the have-nots is having a nervous breakdown and the Lib Dems are ever hopeful but largely irrelevant.  Britain’s populist revolt is being smothered in the Tories’ python-like embrace.

Whatever the peculiarities of British, US and French politics, these three leaders and would-be leaders have this in common.  Elections over, the real tests for Macron, May and Trump will be what they can deliver to those who have placed their hopes in them and whether they will be able to take those voters with them when the inevitable difficulties and disappointments arise. 

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