The French presidential race has come down to a similar situation to the US one last year. There are two choices and both are looking pretty bad. So if you are a French voter how do you decide which one to not vote for?

In the red corner we have Emmanuel “Teacher’s Pet” Macron. As I’ve blogged before, he’s a fully paid up member of the French establishment, particularly the left-leaning statist segment of it. Macron is young (39) and if elected would be the youngest French President for a very long time if not ever. Being young and only having had a very limited career as a public politician, the non French press has recently published numerous articles about his marriage (his wife is 25 years older than he is and was his drama teacher in school when he was a teenager, which is how they met). They seem to be happy together but a lot of people (including me and everyone I’ve talked to in France and outside) think this is pretty creepy. However while the creepiness factor may sway a few votes, it isn’t the reason to vote against him.

His opponent, in the blue corner, is Marine “Pinkwash” Le Pen. She is the current generation’s leader of the French anti-establishment and daughter of Jean Marie Le Pen, the previous anti-establishment leader. Le Pen is also relatively young (~10 years older than Macron) and would, if she wins, not only be the first female president of France, but also notably younger than the last few Presidents (Sarkozy was 52 when elected, Holland 58, Chirac and Mitterand were both over 60). She is claimed to be “far-right” and thus racist, Islamophobic etc. etc. Unlike Macron no one seems to care about her private life (3 children, divorced twice), probably because she’s been making headlines for her political statements for at least the last 15 years.

The Le Pen Platform

Ms Le Pen is, fundamentally, a nativist. Many of her statements sound remarkably similar to ones made by British figures like Nigel Farage. She wants to limit immigration to France, she wants to halt the erosion of French culture by foreign influences, primarily Islamic ones but also Hollywood, and she wants France to control it’s own destiny and thus leave the Euro and the EU. She has been particularly outspoken on what she sees as the pernicious influence of Islam on France and the way that the French state has ceded areas of its cities to control by immigrants from primarily Islamic cultures.

If that was all then I’d have no hesitation in recommending her, unfortunately it isn’t. She’s also extremely protectionist and wants to massively expand the French state rather than raise money through privatization. She wants to reverse large chunks of recent globalization, especially the global trade in agricultural produce, and to strongly encourage local consumption of foodstuff. Various commentators have described her policies as Fascistic, undoubtedly because they want to discredit them, but that seems to me to be inaccurate. Her proposals more resemble the policies of Juan Peron in Argentina and the similar policies of other Latin American states in the 1950s and 1960s. Given that these policies led to the continent stagnating economically and then to hyperinflation, military dictatorships and endemic corruption there is no need to tar her with the brush of Hitler or Mussolini to point out just how bad a Le Pen presidency would be economically.

Another way the Fascist tag lies is that it strongly suggests homophobia and anti-semitism. This is misleading because she’s also been accused of “pinkwashing” the FN by having numerous gay advisors and if anything she’s more pro-semite than the majority of the French establishment – although that’s not exactly a high bar. That pro-semitism is possibly a case of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, but given the rise of anti-semitic incidents by the Islamic immigrant community in France and her intent to stamp down on all such Islamic activism she’s likely to get a lot more Jewish votes than a superficial reading of the situation would predict.

In addition to the protectionist economic idiocy her opinions on global politics are mostly troubling. Unlike Trump, there really is a good deal of evidence that she is sympathetic to Putin’s Russia and to his desires to rebuild something similar to the Soviet sphere of influence. Her attitudes to the world are generally extremely isolationist and hence she’s likely to want to leave NATO completely as well as the EU. Unlike most pro-Leave politicians in the Brexit vote a year ago, who complained about the EU stifling free trade and access to the rest of the world, Le Pen wants the leave the EU and slam the doors closed on what she perceives as foreign exploitation of France.

The good bit of the Le Pen program is that she recognizes that France needs to actively enforce its culture on its immigrant communities and that she recognizes the harm that the EU and the Euro have done to France. The bad bit is her proposed solution to the EU/Euro induced economic stagnation, her credulity with regards to Putin and her isolationism.

The Macron View

Despite the claims to be an outsider and to be bringing something new into politics, Macron’s proposed policies sound very, very similar to ones proposed by Hollande, Sarkozy and even Chirac. To be sure there are glosses of difference in emphasis but overall Macron wants to somehow reform the bureaucracy and energize France while yet loving the EU, the Euro and global institutions. He also plans to spend money on stuff that the private sector won’t like new railways without raising taxes (much) but yet somehow meeting the Eurozone government borrowing requirements. This view of the world plays well amongst the French elites, and indeed amongst the people – elite or not – that benefit from the system that allows cheap consumer imports and yet permits one to have a job with a decent pension at the end of it.

