Weekend Roundup: In France, Reality Has Escaped Its Institutions

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The first round of France’s presidential elections last weekend demonstrated that the clear-cut division of loyalties to the old mainstream parties ― the left and right political divide born during the French Revolution ― has collapsed in France. In the industrial era, the left always stood for social protection from the insecurities spawned by the market, while the right championed the blood, soil and tradition of “a certain idea of France,” as Charles de Gaulle once put it. All that has now been fatally disrupted by globalization and rapid technological change.

Alain Touraine, the country’s “dean” of sociology, captured the moment well at a Berggruen Institute meeting in Lisbon last week. “Reality has escaped its institutions,” he quipped. And not just in France.

As in the election of U.S. President Donald Trump in America and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, this partisan dissipation has been accompanied by the consolidation of a territorial rift between rural and deindustrialized zones of France on the one hand and the globally integrated, cosmopolitan coastal zones and cities on the other.  

The French elections, as Pascal Perrineau writes from Paris, pitted “patriots” against “globalists” worried about a Brexit-like split from Europe that far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has promised. He also notes that Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, anti-elite and anti-globalization narrative, which also embraces a strong welfare state, attracted significant numbers of working-class voters once faithful to the left.  

Surprisingly, Le Pen appealed widely to young voters as well in her campaign against the centrist “En Marche!” vision of Emmanuel Macron, who came out on top in the first round. Together, Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, on the opposite extreme of the spectrum, garnered more than 50 percent of the youth vote. Mélenchon attracted that support in part through cutting-edge social media and hologram appearances at rallies, as well as through his calls for a 100 percent marginal tax rate on the rich and the limiting of CEO pay to 20 times that of the lowest-paid employee. His campaign exploited longstanding fears over the “Uberization” of the economy by Macron’s pro-Europe, pro-market proposals for American-style deregulation and a “flexible” labor market that would only create a new “precariat class” of insecure, part-time, low-paid workers with few benefits. Unlike the other competing candidates and parties, Mélenchon has so far refused to support Macron against Le Pen in the final vote on May 7, throwing open a desperate contest to win over his constituency.

Anne Sinclair reacts to these results and lays out the new political landscape as it now stands as the country prepares for the runoff election. “One quarter of French people dream of a gentler and less precarious life,” she writes. “Another quarter prioritize taxes and debt reduction. A third quarter is seeking national security and a populist leader who doesn’t represent the elite. And finally, a fourth quarter, slightly more confident about the country’s future, is interested in profound modifications to governance and French politics.” 

Nicolas Tenzer writes from Paris that “whoever becomes the next president will have to cope with this divided France, large sections of which distrust open-society values, Europe and the free market.” If Macron, who is so far favored in polling, has a chance of obtaining a governing mandate, Tenzer continues, “he will have to demonstrate that Europe and globalization can bring justice and fairness and that France can mend its divided society.” But, “if Macron’s center can’t mend this divide,” he warns, “populists will be waiting in the wings.”

Other highlights this week include:

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