A Tale of Two Troubled Democracies

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While Bernie Sanders was surprising Hillary Clinton in Iowa and taking her to the cleaners in New Hampshire with his brand of democratic socialism, I was in France, where a democratically elected president who calls himself a socialist saw his approval touch historic lows. It would nevertheless be a mistake to conclude from this stark contrast that the American electorate had taken a sharp turn to the left while the French had veered sharply to the right.

In both countries, formerly stable two-party systems thrown off kilter by the global economic collapse have yet to regain their equilibrium. But France, once a country of dramatic ideological conflict, now looks like a paragon of consensual politics compared to the bitterly polarized United States.

In both countries, impatience with technocratic elites and fears that immigration threatens the national identity have fueled populist reactions. Voters are rejecting the gloomy status quo in favor of bold and sometimes brash promises. In America, the dynastic pretensions of the Clinton and Bush families have met with stiff voter resistance, while in France both the incumbent president and his predecessor—national political figures for three decades—face strong challenges in their respective campaigns.

The parallels do not end there. Here as there, the loudest attacks on the status quo have been launched by unconventional politicians, larger-than-life loudmouths who rely on invective and ridicule to cut down their opponents and divert attention from the thinness of their own proposals. Donald Trump denounces Barack Obama as the “worst president in American history,” while Marine Le Pen mocks Hollande’s alleged subservience to Angela Merkel by calling him “the vice-chancellor of Germany.” Trump asserts that the U.S. has surrendered its economic superiority to China and claims he will regain supremacy by applying “the art of the deal,” while Le Pen blames the European Union for France’s economic plight and insists that she will make things right by negotiating a better shake for France, just as David Cameron is attempting to do for the U.K. (actually a retreat from her earlier threat simply to withdraw from the EU entirely, but like Trump, Le Pen is adroit at covering her retreats with volleys of bluster).

On both sides of the Atlantic insurgent candidacies have roiled their parties’ social bases. Trump’s call to assert the power of the federal government to break up big banks—heresy for a Republican—has apparently found an audience among blue-collar voters, while Marine Le Pen’s party now claims a greater percentage of the working-class vote than any other party in France. Of course there is nothing new about working-class support for right-wing parties: “Reagan Democrats” deserted to the Gipper a generation ago, and at the peak of General de Gaulle’s popularity he enjoyed the support of 40 percent of French workers. Patriotism, protectionism, anxiety about competition for jobs from immigrant workers and alien cultural influences, and concern about terrorism (exacerbated by the rise of Daesh, the influx of Syrian refugees in Europe, and recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino) are among the relevant factors.

But the differences between France and the United States are also worth paying attention to. For the left in France, the political conundrum is compounded by the fact that the natural candidate of the left in the 2017 presidential election would normally be the incumbent president, François Hollande. But Hollande’s presidency is widely regarded as a disaster: Unemployment has increased, taxes have been shifted from corporations to individuals, labor protections have been weakened, and the German preference for austerity despite the gloomy post-collapse economic outlook has gone unchallenged.

By contrast, President Obama, though sharply criticized by some Democrats for his alleged passivity in the face of Republican obstructionism, sharply reduced unemployment, enacted major health-insurance reform, and imposed new financial and environmental regulations. It is therefore surprising to find Obama’s presumed “natural” successor, Hillary Clinton, facing a major challenger from the left, Bernie Sanders, while the chief threat to Hollande at the moment comes from his right in the person of former Prime Minister Alain Juppé. The French presidential election is a two-round affair, and since most observers expect the extreme right’s Marine Le Pen to occupy one of the two available slots in the second round, Hollande’s only hope is for former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who fares less well in national polls than Juppé, to become the nominee of the Republicans. This would give the incumbent president a fighting chance of squeaking past Sarkozy in round one to face Le Pen in round two. But Sarkozy now faces charges of campaign financing violations from his last presidential run, reducing his chances of becoming the nominee and thus Hollande’s of eking out a victory against a weak opponent.

Meanwhile, Hollande, like Clinton, must also deal with a challenge from his left. In fact, he faces two challenges. Within his own Socialist Party, Arnaud Montebourg, who served for a time as minister of economic recovery under Hollande, is putting together a brain trust in preparation for a primary challenge. At the same time, a group of intellectuals and political activists including economist Thomas Piketty, historian Pierre Rosanvallon, and Green politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit has launched a petition calling for a “primary of all the left,” including candidates from outside Hollande’s Socialist Party. What would emerge from such a free-for-all is hard to say, and Montebourg is known to oppose the idea because it would split the left opposition to Hollande and thus reduce his chances of knocking off the president.

France thus far shows no signs of generating the kind of genuine grassroots enthusiasm that Sanders has managed to arouse among his legions of young supporters. Impatience with the entrenched leaders of the mainstream parties in France is most intense among rival politicians aspiring to replace them. Authentic populist enthusiasm is confined to the extreme right, but there the failure of the Front National to win even a single region in the last regional elections has dampened enthusiasm by demonstrating that despite the gains of the past few years, the FN still has a substantial distance to travel before achieving anything close to a national majority.

What can we conclude from this brisk comparison of our two “sister republics,” France and the United States? Voter discontent is manifest in both countries. France, despite its historical penchant for abrupt changes of regime, nevertheless seems relatively sedate compared with the United States. Even a Le Pen victory, which at this point I regard as highly unlikely, would not be revolutionary in its import. It would be shocking, to be sure, representing a partial repudiation of the European project by one of the founding members of the European Union, and it would exacerbate tensions between immigrant and non-immigrant communities in France. But these fault lines in France’s political substrate have long been apparent.

The U.S. is confronting a different kind of challenge. One of its two dominant parties has become deranged, while the other is riven by an internal revolt driven by the belief that the party leadership is subservient to Wall Street oligarchs who prevent the party from embracing a more radical program. In France, even the radical right supports an extensive welfare state, and controversy is restricted to how far its benefits should extend and what economic policies will best serve to protect it. In the U.S., one party wants to roll back the limited welfare state we have, while the insurgent faction in the other party wants to extend it in ways that would require a major overhaul of the tax system.

Paradoxically, the American polity therefore seems less stable than the French, even though all indications are that the American economy is in much better shape. But as Tocqueville observed long ago, the American system seems designed to produce a quadrennial frenzy—and that was well before the advent of the TV camera and the sound bite, ideal instruments for intensifying that frenzy. In France, the political temperature remains at a steady slow boil, less geared to the electoral cycle. Two successive failed presidencies have made French voters more restless but not more radical. Political extravagance has for the time being moved to the New World.

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