Unfortunately those policies have not, in the past, done anything to actually energize France except in the form of strikes and other protests by entrenched rentseekers and useful idiots. The result is that France has an abysmal youth un(der)employment rate – and many of those employed are an temporary contracts that magically end just before they have to be converted to permanent ones. The idyllic “Vie Française” of the past, with its cafés, bistros and boulangeries, and old men playing boules under the plane trees in the Place de la Republic of the local town only exists in places where there’s a lot of money – be it from tourism / foreign retirees on the Riviera or government employees (and tourists) in Paris. In much of France the out of town hypermarches have done exactly what they’ve done to high streets in the US and UK – i.e. out-competed them – and so what is left is a handful of struggling businesses, mostly either pharmacies or in the food business, and a lot of boarded up and graffiti decorated shop fronts.

Short Term vs Long Term

In the current (Spring 2017) issue of City Journal, Christopher Caldwell has an excellent (go and read it all now) article about Christophe Guilluy and his diagnosis of the problems of France. The Guilluy books are not available in English but Caldwell’s article provides a good summary of the arguments presented in them and how Guilluy sees France divided into haves and have-nots with little chance of the latter turning into the former. Critically absolutely none of the Macron proposals show any sign of recognition of the problem let alone a way to fix them. Thus, as I said in my post last week, a Macron presidency will continue the gradual decline of France.

In the short term this has to be better than the likely chaos brought by a Le Pen presidency. Unfortunately, it doesn’t address the problems faced by half of the country and, in fact, seems likely to exacerbate them because it’s not going to bring the liberalization and deregulation that is a prerequisite for widespread economic growth. As the Spectator’s blog post by Robert Tombs explains, the French system works when then President is accepted and respected by the majority of the voters and (implicity) by the majority of the bureaucrats at his command. No matter whether Le Pen or Macron wins, neither will be able to command the required level of respect and acceptance. Assuming the current opinion polls predict the result in two weeks, Le Pen will get close to 40% of the vote despite being branded as “fascist” etc. by everyone in authority in France. That means that somewhere between a quarter and a third of the electorate will feel disenfranchised if she is not elected and demonstrates that there’s a huge fissure in the French electorate. Actually potentially more than one, since the far left that voted for Melanchon may also feel that they too are not represented by Macron (or Le Pen).

If there was any confidence that Macron would turn things around for France, there would be absolutely no reason to hesitate in recommending him as next president. Unfortunately the last decade suggests that even if he wants to implement the sorts of reform that are required (which is far from obvious) he will be unable to implement them because entrenched interests will riot, strike and otherwise protest so much that he will be forced to back down.

The lack of a turn around means that in five years time, when we get to the next election, the fissure between the haves and have-nots identified by Guilluy will be far more marked and at present the only party who can make a serious claim to be looking out for the latter is Le Pen’s FN. Every other party, as Caldwell writes, denigrates them:

French elites have convinced themselves that their social supremacy rests not on their economic might but on their common decency. Doing so allows them to “present the losers of globalization as embittered people who have problems with diversity,” says Guilluy. It’s not our privilege that the French deplorables resent, the elites claim; it’s the color of some of our employees’ skin. French elites have a thesaurus full of colorful vocabulary for those who resist the open society: repli (“reaction”), crispation identitaire (“ethnic tension”), and populisme(an accusation equivalent to fascism, which somehow does not require an equivalent level of proof). One need not say anything racist or hateful to be denounced as a member of “white, xenophobic France,” or even as a “fascist.” To express mere discontent with the political system is dangerous enough. It is to faire le jeu de (“play the game of”) the National Front.

This is not a recipe for peaceful resolution of differences. In fact I think it means France is likely to have a period of severe unrest. Especially because the Euro/EU imposed external rigidities mean that ever more parts of French society will be relegated to the “have not” category. It is worth noting that France has had periods of unrest every 50 years or so since the French Revolution and some have been bloodier than others. The last was relatively bloodless because De Gaulle used it to establish the fifth republic.

Riot Now or Civil War Later?

So. Is it better to have that unrest now? There’s a plausible case for taking the nasty medicine now and getting it over with rather than delaying and procrastinating and having to have far more nasty medicine later. Right now, if Le Pen is elected there will be riots by the French equivalent of Antifa – they had a riot just because she made it into the final – and her policies will undoubtedly cause unrest in the immigrant ghettos suburbs that may well spill over in to wider violence. But the violence is probably containable now and if she does manage to set France on a path of leaving the Euro (and presumably the EU), she’ll manage to set up the conditions for future growth. Five more years of decline and economic stagnation will make everyone far more desperate and that desperation could lead to more widespread loss of order. In the worst case it will look like a replay of the Spanish Civil War (PS the exact same forces are at work in Spain so civil war 2 could well occur) with a mass of different factions fighting, rather like Syria come to think of it. Or Lebanon in the 1970s/80s. Against a scenario like that 5 years of unrest as Le Pen generally fails to implement her desired economic policies but yet manages to disrupt the EU sound pretty good.