During our recent trip to France, I was struck by the realization that England, the U.S., and France are all suffering through difficult political times. While each has their own unique form of political turmoil, it seems to me their misfortunes are rooted in a similar kind of economic distress. That is, the political fall-out from the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 continues to plague all three nations.
Readers are familiar with the problems here in the U.S. A painfully slow economic recovery with growth barely touching the industrial Mid-West, combined with low wages for many in the Millennial generation has generated widespread discontent. In 2016, this led to the Bernie Sanders insurgency and then the shocking election of Donald Trump.
The British government’s response to the Financial Crisis, bailing out major banks and imposing social austerity policies, created widespread discontent as well. This led to a left-wing insurgency in the Labor Party and a powerful right-wing backlash focused on leaving the European Union. The Brexit vote in 2016 received decisive majorities from fading working class cities north and west of London. The folly of that right wing illusion has led to a political stalemate that is tearing apart the ruling Conservative Party.
As the conservatives quarrel over Brexit, Trump ally Neil Farge and his Brexit Party have gained new influence. The Labor Party still has fewer members of parliament than the Conservatives and it is split as well. The Tony Blair wing of the Labor Party has, at least temporarily, lost out to the democratic socialist leadership of the Jeremy Corbyn wing.
The Collapse of France’s Two Leading Parties
The Financial Crisis is generating political turmoil in France as well. Bailouts of the larger national banks, high unemployment, and a lingering recession in the European Union have placed enormous financial burdens on the national government. In response, politicians from both the Socialist and Republican parties adopted austerity measures such as changing laws to make it easier to fire workers, increasing the age of retirement, and reducing subsidies to municipal governments. These policies have exacerbated social and economic divisions between the high-tech, international economy-oriented metro Paris area and the less advanced rural and small industrial cities in other regions.
In response to new policies, the Yellow Vest protests began in November of 2018. Working people in rural areas and small cities began demonstrating against President Emmanuel Macron’s tax cuts for the wealthy, service cuts for rural areas, and a proposed increase in the gas tax. Over the winter, the protests generated widespread public sympathy and shook the government to its foundations. While the movement is much smaller this spring because it proved unable to work in tandem with progressive supporters in Paris, it demonstrates the deep discontent in areas outside the capital.
The Left and the Right Pick up Votes
Elections for the European parliament in May revealed major shifts in France’s politics. The conservative Republican Party, which dominated national politics just a decade ago, received only 8% of the vote for the European Parliament and appears to be splitting up. About a third of the party’s local officials are joining the new party called LREM that was created by Macron during his presidential campaign just two years ago (LREM gained 21% of the Euro vote to come in second.).
Another third is moving into the far right National Rally, led by Marie Le Pen. National Rally was the big winner in the election with a surprising 22% of the total vote. National Rally won in the small cities and rural areas that are the source of the Yellow Vest protests and positioned itself as ready to become the leading protest party.
The Socialist Party, which was the second largest party in France for several decades, has collapsed since the failed presidency of Francois Hollande (2012-2017). The Socialist candidates received just 7% of the vote for the European parliament. Votes for the French left were divided once again among many small parties, but the leading environmental party, EELV, came in a surprising third in the voting with 14% of the vote This reflected strong gains for “Green” environmental parties in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, and Ireland.
Thus, three parties that either didn’t exist or didn’t have significant voting strength before the Financial Crisis will be France’s political leaders in the coming years. As with the U.S. and England, the immediate future of one of the world’s largest industrial democracies is very uncertain.
—to be continued