Politics & The World

Since the Brexit vote in the UK there has been a lot of speculation concerning the next countries to leave the European Union. France is being repeatedly named in those lists. There are several reasons why France is not likely to leave the EU any time soon. 

While British politicians are fairly unpopular in Brussels, French MEPs make up the core of the political groups and their messages, especially those who have pushed political integration and centralization. Joining the EU bureaucracy is considered to be a capstone to a successful political career, and a chance to be considered a “real” statesmen.The French political class is quite committed to the EU project. 

Moreover, there is substantial evidence that the French population overall  has a relatively high opinion of the EU and its institutions. Polling conducted after the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom backs this up: in a Paris-Match/iTELE poll in June of this year, only 35% of the surveyed people supported the idea of France leaving the European Union. A similar TNS poll only found 33% supporting the same. This trend is also confirmed by the current lead and importance of 2017 presidential candidate Alain Juppé, a former prime minister, running on the platform of being  “a European” while favoring political integration in the EU. The pro-EU Juppé is the current leader of the field in his primary with 42% (with only 28% going to his chief rival, former president Nicolas Sarkozy), and therefore the most likely to become the next president.

The French May Be More Easily Bullied than the British 

The Brexit reactions from EU officials only prove what the general trend of the European Union is: join our club or we will bully you. After creating a single market and restricting trade policies of its members, the EU then forces those who do not give in to accept all the edicts of the European commission — or else. If some sectors of the French population begin to push for separation, the EU will again get the fear machine rolling to prevent other countries from leaving.

This can be seen in the very language used by the pro-EU side, and leaving the EU is routinely described as “leaving Europe” as if being in the EU is synonymous with being European. Obviously, Europe as a continent (physical) is quite different from the European Union (political), but equating the two makes every potentially defecting country feel the effect of physically drifting away. It’s the playground bully telling his friends not to play with one particular kid so that he obeys the rules.

Perhaps the biggest factor in applying pressure against separatists is the press. While the British press has been, to put it quite frankly, enormously critical of the EU at times, the French press doesn’t feel this need at all. In the UK, the press pushes the parties, in France the parties push the press. News sources are either state-run or affiliated to one of the two main parties, of which both praise the European Union above all else.

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the editorial of the major newspaper Le Monde wrote:  “We believe … that ‘Brexit’ will release some of the darkest forces working European views today: regressive nationalism, a rise in far-right protests, and — here and there — threats to democracy.” Le Monde’s conservative rival publisher Le Figaro expressed its worries that the UK vote would trigger a referendum in France: “The risk is great as other countries rush into the breach opened by the United Kingdom.” The left-wing Libération seemed content with the result, because the UK had been in the way of further integration, of a ‘common project.’ Les Echos started the day by titling that the day of the referendum would remain a black day for Europe.” (Source) The state-broadcaster France Télévision was visibly in shock, then followed its own anti-Brexit agenda for weeks by showing the “plummeting British stock market.” The influential political radio station Europe 1 blasted the Brexit vote by inviting (of all people) Tony Blair on the air, reassuring listeners that “it is possible to find a deal for the UK to remain part of the European Union.”

France’s Earlier Referendum 

In 2005 the French electorate said “No” to the EU constitution. The reason for that was that French voters feared that the EU would impose “a neoliberal economic model” and reduce the standards of social security in the member states. In response, then-president Nicolas Sarkozy teamed with other European leaders a backroom deal called the Treaty of Lisbon, but made it quite clear that there would not be a vote on this new treaty at all. The Dutch and French failures to pass treaties through the referenda process taught the EU a lesson: referenda shouldn’t be allowed.

The EU is Insurance for the French Regime

This is by far the most important part of this argument that absolutely needs to be made: France was a strong voice for solidarity in the Irish and Greek bailouts, with support from the public, because the EU and its central bank will be France’s best insurance policy in the next crisis.

French politicians have learned from the legacy of François Mitterrand. In the early years of his administration, Mitterrand set to work implementing a variety of hard-left policies. These policies so crippled the French economy that Mitterrand was forced to take a hard pro-market turn just a few years later. Many French politicians today still believe Mitterrand compromised far too much. 

