The runoff round of France’s presidential election takes place this Sunday, and for the first time in the establishment of the Fifth Republic, neither of the two candidates hails from either of the two parties that between them have governed France for the last 60 years. Naturally, the top story is that Marine Le Pen of the right-wing anti-immigrant National Front (FN) is one of the two runoff candidates, though she is widely expected to lose to Emmanuel Macron of the newly formed liberal and pro-European movement En Marche! (exclamation point in original). Parallels have already been drawn between the current contest and 2002 when the whole of the political spectrum united overwhelmingly around Jacques Chirac when Le Pen, Sr. squeaked his way into the second round. But 2017 is a different world.
To begin with, polls notwithstanding, Le Pen v2.0 has a clear shot at the Élysée. I don’t consider it a likely outcome, but, as many have observed before me, neither was Trump or Brexit. Her path is more or less the same as theirs, where complacent leftists who cannot fathom that the unthinkable might happen assert their moral purity by sitting out the election or casting an anti-system protest vote over the fact that her opponent is little more than a laundered and media-spun carbon-copy of the hated incumbent administration. There are enough Mélenchon supporters prepared to opt for smash-the-system working-class solidarity over a former investment banker, along with Fillon supporters prepared to tack to the pro-Russian right, to overwhelm Macron’s soft support base if the latter fails to turn out. I wouldn’t place a bet on it, but unlike in 2002 it’s not unimaginable.
In light of this, several commentators (not least my good friend Daphne Halikiopoulou) take the long view in pointing out that even if Macron wins as expected, complacency is hardly called for. The political culture of France remains deeply divided, and what is most concerning about the current electoral season, in France and elsewhere, is the extent to which it has been characterized by the mainstreaming of the far-right agenda. This has come in part in the form of hitherto mainstream parties, recognizing the growing electoral threat of the radical right, co-opting much of their program and rhetoric. But it is also reflected in the resigned certainty of many that even if Le Pen doesn’t win the election this time around, her chances will be better for the next.
So I’d like to take an even longer long view, by stepping back and asking why we think so. Does it reflect a lack of faith in our own principles? To some extent, yes. Macron is, after all, the quintessential social and economic liberal. If we really believed in the efficacy of these ideological systems our narrative should be that his election will restore or reaffirm sensible policies in France; policies that will move toward solving the country’s problems and generating a renewed prosperity that will entrench support for the liberal democratic system for generations to come. This brief and unfortunate flirtation with fascism will soon be forgotten.
The thing is, no one really believes that. Whatever our political leanings, we all know that Macron is destined to fail; if not on Sunday, then soon after. I say this not because I think his policies are wrong or misguided (though I could find plenty to criticize if I thought it mattered). I say it, rather, in much the same way that the godfather of the British far-right, Enoch Powell, said it of all politicians; they are destined to end in failure, as this is the nature of democratic politics. The time-frame of such failure is merely accelerated in the current times, much to the benefit of Powell’s ideological heirs.
We know that Macron’s policies won’t solve France’s problems, because deep down we know that no set of policies can solve France’s problems, at least not to the point of securing ongoing faith in the efficacy of the system. Europe is at the vanguard of a planet functioning beyond its carrying capacity. The EU, as a whole, has not seen rates of economic growth consistent with maintaining the stability of a capitalist society in at least a decade. Such levels of growth are not coming back, in absence of significant inward migration which comes with its own problems of cultural and economic disruption. There are things that can be done to effect some improvement, sure, but not to the point of mass satisfaction. And there’s at least as much chance that the world will also confront another major financial crisis over the period of the next presidential term. No politician has ever won an election in any democratic system on a platform that things are just going to get shittier, and we have to find the best way to manage the decline so as to make it somewhat less shitty for as many as possible.
Hence the crisis of dissatisfaction is destined to persist, during which time more people will be lured away from support for the democratic system and toward the next thing. Sooner or later, whether the next election or the next one after that, the electorate will opt for the populists. Those who point to the failure of Geert Wilders to gain power in the Netherlands as evidence that this wave has crested should take note that his Freedom Party still gained seats in the last election, even if not as many as some expected. And whatever happens on May 7, Le Pen will have secured more votes than any presidential candidate in the FN’s history. Overall, the trend remains in the populists’ favour. Should it continue, the question isn’t if but when.
And once that tipping point is reached, we’re stuck; we won’t be waiting for the next election for the pendulum to swing the other way. Politics will have been fundamentally transformed into a new self-sustaining equilibrium. Not because the populists will dismantle the democratic system (they may well do, but would have to already acquire significant mass popular consent to pull it off successfully). And not because the populists are right, any more than the liberals are wrong; their policies will lead to even more failure and disaster.
They will endure because when the core tenet of your ideology is to blame problems, failures and disasters on external Others, that ideology is more resilient in the face of failure and disaster than any constructive set of policies testable against a metric of success (cf. Trump’s persistent base of support). Such an ideology already has a built-in explanation for failure and disaster, along with a program for perpetual mobilization: we just haven’t gone after the elites, the liberals, the media, the traitors, the immigrants, the foreign enemies enough. The more failure and disaster, the more urgent the crusade.
This, I submit, is the deeper cause behind the apparent resignation, even among its most principled supporters, that liberal democracy is a dinosaur. And the populist meteor is still coming.