France is the ‘sick man of Europe’
It’s France’s turn to be the “sick man of Europe,” a competition that no country wants to win.
The phrase seems to have originated with Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, who wrote it in reference to the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire in the mid-nineteenth century. The Tsar said Turkey was “sick” and journalists added the “man of Europe” a century later. It was bestowed on whichever laggard European state could be put into a headline.
In the seventies it was the UK, then seen as prey to militant unions. In the nineties it was Germany as it struggled with the costs of reunification. Italy, with no or low growth and huge debts, has had the title sporadically over the past four years. So has Greece, of course, as well as hard-pressed Portugal.
Now, it’s France.
At a time when many other European economies are showing some growth, output in France’s manufacturing and service sectors is contracting. Unemployment is rising, with a quarter of those under age 25 jobless. A recent report showed an uptick in manufacturing, but the country has a long way to go to make up for the declines of the recent past.
This malaise has centered media attention on the man who is implicitly held to be accountable; the Socialist President Francois Hollande. He is seen as vacillating — he scrapped a number of his initiatives when they were met with sustained protests — and out of touch. Thus, when the French far right party, the National Front, did well in the local government elections on Sunday, images of the president looking doleful were everywhere — as were pictures of a joyous Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader.
When all 28 members of the European Union vote for the European Parliament in two months, the National Front is expected to be one of the leading groups among a vastly expanded clutch of anti-union, anti-immigrant and sometimes openly racist parties. By some projections, the National Front may secure more votes in France than either the Socialists or the center right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).
But the National Front only received 7 percent of the vote on Sunday, compared to the right’s 48 percent and 43 percent for the Socialists and their allies. This was largely due to the fact that they contested in just 600 municipalities out of 3,700, but this in turn is a sign that the National Front does not have the organization or the boots on the ground to mount convincing challenges across the country.
The party won outright (over 50 percent of votes cast) in the town of Henin-Beaumont, the seat of the party’s general secretary, Steeve Briois. It came in first (but with below 50 percent of votes) in larger centers like Avignon, Beziers and Perpignan. But — as has happened before — the centrists to the left and right are likely to gang up on the National Front in the second round of voting this coming Sunday. The right, more sure of its popularity, has declined any formal pact with the socialists.
Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, the party’s president at 85, is an openly anti-semitic extremist. His daughter has worked to bury that legacy, strongly condemning the violent anti-Semitism of her father’s friend, the French comedian Dieudonne. Nevertheless, Ms. Le Pen can be extreme regarding Muslims — she compared street prayers to the Nazi occupation — a stance that chimes with many French. Public praying was banned in Paris in 2011.
It’s hard to tell whether Le Pen is trying to “de-diabolize” the National Front slice by slice, or she is acting as a skilled front woman for the same politics of fear and intolerance as her father.
The National Front’s success is predicated on a dreary season for the centrist parties. Though the UMP is so far the real winner in the municipal elections and is slightly ahead in some polls for the European elections, there are leadership struggles at the top. Its most prominent leader — the former president Nicolas Sarkozy — is at the center of several alleged scandals.
The Socialists have a leader with the lowest rating of any post-war president. Though French politicians have decided to junk the imperial and haughty style of previous presidents, they haven’t found a popular style substitute in Sarkozy’s frenetic “bling bling” activities or in Hollande’s “M. Normal” image.
Disenchantment with the EU is now sweeping France. The mainstream parties, where the official position has long been supportive of the EU, are challenged to be more skeptical. The liberal political philosopher Pierre Manent writes that “life for European citizens is determined more and more not by the familiar national debate…but by the outcome of a European process that is much less comprehensible.”
This simple truth — that most people are unfamiliar with and thus cannot relate to the forces that govern their lives — has been the theme that Le Pen and her comrades have hammered at mercilessly, finally catching the popular mood.
The National Front is not the kind of party that you would want running a liberal democratic country. Many of its members prefer the elder Le Pen to his daughter. The anti-Muslim rhetoric can easily bleed into racism as toxic as was earlier used against Jews in Europe. Their administrative abilities cannot be deep. But they might force the main parties to do some hard thinking both about France and its place in the EU.
A resurgence of incisive political thought from France — a country that prides itself on its use of reason — could do Europe some good. Democratic politics may be renewed through challenges by extremes.
PHOTO: Supporters paste a poster of Marine Le Pen, France’s National Front leader, on a wall before a political rally for local elections in Frejus March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard