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Why France is taking Europe to the crossroad

All eyes are on the French presidential election as Europe lurches between liberalism and populism

The future of democracy in Western Europe is rapidly approaching a crossroads. The French Presidential election in April/May will be pivotal in determining whether Europe, a bastion of post-war liberal democracy, will instead embrace a nationalistic populism amid an anti-establishment backlash.

When Socialist French President Francois Hollande announced he wouldn’t contest the election he showed admirable foresight and honesty in admitting he didn’t have the legitimacy to win against his major rivals Front National leader Marine Le Pen and conservative candidate Francois Fillon. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron quickly warned a victory in April for Ms Le Pen would be a “body blow” to the European Union.

However, a Le Pen victory would signal more than the collapse of the European project. It would be another victory for populism following the UK’s Brexit vote. It could precipitate a fatal breakdown in liberal democracy in one of the biggest countries in Europe.

Front National (FN) party leader Marine Le Pen delivers a speech during a political rally on September 3, 2016 in Brachay, France. Ms Le Pen has vowed to hold a referendum on whether France stays in or leaves the European Union if she wins the 2017 presidential election. Picture: Chesnot/Getty Images)

The sense that the future of European democracy is in the balance was underlined by contrasting votes this weekend. In Austria the far-right populist Norbert Hofer was defeated by the pro-European Alexander Van der Bellen. But in Italy, Prime Minster Matteo Renzi is resigning after losing a referendum on reforms that would have concentrated more power in the government. The reforms were opposed by many different sides of politics, but populist parties such as the Northern League are claiming it as a victory against the establishment.

Political scientists Dr Roberto Foa of the University of Melbourne and Dr Yascha Mounk from Harvard University have introduced the concept of democratic deconsolidation to describe the falling support for traditional liberal democracy that is being picked up in voter surveys.

They argue that the combination of three variables as measured by results from the regular World Values Survey (WVS) can predict a democratic breakdown. The first of these is the loss of support for liberal democracies. The second is growing voter support for authoritarian alternatives. The third is anti-system parties gaining power. Is France deconsolidating and on the way towards a liberal democratic collapse?

Democracy still on the streets

The last wave of the WVS didn’t include France so it isn’t possible to directly measure the political preferences of French citizens in regards to democracy and authoritarianism. But the results of the French regional elections of 2015 sent two different messages. During the first round, the National Front topped the poll in six of the 12 regions of mainland France, suggesting an expansion of populist sentiment and a weaker attachment to liberal democratic values. However, in the second round the FN failed to win a single region, suggesting citizens are aware of the danger of such a choice.

Beyond elections, after the terror attacks of January 2015 some 3.7 million people marched across France to support a fundamental democratic value – freedom of expression.

In another sign of the strength of liberal democracy in France, President Hollande in March abandoned his plan to legally deprive terrorists of dual nationality in the face of opposition that the law was unconstitutional in creating two different classes of French citizenship.

The law would have contravened the constitution’s founding principle of equality. This intense and long debate was exploited by the far-right and President Holland now considers it a major error of his government.

Nuit Debout (Up All Night) protestors in Place de Republic, Paris, April 2016. Picture: Olivier Ortelpa/Flickr.

But what are the democratic implications of France still being in a state of emergency after the Nice terror attacks in July? Such preference for authoritarian and military forms of intervention would be a strong indicator of democratic deconsolidation. But in France, it rather represents a national unity strategy driven by security concerns.

Obviously, the repeated extension of the state of emergency, which includes bans on demonstrations, has reduced the space for public debate. But it didn’t prevent the “Nuit Debout” (“Up All Night”) movement inspired by the Spanish “Indignados” movement, in which protestors held sit-ins in the centre of Paris for more than 6 weeks. These types of movements reflect new forms of participative democracy models that are more decentralised and self-organising. They are a signal of democratic vitality.

Inequality a spur for populists

The French Government’s legitimacy and accountability is also central to understanding the populist vote. The successive failures of both Right and the Left governments to solve growing inequality is no longer sustainable. With globalisation, income inequalities have grown (Piketty, 2014; Milanovic, 2016). And while the middle classes of developed countries have benefitted from lower prices through international trade, citizens have been hit by rising unemployment. The consequences in terms of increased support for nationalism and populism are clearly visible in rural areas and industrial regions hit by factory closures.

This failure of government has generated a growing mismatch between the expectations of citizens and the solutions offered by politicians. It gives an advantage to movements that don’t have the legacy of failure that comes from having been in government.

Moreover, the disconnection of some politicians with reality is also a real concern. For example, recently, Jean-Francois Cope – budget minister under former President Jacques Chirac and candidate for the conservative primary, stated that the price of a chocolate croissant was 15 cents, while it is around 1.5 euro. To innovate and adapt to the current challenges, citizens expect political parties to renew their leaders.

A chart first published in a 2012 World Bank working paper by Economist Branko Milanovic detailing which segments of the global population saw a rise in real incomes from 1988 to 2008. It shows that the incomes of citizens in rich countries has stagnated, but the very rich have become much richer.

Who is on the political chessboard for the French election? Marine Le Pen will benefit of from being a “novelty” having never governed. Her lack of experience in governing could turn into a strength as it did for Donald Trump.

The Left’s is Jean-Luc Melenchon, an ex-socialist politician when traditionally the the extreme left has been represented by a worker. At the centre, Emmanuel Macron, ex minister of the economy under President Hollande, is trying to benefit from the “Trump effect” as an outsider connected with industry.

However, he too appears to be disconnected from workers. He told unionists that “the best way to afford a suit is to get a job”, which has since become a viral joke on the Internet. The results of the primary of the socialist party will be known in January.

The conservative party have chosen Francois Fillon, an ex-Prime minister under former President Sarkozy. Mr Fillon won the conservative primary against the more moderate Alain Juppe. But his economic programme that comes strictly from the right won’t catch the populist votes of the left. Like Donald Trump, Mr Fillon is well-known for his “friendship” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

What will be the impact of Brexit and the election of Mr Trump? Both results will boost Ms Le Pen as they help to legitimatise anti-European and far-Right values. But the election result in Austria can’t be dismissed. Very soon the French people will speak and the result will be central to determining the future of democracy in Europe.

Banner Image: The French flag waving under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris during the Armistice Day commemorations marking the end of World War I, November 11, 2016. Picture: Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)

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