For this new breed of pro-EU leftist politicians, the strategy is clear: it’s full speed ahead. No reforms, no apologies. Should hard left policies appear to fail this time around, well, the European Central Bank can just step in. Since the European Central Bank must deal with the consequences of France’s drain on the euro, the rest of the continent will have to bailout the République, where even outside of a crisis, the French debt level is among the highest in Europe at almost 100% of GDP

Politics & The World

by Arne Langlet

While the article on “Populism in Europe” (published on this website some days ago) discusses in a useful way some features of the rise of new parties in Europe, it falls victim to a dangerous fallacy. It departs from the flawed (but very mainstream) assumption that new parties in Europe can and should be classified together under the name of populism. A more critical analysis of this phenomenon leads to a very different conclusion however.

It is true that those parties commonly referred to as ‘populist’ parties may have some similarities, such as oversimplifying the political matters, addressing the ‘common’ man (if he exists) and possibly recent voting success. However, these similarities are ‘surface’ similarities. They describe superficial characteristics but do not touch the core of the political ideas of these parties.

Is it not of incredible importance that we judge political parties by their political ideas or programs, and not simply by some superficial characteristics? If we include voting success as unifying characteristic then all currently winning parties in Europe would be populist?

Nationalism on the other hand, is certainly not a unifying theme between the recently emerged parties. If we look at the party programs, the recourse to nationalism is not similar to left-wing and right-wing parties.

In the program of Syriza they envision a “European Debt Conference” or a “European New Deal”. Also Podemos foresees a common European solution to economic problems and aims to change the “current governance of the Euro” with the other European countries (Interestingly, many of the proposals actually involve transferring more power and sovereignty to Europe, even over sensitive fiscal issues).

Hence, both (supposedly clear examples of “populist” parties) see their country deep within the EU and envision a common European solution to problems. Not much nationalist propaganda to discover.

In the meantime, the Front National propagates “anti-immigration” and “anti-government” positions. Furthermore it calls for economic protectionism and hostility to the European Union and the Euro. The AFD calls for the dissolution of the common currency and re-introduction of national currencies and foresees a Europe containing only the common market. These role model right-wing populist parties hence put forward nationalist solutions in open opposition to the European Union.

If we compare these parties on the surface we could find similarities but comparing the surface would be quite a ‘populist’ perspective, hence a very oversimplified analysis!

It makes more sense to distinguish the quality of their political ideas.

And here lies the most important difference. The quality of ideas that propagate economic equality is completely different to the quality of ideas that propagate discrimination and isolation against other nationalities.

Even if you characterize promoting quality as discrimination against “richer” people, there is still a difference. While wealthy people are usually enjoying a privileged position in society, immigrants rarely do. Adding to the fact that ethnicity is an attribute firmly connected to a person through birth, impossible to get rid of.

In many cases, people who come into a country as foreigners possess less (economic) resources than the nationals of the host country. In most cases they also have a lower social status.

Therefore these individuals should enjoy the same or greater protection through society. Right-wing parties however propagate discrimination against foreign individuals. Hence, they put the role of the scapegoat on the more vulnerable persons of society and subject them to discrimination.

Violence obviously is not mentioned in any of the party programs and it is a popular argument that both extremes (left and right) might lead to violent outbreaks. But burning a Porsche does not have the same quality as burning a house full of asylum seekers.

If we use the word “populism” in order to describe both sides, we put them rhetorically on an equal level. Yet, the quality of their ideologies is completely different. If we follow both extremes, we arrive at completely different scenarios. By highlighting the potential danger to democracy in general we mislead.

Democracy is normally associated to values such as “inclusion” and “social equality (to varying levels)”, while “hostility towards foreigners” and “distrust in state (or EU) institutions” are not part of our understanding of democracy.

Although this sentence is highly exaggerated you could make a strong argument that left-wing parties are more democratic than right-wing. They are per se more inclusive than right-wing parties. By putting them under the same umbrella we risk increasing the influence of potentially anti-democratic and violent groups to the public discourse of our society. So please never refer to left-wing and right-wing parties commonly under “populism”.


Image by William Murphy.