Marine Le Pen: Will the French elections be more important than Brexit?

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With Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron until the last round of the French presidential election, could we be on the verge of a seismic political shock sufficient to eclipse Brexit and Trump? Le Pen, after all, comes from the far right in France. She may have worked hard to detoxify her brand – her National Rally party was originally the French National Front – but, in the corridors of European power, there will be plenty of politicians and bureaucrats biting their nails . After all, they believe in a version of the world that Le Pen and his ilk totally reject.

We used to think that politics could be neatly divided into ‘left’ and ‘right’, with major disagreements over the role of the state, the freedom of the individual, the importance of markets, the limits capitalism, etc. This division no longer works.

The new schism is between what might be loosely termed globalists (Macron) and, depending on your perspective, nationalists or isolationists (Le Pen). The two camps extend left and right. Donald Trump with his “America First” is not a fan of globalization, but neither is left-wing Democrat Bernie Sanders. Brexiteers exist within both Tories and Labour, united under the mantra of ‘taking back control’. Hungary’s right-wing Viktor Orbán is a thorn in the side of the EU, as is Syriza, the far-left party in Greece that battled Brussels and lost amid Greece’s financial crisis. And Marine Le Pen will likely get votes in the French presidential runoff from supporters of Corbyn-esque Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Le Pen’s campaign mainly focused on raising the cost of living. Setting aside the fact that rising energy prices partly reflect the activities of Vladimir Putin, until very recently a man she was proud to do business with, Le Pen offered populist responses to a reality worsening economic situation: income tax abolished for the less well-off. 1930s and lowering VAT to offset the impact on inflation of rising energy bills and rising supermarket prices. How she will finance these gifts is a mystery. However, she also has her eyes on the EU and immigration. She would prefer the EU to be “a Europe of nations” with national sovereignty overriding EU-wide rules and laws. And “it’s up to us, French, to decide who can stay and who must leave”, a vision that rather raises the question of who, precisely, counts as French.

Le Pen is the anti-Macron. The President’s enthusiasm for globalization has only served to highlight the growing polarization of French society. Those who disagree with Macron’s belief in open borders, international market forces and green taxation are no longer as willing to vote for “conventional” candidates. They are ready, instead, to play.

In some ways, French society has become even more fragmented than British society. On average, the French standard of living is above the EU average, as one would expect. However, this average hides enormous and worrying variations. The standard of living in Île de France – in fact, “greater Paris” – is 76% higher than in the EU as a whole. Only one other region – Rhône-Alpes, with gastronomic Lyon at its heart – enjoys a (slightly) higher standard of living than the EU average. All the other regions are poorer. Deindustrialisation has occurred in countless regions, even as other parts of the EU – including enclaves within newcomers such as Poland and Slovakia – have flourished.

Proponents of globalization – and I include myself in this group – have always struggled to respond to the political challenge associated with creating regional winners and losers. While in theory the losers could always be compensated, in practice they generally were not. And they grew increasingly angry, all too aware that what worked economically for a nation as a whole did not work for them, whether individually or regionally. Trump used to tap into the so-called “left behind”. Le Pen followed a similar tactic.

What all of this ultimately points to is a world in danger of becoming more protectionist, isolationist and disjointed than it has been for many decades. When the Berlin Wall fell, the eminent American political thinker Francis Fukuyama argued that we had come to the end of history: free markets and liberal democracy had finally triumphed over the perils of Soviet communism. Yet, in the rush to imagine a borderless world of common values ​​and markets, several million people have found themselves in an increasingly precarious economic situation. Their discomfort caused the story to return.

Stephen King is senior economic adviser to HSBC and author of Grave New World (Yale)

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